Monday, May 21, 2018

This Dying to Self Business

I'm in the middle of reading Jen Fulwiler's amazing new book, One Beautiful Dream. I  can't recommend it highly enough for other women, especially mothers. The book is the story of Jen finding the balance in her own life between her passions and the mission of her family. Usually when people talk about finding "balance" they mean something more like, "How can I pursue my dreams despite having these responsibilities?" Jen's take is that a wife and a mother following her passions can enrich her family's life and are integral to a family's thriving.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

I've been struggling so much with frustration with my children. So, so much frustration, despite the fact that they are actually pretty good kids. My real frustration, though, is not with them. My real frustration is with myself. I went to Notre Dame for my bachelor's and master's degrees, and prior to that was a career overachiever. Old habits die hard. There may have been a period of my mothering when I was rocking the whole homemaking thing - cleaning our (tiny, at the time) house top to bottom, meal planning, and "homeschooling" my three and one year old. Now I have a seven year old, four (almost five) year old, and almost one year old. They are more important than the dusting and vacuuming, and I just don't have the energy that I once had. For the first time in my life, I have to gulp down coffee to keep my eyes open.

But this is combined with awe at this vocation. With a family history of infertility, I didn't know if I would ever be able to have children. I never dreamed I would be blessed with four little ones (including my Gabriel). Part of my current growth is in letting go of what I thought was important in favor of what is important. I'm trying to learn how to embrace the messes, not as a sign of my failure to clean but rather as a sign of hospitality to the three people who have entered our home in the last nine years. That means I don't have to have everything perfectly decluttered by the end of the day. Did I mention old habits die hard?

But there's more to it than that.

My life looks completely different than I imagined it would. It is infinitely better. For example, I never, in a million years, would have imagined that I would be married to a seminary professor and would travel the country for a slew of ordinations every year. I never imagined that I would be called to spiritual motherhood of priests and seminarians. I never would have imagined the extent to which I would take them each into my heart and prayers.

Befriending seminarians is kind of like falling in love with a baby in your womb. So many of them will not make it to ordination. If the formation and discernment process is done correctly, that is exactly as it should be. However, it is disappointing when you hear about guys discerning out of seminary, or being encouraged to move on. Like with a miscarried child, you have to trust that God has something else in mind and be okay with that. (Can you tell how much Gabriel has influenced my view of motherhood?) But despite the fact that so many of them will not make it to ordination, you are called to love them anyway. The challenge is to view them as real men, not just "seminarians" - men in need of prayer in their many difficulties and their painful growth.

That being said, when a man does make it to ordination, the joy is like nothing else. There is such intense joy in seeing a man fully alive, living out his vocation.

I also never imagined that God would call me to be a writer and artist. I grew up thinking that I could never be either of those things. I can't get into all the reasons behind that, but I still am surprised that much of the income I bring in to the family is from paid writing work.

But then, there is also just the incredible growth pains that come with "getting over yourself." I feel like that's the best way to describe motherhood. A mother isn't supposed to "lose herself." She's supposed to become more fully herself. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, and all of that. It doesn't mean letting go of your dreams, but it does mean trusting that your dreams will now be lived out in the context of loving little people who demand everything of you.

I often tell friends, "I thought I was going to be called to religious life. But if I was a religious, I think that I would think that I was holy. Instead, what God called me to is actually making me holy because I realize that I am not holy."

I seriously feel like I could go to Confession every single day and not run out of things to say. It's not that I'm committing mortal sins left and right, but it's that I realize now how desperately I need God's grace to make it through the day.

I have an incredibly gentle confessor, a man who also knows our family well and can put my sins into context for me. I recently went to Confession, pouring out how incredibly frustrated I get with my family at times. He told me, "You are dying. This is a process of dying to self...and dying is painful." It was all I could do not to break into sobs when he said that. He got right to the heart of what makes this vocation painful. I am being forced to die to self. And it is so, so painful. The pain is not a sign that I am doing something wrong; it is a sign that I am doing something right.

In the midst of that, sometimes I want to cry because I wonder, " I matter? Who do I matter to?" I know that my husband and children love me, but I just yearn for the love of someone who has known me since the beginning, knows my struggles, and loves me. And then I remember...He loves me like that. He has seen the whole process. He knows my heart. And I matter infinitely to Him.

This doesn't mean that this isn't still incredibly hard. I still wish I had more time to write, or to do other work that I love, or...heck...even just more time to have a coherent thought without multiple little voices vying for attention. But remembering His love, and trusting in the friendship of the saints, I'm able to shift my perspective. This work matters. This dying to self matters.

