Breaking and Healing the Hearts of Our Children

It is an insomnia season. A season when all the elements converge and conspire against the coveted commodity called sleep... deep sleep. And in spite of my fondness for Instagram, I  lay tonight's struggle partially at the feet of that glorious time sucker. (As a friend wisely said, I wouldn't have the extra worries if I didn't go seeking them out on social media!) I met a mom there recently whose struggle looked a lot like mine and when she shared a little piece of her grief, my own heart broke. So here I am... awake. 

The grieving woman on Instagram wanted to know if we moms can entertain a reasonable hope of repairing the damage we do to our households over the years. Tell me we can! she begged. Tell me we can go back and reverse what we have done!  

I whispered a tiny and sad no inside my head and in the following seconds, my racing mind was flooded with a torrent of memories; all personal failures I have owned in the last 21 years of motherhood. Some of them stick to me like fly paper and the guilt is so heavy that if I dwell too long, I go down, down, down into the ugly deep. But I didn't dwell this time, I simply let the projector reel of time run out as I held my breath, as if riding out a labor pain. I answered on Instagram then... and I answer now as I lie awake, preoccupied with the gravity of this question...

No. You can't go back. You can't repair all the damage. The hope lies in the possibility of renewal, repentance, and healing - but the scars will probably stay. Some will stay for a little while and some for a lifetime, heedless of our grief and the gripping, aching guilt of regret.

The children forget our mistakes when they are 12 months old but it doesn't take long before the memories stick. They are formed under our love.... and our sin. My first two children have entered adulthood and I know that when they walk out the front door, they take all the hidden heart wounds with them. Perhaps they’ll over spend the rest of his life healing from and forgiving me the consequences of my sins...

My laziness.
My impatience.
My lack of charity.
My selfishness.
My willful ignorance.
All of those things which fall into those categories in big and small ways.

Countless hours of my motherhood have been spent lying awake, grieving over my words and actions and raising my fist against the injustice of the human condition… 

Why must it be that we are destined to leave these marks on the souls of our children when it is our deepest desire to raise them to be whole and healthy and happy? 

There simply is no answer apart from The Fall and The Cross. Jesus is the Savior. And I am not He. In our journey toward sanctity, we eventually realize that either He will be the answer to the heartache of our homes... or no one will. 

For years, I spent much of my motherly frustration on those outside of my home who hurt my children, dwelling on the difficulty of free will. Why, Lord, do You allow people to choose evil? To choose sin? To hurt my children? And then... the day came when raised my hands and yelled: 

WHY? Why, Lord, have You allowed ME to wound?  

I love my large family and take tremendous delight in watching it grow and thrive; however, the process of sanctification in this vocation can be intense. And perhaps that's putting it mildly. The walls that used to get washed... don't.

The attention I used to have for one... I must somehow divide by seven.

The virtues I thought would blossom in my life... have proven to be remarkably weak under pressure.

My plans for holiness and household peace and perfect... skuttled by the reality of human will.

We love and we wound. They adore us and then feel our weakness pierce their hearts. We make them the center of our vocation, and then they remind us that they are not meant to be bent and molded and pressed... but to be mentored and to fly. In my imagination, I saw that I would become better and more competent over time. I never would have believed that I would feel that the opposite was happening.

Motherhood will not be planned. Children will not be controlled. And against every prayer and supplication, God will always allow more struggle than the person can handle. Would we ever turn to Him if He didn't?

For years, I thought it was just me. I thought that I was the lone failure among my friends and my community. I knew others were struggling, but in my self-centered anxiety, I thought that I must be at the bottom of the barrel of incompetent mothers.

Over the years, this belief (coupled with a heavy dose of postpartum hormonal imbalances) brought a period of depression which led into a lingering sorrow and a companion anger that comes with a feeling of cosmic injustice…

If large families are a blessing, then WHY am I suffering under the burden of my inadequacy? If this is the right equation, then I must be the wrong answer. Why would God allow my beautiful children to be placed in the care of such a weak, wounded, and ridiculous mother? 

I couldn't find an answer because I did not understand that His perfection only comes in our weakness. In the cloud of my monumental pride, the grace of God was obscured. All that was visible to me was my failure.

This harsh and deep sorrow softened over time and was eventually companioned by a deep and strengthening faith. I acknowledged my constant failure and recognized that I would always fail. I read adult versions of the lives of the saints and recognized their humanity; their allergies, their tempers, their errors, their conflicts. I began to know them a little better and to forgive in myself what I had previously seen as unforgivable.

At the beginning of my motherhood, I grew in confidence as I led my little army. That great confidence faded as I saw my failures mirrored to me in the lives of my growing kids. My pride lay stretched out and broken on the living room rug every single day. There didn't seem to be a way out of that. Mary, Mother of Sorrows became an ally for the first time. And the Cross of motherhood, once a lovely but distant mystery, became nestled deeply in my heart. My greatest consolation was the abiding love of God. He made Himself very present to me, even as my broken heart bled out into every area of my life.

Why did He allow this kind of stripping of soul? Perhaps because once I knew that I was absolutely nothing without Him, I might finally learn how to pray and truly seek Him.  

The grace of God began to rain down upon me and carried me through what I have privately referred to as my adult childhood. I had to learn how to walk again and to relearn what it meant to be alive as a child of God. Formerly, I thought that faith would make me a shiny flawless saint, like the drawings in my children's picture books. The hard lesson was that the pursuit of perfection did not mean that I could be perfect in myself, but only by allowing Christ to fill my soul entirely. The Refiner's Fire was consuming me. Terrifically painful (and ongoing)... but still a place of Life and unparalleled joy. 

