"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Monday, December 31, 2012

How to Kiss a Baby

Sometimes when I'm working in my office on the third floor, Jeff will bring me Robert so I can nurse him. I don't mind the break - well, actually, I don't usually break, I just keep working while he's nursing. It's afterwards that causes problems. It can be hard to write a dissertation when you've got a cute baby in your lap. So a couple of days ago, instead of taking Robert right back to Jeff, we had fun making a few videos.

2012-12-28 15.55.57 from Theologian Mom on Vimeo.

2012-12-28 15.58.34 from Theologian Mom on Vimeo.

Mary's New Role

Every year when I take out the kids' nativity set, I'm curious to see what happens. This year was the first time that Patrick was able really to play with and appreciate the nativity set. In typical boy fashion, he came up with his own way of enacting the narrative.

 Now, isn't Mary driving a truck with Jesus in the scoop a better way to flee Bethlehem for Egypt?
Who knew that Mary would be such a good driver?
December2 2012 021 from Theologian Mom on Vimeo.
And the music from the manger gives Patrick a chance to sing as well.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Favorite Children's Christmas Books

1. The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown
In this story, the little Russian boy Alexi longs to celebrate Christmas in the town church, which had been closed down in a political persecution of Christians. He starts cleaning the church and ends up bringing the village together. It turns out that all the things that had seemed to be missing - candlesticks, the icon of St. Nicholas...and even the priest - were actually there all along, hidden by villagers who hung onto their faith even in difficult circumstances. The first read is a real tear-jerker. Alexi knows what Christmas is all about.

2. The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola
This is another tear-jerker, and we love it so much that we leave it out all year-round. It tells the story of little Giovanni, an orphan who knows how to juggle. He spends his whole life as a juggling clown traveling throughout Italy until finally he is an elderly man and a subject of public mockery. He returns to his home town of Sorrento and stumbles upon the church on Christmas during the midnight Mass. His final juggling performance is to the statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. After a long life, he has finally discovered that his juggling takes on meaning when it is offered to God. The confirmation of the sanctification of his juggling and the pleasure of the Christ child is evident in the statue's changed appearance.

3. Come and See by Monica Mayper
This book tells the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem through the perspective of some children and their family as they partake in the celebration surrounding that first Christmas. The illustrations are beautiful and convey the excitement that we ought all to cultivate at the thought of the  nativity. It's also singing-friendly, which my kids appreciate.

4. The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola
This book tells the story of a village in New Mexico that every year performs the cultural tradition of Las Posadas, re-enacting Mary and Joseph's travel to Bethlehem and difficulty finding a place to stay. In the story, Sister Angie, who always coordinates the celebration is particularly excited because her niece and niece's new husband are playing the role of Mary and Joseph. Sister Angie gets sick, however, and the couple gets stuck in a snowstorm. Another young couple ("friends of Sister Angie") steps in to play the parts of Mary and Joseph, and, in a classic dePaola move, it turns out that it is St. Mary and St. Joseph themselves (from a carved statue) who have helped make the posadas a success. Beautiful illustrations, culturally enriching, and focused on the holy family, not as a legend, but as people who still interact with us today.

5. The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
Another dePaola book, this one tells the Mexican legend of how the poinsettia came to be. Everyone in the town is preparing for Christmas, each with their own gifts to bring to the baby Jesus. Lupe is excited because her mother has been asked by the priest to weave a new blanket for the baby Jesus statue to be placed in the nativity set. It is quite an honor. But Lupe's mother falls sick, and little Lupe is unable to complete the blanket. She is embarrassed that she has nothing to give baby Jesus, and so she hides and does not participate in the procession. An old woman (St. Anne, the mother of Mary, as we later learn when we see Lupe walk past her statue in the church) tells Lupe her mom will recover and advises Lupe to make some gift to the baby Jesus. Lupe gathers a bundle of weeds and places them before baby Jesus, to the shock of the others in the church. She kneels to pray and when she opens her eyes, the weeds have burst into beautiful poinsettias. Upon leaving the church, it appears that all of these weeds are now boasting red stars.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Life is hard. But then you die.