And, in the end, it will be like how I feel at the end of pregnancy. Anyone following this blog knows how much suffering went into Zelie's pregnancy. Yet, once she was born, all that awful suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum just seemed like nothing. "Was that all I had to do to have this  person in my life? It was too little, too easy, in comparison to the honor and joy of having her in our family!" I remembered the suffering - the months in bed, the iron infusions, the IVs, the Zofran pump, the puking and dry heaving - but it just seemed like such a small price to pay in comparison to the incomparable goodness of her existence.

That is what heaven will be. This dying to self will seem like nothing, in comparison to the prize at the end. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Catholic Field Guide is HERE!!!!!!

IT'S HERE!!!! This book has been in the works for over a year...and it's finally here!!

This project just kept growing and growing and growing, but I'm so happy with how it turned out! It started out just being a Catholic dictionary picture book, but then it evolved into a resource that isn't just for kids...adults will love this, too! It's modeled on a nature field guide, divided into sections and categories and with detailed pictures and descriptions. Guys, I have a Master's degree in Theology and I LEARNED SO MUCH writing this book! Of course, as it turned into a more sophisticated book, I realized it really wouldn't work well for little kids. My oldest daughter (who is seven and a half years old) is a fluent reader and adores this new book. My four year old likes looking at the pictures but I knew she needed her own version. If you keep scrolling to the end, I'll show you the little kid version of the Catholic Field Guide.

Would you like a closer look???

Isn't it just lovely?? I'm so happy with how the cover design turned out. It's also thicker than I originally planned. There is a LOT of great content in this book!

Here's my favorite part! I didn't just want this to be a picture dictionary. I wanted it to be a field guide. I wanted readers to be able to see something at Mass and easily look it up. I wanted it to be visually appealing, and to have that beautiful color coding you see on the sides of nature field guides. Just look at this lovely edging! Each color represents a different category in this book. If you keep scrolling, you'll see what I mean. 

Let's take a peek inside, shall we? Like in a nature field guide, The Catholic Field Guide includes a map and a clear guide to the contents. 

Each section starts with the color coding for that section, and a brief description. Each page has a color coded header, too. 

But what if you know exactly what you want to look up are aren't sure which section it's in? Flip to the back and look at the index! If you look at this page, you can get a sneak peak at the complete contents. Look at how much information is covered!!!

When I am thinking through book projects, I try to use resources that I actually want to use in my own home. This is a resource that I can see being used by a classroom teacher, a homeschool teacher, a catechist, or a parent. My hope is that it won't just be used by kids. It's definitely not intended "just for kids." If you ever wanted to learn more about the things you see in your church, this is a great resource. Adults will enjoy this one, too!!! I can also see this being a great resource for high school students and youth ministers. It could be a First Communion gift OR a Confirmation gift!

And what about those little kids in your life? There's a version for them, too! This book has the same pictures as The Catholic Field Guide, but look at how much simpler the content is? It's perfect for little hands, and I'm looking forward to reading it with my two youngest daughters. 

Ready to get your own copy?? 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Dear Gabriel

Dear Gabriel,

Happy 2nd birthday! I can't believe it's been two years since I've held you (in my belly). I still long and ache for the day when I will finally hold you in my arms.

On the way to Mass this morning, your big sister, Maria, remembered that it was your birthday and was talking about it. We decided, as a family, that we would offer our Mass for you today, as our birthday gift to you. We also talked about how, if you are in heaven already, that means that you were participating at Mass with all the we got to celebrate with you today, after all.

My little Love, I still ache for you and miss you. I don't think that will ever go away. You are our sweet "bonus child," the one who ended a long stretch of infertility. I will never forget how filled with joy Daddy and I were, when we found out you were in my tummy.

Whenever people ask your big sisters about their siblings, they are always eager to tell people, "There are actually four of us! We have a baby brother in heaven." When Mommy is so sick during pregnancy, one of the things that keeps me going is thinking of how much the older siblings will delight in having a new baby. Even though they never met you or held you, you are truly a joy to your big sisters. They love you so much.

In the two weeks between your ultrasounds, I spent a lot of time praying. I prayed that you would live, but I think I also prayed that God would accept my baptism of desire for you, if you died. We also had the doctor who delivered you conditionally baptize you. You were blessed by priests while still alive, and you had a whole army of priests and seminarians storming heaven for you when you died. And so, I have great hope that you are, indeed, in heaven.

I wonder what your life has been like, since we said goodbye to you. You are the first of our children to leave our nest, and you are (hopefully) the first to have reached heaven. I dream about what it will like for the six of us to be reunited one day, and I treasure the foretaste of that at Mass.