How was I to grow in sanctity and perfection? How was I to learn to stand up straight and tall in the midst of my failures? It really boils down to the annihilation of my pride and the pursuit of only one vision: God's.

I am now in a stage I can only refer to as the fighting stage. I see that I am overwhelmed by losses to my own sinful nature, my kids' free will, and the many obligations of life that I do not feel equipped to meet. And yet... I know that I am fighting for souls. I used to want to build the perfect Catholic dominion... and now I am fighting for each step against many enemies and odds, to simply love all my people into heaven.

I do not count the wins as a general would, I tend the soldiers and the wounded, regardless of whether the battle being waged is won or lost. The larger battle will never be mine to fight. My battle is love and love alone.

We were made for greatness. We were made for everything good He ordains for us, be that with a short obscure life or a lengthy stay in the midst of a large community. My fiat is not my yes to success... it is my yes to faithful obedience and an act of faith with the promise of joy. My failures are like stepping stones to grace. Each time I fall, He lifts me up higher than I could have gone without Him. And if I get to heaven at all, it will be because I have simply let Him carry me the whole way. 

This vocation... It doesn't look at all like I thought it would. The sorrow is still there. The crosses seem to multiply at times. The stakes are higher. It used to be about simply keeping the children alive and clean each day and now it's about their immortal souls. It is hard in a startling way and perhaps that is why God gives us the easy stuff first. Pregnancy, labor, and bloody breastfeeding ain’t got nothin' on teenage/young adult growing and stretching pains and the realization that I've screwed up more small and big things than I can count. My pride has been sorely touched by this new stage in motherhood. 

Eventually, all of the days of humiliation and dying give way to days of rising. You will fall hard. And your children will fall hard. It is on those days that you will know without question where your true priorities lie. You will drop everything and run to tend to their skinned knees and hearts (and sometimes even harder, clean up after the wounds they have inflicted on others) and you will question everything that you do and why you do it. 

Our tendency is to run, fast and hard, away from that pain and discomfort and our culture does this with a will. As Christians, we feel the struggle coming on and are tempted to turn and start running with everyone else. It makes sense…

Leave it, medicate it, drink it away, distract, cover, deny, pretend, and shout it down. But we... those moms who know the heart and hurt is all for Christ... we stop mid stream and do an intentional turning. We see our crosses waiting behind us and we turn and take them up with love. 

I'm not going to leave.
I'm never going to leave.
I give myself in love for you.
I will work until I'm old and gray (and beyond) for you.
My talents are yours.
My treasure is yours. 
My time is yours.
My cheerful, joyful, sunny days are yours.

But my anger, resentfulness, selfishness, and crankiness? Those are mine. And I leave them at the foot of the Cross for Jesus to sweep away. Because His name is Mercy.

To the beautiful Instagram lady who came face to face with her priorities, I just want to let you know that it is a day for rejoicing. God has chosen to gift you with holy vision. And now? He will give you the grace to press on. Thanks be to God.

Halloween {A Failed Catechesis on Holy Death}

This article was first published in 2014.


I wasn't going to write about Halloween this year. Honestly, I'm still recovering from last year when I learned the hard way that the classical standards of debate are all but dead on the internet. When I said I haven't recovered, I mean it. I still feel the loss. I still hear the silence from disrupted relationships. So I promised myself that I wasn't going to write about Halloween again. It was enough. But... I changed my mind. Fickle, I know.

I'm not trying to start any drama. I'm not writing for anyone, to anyone, or about anyone in particular. I'm  writing here to flesh out ideas and offer them as food for thought to anyone else who is interested in the topic.

Please remember... this article not about you. You are welcome to consider my viewpoints and take them or leave them. You take care of your own people and I'll take care of mine, okay? If you want to talk, I welcome a public rebuttal of points made. You are welcome to call my ideas stupid... but only if you offer an intelligent rebuttal of my actual words. But if you go off and tell everyone what an ignorant jerk I am without addressing actual content, I'll probably take offense. And you'll also probably ruin my relationships with other people. I know this. I speak from painful experience. But I think we can do better than that that. Let's give it a go...

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Halloween {A Failed Catechesis on Holy Death}
 

There are several reasons why I do not celebrate Halloween -- the most superficial being that we dress up for All Saints' Day and ain't nobody got time to make two costumes each for 7 kids. Aside from that, I think that secular Halloween practices often run contrary to a life of virtue and hope -- and that even a benign costume and candy celebration on October 31st tends to undermine the greatness of the feasts of All Saints' and All Souls'. But I'm not going to focus on those today...
 

Today I'm going to write about death. And why Halloween teaches the wrong thing about the most important thing.
 

I've had death on the brain lately. I spent the last half year immersed in the subject of dying (specifically miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss) as part of my bereavement doula certification process. I don't love the thought of death but I found my studies fascinating. It brought mortality very close to my daily life and, ultimately, was a spiritual shot in the arm. I thought more than usual about the fragility of life and the state of my soul. I also learned more about what grief does to the survivors and how it can grip and squeeze the heart into a state of unimaginable pain. Ultimately, I became convicted that understanding of and care during the time of death is a fundamental element to building a Culture of Life.
 

How does this relate to Halloween? 
 

It didn't at first... until I began my training course in psychological first aid. I was in the middle of a module about caring for survivors of trauma, specifically children who have learned (suddenly) about the death of a loved one. The recommended approach was determined by the age of the child. The youngest ones would presumably have little experience with death and a vague or non-existent understanding of what death means. But it was the description of the next group that stuck with me. These kids were a little older and mature enough to know what it means to die but still too young to have much experience. The material described the primary obstacle to communicating with this age group: That their understanding of death was generally limited to the known skeletons and monsters of Halloween. As a result, the primary response to death was one of ignorance and fear.
 