This morning I went to a 7:00 a.m. Mass. I always have a bit of a hard time concentrating at Mass, but at that time of day in particular it's hard NOT to think about all the things I will need to do when I get home. What makes it tough is the tight time schedule, and the feeling that I just can't forget anything. I tried to make myself focus, and at the end, I made a slightly longer thanksgiving than usual... ha, ha, by that I just mean closer to a minute than 30 seconds (still pretty short by most standards!). Before I get up from the kneeler, I usually look up at the crucifix and say, "Every day, the cross, with joy!" Today I went through in my head some of my potential crosses - like trying to go shopping with a 2-year old and baby or having to put all the kids to bed by myself knowing my husband would be home late tonight - and prayed for the strength to deal with them. But as often happens, I couldn't even predict the crosses in store for me.

When I turned down our street, I realized that it was blocked off and the street opened up with numerous work trucks installing the new water main. I parked around the corner and resigned myself to not being able to go food shopping, or, if I did, having to park a block away and carry in all the groceries, plus the car seat with toddler in tow. The child-exchange was quick, as the slightly-frazzled-end-of-the-semester husband jumped out the door pausing only long enough to tell me that he had made my oatmeal. No coffee today though, since the coffee maker is broken. The next words I heard were from the toddler, announcing that he was poopy (and really, if you can announce it, you should be potty-trained, is what I say). Meanwhile, the baby was screaming, obviously ready to breastfeed.

I changed the diaper, threw it away, washed my hands, felt Eva's forehead since she looked a little sick, and picked up the baby. I was shaking from hunger (breastfeeding will do that to you) trying to scoop out my oatmeal when Eva vomited all over the chair and the floor. Ok, not that bad, mostly water since her stomach has been sensitive and she hadn't eaten much yet. So I set down the screaming, crying, "absolutely starving" baby and wiped up the vomit with paper towels. I comforted Eva as quickly as I could, then took her upstairs and put her in the tub so she wouldn't smell like vomit.

When I returned, I picked up the screaming, crying, "absolutely starving" baby, got my oatmeal and sat down to eat. Two bites into it, I was smelling vomit and realized that I hadn't really washed my hands, I just imagined I had (probably because I had just washed them minutes before when I changed the poopy diaper). But no, my hand definitely smelled like vomit, but not a chance I could wash my hands now, as the screaming, crying, "absolutely starving" baby was finally nursing for the first time in a very very very long hour. Trapped in nursing prison, as I call it, I contented myself by eating my oatmeal and trying not to inhale  the scent of my hand as the spoon reached my mouth.

About a minute later, I saw that I apparently missed some of the vomit on the floor (seeing as how it was mostly water, as I said), so Patrick had decided to help me finish up. The toddler was happily smearing vomit over the floor and then waving paper towels in my face. Then he took a break to take a sip out of Eva's water bottle (yes, minutes after she vomited water that she'd drunk from that very bottle, can you believe it!). Still sitting in nursing prison, I was approached by the eldest to ask me to pack her lunch. I looked at her and said, "Hot lunch today, you still have tickets, and I have no free hands right now." She protested, she begged, she asked politely, she finally packed herself a poor meager lunch that probably convinced the cafeteria supervisors that her parents are definitely trying to starve her.

Time check - ten minutes before we needed to leave to walk Maia to school. Eva was still in the tub. I started brainstorming neighbors/friends who walk past our house in the morning, and I told Maia my plan for her to walk to school with someone else. She's only six, and the lunch thing was upsetting enough, so she started crying, saying she didn't want to walk with anyone else, she just wants her mom, etc. I ran up the stairs and got Eva out of the tub and dressed. When I came down, Maia was still crying and I think Patrick was eating the butter from the butter dish that I had not yet cleared from the kitchen table. At least Robert was finally asleep (it's exhausting to cry for so long, especially when you are so very very very very hungry). What was I to do? It was time to leave the house, and still no sign of the neighbors.

Finally, Maia and I walked outside just as the neighbors went past across the street. I yelled to get their attention. Then I yelled louder. Then I yelled louder. Because those jackhammers and backhoes are pretty loud. The neighbors did finally hear me. So a quick blessing, a quick kiss, and an I-love-you-have-a-good-day-at-school, and she crossed the street to join her friends.

Whew, 8:15 a.m.... time to relax and enjoy the rest of my day, right? The rest of the day was only slightly easier, with the highlight being when all four of us were asleep at the same time (yes, including me, I fell asleep in the living room on a chair). I woke up in a panic that I'd missed picking Maia up from school - but no, I had ten minutes before I needed to leave. Ten minutes and three sleeping kids. I put away two loads of laundry, and then somehow all three kids woke up (chain reaction, baby woke toddler, toddler woke preschooler). Off we went into the pouring rain.