Each of you four children have changed our family. Each of you four have changed me.

When I lost you, Gabriel, heaven became more real to me. Our family gained an intercessor. I am especially amazed by the power of your prayer for your sisters. Whenever one of them is sick or injured and I am worried, I ask for your prayers . I think your prayers are a big reason why we didn't lose baby Zelie, and they have helped your big sisters on more than one occasion. It brings me joy to see how God works through you.

As much as I have grieved over you, my child, you have brought me so much joy. It makes me so happy to know that you are becoming -and perhaps already are - the saint that God has created you to be. You've taught me how to be a mother - how to love despite knowing that I have to let go. Daddy and I know that, ultimately, you are God's. We treasure the four of you.

Oh my sweet Gabriel. My love goes with you always. I hope and pray that you may be in heaven, and "spend your heaven doing good on Earth."

I will always love you.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Eating Scapulars and Peek-a-Boo with Icons

That sounds like it could be another book title, right?

That's how my sweet baby and I spent our morning, though. I was able to attend a beautiful morning of reflection at our parish. She's the world's easiest baby, so I actually had an opportunity to pray and go to Confession, and attend Mass. She was content to chew away on my scapular for most of that time.

We followed that up with some prep for Passion Sunday tomorrow (which is different than Palm Sunday). The girls and I are on the sacristy team, which mostly means just keeping altar cloths and tabernacle veils clean and ironed, altar candles fresh, and occasional liturgical veiling all the statues and icons for Passion Sunday. We pretended they were playing peek-a-boo (which is this little girl's newest game).

The theme of the morning of reflection was "Glorious Wounds," and it was basically reflections on suffering and the value of suffering. As I sat there, holding this little love, I remembered all the suffering of love that I endured last year. I have spent so much time reflecting on the grace of those four pregnancies, and the opportunity to suffer in love. I have been kind of quiet on this blog this year, because I've been having some quieter crosses. I'm sure you've gone through periods like that in your own life. As I was sitting in prayer today, various concerns heavy on my heart, I had one of those brief glimpses of realization. As I listened to the priest reflect on the gift of suffering I remembered, "Oh, right. This life is passing. The opportunity to suffer and offer up that suffering is ultimately an opportunity to love." It is so hard to remember that in the moment, though, isn't it?

The crosses of anxiety and depression are adding to all of this, and sometimes I have a really hard time remembering to offer those up. When I'm in the midst of a good day, or a day that is only mildly anxious, then I can hear a talk or read a quote about suffering and think, "Yes! What a gift! I am so grateful for the crosses in my life!" In the midst of that same suffering, though...not so much. In the midst, it just seems too heavy, sometimes. 

I was thinking of the "heroic minute" the other day. Have you heard of the "heroic minute?" St. Josemaria Escriva described the moment when you're supposed to wake up as the heroic moment - you could either hit the snooze button, or you could leap out of bed and heroically overcome your drowsiness and embrace the day. That sounds great, and when I'm not sleep deprived, or struggling with anxiety or depression, I tend to be a morning person and could see myself embracing the heroic minute. I sometimes feel discouraged that it's so hard for me to get my day going, but then the other day, it occurred to me - God isn't sitting up in heaven with a stopwatch and judging us all by the same standard. For some of us (especially those struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, etc.), and at some points in our life (like when we have a baby that wakes up a million times a night, ahem) then just getting out of bed in the morning is heroic. I have definitely had mornings when I struggle to get out of bed, not because I'm a lazy person but because sometimes I am physically or mentally weighed down. On those mornings, I am called to offer up that suffering to God, pour an extra cup of coffee...and just let the fact that I got out of bed be heroic in and of itself.

If you have never gone through a patch like this, that will probably boggle your mind. But if you have ever been sleep deprived, or struggled with something mental health related, or gone through a period of grief or illness...then I hope you find comfort in that reminder. There is heroism in your daily struggle. I think there is a good analogy in the Stations of the Cross. By the time Jesus got to the point of the Stations, he had already been up all night in a state of grief and had been scourged. When He fell down the first time while carrying the cross, it must have been hard to get up. When he fell down the second time, it must have seemed even harder. But when he fell down that third time? Can you imagine how difficult it was to get up that third time? Was his love for us any less in that moment? On the contrary, the harder the Way of the Cross got, the greater His love was. 

And so it is for us. One who suffers much is invited to love much. 

