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Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 2)

Prayer is a skill with which we are all born, because each of us is naturally inclined to seek God. But, as with all things, practicing will help us engage in prayer more effectively—and help us better see the fruits of our prayer in our daily lives.

Think of developing your prayer life like learning a language—not a secondary language, but your very first one.

A child spends the first few years of her life absorbing the spoken word of those around her. She takes this in like a sponge, learning the sounds of the words, what they mean, and what changes they affect when uttered aloud. Then, as she gains confidence and the physical ability to do so, she begins testing the words out herself.

At first, only her parents may understand her unique combination of slurred syllables and physical gesturing. But, as time goes on, her language becomes clearer to others—she joins in the conversations of her community.

Prayer is much the same.

At first, we must immerse ourselves in the language: attend Mass, read the Scriptures, study the saints. We listen closely to what prayers and insights are uttered there, and watch for the effects and insights they have not just on us, but on the world around us.

Participating in the sacraments and this type of spiritual study is a prayer in itself. But as we learn more and feel our passion inflamed by these encounters, we begin to utter our own prayers. They may be messy, highly specific, disorganized—they may sound like “gibberish” to another student. But God understands them easily.

Finally, by engaging deeply and keeping our lines of communication with God always open, we can fully participate in the community of the Church. We can recite the prayers during Mass and truly mean them, because we’ve come to better understand their weight. We can receive the Eucharist and be more closely joined in fellowship with our neighbors, because we better grasp what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Righteous Prayer

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all prayer should have five qualities: it must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. (Check out a brief look at deeper insights from St. Thomas here.)

In short, this means our prayers must:

  • Be said with sureness that God will deliver us, that Christ will advocate for us, and that the Holy Spirit will bring us grace. We know that God hears us, even if we don’t understand or even recognize the ways in which He answers our prayers.
  • Include only petitions that are good for us. When we ask God for something, we should genuinely believe that this thing will help us to grow physically, emotionally, or spiritually, in a way that will ultimately make us more holy sons and daughters of God.
  • Express moral and upright desires. In prayer, as in life, we must “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice” (Matthew 6:33).
  • Display genuine, heartfelt piety. As devoted members of the Church, our prayers to God must acknowledge His glory and arise from our love for Him above all else.
  • Acknowledge our weakness and our need for God’s mercy. We are imperfect people, and when we pray, we should understand our lowliness and thank God for His desire to be united to us in spite of it.

Insights from the Catechism

So: confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. Great, but what do we say (or not say)?

Let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can read some of what is has to say about prayer online here (and use the arrows at the bottom of the page to thumb through the broader section on prayer, if you’re interested—it’s great reading), but the short of it is that there are five main forms of prayer for the faithful:

  1. Blessings and Adoration. Blessings are “an encounter between God and man.” It is time spent in the presence of God, in which His grace descends upon us and our acknowledgement and reception of that gift ascend to him. Adoration, meanwhile, is our recognition that we are a creation of God—our exalting of His greatness and expression of our love for Him.
  2. Prayer of petition. These are any prayers in which we ask God directly for something—whether that’s meeting a physical need we have, seeking His forgiveness, or praying for His kingdom on earth and our cooperation in its coming.
  3. Prayer of intercession. This is how we participate in the communion of saints. Prayers for intercession are made on behalf of others, including not just our friends and neighbors, but strangers, enemies, and those who reject the Faith.
  4. Prayer of thanksgiving. Not limited to thanking God for good fortune, prayers of thanksgiving help us show gratitude for all of the ways God works in our life. According to the catechism, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.”
  5. Prayer of praise. Finally, a genuine prayer of praise “lauds God for His own sake and gives Him glory, quite beyond what He does, but simply because HE IS.” In these prayers, we express our wonder at the marvels of Christ, the power of God, and the actions of the Holy Spirit.

The Wrong Way to Pray

Though we all pray differently, using our unique voices, it’s important to know one thing: there is a wrong way to pray.

The catechism states that “humility is the foundation of prayer.” It goes on: “Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC ¶ 2559).

This is what I meant when I said in a previous post that prayer is a mystery. But while we may not know the perfect way to pray, we can certainly recognize the wrong way to pray: selfishly.

Prayer is not like writing a letter to Santa and asking for our favorite things. We know this because Jesus himself taught us the ideal form of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Here we acknowledge the personhood of God, our relationship with Him, and His holiness.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Next, we submit ourselves and our world to God’s will for us, because we know it is what’s right.

Give us this day our daily bread.

We ask for the necessities of life—the things that will make us healthier people, which will help us do His will.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Then, we ask for His mercy—it is what saves us. We also vow to have mercy on others, as an expression of our love for His children and our desire to follow Christ’s commandment.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Finally, we seek His grace to follow a righteous path in life, to fulfill our vocation without backsliding into sin, and to keep us safe on this journey.

These are very high-level analyses, but the different components of the Our Father reveal profound insights on what prayer should be.

Above all, prayer cannot be selfish. To seek only our own gain in prayer is to not pray at all.

How do you keep your prayers focused on God and His glory? What tricks do you have for developing your prayer life and praying without ceasing? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’d love to learn from you!

Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 1)

My son recently broke his leg—what they call a “toddler fracture.”

As we shuttled him back and forth from doctors’ offices and the ER, we were trying to explain to his big sister why he needed so much help.

We like to be accurate with our kids when we can, rather than dumbing down facts for them. So we told her: “Sweetie, your brother fell in a bad way and broke a bone in his leg. We have to take him to the doctor so they can give him the bandages he needs to keep it steady and help it heal. That way, after a while, it won’t hurt anymore.”

A three-year-old doesn’t understand that beneath our skin are layers of fat and muscle, and beneath those is a bone that makes our limb sturdy but can be broken under certain circumstances. She looked at her brother’s leg and, like the rest of us, saw no bruising or swelling or blood. This was not like any “owie” she had seen before.

But toddlers are smart, and they can be excellent with context clues. She heard “hurt,” “broken,” “doctor,” and “heal” and knew what those things meant. She could see that his leg was causing him pain despite having no visible wound.

She looked at me, nodded gravely, and said “My brother’s gonna be okay, right?”

I assured her he would.

Then she promptly ran to the kitchen to get him a frozen toy—something she knew helped with hurting teeth, which likewise could not be seen but were painful nonetheless—and brought it over to him to put on his leg. In his frustration he slapped it away and she, undeterred, rubbed his back and said, “It’s gonna be okay, Byron. I’m sorry it hurts.”

And that was all she needed to know. Though she could not understand the science of his injury, she could see that he was hurting and that he needed tending. That was that.

When I think about the concept of prayer, I think about how my daughter must feel in confusing moments like this. When it comes to prayer, I’m the child—I’m the one trying to grasp a topic too deep to understand.

Prayer is Beyond Us

I heard something at a recent retreat that, intellectually, was incredibly dense: “Prayer is a conversation with God, in which we get to know Him, He gets to know us, and we get to know ourselves.”