Most people fear death to some degree. That's not the issue. What struck me as noteworthy in this case was that this secular disaster relief organization recognized the cultural practices of Halloween as an inhibitor to a child's healthy understanding of death. The reality in a faith context is that our American version of Halloween is terrible catechesis. In fact, I would call it anti-catechesis for providing the wrong answer to life's most important questions. 
 

Such an attitude is typically modern American. We rush through grief. We sweep it under the rug. And we run from age and pain and death with a frantic passion. Halloween practices encourage this dysfunction by contributing to confusion and ignorance of something that, when rightly ordered and supported, is actually our greatest moment of grace on earth. 
 

I use the term "secular" Halloween practices but it begs the question: What are Catholic Halloween practices? They aren't defined by the Church. We do know that All Hallow's Eve (the Eve of All Saints'), is the vigil of one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year. Feast day vigil masses are celebrated at this time. The day after All Saints' is All Souls' Day - the day that Catholics traditionally focus on the dead. So what role does the Eve of All Saints' (Hallow'een) technically have? Truly? Not much.

The celebration of Halloween has become a mammoth secular creature of our own making with the average American spending almost $80 on costumes alone. In an effort to "baptize" our cultural practices, modern Catholics have made the vigil into something of a Catholic cultural festival centered around the topics of death and fear. My non-scientific observations tell me that many have simply found a convincing justification for throwing a good creepy party. Or at least bringing in a good candy haul.
 

"Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams" ~ Pope St. John XXIII
 

How does our cultural Halloween fail us?  The psychological first aid training drew attention to the problem: We teach our children that death is something creepy to be mocked, to be looked at as a piece of fun darkness. As a consequence, that darkness becomes the primary lens through which our children see death.

Many bereavement professionals will tell you that the American cultural approach to death is unhealthy. As Christians, this is a matter of grave consequence. We fool ourselves into thinking that the deepest parts of our human nature can be trivialized without spiritual consequences. Truly, a good death is the one thing that every soul should long for. This is why the saints entered their death scene with joy and hope. This is why we celebrate their feast days on the memorial of their deaths. For the saints, the day of death is a day of rejoicing, not of darkness.
 

"Death is nothing else but going home to God, the bond of love will be unbroken for all eternity." ~ Mother Teresa of Calcutta
 

Am I suggesting that we can never be "real" about scary things? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that we can never jump out from behind a door to scare someone? Or put that horrible rubber rat in the pizza box to wait for a victim? No. What I am postulating is that the cultural secular Halloween is not a healthy context in which to explore the subject of death. We do not need to enter into sin to overcome sin. We do not need to don a mask of evil (especially in a superficial plastic costume way) in order to rise with Christ to new life. Jesus has won the victory through the Cross, and consequently, the Cross is beautiful to us. But only because the sacrificial act of Love is beautiful... not because we love or glorify the horror of the crucifixion. 
 

With our renewed understanding of the gift of the body through John Paul II's Theology of the Body, it is a wonder that we still tolerate the gruesome depictions of the flesh on Halloween night. Personhood is lost. Morphed into a mass of bleeding flesh and parade of hideous creatures. If we could put a true face on our sinfulness, perhaps this is what we would see. But the Truth, Christ Himself, is also within us, and demands sacred respect. 
 

St. John Bosco once called the Christian cemetery "an eloquent sign for those who enter in faith and prayer." Not creepy or frightening but "an eloquent sign." How beautiful! Unfortunately, it seems to be the human condition (concupiscence) to make ugly what God has made beautiful and to lose sensitivity to the joy of the eternal. 
 

Shall we mock death? Shall we mock our own moment of grace? The best way to "mock death' is to live so fully alive in Christ that fear is annihilated. To immerse oneself in the Word of God that promises that death brings peace to the pure soul. To enter into the fullness of Sacramental life so that life is a shower of grace. And then to step out, full of the power of the Holy Spirit, to serve the needs of the suffering. 
 

Mother Teresa did not throw a Halloween party to "mock death". She walked the streets of Calcutta and saw it in the eyes of the people and saw Christ Himself there. She picked up the abandoned, dying people of God whose wounds festered and were sometimes infested with maggots. She touched faces of pain and kissed the sores there. Was she too grave and rigid? Or shall we learn the lesson of her life as living catechesis. In light of her example and the model of all the saints, the modern Halloween custom becomes a mockery of true Love, which is the only worthy goal. 
 

We do not need to look far for real fear. Beheadings, wars, ebola, abortion, violence, human trafficking, accident trauma, personal loss. How are we teaching our children to prepare for death? Shall we usher them into a classroom of darkness in order to learn? Or shall we keep them wholly in the light as the inevitable pain and agony come to visit them?

What do I ultimately want for my children? A good death. The moment of death is a sacred event that will hopefully see us washed in unprecedented graces. It is the moment we have lived for, when a soul devoted to Love steps into the arms of mercy forever. Secular Halloween celebrations are often at best, a distraction from that goal and at worst, a distortion.
 

I have read many attempts to explain how the use of evil imagery draws us closer to Christ. The annual articles are starting to roll in and one defense in particular caught my eye yesterday. It already has hundreds of Facebook likes and is filled with big words and language that sounds like authoritative Church.  The author tells the reader why Catholics should absolutely participate in a dark Halloween. The ideas seem (on the surface) lofty and Catholic and spiritual. The Catholic author writes on a Catholic site:
 

"Halloween rejoices in this triumph through playful parody, or exultant mockery, of evil by subjecting the powerless symbols of the devil to satirical derision. Witches, goblins, ghosts, skeletons, and the other grotesque objects of man’s imagination are the caricatures of a dethroned evil. There is no fear in these, or even in the devil himself, by the indomitable strength of Christ. Men are the masters, and no longer the servants, of these elemental creatures."
 