I won't bore (or horrify) you with the gruesome details from the rest of my day, which finally ended with a little kitchen cleaning at 9:00 p.m., and a husband who is sick in bed, so sick that he even missed the aforementioned required evening work commitment. Suffice it to say today was not one of the easiest on record. But you know, life is hard. I know I've written on mortification before, but I have been thinking about this again recently because I have a little subsection on "bearing the ills of life" in the last chapter of my dissertation.

Suffering has not disappeared since the time period on which I focus (1955-1975), but I do think that American Catholics of European background have much less unchosen suffering than they did in those days. In particular, I have been reflecting on the burden of children. Having children seems to me to be one of the easiest ways of dishing yourself up a huge portion of involuntary mortifications. And the more children, the more mortifications.

Awhile back, the Washington Post featured a story about a large family, that is, eleven kids being raised on one teacher's salary. I was really struck when I read an extra Q&A where readers could pose questions to the mom of the family. One question was basically asking why anyone would purposely have so many children knowing that it would take so much extra work (perhaps this question was inspired by the story of her falling asleep on the playroom floor). Yes indeed, why would anyone make so much work for themselves when they could avoid it?

I was struck by contrasting this question with the way we praise so many of the sacrifices that people make, for their work perhaps, or in training for a marathon. We admire the hard work of others in a variety of fields, but we only admire that hard work to some extent when it comes to having children. It's great to sacrifice for your kids, but, whoa! hold on, not THAT many kids. That's just stupid. Life without kids is hard enough...life with a couple of kids is hard enough...life with anymore than a couple, and don't expect anyone's sympathy. They are more likely to criticize you for what they view as poor decision-making or perhaps your benighted religious views than praise you for your hard work.

In the Catholic world, the perspective that criticizes large families on the grounds that they are difficult or "hard work," contrasts with the former understanding wherein hard work and bearing the burdens of life were understood to be supernaturally beneficial, if not also naturally beneficial. Sociologist Andrew Greeley, for example, worried what would become of Catholics subjected to a world where there was such little suffering compared to the past American Catholic experience. Writing in 1959, Greeley wrote: "In the midst of plenty, does not prayer become extremely difficult, if not impossible? Does mortification have any meaning to people who have never known material want?...Can man, when he has so many things in this world, seriously long for the next?" (The Church and the Suburbs, 149).

I think we have lost practice with bearing the ills of life, and sadly, the loss has made it more difficult for us to make our sufferings meaningful. The ills of life can become purposeful, however, as a way of offering penitential prayer for ourselves or to pray for the good of others. Surprisingly, when we hone this skill we often find that we can maintain our happiness in both difficult and easy times, and we can actually enjoy life more when we don't expect it to be all about relaxation and luxury. We can also look forward to our final destination in heaven on those days where life just seems so hard.

After a day like today (and anticipation of tomorrow, when I will likely be stricken with vomiting too), I know I long for eternal rest. But not yet. I know I still have some more work to do.

p.s. During the writing of this post, Patrick walked up the stairs to my office covered in vomit (of the spanokopita sort). I had to clean him up, put in a load of laundry, and remake the bed. But he didn't seem upset by having just woken up covered in his vomit. (Gee, I wonder if this is related to drinking out of Eva's water bottle...)
p.p.s. When Eva was about to vomit a couple of days ago, I asked her if she wanted to offer it for anyone or anything in particular. She said, "for poor people," seconds before vomiting on the bathmat. I think that prayer really meant something.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Aspirations for Advent

As a part of the research for my dissertation, I've been reading a bit about Advent, focusing especially upon the penitential aspect. For the past decade or so, I have been the kind of person who likes to keep my Advent separate from my Christmas. Christmas is a beautiful season filled with joy, but Advent is a wonderful season of preparation for that season of Christmas. And, as Church traditions have long indicated, better preparation makes for better celebration...fast before the feast! The key Advent sacramentals in our household are of course, the Advent wreath and the ever-popular chocolate-filled Advent calendars. As the beginning of Advent is liturgically focused upon the coming of Christ at the end of time, we generally keep the  Nativity sets and Christmas tree for a little later in the season, e.g. when "O" antiphons start seven days before Christmas. The last thing I want is for my kids to be sick of Christmas (songs, decorations, foods) by the time it's actually Christmas.