How can prayer be like talking with God when I’m doing all the actual, verbal talking? How can I get to know Him when He doesn’t literally answer my questions or tell me about Himself? How can I get to know myself by trying to grasp what He has to say to me?

Instead of becoming discouraged by my unknowing, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to be like my toddler: to pick apart what concepts were familiar to me and try and pull some understanding from how they all worked together in that statement. I wanted this lesson to make me better at prayer.

The truth is that, like many components of the Faith, prayer is a mystery. We aren’t able to fully understand it because we only see one small piece of the puzzle: what we experience as the Church Militant. Someday, we’ll know it deeply when we really can talk to God face-to-face and ask Him. But until then, we need to accept the unknown.

That doesn’t mean we must languish, though. There is so much fruit to be born from even the limited knowledge God has blessed us with in this life.

Try This as You Pray

During the retreat, Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin went on to talk about how the nature of prayer frightens us. It could be easy to simply ask God for the things we want, but to go further than that—to use prayer as an opportunity to examine our faith and ourselves—can be intimidating.

We don’t like to admit to, let alone study, our flaws. But, Father Sternberg said, prayer is the safest and most fruitful place to do that.

What do you pray for most often? Which seemingly unanswered prayers most disappoint you? Do you pray mostly for yourself? For your family? For strangers?

How much of your prayer life is dominated by thanksgiving? What about praise? Is prayer time your self-care, or is it a time in which you can glorify and adore your Father—or is it both?

Which saints do you invoke in prayer? What unbidden thoughts tend to come to you while you’re reciting a rosary or chaplet? What topics do you shy away from when speaking to God, and where do you think your shame comes from?

These are all beautiful questions—but they are challenging. They’re challenging to keep in mind during your prayer routines, and the answers to them may challenge your perspective on yourself.

If you have a prayer journal, write down whichever of these questions speak to you—and whichever others you come up with on your own—and revisit them immediately after concluding a prayerful moment each day. Record your answers and give yourself the grace to recognize their meaning. Uncover what’s beautiful about you. Uncover what needs work.

Then, go right back to praying and ask God for His grace to help you do that work.

Check out part two of this series for further reflections on prayer and how we can do it better!

Have You Seen God’s Face?

Did you know that “face” and “presence” share the same word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament? A priest—Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin—shared this fact with some young moms on a recent retreat I attended. In speaking to us about prayer and seeking the Lord, he emphasized that, to meet God, we must approach Him face to face.

That happens in prayer, but, truly and physically, we are given an earth-shattering encounter with Christ in the Eucharist during every Mass and hour of Adoration we attend.

The Eucharist is not iconographic of Christ—it is Christ. His face looks out at us from the hands of the priest at the consecration during each liturgy. Do you see it?

Real talk: sometimes I don’t. And it’s my own fault.

The Mass and My Mess of Distractions

It’s not that I don’t believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Although this truth is the deepest of mysteries, I have faith that it is the truth nonetheless. I believe it with all my heart. How could I not, when our Savior told us this explicitly?

But sometimes, I forget.

I forget that Jesus is standing before me, showing me all his love all over again, week after week during Mass.

How is that possible?

Turns out it’s easier than I ever realized.

My children are beautiful. They are perfect blessings and I’m thankful for them every day. But if toddlers can be considered specialists at anything, it’s attracting all of the attention in a room to themselves. They are tiny, sticky attention magnets.

We moms are good at multitasking. We’re good at wrangling the two-year-old before he destroys a hymnal while whisper-screaming at the three-year-old who keeps trying to leave the pew. We’re good at opening a desperately needed snack for the kids (with minimal crinkling noises) while picking up the coats they’ve knocked to the floor. We’re good at managing distractions before they become too bothersome to the people around us.

This is a noble and holy effort—this shepherding of tiny humans so that they can be part of the Communion of the Church. This is something parents are made to do, difficult as it may be.

That said, work is work. It is a cross that we bear in our vocation—yet another way we give less to ourselves so that we can give more to our children and their participation in the world.

It is not easy to be a parent of small children at Mass. And yet our work doesn’t end with the distractions while we’re there, does it? We are called to be present despite them.

Am I Seeking God’s Presence?

This is not to say that our struggle to draw spiritual nourishment each week is something we can simply set aside. It is most certainly not easy to fully participate in Mass—it’s not easy for anyone. Everyone carries their cross to the liturgy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be: Christ asks us to lay down our crosses at the altar and rest in Him.

But we aren’t so good at that. We resent our crosses and, as we carry them begrudgingly to church on Sundays, we are tempted to let them distract us. It’s all too easy to feel pestered by my children during Mass and let my mind focus on that inconvenience instead of what’s happening right in front of me.

Jesus told us that his “yoke would be easy and his burden light,” in part, not because it really is easy to live as a Christian in a fallen world, but because it becomes a lot easier if we truly believe he carries the load with us. When we focus too deeply on what’s difficult, we fall into the trap of lamenting that difficulty. We turn our faces downward to focus on our own effort and away from God.

And it isn’t just the kids, right? Given a structured hour each week to spend in quiet, following ancient rituals over which we have no control and deprived of our chosen distractions (our smart phones, a book, whatever), our unchosen distractions become louder.

Left unchecked, our minds fill with complaints (“Why isn’t my husband holding this kid right now?”), questions (“What is on my calendar for tomorrow?”), and random thoughts (“I hope I switched the laundry before we left this morning…”) and suddenly, that hour is over. Jesus is back in the tabernacle, the motions have been gone through, and we return to “normal” life.

But that’s not was Mass should be. We all know that, in our heart of hearts. It just takes discipline to keep our faces turned to God throughout that encounter—to seek His face and show Him ours in return.

When we do look up at Him—to give thanks for His love, to give glory to His might, and yes, to ask for His aid—the load really does become lighter.

Give It Up

Okay, you might be thinking, this is all well and good. I feel sufficiently guilty for not seeing Christ’s face in every second of the Mass each Sunday. But what am I supposed to do about it?

The first thing is, don’t feel guilty—we all do it. God knows it. He loves us anyway.

The second has to do with a phrase that is, admittedly, infuriatingly vague: we have to “offer it up.”

What does that even mean?

To be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing for me as it would for you. But here’s where I’ve landed with it.

Suffering—even small, seemingly petty suffering, as torture by toddler may sometimes feel—is not inherently bad. It is painful, yes. It is frustrating. It can be infuriating and heartbreaking. But it invites us to grow—to see beyond ourselves and our own pain and understand, on some infinitesimal level, the pain the Christ endured to save our souls and bring us home to the Father’s house.

Each moment of distraction during Mass or pain in daily life is an opportunity.

It is an opportunity we can use to our detriment, by focusing on our own hurt and drawing our attention downward to the harsh reality of this life.

