I published my previous post at the suggestion of my good Bible study friends. One has started an awesome website for busy Catholic moms at BusyCatholicMoms.com. Check it out!
I’ve heard many people ask the question before, if God is so all-powerful, then why would He not just wipe out the balance against us in our sins? He’s the banker, He can forgive the debt. And it’s true. But then where would we be? Shopaholics with no balance on our credit cards standing the in the middle of the mall, that’s where.
In our fallen natures, we are slaves to sin. Again and again, “I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do.” (Rom 7:15). God not only forgives us for all our departures from perfection, but He wants to save us from ourselves, and break that repeated and bad habit of sinning. So He sent His son, Jesus to die on a cross. Paul, in his wordy wisdom, tell us “For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4)
Jesus died so that we could die with Him. If any death is a good death, then it’s death in Christ. If we die with Him, He then drags us beyond the grave and into life after death. Then we walk “in the newness of life”. Once the shopaholic has been slayed, a new being stands in the mall, one with the ability to resist the hypnotic and compulsive suggestion of the four letter word: SALE. The possibility is then before us to stop racking up the debt of sin.
I’m going to switch to a different metaphor now, and consider God’s motivation behind this death and new life he offers to take us through. Pretend you are engaged to the most wonderful potential spouse. You cheat on him. There are two ways this wrongdoing can be forgiven. Your fiance might say, “Look, I don’t hold this against you. I forgive you and wish you well, but you are no longer a good person to marry.” Or your fiance may say, “I forgive you. I love you and still want to marry you, but you need to change.” What is change but a death of an old way and birth of a new way? The death we die in Christ through baptism changes us so that we can have a relationship with God. We can’t continue to live in our old cheating way, or the relationship will fall apart. But true forgiveness, earnest change, and new life can bring about an amazing love – something that’s worth dying and rising for.
It’s been a couple years since my last post on this blog, and we’ve been busy. We’ve had another baby boy: Maximilian Joseph, who is now a year and a half old. Isabel is in the first grade at the local Catholic school, much to the chagrin of my mother. The days keep ticking by with little time for reflection or writing, but plenty of time to practice selfless service to others. If only practice actually made perfect.
After years now of actually being Catholic, of compulsively crossing myself before and after prayers, of being surrounded by people who believe the same as I do, of being shocked by the occasional Protestant references I come across (such as calling James the other son of Mary), I’m very glad I started this blog. I’ve settled rather comfortably into Catholic life and am finding it difficult to remember what I was like pre-conversion. When a friend of mine in our Bible study asked what made me change my mind about Catholicism, I struggled for a concise reply. Maybe I’ll dig through this blog and send some of it on to her.
Thinking about where I am now and where I was definitely not before, I can say from experiencing the process of conversion…
You know you’re Catholic when:
- You have crucifixes in every room of the house (including the playroom), and move on to collecting statues of Mary at special occasions.
- Catholics you meet at the playground recognize your children’s names as saints names.
- Your daughter’s favorite night time lullaby is “Hail Mary”.
- Your three year old son asks to have a “Jesus” (crucifix around his neck) too, and ends up looking like an archbishop.
- You wonder not if your children will be doctors or astronauts when they grow up, but whether they will be called to a religious vocation or married life.
- Your kids throw fits at church because they want the special bread too.
- The question is not whether to buy a rosary or pray with it. The question is where you put it and how to fix the one that’s now in pieces.
- You feel weird when the doctor asks if you’re interested in a prescription for birth control at your 6 week post-partum checkup.
- You go for a visit back home in Northern Ireland, and the Craigavon boys think you’ve join Sinn Fein.
- You have exorcized salt sitting on the stove to cook with.
On the 12th of July, Isabel turned four years old. Isn’t she cute covered in ketchup?
Isabel got a birthday phone call from “Grandma Liz”, Chris’s mom, that struck me as incredibly ironic. She had just returned from “The Twelfth” parades. It’s the Protestant Northern Irish national holiday, celebrating the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II. The Protestants in Chris’s hometown celebrate by burning an effigy of Robert Lundy, who aided the Catholics in the war, in giant bonfires.
Chris’s family was thrilled that Isabel was born on this day. Our little Catholic girl. She’s been baptized Catholic. She crosses herself when she prays. She hardly mentions Jesus, but she wants to include Mary. She picks out prayer cards and crucifixes for herself at Catholic bookstores, and already believes and takes great comfort in the communion of saints. It’s as if God, in His infinite humor, looked at this day celebrated in Protestants in Northern Ireland and said in response, “This day is what I make it.” He took a Protestant from Northern Ireland, made him Catholic, made his family Catholic, and brought a little Catholic girl into the world on this day. Coincidence? Or Divine Irony?