We live in a country that has little appreciation for the season of Advent. The Christmas celebrations inch earlier each year. Moreover, the preparation for Christmas becomes more and more focused on gifts - which ones to give, which ones to get, and, of course, where to get the best deal.

I wish that I could say I'm immune to the materialism of Christmas. But since becoming a mom of a few children, I've realized something important. Like most great family celebrations, Mom has to make it happen. In other words, there is no Santa Claus. If I want my kids to have gifts on Christmas, I have to play a crucial role in that happening, whether it's suggesting gifts to family members or purchasing them myself.

Recently I felt defensive, and then convicted by an article from December of 1955 in the liturgical magazine Worship. Martin Hellriegel wrote the following:

"Unfortunately a money-mad and thoughtless world has greatly disturbed the holy quiet of this [Christmas] blessed vigil. A day that should be most restful has become most restless. So many people are more concerned about preparing stockings than preparing hearts. "This day you shall know that the Lord will come to save us, and tomorrow you shall see His glory." During Advent old and young, especially mothers, must be admonished to be "prudent virgins" with lamps of faith and love in readiness, so that when "the eternal gates are lifted up, the King of glory may enter in,"enter into our hearts and homes" (67-8).

As I said, my first reaction was defensive, as this is not the first male author I've heard make comments in this vein. He says "So many people are more concerned about preparing stockings than preparing hearts." And notice how the author emphasizes "especially mothers." Well guess what? If you don't prepare the stockings, then your kids don't have any stockings to open. And presumably, if your kids are going to have filled stockings on Christmas day, you [the mom] will have to fill them on Christmas vigil. I've sometimes felt that Advent is a season that can be spiritually enjoyed by men while women do all the work, including trying to come up with gifts for everyone in the extended family, as well as the immediate family. Here's my defensiveness: it's easy for the childless male to say we need to focus on the spiritual during Advent, and it's easier for him to do it since he has no responsibility in the practicalities of preparing a family home for Christmas.

But of course, in actuality, I agree with Hellriegel's sentiments. Advent is supposed to be about joyful anticipation, prayerful expectation, penitential preparation. It's not supposed to be about spending thousands of dollars on things we all don't really need anyway. So how does the mom who has to "make it happen" avoid letting Advent become a materially-focused few weeks of gift-shopping and deal-finding?

My initial answer to this has been to try to get my shopping (or at least, my shopping ideas) done before Advent even begins. I know it sounds strange, but I always have the idea it will help me appreciate Advent more supernaturally if I don't have to spend every spare moment searching online for Christmas gifts or wracking my brain for appropriate gifts for people or debating in my head the Christmas gift budget. But this approach has not been totally satisfying to me either, not only because it's difficult to accomplish, but because  frantic shopping doesn't seem like a good preparation for Advent!

So I have a few other answers to the question of how to "make Christmas happen" while still having an Advent that is, well, Advent!

1. Don't be defensive or lament the responsibility the role of "Mom" places upon your shoulders. It's not a good idea to say, "Well I could have a great Advent, if it weren't for the fact I have to come up with all these gift ideas and spend all my time shopping." This is setting up a false cross and then using it as an excuse for spiritual sloth. It's a challenge, but it's an opportunity.

2. Part of making the most of the opportunity is firmly to fight the materialism of Christmas in America. With young children, this is easier than it seems. They aren't yet into the competitive nature of gifts, so they won't know that their peers are getting more gifts or more expensive gifts than theirs. They'll be happy with a little tin drum or a few additions to the dress-up clothes, so there's no reason to go overboard. (Oh, and use Advent as a great time to go through the toys and clear out that toybox to make room for more!)

3. The other part of making the most of the opportunity is to emphasize the spiritual aspect of Christmas. To quote Tomie DePaola, "Christmas has a magic of its own." The story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus is one that has infinite appeal to children. They can have hours of fun playing with a nativity set and they can get into the Christmas spirit by reading many wonderful Christmas books. Singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" before dinner makes it exciting and special, as does shouting "Maranatha - come, Lord Jesus!" every morning before getting their Advent chocolate. Experiencing Advent with and through your children has a powerful way of making it real. And nothing better than having a baby to snuggle with on Christmas Eve!