This is wholly unsupportable through Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition. There is no approved tradition whereby we put on the mask of sin in order to prevail over it. The demons and angels are not "elemental" but spiritual and powerful. Nowhere are we exhorted to dance among the symbols of evil. Even if there is merit in the piece (which I contest), the reality is that most Catholics who like the article will use it primarily as a defense of their participation in the vacuous secular celebration... which is neither lofty, nor Catholic, nor profoundly spiritual. 
 

What is it that the Christian longs for more than anything in life? A GOOD DEATH. A holy death. Scripture tells us that "the sting of death is sin" and that "death has been swallowed up in victory." (Romans 8:31-39) Christ has conquered! There is nothing left to fear except the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. And yet we insist on spending our time playing in the dark. Mocking death.

Where is that exhortation in Catholic tradition? I have not yet found it.

I remember the day I delivered my lifeless baby, Matthew. He was two inches long and marvelous. Some might have seen his little body as gross or gruesome since his skin was translucent and bloodied and his eyes still unopened. But I thought he was beautiful. On that day, my soul also began to yearn much stronger for eternity. The mystery of death was slightly penetrated. And although I grieved heavily, I found that I was less afraid of death. Because of his life and loss, I no longer see death in a "Halloween way." And I do not wish to. Horror will come... sorrow will come... fear will come... all unwilled and unwanted. The true test of our culture is how we have prepared ourselves to deal with it. 
 

My own kids will someday wear blood and hold death in their hands. They will see tragedy and trauma. They will probably witness a beheading or live murder recorded on the internet. I will not shield them from the reality of death. My goal is to prepare them to serve the suffering and wounded who seek the merciful compassion of Christ. They will see plenty of horror on that journey. We don't need a night of candy and plastic ghouls to guide our souls to a Catholic understanding of these things. The real lessons come in the down and dirty of living the works of mercy in the context of a sacramental life. 
 

And that can get downright scary. Jesus, Light of the World, have mercy on us.
 


And again Jesus spoke to them, saying: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me with not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)


Flannery, Lupus, and a Principle of Life

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When I was a young mother, I spent countless hours in the silence rocking and nursing my babies. There were no iphones and the dial-up internet on our Apple was so maddeningly slow that even if I could have balanced it on my knee, I wouldn't have. 

Instead, I spent those long hours singing lullabies and reading almost every book in my husband's extensive library. My real intellectual education happened during that time only after my formal schooling had ended... when my mind was permitted the time to linger over and fight with and grasp great ideas. I never would have or could have had such an experience without that sweet period of maternal isolation. I'm no great intellect but I expanded greatly.

In the subsequent 20 years, that mothering space has been invaded by the almighty glowing screen of technology. I mourn for young moms today who don't even know what they have lost. But I will save that lament for another day. 

There was one uniquely memorable week during that slow and stretching time when my husband introduced me to Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene. Taken one at a time, they are heavy enough; but reading their collected works of fiction within the span of two weeks was something I have never had the desire to repeat nor would I recommend.

They were brilliant. They were horrible. I don't think a weeklong marathon of CNN could have burdened me more with the suffering of mankind. The evil on television is necessarily removed a pace or two by the medium, but O'Connor and Greene (O'Connor in a uniquely horrible way) set up shop in my very soul and camped out there for many, many nights after I first invited them in.

I cried and cried and cried long after the books were put back on the shelf. I had been a sad child and I carried sadness into my adult life. Those two authors ripped off my partially healed scabs (I was only 21 at the time) and poke, poke, poked me until that week was over and I was a sniveling mess. I was angry, particularly with O'Connor for taking me mentally and emotionally where I didn't want to go; for dragging me into a depth of reflection on depravity and evil that threatened to hide hope from me just as I was getting my footing in newfound joy. 

I'm sure she was brilliant. It's not that I can't grasp her accomplishment or understand the movement of grace in her stories. I was mesmerized. The problem is that I didn't need to enter so deeply into the depravity of evil in order to fully understand. Above all else, the world needs lovers and healers to minister to the broken body of Christ, not an immersion in sin. Although I could still recognize a pinhole of hope in her work, emotionally I couldn't reach it. 

By contrast, although dismal in his own right, Green left me with a residual hope that grew over time. I was drawn into, and properly horrified by, The Power and The Glory; and yet was also pulled toward a mysterious joy and gratitude for the faith.  

It was only recently that I learned of O'Connor's battle with lupus and it would have gone unnoticed by me except for my own recent diagnosis. During my internet searches for lupus healing, I frequently stumble across O'Connor's name and the persistent opinion that her lupus gave her unique insight into suffering and thus enabled her to tap her unique brilliance.  

One person writes (and I have lost the source to give credit and I'm sorry): "Unable to take for granted or to expect the normal life time of an able-bodied person, this brave and noble artist chose not to use SLE as an excuse for thwarted literary opportunity. Within the agony of lupus, persisted a literary genius more ecstatic, more defiant, more insistent, more enabling than any healthy time earlier in her life."

Perhaps... but not even on the worst days of my own struggle with lupus - days that I thought I would either be permanently disabled or die - was I ever drawn to write horror fiction. It isn't part of my personality to flesh out the inner workings of evil. Such an exercise would damage me in ways worse than lupus ever could. Lupus causes depression, there is no doubt... but I have a hard time believing that it was the underlying force behind O'Connor's darkness. It seems far more likely that her sickness simply magnified her existing tendencies.