It is also an opportunity we can use to our benefit, by checking our negative feelings and pausing to recognize that, yes, those feelings are valid—but Christ endured worse at no fault of his own. He humbled himself exclusively to suffer the greatest pain, just so he could bring us joy and fulfillment in the Kingdom.

So when I struggle to lift myself out of the noisy, irritating messiness of managing young children at Mass, I am going to try very hard to physically turn my face toward God. If only for a fleeting second before I have to reach out and grab one or both children, I am going to gaze at the face of Our Lord and say thank you before I turn back to the work of this world. Because in truth, I know that this work, especially, will be so fruitful. I am going to catch myself turning down toward distraction and negativity, and shift the direction of those thoughts upward—to prayer, to opening my ears to the homily in whatever snippets I can catch it, to resting in the silence of a beautiful moment in God’s house.

I am raising future saints. And, for at least an hour out of every week, I get to do that in the presence of Jesus himself. What better help is there than that? Even if I hardly hear the homily and stumble through the Gloria because I’m expending most of my brain power monitoring two toddlers, I am seeing God’s face and He is seeing mine. I am bringing Christ under my roof and he is holding me tight.

Treated respectfully and pondered thoughtfully, that’s more than enough fuel to last even the most exhausted mom a few days or a week, isn’t it?

This Lent, I’m Going to Fail. That’s Okay.

Lent 2019 begins next Wednesday, March 6. Are you ready?

To me, it’s important to give up this or that comfort, pleasure, or luxury during Lent. I think that’s true because physical sacrifice—large or small—is a tangible way in which we live our spiritual lives with both our bodies and our souls.

We are, after all, not mere souls trapped in earthly bodies. Each of us is a child of God, and we are created physically and spiritually in His image. Naturally, the entirety of our spirituality can’t be contained to our interior. We must live it out in an exterior way, too. We must engage all of our senses (the best way to do this is to go to Mass, of course—next time you go, see if you can count all the ways in which the Church appeals to each of your senses, as well as your interior self).

But Lent isn’t just about breaking bad habits or getting on the wagon with something we’ve been “meaning to try” for weeks or months. Lent isn’t an excuse to be good or a fortuitous opportunity to establish new habits. Lent is when we plant seeds of goodness in our souls and begin to watch them grow.

Self-reflection > Self-denial

In a recent homily, the pastor in our parish had a lot to say about mortification. He wasn’t suggesting we all literally flagellate ourselves, but rather, that we learn to practice self-denial as a spiritual exercise and not just an annual Lenten ritual or a “quick fix” for bad habits. His point was that, when we learn to deny ourselves in even very small ways—taking the corner piece of pizza when we prefer the middle, or leaving the heat off in our car on a quick drive to the grocery store in the winter, for example—and use those small denials as an opportunity for prayer or sacrifice to God, we are learning what little importance these things have in comparison to our ultimate goal in life: to achieve sainthood.

Practicing self-denial teaches us how small our worldly comfort is in comparison to the great Comfort of God’s love for us. It also teaches us that we don’t need to be comfortable to be happy, fulfilled, or on a path to salvation.

But this is only true if we use those moments as brief but thoughtful opportunities to pause and examine ourselves, to enter into conversation with God, and, when applicable, to adjust our behavior moving forward. Self-denial means very little if it isn’t accompanied by self-reflection and, above all, moving above and beyond the self so that the greater glory is given to God.

So Now What?

Pondering all of this, I’m doing something uncomfortable for Lent this year with the full knowledge that I won’t get it right. (I need to learn that imperfection is okay, anyway. A friend recently mentioned that this is part of his approach to doing the Exodus 90 leading up to Easter this year; I just love that mentality and wanted to take it on as well. That’s something I’ll talk about more in a future post.)

The basic sacrifices I’ll make this year are similar to what I did as a schedule for last year:

  • Week 1 (3/6-3/12)
    • Fast: meat
    • Intention: families suffering from infertility and loss
  • Week 2 (3/13-3/19)
    • Fast: condiments
    • Intention: the United States of America
  • Week 3 (3/20-3/26)
    • Fast: coffee and pop
    • Intention: the poor
  • Week 4 (3/27-4/2)
    • Fast: bread
    • Intention: the unborn
  • Week 5 (4/3-4/9)
    • Fast: TV (other than kids’ shows, because #momlife)
    • Intention: my family
  • Week 6 (4/10-4/17)
    • Fast: chocolate
    • Intention: the faithful departed
  • Paschal Triduum (4/18-4/20)
    • Fast: social media
    • Focus: glorifying God

Having a schedule like this was beneficial for me because, unlike a single material sacrifice for all of Lent (with which I tend to get familiar and less thoughtful toward the end of the season), the changing sacrifices helped me continually choose to resist temptation—thus creating more opportunities for that self-reflection.

Plus, having a specific prayer intention for each week meant that I was more mindful about what these sacrifices were for, and how even my infinitesimally minor “suffering” in giving up these things could be joined to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us. It was an intentional effort to express my love, in a small way, for God and my neighbors.

The downside of this regimented scheduled was that, though I vaguely thought about implementing a version of it throughout the liturgical year, its immediacy vanished after Lent. I’m terrible at holding myself accountable for this kind of thing, and without a specific season in mind, inaction took over.

So, in addition to recreating the schedule for this year and renewing my resolution to continue it in some way after Lent is over, I wanted to add in something that will have a lasting impact on my interior life for this year’s observance.

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, because again, I know I won’t do it perfectly, but here goes nothing.

I’m giving up complaining for Lent this year.

It’s the Thought that Counts

If you know me, you probably know that I complain a lot. I’m a pretty positive person, but if asked how I’m doing by someone I know well enough and in the right context, I’m rarely the type to lie by saying “Everything’s fine!”

I complain to make jokes. I complain to express solidarity with others. I complain because my patience is worn thin and I just can’t not. I complain because I’m feeling selfish. I complain to provide a good reason for asking for help from loved ones. Above all, I think, I complain as a way to vent frustration and indignation with circumstances that are out of my control.

Some of these things are okay, I guess. For example, it’s not inherently bad to answer a fellow mom’s unhappy observations by letting her know she’s not alone in her suffering: “Ugh, I’m right there with you!”

But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that complaining takes up a lot of my interior thinking. For every complaint I make out loud, there are at least three kept under wraps.

Grumbling is a knee-jerk reaction for many people, I assume, and I’m one of them. But when it comes to our thought processes, just because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

In lieu of complaining when I’m tempted to do so, I resolve to utter a prayer—Jesus, I trust in You or Come Holy Spirit—to help lift me up out of that negative mindset and put my eyes on God instead.

Quick caveat: I’m not giving up self-care or asking for help during Lent (those would be futile exercises in helping me grow). I’m not giving up negative emotions or my own sense of need. But I am setting aside lamentation over not getting my way or having things easy. I want to “turn the other cheek” to my own sense of entitlement, which I think will help me be more aware of it and less likely to justify a negative attitude because of it.