I’ve always had trouble understanding mortification. In becoming Catholic, there were subjects that I sidelined, preferring to focus on the meat and potatoes of Catholic life, instead of the weird fringe. For instance, I always steered clear of the saints section of the bookstore, especially the book entitled The Incorruptibles. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me goosebumps. Then there’s mortification. What sane person would subject themselves to pointless misery? But when you look at those who have practiced mortification according to the faith, like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa, they weren’t miserable. They were gloriously, happily, unshakably at peace. Maybe those crazy Catholics (ha! us crazy Catholics) are on to something.
Let’s consider the nature of mortification for a minute. It is technically, “the subjection and denial of bodily passions and appetites by abstinence or self-inflicted pain or discomfort”. It’s not just self-inflicted pain or discomfort. It is pain in a very specific context, with the goal of subjugating our desires. Why should our desires be subjugated? We could just chase our every whim, letting our desires rule us. But then we’d look a heck of a lot like Chris Jr. (He’s 2 now! And good at it.) when he’s protesting the denial of his third DanAnimals drink for the day, no matter what it might do to his digestive system. If we decide we must have the light-up bouncy ball, when it is taken away from us, we suffer great emotional angst. Of course, this is nothing more than our own ridiculous desires turned against us. If we could wield our self-control such that our very desire for the light-up bouncy ball doesn’t sway our emotions, we could be happy no matter what come along. If.
So then, mortification is a forced detachment from the things that matter more to us than they should. I’m sure that Pope John Paul II liked a comfortable bed, but when he slept on the floor, he made himself rely on the bed less and rely on Christ more. He detached himself from the bed, so that he didn’t need it to be happy. When we’ve achieved that detachment, we can be happy in whatever circumstances we are in. Then like the men of the New Testament who suffered great persecution, we can rejoice in the great things that God has done for us even when the world seems to be ending.
Unfortunately, we are creatures made of flesh. Our desires are difficult to ignore just by concentrated effort. They can only be subjugated by making a habit out of mastering them. It is with practice that we can hone our desires and attitudes and emotionally suffer less though our physical sufferings remain. That is the goal of mortification – our happiness based firmly on the foundation of what really matters instead of on something as changeable as the weather. Truly, what matters most is our relationship with God, to remain in Him and He in us. If we have that, nothing else should bother us. It’s not that our sufferings aren’t real. We really feel the physical pain, and pain is a real evil that we sometimes must endure. It’s just that our happiness lies in God alone, not in our creature comforts.
Where am I with all this? I’m taking baby steps to mortify my creaturely desires. Right now, I’m having a difficult time controlling the urge to buy. Specifically the urge to buy yarn. That’s right. Yarn. It’s something that non-knitters/crocheters might have a hard time understanding, but it’s a well known addictive side effect of knitting. I see a skein of 40% alpaca, 35% merino wool, 25% silk, in a pearl gray hand dyed colorway and I start to drool. I imagine the lovely things that could be done with such a yarn. My world would be a better place, I’d be a happier person, a more patient mother, if I only had this yarn. But I am making an effort to control this seemingly ridiculous urge. I’m waiting to buy. I’m saving up spending money. I’m resisting the desire to load up the credit cards and hide the mail from Chris.
It’s maybe only half a baby step that I’m working on here, and I’m not doing all that well. I think the reason I fall so short so often is that I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to do things, the right thing to do, and I try very hard to work it all out. In the end, it’s me trying to work it all out. All too often, I’ve sidelined Christ as my guide instead of my strength. I’ve tried to get to know the person of Christ, to serve Him, to emulate Him. But it’s just me trying, and I’m not letting Him do the work. I confess I don’t spend nearly as much time as I should just with Christ. I haven’t made Him the light of my life, I’ve made Him the book light. I turn Him on when I want to look something up and figure something out.
Mortification teaches me that practice at denying my lesser desires will allow Christ to blossom as the center of my life. So then – small steps, little habits, repeated attempts. All on my to do list.
These lyrics are from Paul Inwood’s Center of my Life, and seem applicable:
“O Lord, you are the center of my life: I will always praise you, I will always serve you, I will always keep you in my sight. Keep me safe, O God, I will take refuge in you. I say to the Lord, “You are my God. My happiness lies in you alone; my happiness lies in you alone.”
Last Sunday, Father Andrew gave a homily comparing our approach to the Eucharist with barbecue ribs, since he had just recently judged a contest at a local parish. The three categories in which the ribs were judged on were presentation, taste, and tenderness. We too, he said, should examine how we present ourselves before Christ, whether we have the flavour of Christ in our daily actions, and if we have tenderness of heart before Him. I’m painfully aware of how much I fall short on all these counts.