Looking to another giant of feminine genius, we see that Elizabeth Lesieur did not suffer specifically from lupus but from very painful and debilitating chronic conditions for a large part of her life. Instead of writing horror, she wrote a spiritual journal which, after her death, converted her atheist husband (he became a priest), and was subsequently published in order to edify the faithful. I found her book the same year I first read O'Connor and found it so spiritually uplifting that I carried it with me for months to and from work. 

One of the stated principles of her life - to communicate through words and deeds "light and strength" to souls and thus to "reveal God to them" - comes into immediate conflict with horror fiction, especially when dealing with wounded souls (and aren't we all?). For someone who is carrying a burden of sorrow, I would never recommend O'Connor and always recommend Leseiur. 

SHOULD YOU READ FLANNERY?

O'Connor's work is fashionable right now in Catholic circles. “Have you read Flannery? You haven't? You must! You simply must read her. She is brilliant."

My perspective is different. Whether or not O'Connor had a gift is undisputed... but whether her fiction is for everyone is questionable. (Please note that I am referring specifically to her fiction and not to her entire body of work.) 

My experience with lupus (and suffering in general) is that it touches everything with a dusting of sorrow. I'm not sure it can be helped. But as I was carrying my own unknown burden of illness, O'Connor walked straight into my mind and handed me her burden as well. And not just hers, but the dregs of evil refashioned by her literary mind.

I was sick. I was in pain. I was struggling to find courage. And she almost sank me

While she trends on social media, I look on with some confusion at those who romanticize her suffering. She belongs to them in some way... they love her and claim her... and her cross of lupus is like a badge of honor some of them wear because their heroine was afflicted and strong. Perhaps it gives them courage and I honor that, but I definitely don’t feel that connection or consolation. 

WHAT IMPACT DID LUPUS HAVE ON FLANNERY?

The single most upsetting thing I read after my lupus diagnosis was an article discussing the influence of lupus on O'Connor's writing. I was googling for hope and healing but found something entirely different. The author seemed almost excited by the gruesome reality of the disease. He put his heroine and her suffering on a pedestal and talked about her agony of mind and body until I felt sick to my stomach. In all my internet searches before or since, I haven't found anything that depressed or terrified me more about lupus than that piece. I went to sleep anxious and weepy that night and angry at the authors, both O’Connor and her follower. 

Ironically, the author herself didn't want that. She suffered and she was an author. But in her own words: "My lupus has no business in literary considerations.” And still people won't leave it alone. 

Like the first time I met her 20 years ago, the oppressiveness of her work settled upon me at a time when I desperately needed "light." I needed hope and the peace of Jesus Christ. O'Connor's cross came through for me heavier than the weakly offered Easter, and my own burden of sorrow would not allow me to rise. It was like an instant depression. 

O'Connor... Brilliant but oppressive. Oppressed. Depressed. 

That she was able to pass on that oppression so fully to me with my first experience 20 years ago influenced my decision not to revisit or recommend her work. And yet here we are again, with the unlikely connection of lupus. I cannot do an internet search without running into her. 

If she were alive today, she would likely have lived longer with the modern medicinal cocktail of prednisone, chemo, immunosuppressants, and perhaps dialysis and anti-depressants. At the time, she received blood transfusions, ACTH injections, and suffered horribly from necrosis and the slow death of her body. Not as romantic as the peacock and the cane. 

I am impressed by stories of O'Connor's sickness because I have it... it's not romantic... it's horrible. It doesn't make me amazing or "strong." It has stolen from my family's happiness, resources, and time. It has robbed me at times of my ability to write, to sit in the sunshine, to walk a mile, and to sleep in peace. 

It isn't lupus which made O'Connor a great writer. It isn't lupus which made her courageous. 

My own lupus is a cross and a gift. As a cross, I often find that it suppresses my talents. As a gift, it reveals, not my own greatness, but God's... less because of what I can do and more because he gives me the courage to embrace what I can NOT do. 

The nobility, beauty, strength, and gift of lupus comes from grace alone and the mysterious way God works through suffering. The darkness itself is not the light and should never be confused for the light. It is the wolf and we cling to Christ for security.

I beg the good Lord to take away the burden of evil from my mind and soul... and just fill me with the hope and joy of Jesus Christ. Our world is full of despair and often seems blanketed in sin, depression, anxiety, fear, distrust, abuse, and despair. If O'Connor's horror fiction ever did have a place in the average Catholic's journey, I'm not convinced it remains a psychologically healthy element. 

Her supporters say that her violent writing was necessary to wake men up to the reality of pain and to bring spiritual clarity to complacent, numbed minds. I counter that we already understand pain deeply - with over 20% of our country's population on psychiatric drugs in order to function - and that it is the spiritual clarity of the true joy and peace of Jesus Christ which is what is sorely lacking. 

Modern science and experience tell us that increased exposure to violence does not make us more compassionate or spiritually sensitive... but that it oppresses and numbs. I would not go so far as to say that O'Connor's work should never be read, only that it should be undertaken with proper spiritual and mental health hedges in place if it is discerned to be a necessary reading. 

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Leaving the Door Open for a Perfect Lent

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The perfect Lent usually comes to me as a surprise package, gift wrapped and delivered with a flourish and fireworks. It wears a big tag that says:

For your sanctification, with my deepest love and affection. 