So, although I’m saying this as “I’m giving up complaining for Lent this year,” I expect the result will simply be a greater self-awareness of my tendency to complain. More importantly, I want to be more intentionally selfless and put greater trust in God and His will for my life.

Recognizing my own imperfection in this effort will be part of the point: my will can never be enough, but God’s love is more than enough to fill the gaps with grace.

I confess I’m scared of this commitment. I’m frightened of what might come up to tempt me into complaining—justified or not—beginning March 6. But that’s kind of the point, too. Trust.

I hope your Lent is fruitful and your soul grows closer to the Lord this year, and always. God be with you.

Why I Don’t Agonize Over the News (And I Don’t Feel Bad About It)

Thanks to a tip from my sister-in-law, my husband and I have been watching NBC’s The Good Place lately. (It’s funny and I highly recommend—catch up on Netflix and Hulu).

Minimizing any spoilers, there’s some conversation in the show right now about how difficult it is for people to be good in the modern world. The simplest parts of life are so complicated and global that even our smallest choices can have drastic consequences—whether we see them or not. One episode used an easy example: simply buying a tomato at the local Piggly Wiggly might mean you’re inadvertently supporting pesticide use and unfair working conditions in communities far away.

Too true. Modern life is stressful, isn’t it?

You wonder if each item of clothing you buy was crafted by a child forced into hard labor. You wonder if your eggs were laid by chickens living a bleak life on factory farms. You wonder if your preferred brand of baby shampoo contributes money to a non-profit organization you deeply dislike. You wonder if your charitable donations are going to the cause itself or just lining executives’ pockets. You wonder if the homeless man asking for your spare change might turn around and spend it on drugs. You wonder if you’re poisoning the water table by using bleach on a stubborn stain.

You wonder and wonder and wonder.

The guilt is everywhere, isn’t it? Certainly it’s on Facebook, where everyone shares idealist memes and posts pictures of their creative protest signs and “5 favorite ways to live more sustainably.” It’s on the news, garish in its display of the very worst of what’s happening in the world (giving no attention to the many, many good things that happen every minute of every day) and haranguing us for the violence and injustices of society. It’s probably in your family or groups of friends, where everyone has an opinion to share. And it’s always on your heart, making you question your choices in the quiet moments, when everything you’ve done wrong in a given day replays across your mind’s eye.

But the thing is that your life, that beautiful and complicated thing with all its individual struggles and triumphs, is stressful all on its own. Justifiably so.

You worry about earning enough to support your family, or supporting your burnt-out spouse in his or her zealous efforts to do so even while you’re running on fumes at home. You worry about raising up good, happy children who will be kind to others and love themselves as God loves them. You worry about voicing the Truth, even when it makes you unpopular, and nurturing your soul. You worry about coordinating childcare, travel, school, passion projects, home maintenance, personal development, meal plans, inboxes, outboxes, taxes, and extracurriculars at the same time, all the time. You worry about managing calendars and maintaining relationships and being fully present for the people you love even when you have a million other things on your mind.

You worry and worry and worry.

There’s just so much on your plate.

I have an unpopular opinion to confess, and I’m sharing it in the hopes it helps other moms feel less guilty when they simply can’t keep up with it all.

I don’t watch the news and I rarely scroll through headlines. I don’t know what the latest food pyramid (is it still a pyramid?) looks like, and I don’t know who’s up for a Nobel Peace Prize or why. I don’t run into every debate I come across to evangelize aloud to my peers. I don’t inspect every ingredient list or research every brand I buy. And most of the time, I don’t feel bad about it.

For a time, I tried to do these things. I tried to keep up with the intricate goings-on of the big, wide world around me, to see the many unseen consequences of my actions and take more ownership of those consequences.

And can I be honest? It was depressing. There was so much bad right in front of me. It left me feeling downtrodden and defeated—beaten down by the many sad realities we’ve made for ourselves in this very flawed world.

What’s worse was that it stole my optimism from me. I believe very deeply that we are all made to be good—we are all given an indelible soul and created in the image and likeness of Love itself. We are all God’s children.

Chasing every negative strand down its inevitable rabbit hole made that so much harder to see. No one was covering the happy things, and I was losing the forest for the trees.

Beyond all that, I was simply running low on time. My kids needed me. My husband needed me. My home, job, and extended family needed me. I needed me. I needed to invest in those things, and the additional time and energy had to come from somewhere.

So I don’t feel obligated to pull the thread of each and every decision I make, testing to see how thoroughly my positive intent unravels into a net negative effect. And I don’t think you should, either.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t live a life of carelessness or solitary self-interest. I buy organic for many grocery segments and have a personal commitment to free-range eggs. I avoid some of the more blatantly irresponsible brands (which, often, are too expensive anyway). I donate items instead of trashing them, I recycle, I buy secondhand where it makes sense, and I teach my toddlers not to be wasteful. I’m trying to prioritize cleaning and self-care products that feature natural ingredients. I donate to people and causes in need. I tell the Truth and live it in full view of my neighbors. I am not blind to what’s happening in the world my children will inherit.

But these are choices I make in an effort to care for my family more responsibly. They aren’t hard rules I punish myself for breaking or hold against others who don’t share them.

We live in a very big, very troubled world. And the reality is that we are each a brief blip on the global radar. For most of us, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to have an influence so notable that our names will be recorded in history books.

But do you know what part of your world is very small and very impressionable? What part of your world is fundamentally influenced by you and the choices you make?

Your family.

I think Saint Teresa of Calcutta said it best. Upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked how we can promote world peace. Her response? “Go home and love your family.”

If marriage and parenthood are your vocations, the ripple effect of your influence on the world—named or not—begins at home. It begins with the love you share with your spouse and the love you instill in your children.

So be a good citizen of the world, but do not obsess over the world or its affairs. This world is not your home.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Relativism and the Erosion of Truth

We are creatures of need.

At our most basic level, we must eat, drink, seek shelter, stay warm. A little higher up on this hierarchy of needs, we must feel safe from violence and secure in our pursuits. Above that there’s the need for social belonging. Next is respect: we crave the recognition of others and, more importantly, positive self-esteem. Finally, there’s self-actualization: the point at which we realize our full potential.*

Most of us would recognize these needs as simple truths, and it’s obvious that the higher you climb on this pyramid, the more difficult it is to meet each need. Achieving each is dependent on securing the previous, and so life becomes an arduous endeavor for fulfillment.

In our lifetimes, we develop tactics for meeting those needs as best we can. Sometimes we do things right: we prioritize properly to set and achieve positive goals. Other times, we choose shortcuts: bad habits that provide quick satisfaction in lieu of putting in the work to reach big-picture fulfillment.