It is often so hard to do this. But sometimes, we are given a glimpse at the value of suffering in love. When I wonder about the value of suffering, when I question my faith, I look at this wall, and I remember four times in my life that Jesus invited me to suffer for the love of another...and each time it was so incredibly worth it:

Each of those pregnancies and post-partums had their share of suffering. But I look at these four beautiful children (three of whom I get to hold in my arms every day, and one who I hold in my heart always) and that suffering seems like nothing. I look at them and I feel like the gift of their lives is something so infinitely greater than hyperemesis gravidarum, or post-partum depression, or even the grief of miscarriage. My suffering for them has been so little in comparison to the joy of simply knowing that they exist and are called to sainthood.

And so I imagine it is for Christ, on the cross. Crucifixion is one of the worst ways to die, and added to that is the incredible grief of holding all of our sins and dying for them. But do you know what Jesus did? He also thought of each of us by name, holding the image of every person who ever was or ever would be in his heart, and he thought, "This suffering is so great, but it is as nothing compared to my love for you." 

And so, sometimes, in the midst of this passing life, the suffering we undergo can seem like too much. Even little sufferings can seem like too much (indeed, sometimes the daily sufferings of our vocations are the hardest to bear with patience). But this life is passing. Even if we live to 100 years old - a century is nothing in comparison to eternity. 

This is the hope that keeps me going, and that is renewed in my heart each Lent. This is the hope reaffirmed each Holy Week. 

Speaking of Holy Week...would you like a little peek inside the new book?? I usually like seeing the inside of picture books before buying them. Here's a peek at a few of my favorite pages...

Thanks to everyone who has already bought a copy! Interested in getting a copy of your own? There's still time to get one before Holy Week!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Holy Week for Children (A New Book)

I have some really exciting news for you all....a new book is here!!

This project has been a total labor of love. I have seen some lovely books that give the Scriptural stories of Holy Week, but no books that walk children through what to expect at the liturgies. This book does both!

Our family tries to go to the Triduum liturgies, and if yours does, too, this would be a great little companion to help your 3-9 year old(ish) follow along. However, I know that a lot of families aren't able to make it to those liturgies, but may want to. If you aren't able to make it to the Triduum liturgies, this book would be a good way to teach your children about what happens at the most important Masses and liturgies of the liturgical year (without dragging little ones to church past bedtime). 

You can purchase it on Amazon...just in time for Laetare Sunday! This would be perfect for your Easter baskets.  

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Unending Washing of Feet

This little icon sits on the windowsill of our bathroom (with the lovely 1950's blue tile). We were given it as part of my graduate program, back at the beginning of our marriage. We've stuck it in the bathroom in this house and our previous one. Initially, it was almost a, Jesus is washing feet and we're in the bathroom? Get it??

But it's taken on a deeper meaning as we've continued in this business of forming a family, our own little domestic monastery. Over the years, it's served as a reminder for me, sometimes in the most convicting moments. When potty training a stubborn toddler, dawdling on the toilet and begging me to read her the potty board book one more time, I've been reminded to take a deep breath and be patient. When bathing a tubful of little ones, I've been reminded that what I'm doing has significance. By my very job description, I wash feet (and, as Peter said, "hands and head" as well!). It's so ordinary, that sometimes I forget how extraordinary this vocation of mine is.

We used to keep this icon in our main bathroom, but when we moved to our new house, we put it in the little half bath that is connected to our master bedroom. It's the bathroom that I periodically retreat to and lock the door, so I can take care of business without an audience. It's also the bathroom that I use when the baby doesn't want me out of her sight, because I put her in her crib and keep her in my line of sight. So, it's the bathroom that offers me a moment or two of silence in the midst of a nonstop day.

The other day, I noticed this icon and suddenly saw it in a different way. I noticed the weariness on Jesus's face, and the expectant looks on the Apostles' faces. They weren't looking with hope...they were looking with neediness. And Jesus looked with a combination of weariness and love. They are twelve of them. They're surrounding him. It seems like too much for any one man. Granted, this one man is also God, but he still took on our physical limitations in his incarnation. And with those limitations, he took on the ability to experience exhaustion.

Our little Zelie is probably the happiest baby I have ever met, and is also a terrible sleeper. I think she's "slept through the night" (i.e. at least six hours) once. Normally, she eats every 2-3 hours (at least) around the clock. Her incredible sweetness makes this bearable, and even enjoyable. But that kind of relentless does lead to exhaustion, as any parent of a baby knows. I was exhausted with one daughter, then with two, but adding in a third child has added a new level of exhaustion. (Thank goodness for coffee!)

Then there are my two older daughters. Their needs are more complex.  Since we are homeschooling, there are their academic needs, always on my mind during the week (and weekends, but I don't make them do school then!). But their needs extend so far beyond that. They are beautiful little loves, in need of emotional and spiritual formation. They need smiles. They need my love. They need my patience (admittedly, the area where I fail the most). And, of course, they need all of the basic physical things every child needs - fresh, clean clothes (that fit!), filling meals and snacks, enough sleep, and a good bath every few days.