Love, 
Your Heavenly Father


The truth of the matter is that regardless of what amazing mortifications I have planned for myself, I'm always outplayed by the challenges of life... the crosses... the hidden gifts. I never see those road bumps coming because I'm busy putting the comfortable touches on my own Lenten preparations. 

When I go "big" with Lenten prep, I'm usually pretty impressed with myself. But the real secret of a fruitful Lent is what I do when my carefully designed, Pinterest-friendly disciplines are blown up and replaced by the uncontrollable and the downright ugly.

The real secret of Lent for me is not coming up with super creative, impressive ways to pull myself closer to the heart of Jesus... but learning how to use what I have been given to fall in love, embrace my crosses... and allow Him to draw me to Himself.

I once had a very wise and holy friend counsel me during a difficult time. I was feeling helpless that I did not have more to offer for a loved one who was undergoing a great trial...

Perhaps, I said, I should ask God to send me a greater suffering so that I might offer it. With a gentle smile, she responded: Don't ask for more. Not now. When your loving Father sees fit to give you more, He will do it because He knows your heart. And what He allows will be more than you would ever have the courage to ask for. Pray for grace and mercy and faithfulness and trust... the suffering will come in His time, when you are ready.

I was in my 20's at the time. I'm now 41. I get it now. The opportunities to suffer are always present. It is not really our job to make sure those sufferings keep coming, but to focus on drawing close to Christ through every opportunity.

Lent is a training ground. Giving up the cookie is just preparation for the bigger battles.

I have learned over time that God uses Lent efficiently if we let Him, whether or not we accomplish any exceptional self-imposed mortifications or clever crafts with the kids. Those are good practices and habits but they don't necessarily move the soul where God desires it to go. Many of us don't have the courage to push ourselves into life changing self-denial.

We line up the sacrifices and then BOOM! Derailed by the cookie. 

There have been Lents during which he has permitted very obvious sufferings in my family like car accidents, broken bones, family stress, a difficult pregnancy, or serious illness. Other Lents were not so obvious... just a floundering in a place of personal failure or the good old Winter blahs. Perhaps it is lazy of me, but I have stopped focusing heavily on the extra mortifications during this season and have just been really focusing on the ones that I already have. There seem to be plenty enough for my weak soul. Someday. Someday I may be ready for more and I trust that He will know.

This year? I've got a short list of pious sacrifices and then a great big space where I assume God will work. 

We are all in different spiritual places at different times. While you may be adding to your daily prayers, I am likely fighting just to maintain mine. When fasting might be relatively easy for one, it might be a source of great trial for another. While one mother is struggling to make Lent meaningful for her children in the daily household activities, another must accept the limitations of her cancer...

Where God chooses to take us during Lent is intensely personal and individual. The key is to embrace it wholly and willingly. Take me where you want me to go, Lord. Show me how to love you more.

A few years ago, I read a lengthy article criticizing the decision of two prominent Catholics to lead a Lenten retreat on a cruise. The crux of the argument was that a cruise is meant for luxury, not mortification, and the decision to lead others to water (as opposed to the desert) during the Lenten season was a very bad one.

I don't know... it seems to me that God can find our hearts on the open seas and pierce them the same as He would do on dry land.The beautiful surroundings can't keep out the fire of Divine Love. I do not know why the good men chose a cruise as a Lenten retreat venue and can see how it might seem odd. Perhaps they've lived through enough Lents to know that it will all work out just fine, for the greater glory of God and the sanctification of their souls. Perhaps they know, too, that leisure (according to a truly Christian understanding) is consistent with Lent in that it is ordered to bring our minds, bodies, and souls back into focus on the goodness of God.

Based on my personal experience of past Lents (and life in general), however, I would say that their likelihood of contracting some terrible stomach virus during the cruise is quite high. Or likely, they will hit some choppy seas, get paired up with a bunk mate that snores, or find that their sciatica is acting up. Or perhaps, they will be blessed with enough space and grace and time to come face to face with a deep and buried grief or interior suffering...

... because Lents often come packaged like that.

Some years I'm sent a rocky sea or spoiled shellfish. Other years, I find myself on a sinking ship. Other years it's just that stupid cookie. But always with a flourish and a bang and that handwritten note from God. And at the end of the note, it says...

P.S.   I give you these gifts because I love you beyond all telling or imagining. Everything in the package is a treasure. You will not know how to use it at first.... but I will show you. Keep close to my heart. We will walk together through each moment. I will set your heart on fire. And when you feel that you cannot walk a moment longer, I will take your cross and raise you up with me. Easter is coming... Let us begin.

The secret of the perfect Lent is simply to rely more on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit than on our checklist. To walk slowly, humbly, quietly along the path of personal holiness; ready to die to self so as to be ready to rise with Him. Letting Him lead... Even when it hurts. 

If that Lenten secret includes the carefully planned sacrifices you willing make? Thanks be to God. But it might also include some bad shellfish.... and that's often where the real sanctification happens. 

Crossing the Threshold to Joy in the New Year

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My heavenly Father spoils me when He knows it isn't going to ruin me; and the rest of the time He allows me to grow strong in Him, even when growth requires that I first be broken...

I stepped up to the precipice of the New Year with a burden of sorrow on my heart. It thumped a dull but steady pain, and I stumbled over the exhausting thought that another year was starting... and I had nothing left in the tank to bring. The knowledge of how truly blessed I am sustained me... but the feeling of blessing was gone. 

I knew those truths but still lost courage, slowed to a crawl, and barely inched over the threshold of 2018. 

My Lord loves me passionately, foolishly, endlessly... and knowing that kept me pushing through these last months even though I raised my petulant, childish fists in His direction more than once.   So much like my 1-year old who is all cuddles and peaches until he is sick or tired... and then his tiny frantic clenched hands will swing even at his own mama.