4. Be organized. Keep a list of gifts and gift ideas, beginning as early in the year as you'd like. And instead of seeing the gift-giving aspect as a chore, try to view it as a way of preparing. As I said above, if you don't fill your kids' stockings, they won't have stockings to enjoy on Christmas. But you can do this in a prayerful way, as with buying and wrapping gifts. Pray for guidance in selecting gifts, and don't overthink them. Gifting is one of the five love languages, after all, so think of gifts in terms of love, and let the gift-giving be part of your spiritual preparation for Advent.

5. Keep the shopping under control. You may have to pay attention to your internet time and seek ways to regulate it, sometimes just by minding the time that you've spent online. You may have to be content with less-than-perfect gifts rather than making every evening a shopping excursion. Once you've purchased something for someone, cross it off the list and don't think about it again.

6. Counter the focus on materialism by increasing prayer and other spiritual practices. I was also convicted by this line from another Worship article, this time written in 1953: "Why do we steal so much of our precious time from prayer in favor of a restless activity?" (Ermin Vitry, December, 26). What a great question to reflect on during the season of Advent. Instead of restless activity, how about some extra spiritual reading, meditation on the infancy narratives from the gospel, or an extra Rosary? The liturgical readings for Advent are rich in content, so making a commitment to reflect on the daily Mass readings is also a great idea. Come up with a few aspirations you want to turn to during Advent. One of my favorites, again, is from Tomie DePaola, this time from The Clown of God - "For you sweet child, for you!" says the old clown as he juggles for the statue of the child Jesus in Mary's arms. Or, from the brieviary, "Come let us worship the Lord, the King who is to come" or "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the path of our God!"

7. In the penitential spirit of Advent, it might be a good idea to choose a voluntary mortification, much like we do in Lent. For the past couple of years I've given up sweets during Advent (excepting certain feast days, of course). Since sweets are one of my favorite parts of Christmas, I find that this small sacrifice greatly increases my desire for Christmas and aids me in focusing my preparation. Traditionally, Wednesdays and Fridays were days of abstinence from meat during Advent. This is another way to remind yourself that Advent is a special season of expectation.

8. Keep Dad involved. Again, no complaining, no bitterness, but rather open discussion and clear direction. In my experience, Mom's make it happen. But it doesn't have to be that way. Dads can come up with gift ideas, shop, wrap, stuff stockings, and watch the kids during Christmas cooking. Making Christmas happen is a Dad and Mom thing, a team sport. Plan ahead and communicate well about your plans and expectations.

9. Fight to keep the Christmas "specials" for Christmas. No eating those peppermint coated pretzels during Advent! Don't be baking sugar cookies every other day! And when the kids are asking about all the special foods, use it as an opportunity to talk about Advent and patience in waiting.

10. When you do get to Christmas, just celebrate! If your Advent hasn't lived up to your expectations, oh well! Try again next year! For now, just enjoy - Gloria, gloria, gloria!

Any other ideas out there?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Baby Rants

In my ideal world, Robert would usually look like this:
 Sleeping peacefully.
Gazing contentedly.
Smiling cheerfully.

In reality, he often looks like this:
 And not just when Patrick is holding him either.

Yes, Robert is more of a fussy baby than my last two. Since I'm a more experienced mother, I don't let the crying get to me as much as I did with my first. I still don't like the sound of a crying baby, but I'm just more rational about it, and more inclined to think in the long-term. One of the ways I keep calm is to let Robert explain why he's upset. To do this, I use my high "baby-voice," and launch into monologues for the "audience," which usually consists of Eva and Patrick.

"Ahhhh!!!! That was the worst diaper change EVER! There I was just sitting in my carseat in the kitchen, minding my own business when suddenly, I felt like my tush was all wet and gooky. Well, I'm not one to just sit around when something like that happens. So what do you think I did? That's right, I started screaming - I don't mean crying, I mean screaming! And there I was, sitting in gook and screaming, and what do you think Mom did? Yep, she finished pouring Eva's milk. You heard me!

"But then, things got even worse. Finally, after a VERY LONG five seconds, Mom picked me up and laid me down on that plastic foam cushion thing. And next thing I know, she's unsnapped my pajamas and is exposing me to the world. And let me tell you, that air was cold! I'm not one to appreciate breezes down there, so I let the world know what was going on. Then, before I could have a say in the matter, Mom had one of those cold, wet wipey things, which she used to make my life even worse. You better believe the neighbors heard about that one!