Relativism—the view that there is no objective right or wrong, and that each of us can decide the truth for ourselves—is our culture’s shortcut. It’s how we bridge the gap between what we should do and what we want to do, without facing the challenges inherent to the disconnect that sometimes exists there. In fact, it’s how we convince ourselves that there is, in fact, no disconnect. Because how can you claim that anyone should do anything when there’s no Absolute Truth at all?

*Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who developed this framework, later went on to say that “self-transcendence”—in which we pursue some higher, altruistic, spiritual goal, outside of ourselves—is the actual penultimate dimension of need. Ironically, Maslow was an atheist. But doesn’t this theory establish the importance of faith? What better way to explain, in secular terms, why the pursuit of God’s will is the natural end to which our everyday behaviors must be the means?

Cognitive Dissonance

To dig into this further, we need to understand that our minds are averse to what we call cognitive dissonance. In a way, this means that we want our beliefs and behaviors always to be in harmony.

For example, say you believe that “people with anxiety are weak.” But then your sister—who has overcome some immense obstacles, including raising a child with extensive medical needs—confesses to you that she’s been seeing a therapist and has a prescription for Xanax after a recent, debilitating bout of panic attacks. Deep down, your reactive behavior is to judge her: Wow, and here I thought she seemed so together.

On some level, though, there’s a disconnect here that would bother you: How can I judge my sister as weak when I know her to be strong? How can someone so strong struggle with a condition that afflicts only the weak? Your mind would want to correct it, likely via one of three tactics:

  • #1: Fundamentally changing one or more of your relevant beliefs (e.g., accepting that anxiety affects even very strong people, or that your sister is actually a weak person);
  • #2: Gathering new information that reduces the dissonance by outweighing, or objectively disproving, your original belief (e.g., discovering scientific research showing that, in fact, even very successful and otherwise happy caregivers are commonly afflicted with anxiety disorders); or
  • #3: Reducing the importance of your original belief (e.g., realizing that you shouldn’t care at all about how weak a person with anxiety may seem—it’s not your business anyway).

Arguably the most difficult of these methods is the first one. To change your belief that anxiety is for the weak, you’d have to abandon your own paradigms and cease the automatic way in which you judge a man who is too nervous to drive a car (Can’t he just suck it up and run his own errands?). To change your belief that your sister is strong, you’d have to somehow ignore the years of first-hand interactions with her that have made her resilience obvious.

It’s not easy to completely overturn our fundamental beliefs or habitual behaviors. It’s one thing to convince yourself that perhaps you didn’t know enough about a subject (tactic #2) or placed too much importance on it (tactic #3); it’s quite another to admit that you’ve been outright wrong all along.

Of course, in this example, the mental exercise of correcting dissonance can have a positive outcome: it can help us overcome negative stereotypes and become more understanding of the people around us. But this instinct for mental harmony can also become a crutch that helps us subvert our core belief systems.

Dissonance Between Friends

Now, let’s look at a conversation which commonly ends in some pervasive, relativistic platitude like “that wouldn’t be right for me, but it’s not my place to tell you what to do.”

Say Timothy and Vince are good friends. They’ve known each other since high school, and are now in their late forties with good careers and healthy families. Both attended church together as teens, and they were married in that same church just a couple of years apart. Timothy comes from divorced parents who fought viciously during their separation; his relationship with his father, who virtually disappeared from his life after the legal battle, has never been the same. Vince comes from a traditional family and his parents, who have both died, were together for 40 years.

Vince invites Timothy out to catch up; it’s been a while since they watched a game together. During a commercial break, Vince surprises Timothy with a confession.

Vince: “So Jane and I have decided to see other people.”

Timothy: “Oh, wow, man. I’m sorry to hear that. Have you decided who’s going to keep the house?”

Vince: “No, no, it’s not like that. We’re going to stay together because she’s not working and can’t afford to move anywhere on her own, plus keep the kids. We’ve just sort of lost interest in each other, and this seems like the simplest solution.”

Timothy: “Huh—I see. How did all of this come about? How did you guys even start that conversation?”

Vince: “Well, it’s an old story, I guess. There’s this new attorney at work and she made me feel like a hound again, you know? I haven’t felt like that in ages. It wasn’t long before things between us were getting heavy, and Jane found some text messages on my phone. I came clean right away; told her I’ve just been feeling like things between us weren’t really working anymore. I asked her, ‘Why waste time feeling unhappy when we could try something new? Life is short.’ It’s not like we’d even touched each other in months. There was just nothing there. She was real quiet but didn’t put up a fight. She didn’t want to figure out how to go back to work, and I didn’t want to miss out on the kids, so I told her we should just stick around but do our own things.”

Timothy: “Jeez. And she was okay with all of that?”

Vince: “Yeah. I mean, she hasn’t said no yet. So far neither of us has voiced any complaints. The kids don’t have to find out. And this way Jane doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. We can just take charge of our own lives and keep living together like we always have. We’ve basically been like roommates for a while anyway. Why not make it official?”

Timothy: “Wow. Well, I could never do that, but I hope it works out for you, man.”

What thought process might Timothy be trying to cycle through here? Let’s break it down.

Timothy has always seen Vince as someone who was committed to his family; his kids go to private schools and have big college funds, he was never an excessive workaholic, and his wife always seemed happy that she could stay home and spend time with the kids instead of having to work full time like Maggie, Timothy’s wife, does, to help make ends meet. Vince went on and on at his bachelor party about how much he loved his bride, and he didn’t do anything sketchy there and hasn’t since (until now). Plus, according to Vince, Jane was fine with it. She was going along with the arrangement “without any complaints.” And maybe it was better for the kids that their parents would still appear together, and not fight in court for the next several years.

Still, things aren’t really in harmony here. Timothy believes that parents who leave marriages tend to miss out on the closest possible relationships with their children (like his own dad did). He also believes that marriage is precious, and that it shouldn’t be entered into—or set aside—lightly (especially after seeing his mom suffer through her divorce from his dad). Finally, he believes that Vince is a good provider for his children, and that he genuinely appreciates his family. But he’s not seeing these beliefs line up, given Vince’s choices.

Timothy can try to respond to this dissonance in a few ways:

  • He can acknowledge that Vince’s behavior doesn’t match up with Timothy’s belief in him as a good family man, thus making a new judgment that Vince’s moral framework no longer matches his own (the consequences of which could involve losing Vince as a friend, or confronting Vince about his actions);
  • He can tell himself that his understanding of marriage and why it’s important for a family’s foundation is too narrow, and can be broadened to include the co-parenting and co-habitating arrangement that Vince is describing (after all, it seems to be working for Vince so far, and Vince has more exposure to healthy marriage than Timothy does, given their parents’ situations); or
  • He can reduce the importance of his opinions altogether (because aren’t they just that—opinions?), and choose to believe Vince when he says he isn’t harming anyone and should be able to make his own decisions.

Which of those options sounds like it involves the least mental and social gymnastics?