My "Where is God?" sounded pathetic even to me while I swam in a life of absolute treasure and abundant love and goodness. Pathetic little fists of fury.

I am LOVE. Why do you strike at me? 

Because I need you... but I am tired. I am afraid.

When I'm healthy and in control, I don't necessarily feel His absence or His Presence at all since my focus is solely on me. It is so easy to say "I AM BLESSED!" and "I feel God's Presence" when things go my way; but the consequence of that shallow understanding of relationship means that the slightest discomfort can throw me into a mini faith crisis.

I assume that my comfort means that He is present and that my discomfort equals His absence... like a feverish toddler who doesn't understand that the hand of Love is not also the cause of the pain. 

And this year... oh my... this year...

He let me hit bottom hard in so many ways... mentally, physically, spiritually... even while He held my wounded body and soul.  My sufferings are truly so small when held up to the heartache of the world. But I hadn't prepared well to carry even a light cross and my own small heart filled, swelled, and burst.

Am I going to die soon, Lord? Is that what's going on? Why the sacrificial pile-on? If you try to give me that kind of medicine, I'm going to wail and thrash and throw it up. You'll have to hold me down...

So He did.

My faith was rocked. My body was attacked by disease. My heart died and grieved a thousand times and I grew smaller.

You have left me, Lord! Shall I just become a Protestant now? Or maybe just a nothing? Yes, a nothing... Then there will be no expectations and no disappointment.

That tiny and ridiculous threat poured out of my broken soul with a torrent of tears and a weight of sorrow which I could not bear on my own. I felt it and knew it and...

He called my bluff instantly.

He created me, formed me, restored me, awakened me... and He knew that I would not go. He held me down like the petulant toddler that I am, not with force but with irresistible fire... 

Twenty years ago, I would have left you, Lord, because I wouldn't have been sure about you. But I know Who You are. You are irrefutable. You are solid and deep and forever. You are flower, you are ocean, you are Life. If I deny you now, I deny myself and could not just become a nothing but would necessarily become depraved. I cannot choose that.

So I chose joy.

I chose to remain at His feet and let Him be Father. 

From that place, I was safe and free to look around and see how He has woven my joy and my salvation into the very fiber of my enormously beautiful and bountiful life. 

God sends His Holy Spirit endlessly across the wasteland. He pours life into the cracks of our brokenness and whispers the gentle command: TRUST. And He sends us His earthly servants and heavenly brethren to carry us faithfully and tenderly. 

I recently chose my saint of the year... or rather let the saint choose me... St. George.

I thought that was very appropriate since I sought courage and strength for the next leg of the journey. Then I chose my word of the year through a random generator... STRENGTH.

Yes. I'll take it. Not on the false premise that I will grow in strength and power but that God will use the emptying of this last year to fill my life with His Presence. I will still be broken, still be small, still be weak, tempted, stumbling, and humiliated. But I will be strong in His majesty...

... and what a blessed relief. I'm ready to hand over the weight.

New Year's passed along with a birthday party and a feast day celebration. I shut off the parts of my heart that couldn't bear another step and just kept going. And then... joy began to grow again.

I know you, Joy... I have known you all along but I have been battered and torn and tired. But the Spirit buried you deep in my soul many years ago and that is how You return to me...

Not from the outside pouring in... but from the inside blossoming out. 

You are showering me with grace.
You are restoring my faith and my hope.
You are washing my eyes free from the dust.
You are sanctifying the suffering and...
Breathing life into the lifeless.

I open a book and You speak to me about STRENGTH...

Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death... (Revelation 3:2)

And I rise again with Christ.

However...

I didn't rise until I had cried out to God with raging tears.
I didn't rise until I had been physically broken and felt real fear of death for the first time.
I didn't rise until my heart had been broken by loss.
I didn't rise until I suffered humiliation.
I didn't rise until I had failed people I love.
Until I saw that I couldn't shake the cross.
Until I couldn't reconcile the scandal.
Until I lost the sunshine.
Couldn't fill the void.
Couldn't mend my own heart.
Couldn't. Be. God.

Then... THEN He rose in my heart like the gentle morning sunshine and invited me to begin again with the consolation of His hope and joy planted deep in my soul. 

You are not lost, Daughter... You were just sleeping...

Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death... (Revelation 3:2)

2018 is not going to be a cake walk. For all I know, it could surpass the startling 2017. But He makes it all easy and sweet in His time. Thanks be to God.

"...and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a storm of wind came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:23-25)

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How Motherhood Can Heal the Jaded Woman

New motherhood is a golden moment in a woman's life where the opportunity to be permanently changed is tangible, powerful, and immediate. No, I'm not talking about whether or not YOU feel or see any difference. The change happens regardless; because the child is placed into your arms and instantly, you are loved... by a brand new person who doesn't know anything about your failures. And frankly, doesn't care.

Doesn't care if your hair is all messy from labor.
Doesn't care if you've got dark circles under your eyes.
Doesn't care if you are struggling to find words.
Doesn't care if you aren't sure about this whole motherhood thing. 

His love is yours. Period. 

It is an exquisite moment of renewal. There is no history. No memory of wrongs done. A clean slate. 

Those eyes and tiny fingers... they seek you out as often as possible. To connect with you and to love and be loved. Special talent is not required... simply your presence. 

We tend to think of ourselves as being in a role of power over our little ones, but perhaps the greatest potential power is that of the child over a mother's heart. We think we are the lovers and the healers. But I don't know... seems to me that the greater power lies in the helpless devotion of the child.