"I just do NOT like being a baby. I would not recommend it to ANYone. When I grow up, I am definitely NOT going to be a baby. It is simply awful. So why am I a baby, you might ask, if I don't recommend it to anyone? I can't help it. I was just born this way. But believe you me, I do not intend to stay a baby for long. People always moving you around, changing your diaper, dressing you in horizontal stripes, and so on. First chance I get, I'm becoming a toddler. In fact, this time next year, you'll see that I'm no longer a baby. And then, a few years later, I'm going to quit being a toddler too. I do not plan on spending my life as a baby! One year is about all I can take, and then I'm going to leave this horrible baby life behind!"

I always like to throw in Robert's little reminder that he's only going to be a baby for one year. It helps me keep perspective on things and stay calm when he's crying for no apparent reason. Babyhood is very short-lived. By the time I get the earplugs in, it'll be over.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

From Hurricane to Baptism: A Planner in an Unplannable World

Since we moved to New Jersey, I've gotten lots of compliments from people about how relaxed and easy-going I am with my parenting, the state of the house, etc. Friends who know me well, especially college and graduate-school friends, might find this a little funny. The truth is, I tend to lean in the direction of being both a planner and a perfectionist. So my house may not be perfect, but this does actually bother me. I think I have gotten more relaxed about this stuff recently, but that's mostly because I don't really have a choice, what with four children, six years and under.

One of the great challenges of pregnancy is not being able to "plan" the birth date, and I think this lack of control is in fact what drives many people to elective inductions and elective C-sections. As a planner, I sympathize with wanting to KNOW when the baby's coming. We were caught off guard by Robert's early delivery. I had planned on having a couple of more weeks to wash his clothes, buy diapers, etc. And I had channeled most of my nesting energy toward writing my dissertation. 

The month of October was really a whirlwind of activities for our family. As the month ended we got news of  Hurricane Sandy on the way. As a planner, I definitely appreciate weather forecasts, especially when something major like a hurricane is on the way. But even with this knowledge, it's hard to know what the devastation is going to be or how to prepare. For example, I don't think anyone anticipated the gas shortage that became Jersey's latest crisis associated with the hurricane.

Anyway, Jeff and I are not ones to delay baptism. We started talking dates for the baptism probably back in August. We weren't sure if Robert would come more towards the beginning or the middle of October (or even the end!). We wanted to avoid having to send out baptism invites before Robert was born (that's what we ended up doing with Patrick, who was born a mere two weeks before his baptism). November 4th seemed like a safe date. Robert would surely be born by then, and my parents could probably stay until the baptism - an added bonus.

Then we got the forecast for the hurricane. It was really a feeling of impending doom and very strange trying to live life normally in the days leading up to it. The general atmosphere of panic doesn't help matters. Consider that on the Friday prior to the hurricane, we went to Costco at 8:00 p.m., hoping to avoid the crowds that would no doubt be shopping Saturday and Sunday before the hurricane came on Monday. We misjudged that one... Costco's parking lot was completely full, and they were out of both bottled water and flashlights. 

I went to confession on Saturday, not because I was anticipating an early death due to an act of nature, but just because I usually go on Saturdays. Afterwards, I asked Fr. Jim if we'd still have the baptism if the church had no power. He reassured me we'd have power by then, etc.
As it turned out, we didn't have power by then. Well, I should say that the church had electricity (in fact, I'm not sure the church lost it for more than a few hours). And at our house, we got power back on the Friday before the Saturday baptism. It came on at 10:00 a.m., and I went crazy trying to catch up on laundry, vaccuuming, and so on. But then at 5:00 p.m. it flickered and went out again. No one was happy to be in the dark again, but I was proud of myself for calling out a quotation from Job: "The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away!" And Jeff answered from a different room, "Blessed be the name of the Lord!" 

I hoped it was just some minor tweak by the power company, and we'd have electricity in the next hour or so. I was still hoping that when we woke up on Saturday morning. But it soon became clear that we were going to be hosting a party for about 50 people in a house that had no electricity. At least the reception was during the day; we could count on natural lighting. This, however, was definitely NOT what I had planned. I like to have things under my control in my own house; I like to put a personal touch on hosting. With many stores closed and no way to turn on my oven, I had a hard time getting paper plates and I couldn't bake or cook anything for the party. Thank goodness for Robert's very kind, generous and helpful godparents who made sure we had paper goods and plenty of food.