Who Am I to Judge?

Relativism so quickly takes root in us precisely because that last option is easiest.

It’s incredibly difficult to confront—or, worse, lose—a friend over a personal and tender subject like this. It’s difficult to change our own beliefs across the board, based on the possibly sketchy experiences of another person. But it’s not that hard to think ‘It’s none of my business,’ and simply ignore some potential red flags, because we’d rather trust our friends and maintain the status quo.

Taking that one step further, it almost seems like the better way to operate, doesn’t it? Relativism seems like a perfect way to “live and let live.” We don’t get in other people’s business, and they don’t get in ours—we simply coexist. Why shouldn’t we accept our differences of opinion, and choose to live and work beside our neighbors without deigning to think our choices are more valid than theirs?

In truth, though, taking a relativistic stance is not an act of love. It’s an act of cowardice.

Edward Sri, in his book Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love, summarizes this truth well: “Relativism … divides us. It trains us to focus on ourselves and ignore the people around us—what they’re going through, how they’re living, and ways they might need our help.”

relativisim quote 1

Thus, relativism becomes a philosophy of self-centeredness. Sri goes on: “In many ways, relativism paralyzes us. So we sit back and do nothing, and let our friends and relatives damage their lives.”

The neglect goes both ways. Don’t we all believe that the people we love help make us better? But how can they if we demand their apathetic, unconditional acceptance of even our worst behaviors?

A New Normal

Sri’s book discusses how relativism dominates our current culture, why it came to be that way, and how we can confront it. The short of it is that we’ve traded the classical moral code for a new one—one that can be summarized as “minding your own business.” Because, Sri notes, despite a common refrain to the contrary, relativism does call us to project an ethical framework onto others:

At first glance, [relativism] seems like a good way to promote tolerance of diverse views. But we must understand very clearly that relativism, in fact, is not value neutral. Relativism itself is a certain way of looking at the world. And this view—that there is no right or wrong—is being imposed on us. In other words, the belief that there is no moral truth is itself a point of view. And those who do not agree with this relativistic perspective are being forced to play by its rules or risk being labeled as judgmental if they uphold traditional moral values. (emphasis original)

Joseph Ratzinger—also known as Pope Benedict XVI—also talked about this trend in Without Roots: “The more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism. … It prescribes itself as the only way to think and speak—if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. Being faithful to traditional values and to the knowledge that upholds them is labeled intolerance.” Ultimately, he concludes, “I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition … which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.”

As Catholics, we live tenets of faith that are often unpopular at best, and ridiculed at worst. We believe in the utmost respect for life at all stages, despite circumstances that may make this position inconvenient or painful. We believe in sexual ethics as the truest expression of love and fulfillment of God’s design for men and women. We believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We believe in doing good for our neighbors. We believe in setting aside materialism. We believe in our obligation to pursue, respect, and submit to the sacraments in many facets of life, remaining loyal to the Mass, to marriage, to confession, to religious life.

All of this means that we believe in a moral framework that cannot be boxed in as a relative truth. It is universal. And it is our responsibility to live and defend it at every opportunity, with kindness and firmness, within our Church and outside of it.

This is, sometimes, an intensely difficult responsibility. Some of us are better at it than others. (I’ve always been the “live by example” type myself, often choosing the easier route of simply living by this moral framework in the hopes that I will influence others subtly—and deftly avoiding direct confrontation at all costs. Not the bravest form of evangelization, I admit.) But no matter how we do it, it rarely makes us popular.

There are few more efficient avenues to the erosion of truth than the relativism that dominates popular thinking in our communities. By trying hard to swim up that stream and resist its pull, we are not pushing away our neighbors—on the contrary, we’re trying to bring them home. And we are not lifting ourselves up as “better” people—just hoping for a better world in which our own children can grow well.

 

Lessons from the Babies I Never Met: What ‘Fiat’ Really Means

This is the third part in a three-post reflection on miscarriage. I wrote this post a few months ago, shortly after our second miscarriage—when the wounds were still fresh. I wasn’t ready to publish it right away, but I’m publishing the whole series now, in October, in recognition of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Read part one and part two.

I had a second miscarriage this year. I was eight weeks along with identical twins. I lost them at home after days spent convincing myself everything would be okay.

We conceived this pregnancy immediately after our early loss with Gabriel; our doctor told us there was no reason to wait, and we missed that baby and were hoping that welcoming another would help us heal. It was rejuvenating to be pregnant again, but I was so scared. My tests were dark; things seemed fine. I had a good feeling about this one. I felt healthy and pregnant and maternal. I took good care of myself, with a better diet and more mindful exercise than usual. I was settling into another pregnancy.

At eight weeks exactly, I started spotting. I immediately panicked, though it was light, and headed to the ER. Four hours later, with my husband at my side, I heard “It’s twins” from the ER doctor. I don’t even remember how she phrased it; I just remember the shock and worry and awe.

We had a small subchorionic hemorrhage—a bit of bleeding at the implantation site. It wasn’t a major concern, but it was causing the bleeding I’d been seeing and would need to be checked again soon. That was the good news.

The scary news was that the twins appeared to be mono-mono: they shared a placenta (mono-chorionic) and, more frighteningly, they shared an amniotic sac (mono-amniotic). Worse, their heartbeats were slow: only 83 and 87 beats per minute, when eight-week babies should have heart rates well above 100 bpm.

The ER doctor seemed unconcerned, but Erik and I knew these were not good signs. I called my regular OB on the way home from the hospital, and she was not optimistic: mono-mono twins were incredibly risky and most often had sad outcomes. The potential of our babies becoming entangled and cutting off one another’s connections to their shared placenta was high. She told us to expect a high probability of miscarriage or life-threatening complications down the road, if the diagnosis was confirmed.

Erik and I were devastated, but tried to remain positive. We did our own research and discovered that mono-mono structures are often misdiagnosed so early. My bleeding became a bit lighter. We had plenty of reason to expect to welcome twins in seven short months (or less). I wondered how we’d tell our families.

But then the bleeding picked up again. And then I had some pelvic discomfort that felt unsettlingly like a period. And then my babies were gone from me.

My doctor—who must see this type of tragedy on a horrifyingly regular basis—told me, when I called in tears, that there was nothing we could do but wait and see, and confirm with a follow-up ultrasound on Monday (two torturous, long days later).

I understood this. I knew that it would be more merciful on our family to stay home and mourn. I knew that, if it was such a high-risk pregnancy, it likely would only have been terribly difficult and painful as we moved to the more advanced stages of pregnancy. But that didn’t ease any of the pain.

My husband and I wept. I hid in our bedroom for hours. I skipped meals and ate ice cream when hunger snuck up on me. I tried to accept what I knew, deep down, even though some small part of my mind wondered if I might still have just one of those babies with me.