I was just 21 years old when I held my firstborn; and those initial moments were not ones in which I felt dominant or in control, but ones in which I felt smaller and more humbled than I ever had in my life.

My arrogance fell away.
My selfishness fell away.
My knowledge fell away.
My self-importance fell away.

I held a tiny human in my arms and felt as though I held the mysteries of the universe all wrapped up in my soft baby. Aware of my complete insignificance, I let the awe and fear wash over me in giant waves as the nurses showed me how to care for my son. Those waves crashed upon me again and again as he cried in hunger and turned toward me for nourishment and comfort. And again as I changed him for the first time. Imperfectly.

And still he loved me. 

As those waves of emotion rolled over me, I felt the sharp edges of my womanhood softening, smoothed by the tiny majestic moments. My memories now forever included this child and were filled by him. And no pain or bitterness that I had felt in my life would ever again be felt as sharply simply because he was there. No wound that I had received could hurt as much as the love of this child could heal. 

When I tell people that I've had 8 children, they often stare in astonishment. You must be crazy! Life must be very hard! But I have a secret that they don't know...

The births and the love and the precious lives of my children have continuously washed over me for the last twenty years... and my bitterness doesn't stand a chance. My heart hardens and then it softens; washed over time and again by the smiles and tears of the most precious people on earth.

I am sometimes envious of the beautiful professional women I see around town with their pretty shoes and manicures. I wonder if I will ever be without a little one on my hip or a baby nursing at my breast. And then I remember...

I am happy. I am softened. I am loved. 

As the children have grown, that hard edge sometimes threatens to creep back into my soul again alongside the sufferings and sorrows of life. Shut the door! It cries. You can't be hurt if you keep it closed. And I shout back...

It is a lie.

Let your love wash over me, Jesus... let your love wash me soft. That even when the bitterness rises in my memory, it can never stand against the rolling power of your merciful love. 

A Mother's Secret Moment {surrendering to life}

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I sit in the darkness and count my blessings. Over and over I count them... and then add one more. It is that profound moment in a mother's life. That isolated, heavy, light, surreal moment when no one in the whole world knows except mother of the biggest thing that really ever happens. A new soul... a new soul. The whole world swirls around me in the dark. And I sway and count rhythmically and slowly. Buying a little time, catching  my breath. Measuring time so that I won't miss the breathtaking moment when the soul chooses surrender... and joy.

It takes two days to find that surrender. It isn't that I'm not willing or that I don't know it will come... but that the world is noisy and fast and I need time - time to be alone with this seedling - and to allow the unfolding to occur. 

It never feels like a yesat first but rather a moment of sheer stark terror when mortality and heaven collide with tremendous force. And the first and only thing I want to do in that moment... is to set down my cross. May I, Lord? May I set it down? Just for a moment?

Just for a moment, He says. I will take it. Lean in, Melody... lean in. I will carry your cross until you are ready to pick it up.

Am I ever really ready to pick it up again? From the very first moment two decades ago when I learned I was a mother, I was ready to run. That first time I only feared the unknown. After that, I knew very well why I was afraid; and it is for that reason that I need this precious moment in the silent isolated darkness... to face it and surrender over and over again. Nine times now I have done it. And nine times I have watched my capacity for life expand beyond reasonable bounds. I know the truth about joy. But I just need a moment.

I used to have to wait for the little plus sign... but now I just know the signs of my body. I've done this enough to know the drill. My body changes. My emotions change. My cravings change. My very soul begins to change. Another weak fiat is clasped in my nervous hands - two pink lines -and I slowly uncurl those stubborn fingers. 

What will the world think, Lord?
What do youthink, daughter?

I am overwhelmed by the injustice of the dampening of pure joy by the hardness of worldly hearts... and my temper flares. This child is too beautiful for the world! Too glorious for their eyes and judgments! But I am tainted like the world... and I am tired. And... I just need a moment.

So the darkness remains and my eyes are squeezed shut, wishing the cross to be lighter. But I will my hands to rise up with my fiat. My fingers splay outward and surrender rolls off the tips and also off my tongue and out of my very soul...

Yes. I surrender. With joy.

A tremendous wave of grace crashes upon me, reminding me that He is powerful. That love is not a sentiment but a wild sea. It is a raging storm that draws in the heart and raises it higher... higher... higher. But it takes crazy courage to invite it in and let it reign. 

This child is more than my fear. An immortal soul. Imago Dei.I surrender to awe. I surrender to love. I speak my fears one more time but it is only a ceremonial act. I throw them out fiercely one by one and watch my mighty God strike them down...

Sickness.
Weakness.
Failure.
Discomfort.
Loss of control.
Ridicule.
Miscarriage.
Loss of freedom.
The pains of birth.
Loss of time.

I shout them out and He slays them as dragons and binds the lies which grip my heart. And He replaces them with a song...

You are enough. Your baby is enough. You are free to love. You are free to know joy. Dance in the Presence of your heavenly Father and make an offering of your very life. It is beautiful and good and you know it is. You look into the eyes of your children and you know that you have already embraced this little one... that this moment is the beginning of surrender to joy. Let the blossoming begin. 

It used to be that I was eager to share our news immediately. As the years have gone by and our numbers increased, I am less and less eager. It seems the moment the word is spoken, the mystery is diminished under blithe speech and gossip. The sacred treasure is exposed to harsh light. The talk turns to names and dates and nausea and numbers. And really... all I want to do is breathe in the unspeakable beauty of the sacred dignity of the newly created soul. Eventually, I will get to those other details... but for now, I just rest in the moment. Thanks be to God.