One day recently, I was in the midst of changing a very messy diaper while meltdowns were happening and I found myself saying aloud, "It's too much! This is too much for any one person!"

It is too much. It is far too much. I've had other jobs, over the years. I've done graduate level coursework. Never have I done such difficult, demanding work as the work I now do. And never have I loved a job as much as I love this one.

Yet, sometimes I feel weary. Sometimes the needs that surround me feel like too much.

But...that icon. This is the beauty of the Incarnation, isn't it? Jesus took on our sufferings and he fully understands what we are facing.

In seeing that icon, I is okay to be tired. It is okay to feel overwhelmed. It is too much for one person to do. But...I don't have to do it alone. He does it with me. 

In fact, the feet I'm washing (and searching for socks for and tying shoes on) don't belong to me alone. They ultimately belong to Him. I don't have to do this alone. I have Him. I always have Him.

Unseen though my work is, weary though I may be at times, this is my path to heaven. This ordinary, beautiful life is my vocation. And through this vocation, I'm gifted with the opportunity to kneel beside Jesus and wash feet.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Praying with Dirty Diapers

It's been almost one year since we found out we were expecting Zelie. The other night, I was reading old blog posts while trying to convince her to go to sleep, and I ended up re-reading the posts from when Gabriel died. Remembering the grief of that time, and now holding my Zelie... I realize what a miracle she is. 

But it's not as if she's a replacement baby. She is our fourth child, a unique person in her own right. While having her heals some of that heartache, it also reminds me what I never got to experience with him...which in turn makes me more appreciative of her. After miscarrying Gabriel, then thinking we were miscarrying Zelie, then having such a difficult pregnancy, I don't take a moment with this baby for granted.

Having Gabriel as my child has changed me. And now, having this little girl in my life has changed me even more.

But all of this doesn't negate the hardness of mothering young children. It is easier to face that hardness having faced the alternative - secondary infertility, miscarriage, hyperemesis gravidarum. When having children doesn't come easily, it heightens your awareness of what gifts they are.

But this vocation stretches me in ways I never dreamed possible. This vocation makes me realize how selfish I am, how lacking in true humility, and how much I need God. I suppose that's the whole point of a vocation, right?

But I need a framework for understanding that this work I am engaged in isn't drudgery. It is anything but. Recently, I was at a meeting of a mom's book club, and someone reminded me that we're called to make everything we do into a prayer. 

Of course. The Little Way of St. Therese. How could I have forgotten?

But I have a graduate degree, my second theology degree from the University of Notre Dame. I always had excellent grades, and a long list of accolades. I found my worth there. I still look for my worth there.

But my worth isn't there. My worth is in how I love, and in the fact that I am loved by God.

And the only work I do that actually matters, is the work of loving. Jesus emphasizes the value of giving a cup of cold water with love, because the little things matter.

In fact, little acts of love matter more than any accomplishments from my past. After St. Thomas Aquinas had his vision of the beatific vision while working on the Summa, he abandoned his project and called all his work "straw." If you've ever encountered the Summa Theological, you know it is magnificent. "Straw" is the last word I would use to describe it. But when faced with God's love? What isn't straw in comparison?

I really don't like experiencing hyperemesis gravidarum. But I am so grateful for my pregnancies, for the opportunity to experience real suffering, for the sake of loving another.

In a way, I sometimes have a twinge of sadness after an HG pregnancy, because my spiritual work is so straightforward during it. I suffer because I love my baby. I have ample opportunity to offer up suffering. It's awful to experience, but I grow a lot.

Do you know what's harder? Offering up that extra ten to fifteen pounds, lingering and making me feel like I am no longer my young, thin self. But even there is the challenge to love as Christ, who said, "This is my body, given up for you." Because, that is still what it is. A tired body, a body that's softer around the middle, a body still experiencing occasional bouts of nausea - it is still a body that is loving. It is a body given up for another.

That is, after all, why we have these bodies of ours. They are made to glorify God. They are made to show His love.

 Of course, everyone's vocation calls them to glorify God in different ways, at different stages of life. But living out our love and offering our actions as our prayer to God, transforms the everyday moments.

I love praying morning prayer when I first wake up. But sometimes, the prayer God wants from me first is changing a dirty diaper.

Because, guess what? Changing a dirty diaper, with love, is a actually a pretty big thing. It is more important than an alphabet soup of degree abbreviations after my name. It is more important that any of the other job titles I hold.

Small things with great love. It is enough.

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