On Monday, the doctor told us that my womb was empty of anything valuable—just a bit of blood remained. This was good news, she said, because I’d passed everything naturally and wouldn’t need any further procedures. But I felt barren. Empty. Crushed.

We contacted our parish and set up a funeral for the Fourth of July. The deacon and priest presiding graciously included Gabriel along with the twins, now named Karol (after John Paul II) and Julian (after Julian of Norwich). We still don’t know if our babies were boys or girls. We won’t until, someday, God willing, we meet them beyond Heaven’s gate.

We buried them. We picked out a headstone. We accepted that our summer would be empty of pregnancy hormones and a round belly and expectation. We accepted that we could not tell our daughter that she had more siblings on the way. We realized our son would see his second birthday before he met a new baby brother or sister. We began to understand that, in the most profound way we’d ever experienced, our plans did not match up with God’s plan for us. It has been a frightening revelation.

But we have chosen to say “yes” to His plan. We, though drowning in the sorrow of lives lost and babies unmet, are clinging to our faith in God to carry us through. We have no idea of the consequences of these events, but we have given our fiat to the Father and accepted that His will is greater than ours.

Inspired by Mary (who gave a truly categorical “yes” to God when the archangel Gabriel visited her), I have done my very best to say to God: “let it be done to me according to Your will.” I am trying to recognize the simple truth that I have very little control over this world and my place in it. I am human and I am small; but God is love and He is great. He would not abandon me. He would not wish sadness upon me. This suffering is not His doing—it’s the sad fact of a broken world, and He only wants me to get through it. He can sanctify me through this pain. And I can only cling to His love and trust His will as I seek healing.

Like the Blessed Mother, I hope that saying “yes” will help me find the grace that I need to see me through these trials. Mary’s path, though she was chosen for such a beautiful gift, was wrought with suffering and confusion. She bore the Holy Infant, and her role in the Savior’s early life was center-stage—but then she had to say goodbye to him in the most painful way imaginable. She had to watch her only son persecuted, abused, and ultimately killed by people for whom he had only boundless love.

My babies knew no pain. They did not see the sin of this world or the folly of its inhabitants. They left the warm embrace of my womb to be nestled in the warm embrace of God. For their peace, I am thankful. I hope that I can share in some small part of it.

Lessons from the Babies I Never Met: Trust

This is the second part in a three-post reflection on miscarriage. I wrote this post many months ago, shortly after our first miscarriage—before we were devastated by another. I wasn’t ready to publish it right away, but I’m publishing the whole series now, in October, in recognition of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Read part one here and part three here.

I had a very early miscarriage this year. So early my doctor called it a “chemical pregnancy.” I was not quite five weeks—there was no chance to see anything on an ultrasound. All the proof we have of that baby was a week’s worth of positive pregnancy tests and a heartbreakingly low, but definitive, blood hCG level. That, and the ache in my heart, and in my husband’s heart, at the baby’s absence now.

That baby matters. Still matters, even though he or she is no longer with us. Even though we never knew him or her. Even though he or she never got to physically feel our love or see the world.

I was home to that baby for a few short weeks. Just as I was home to two children before who, by the grace of God, have grown into the beautiful kids playing in the other room right now. This baby was their brother or sister—a little soul who will forever be a part of our family. This baby matters.

A life so young is difficult to detect. My body knew before my mind and before any test could’ve known. I was particularly thirsty because that baby needed fluids. I was extra hungry because he needed fuel. I had to pee more often because he needed a clean place to grow and my body was working overtime to prepare it for him. I could smell everything because it was my job to keep him away from danger.

I was nervous from the beginning. It took several days longer to get a positive test, compared to my first two pregnancies. And when the tests were positive, they weren’t as dramatic as I wanted. But after a week of steadily, if only slightly, darkening tests, I decided to let go of my anxiety. I joined a due date group on Facebook. I signed up for a new pregnancy app. I found myself touching my belly without thinking. I talked to my new baby. I believed.

And then, just a day or two later, it started. Just a little, at first—enough that it might be okay. But then it was more than that and my doctor told me “this doesn’t sound like a normal pregnancy.” A blood test the next morning confirmed that it was over.

I know God brought this baby home early because this world was not what was best for him. I am thankful that there weren’t any complications for either of us. I am thankful that everything happened so fast, because if it had gone on any longer I don’t know what I would’ve done. But I miss that baby and I wish I could’ve been a better home for him.

We will never—or not in this life, anyway—know if our third child was a boy or a girl. I find myself imagining a boy, so that’s the pronoun I generally use. My husband suggested the name Gabriel; it’s masculine but can be feminized, so it’s neutral enough. The angel Gabriel brought the most profound news to Mary centuries ago. It seemed fitting.

Gabriel will always be a little saint to us; someone who can pray for our family forever and always. We are thankful to have had him, even for such a short time. I will always ache when I think of him, wishing I could’ve been his mother in more numerous and more mindful ways. But I am thankful that God chose me for him, and that I’ve learned so many important lessons from such a devastatingly brief gift.

Gabriel taught me not to take motherhood for granted. It was blessedly easy to bring our first two children into our lives, but I will never again make the mistake of thinking it must be easy to do it again.

Gabriel taught me that I need to learn to make trust a bigger part of my faith. There is no peace without trust in God—or acceptance that I am not in charge of anything, really, in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, I know it would be a lot harder if I was in charge.

Gabriel taught me what a difference prayer can make. When things started looking scary, we reached out to a handful of people to ask for prayers and support—even though we’d been keeping the pregnancy a secret, as we usually do early on. I sought prayers from many friends in online mommy groups, a safe way to share my fear and sorrow and receive gentle words in return. Almost immediately, I started to feel a little more at peace. I was and am still heartbroken, but those prayers helped me find a little warmth in a cold landscape of loss. That small comfort meant the world to me.

Gabriel taught me that life does go on. There are a lot of things going on for my family right now; we thought we couldn’t handle any more. And then we lost him. But we are still here, and we have children and family and friends who need us. So we must go on, memorializing Gabriel as best we can and honoring him in our own small ways. We are changed, but the world still spins. I wasn’t sure I could handle something like this. But then it happened to me, and I had no choice.

Gabriel taught me that my voice is important. He never had a chance to speak for himself—to announce his presence to the world. But I can make sure his life, though brief, is felt by others. I can use my voice to make sure he is known. And when I suffer over this loss, I can use my voice to ask for help.

Gabriel taught me to lean on my spouse. I wanted so badly to shield my husband from this pain—it broke my heart all over again to see his face when I told him what was happening. But it has felt good to find shelter in him. To know that we’re in this together. It was our love that brought this baby into our family, and in our love we have said goodbye.

We are still thinking of the best ways to remember and honor Gabriel in the long term (if you’ve been here and have suggestions, I’d greatly appreciate hearing whatever you’re comfortable sharing). But for now, these many lessons from him are precious gifts that I will cherish forever. I love you, Gabriel. I miss you. Someday I will hold you in my arms.