I know that the Real Presence of Christ is in the Eucharist, but I seem to have a disconnect with that knowledge. It’s not that I don’t believe it. I do. But the thing itself is so far beyond me. As I prepare myself in mass to receive Our Lord, the only thing I can grasp is how little of the awesome reality I actually am grasping. My favorite prayer in mass is “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” Thank God for that, because if it was up to me, even on my best and most focused days, I’m more like a kid who’s spilled all the milk trying to bring his mommy a drink, creating a bigger mess by trying to please her, than a composed and righteous worthy child of God. But in this I realize that the important thing, the thing that God values in me, is that I tried and I came to Him. When my children try to please me but screw up, I’m happy that their hearts are in the right place, even though there are occasions when the mess frustrates me to the point of reacting badly. Thankfully, God doesn’t have that same weakness. He’s never “had enough” cleaning up after us. It’s our hearts He’s after, and as long as I keep coming to Him, He won’t give up on shaping my heart.
That persistence has become the central focus of my life as a Catholic, now that the time I spent discerning whether the Catholic Church is the true church is over. I’ve made the commitment, and like with all commitments the hard part is follow through. Now I have to live the Catholic life, not just for the past two months, not just for the next wee while until I get tired of it. I have to live out the Catholic life until I go to my reward. And so far, in the whole two months I’ve spent as a Catholic, that persistence has been demonstrated on a deeper level by the Catholics around me.
As many of you know, we belong to a large parish. There are six weekend masses, and for several there’s standing room only. Even with all those parishioners, it’s difficult to find people to serve. Some days there aren’t enough extraordinary ministers. Some days a lector gets grabbed from those in attendance. Until a friend of mine decided to put together a noon choir, there wasn’t even music at all the weekend masses. Currently our noon choir includes, me, her, a third woman (most of the time), and whoever we can harangue into being there any given weekend. We can’t always find an accompanist. This was a little shocking for me at first, that out of the thousands of people who belong to this church, hardly anybody was willing to step forward and “Catholic up”.
Then instead of gawking at the situation, I took notice of those who were serving with me. To an observer, these people may not always bow at the right time. They may wear jeans instead of dress clothes. They may stutter or pronounce Melchizedek wrongly. They might sound tone deaf and you’re wondering what possessed them, making them think they could stand up and sing in front of the whole church. The truth is, they are offering themselves, mistakes and all, because we are in need of servants and they’re the only volunteers.
I’ve found a surprising number of ministers are doubled up. They might be RCIA “red shirts” (the volunteers that organize RCIA all wear red shirts at our church), but they also sing in the choir. I recognize the extraordinary ministers and lectors from my mom’s group. The list goes on. But unlike the social sorority/fraternity popularity contest of the Protestant churches I’ve been in, those that are involved at our parish are motivated by faith. You don’t become a lector because it enables you to sit around and gab about who did what with who. The job isn’t well suited to such a goal. Instead you do it because it’s needed and you have a desire to serve God.
Since becoming Catholic, a few of these people have quietly let me in on their spiritual life. I have several mom friends who invited me to daily mass on Wednesday and Thursday (the only masses where it’s practical to bring young children at our church), but only after I became Catholic. They never flaunted it before. I never knew they went. I never knew another mom spends enormous amounts of time learning, taking classes on theology, Catholic life, and the Bible. I never knew until they invited me to become involved in their devotions, and witnessing the sincerity of it has moved me to persist in my own imperfect devotions.
Though by no means do I have a performance quality voice, and stage fright begins days before Sunday, there are several weeks this summer when you’ll find me cantering at noon mass because no one else can or will do it. I may forget a rule or two of decorum. I never knew to bow when I crossed in front of the tabernacle to change the hymnal numbers on both sides of the church until it occurred to me to ask if that “counted”. Sometimes I fumble the bow, “Amen”, eat/drink, cross self routine and get things out of order. But I keep coming back to Christ and offering all my imperfections in exchange for His perfect Self given to me every Sunday. I keep acknowledging “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you”, and I keep being received and accepted as I am now. All that remains is to keep on living the Catholic life.
P.S. – It’s been ages since I last posted because we moved our laptop into the basement. Since the spring, most of my free time (i.e. time away from the sink, dishwasher, stove, and washer and dryer) has been spent out in the sunshine instead of a dark hole in the ground! We’re all still alive and well
… temporarily, at least until I figure out a better name, or decide to start a different blog for a different stage in my journey. Feel free to offer suggestions.