Lessons from the Babies I Never Met: Motherhood Evolves

This is the first part in a three-post reflection on miscarriage. I’m publishing these in October, in recognition of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Read part two here and part three here.

For the first time in more than three years, I am neither pregnant nor breastfeeding. It seems like it should be a time to rest and get back to myself. But it is not a break I’ve taken by choice, and I’ve struggled with it immensely.

I had expected to continuously share my body with my children during this season of my life. At first, it was draining—but then it became my groove. I felt strong, knowing my babies depended on me so fundamentally. I felt active in my mothering—capable. It became part of my identity and I didn’t even know it.

My husband and I have hoped for four children and planned to space them tightly. We want them to be close, we want to have them while we’re young and it’s easier on our bodies, and we want to tackle the “baby years” all at once. But life has not gone according to plan. Turns out it’s not really about what we want.

We have five children; only two of them are here with us. Two back-to-back miscarriages this year (including a set of twins) meant we never got to hold our youngest babies.

After we said goodbye, I was so lonely in my own skin. I was longing to feel a life alight within me. I felt empty. Intellectually, I know I am not alone—I have a family who is wonderful in every way, and a husband who would do anything for me. I have two beautiful, healthy children with me each day. But it’s been years since I wasn’t physically connected to my children in some way. And it’s lonely, to not have that anymore.

New motherhood is so primal—so deeply physical. It begins with an overwhelming sense of awe that your body, all on its own, is so ready for something you don’t yet even understand. My body knew instinctively how to be a mother long before my mind made the leap.

Since my miscarriages, I’ve had to learn to trust that my mind—and all its slow adjustments and stress and erratic feelings—is enough for the children I have here with me. But I’ve also learned that my body is as much comfort for them as it’s always been.

I hold their hands. I kiss their ouchies. I snuggle them when nightmares wake them in the night. I change diapers. I show them how to perform increasingly complex tasks on their own, so they can grow into kids and adolescents and adults who can hold their own in the world. I am present.

I know now that a mother’s love is always as physical and visceral as it is emotional and spiritual. This is true at every stage.

Despite the pain, I am immensely thankful for my little saints: Gabriel, Karol, and Julian. And I am glad to know they are praying for our family; that they love us and know they are loved, too. I am also thankful for the opportunity to work with a NaProTechnology doctor who does not discount our losses as “bad luck,” but is supporting us with mindful care to give us the best chance of holding our next baby.

October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I’m sharing this story today because we don’t want to keep our babies—tiny as they were, briefly as we knew them—a half-secret anymore. I’ll publish a few blog posts reflecting on them in the coming days, to honor them and make them known. They deserve to be known.

If you have suffered from an early loss, like me, and have no one to talk to—please know that you can talk to me. No matter how well we know each other, no matter how recently it happened. If you need a listening ear, or a prayer, or commiseration, or distraction, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. We are all in this together.

Babies Gabriel, Karol, and Julian—pray for us. I miss you.

Tender and Mild: A Mommy’s Mantra

Back in December, I came across a trend that interested me: choosing a “word of the year” and using it as a guidepost for personal development over a 12-month period.

As someone who has—in 28 years of life—yet to write down a new year’s resolution, keep track of that record, and think about that goal throughout the following year (let alone actually execute on it), this concept caught my eye. It seemed like the perfect alternative to goal-setting for someone who has a knack for procrastinating, tends to be disorganized, and may (if we’re being honest) be a tiny bit lazy here and there.

Turns out, though, that it wasn’t as simple an approach as it seemed.

Words are Hard

There are a lot of words, guys. Like, a quarter of a million of them (in English). Even if you cut that down dramatically and assume just 1 percent are potentially useful, positive, and relevant in this context, that’s still thousands of words to ponder. (How many thousands of words do I even know?)

Thankfully, I’m a lover of words by nature, so mulling them over doesn’t require a ton of mental focus. It can happen in the back of my mind as I go about my day. So I tried to let it happen without too much effort on my part. I didn’t want to overthink this theme for the year; I wanted it to emerge from the shadows of my subconscious and help me learn something about myself.

Ha. Turns out “the shadows of my subconscious” can be pretty sticky. Thus, the difficulty.

After a week or two of this mulling, I kind of gave up. I am impatient. Nothing was shedding any light in those little corners of my mind. Perusing lists of virtues and random word generators wasn’t stirring up any passion for me. I’ve been reading a few chapters of the Bible each day via an email series, and nothing jumped out at me there, either. I figured I’d just go back to my old way of vaguely thinking of things I should do for the year, then go on to achieve my reading challenge and little else.

Advent-ageous

Of course, the moment we stop dwelling on our issues is often the moment that their solutions make themselves known. (Someday, maybe St. Anthony will tell me why we find the little things we’ve lost as soon as we stop looking for them.)

As we settled into the Advent season and I saw the star of the Nativity on the proverbial horizon, I found myself in the very narrow window of time when I actually enjoy listening to Christmas music. For 50ish weeks of the year, I’m simply not in the mood for it. I get so irritated when radio stations are usurped by premature holiday tunes as soon as Halloween is over. But between about December 20 and the Epiphany, I’m as ignited as any Christian by a peaceful rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’

‘Silent Night’ is a long-time favorite of mine, and this past season, one of my favorite lines stood out dramatically as I listened: “Holy Infant, so tender and mild.”

Tender and mild. That’s what I need to be.

Being A More Child-like Daughter and Mother

We are called to be Christ-like. And we can be like Him in many ways, if we cling to faith and we try to be our very best. He was as human as we are, after all. But if you’re anything like me, you might be a little intimidated by His divinity in this effort to emulate Him. I have often asked myself a simple but looming question: “How can I, a sinner, try to express in my thoughts, words, or actions the holiness of God?”

The saints have long taught us that this is possible. But the saints can be intimidating sometimes, too, can’t they?

Christ gave us an antidote for this intimidation when He instructed us to have faith like a little child. I did some reading on this last year, and it opened my eyes to the concept. This is a beautiful subject for another day, but for now, let’s put it this way: doesn’t God deserve to be looked upon with the awed eyes, reached for with the soft hands, and loved unconditionally with the blind trust of His children?

I realized that setting “tender and mild” as my theme for 2018 could help me develop this innocent and deep faith in God. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that embracing a child’s unrestricted sense of love and joy would make me a better mom, too.

So, this year, when I find myself dwelling on the grown-up, made-up stresses of daily life; when I lose my patience for whining children who won’t eat their dinner; when I am tempted to put my own exhaustion above my husband’s well-earned need for my attention—in these times and many others, I have a new mantra to repeat in my mind and under my breath:

Tender and mild. Tender and mild. Tender and mild.

So far it seems like a peaceful way to be.

Do you have a word of the year for 2018? How are you embracing it, now that we’re two months into the year? Share it in the comments or on my new Facebook page!