I was reflecting during all this how the natural limits imposed by the hurricane really helped me to focus on the supernatural. Sitting in the dark all evening, I had lots of time to think about how what really mattered was not having an awesome party, but just getting my son baptized. It's nice to have coordinating paper plates and napkins and delicious home-baked goods, but it's no prerequisite for the indelible mark of the Holy Spirit on the soul of a child.

So while I can say that the party was more of a "Plan B" party than a "Plan A" party, I can also say that the baptism itself was exactly what we planned. Robert entered the Church, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The reception was fine. We even got our power back... during the party! It was a little baptism gift from God, I think.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

 This was our backyard (well, actually, this shot is mostly our neighbors' backyard) Monday evening before the hurricane hit.
 This was our backyard on Tuesday morning. In particular, a sweet gum tree dropped some big branches, and lots and lots of gumballs.
Thank goodness, the big old oak stayed strong, but we had quite a few branches down, so we started clean-up right away.
 The kids helped out, but Grandpa and Grandma did a lot of the work.
 Patrick loaded branches into the wagon.

 They thought it was great to climb on branches that a day ago were so high they could never have reached them.

We had some roof damage - shingles everywhere.

Our neighbor Mrs. Pagnetti's tree split during the last hurricane, and this time split for good. It was cut down today.

It took down the cable and power lines for our street.

A couple of days after the hurricane, we went for a walk around the neighborhood.
Power lines and trees were just down everywhere - a lot of big, old trees.

 Someone added a Halloween theme to the downed tree in their front yard. Have to make the best of it, since there was no trick-or-treating this year.
 This tree is awkwardly leaning without leaning ON anything.
 This is another shot of the same tree. Maybe it is suspended on a power line; I'm not sure.
 Some of these trees had significant root systems. And, as you can see above, many sidewalks were uprooted with the trees.
This is just a couple of minutes from our house, literally around the corner. Both of these houses were hit, but I don't think either sustained structural damage.
This house is probably the worst in our borough. The tree took off the front porch (I think), and you can see into their living room. There is even a branch still balancing on the rooftop.
Then, to add insult to injury, the same tree also crushed this car.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fall Fun, the New Cutie

 Enjoy those leaves before they're all blown beyond the Mississippi!
Could Robert possibly be a redhead, like Grandpa Bob and Uncle John Mark?

Halloween Costumes!

 In case Halloween is postponed, I thought I would share these photos a few days early. Above, a clown surrounded by cupcakes.
 Here is a new little baby skeleton (he even glows in the dark).
And here's a good indoor-due-to-hurricane activity: carving pumpkins!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two Roberts

 We know some great Roberts, and so it made sense to choose the name Robert for our son. One of the best Roberts I know is my dad, pictured above with the other Robert. After the younger Robert's early delivery, my parents pushed up their trip out east so that they could come and help us as soon as possible. It's been fun having two Roberts in the house.

Yesterday, my mom walked into the kitchen and asked where Robert was. I told her, "He's under the piano." She looked at me quizzically, then went into the living room to find him. Shortly after I heard a laugh, and she said, "I couldn't think why your dad would be under the piano! But I see you were talking about the other Robert."
And there he was, sleeping peacefully. Now, if I had said Robert was sleeping under the piano, she probably would have been even more confused. Why would my dad take a nap under the piano!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Robert Sebastian: The Fourth, the First

 Robert Sebastian, born fourth in the family, was nonetheless the first in a few ways. He was the first child to be born early, that is, ahead of his due date. Especially given that Patrick was eleven days late, we were not prepared for the early delivery. We didn't have anything ready for his arrival. But it all worked out anyway, and I'm not complaining about it, especially since he came during Jeff's fall break.
Robert was also the first of our children born during the day, and on a weekday. Everyone else was at night and on the weekend. So I had fully expected to go into labor at night, on the weekend. And get to watch a Notre Dame football game in peace. Alas, that did not work out. Robert's delivery was also the first time we spent so little time in the hospital before delivery. We checked in at 12:11 p.m. and he was born at 12:54 p.m. I didn't even have time to make it into the tub for a waterbirth. Robert was also our first child born on an even number, and on a single digit day. His birthdate makes a nice addition sentence (10+2=12).
 In other ways, Robert was much like his siblings. He was born with the cord around his neck (4 for 4 on that!), and like Patrick, he was pretty blue. It took a couple of minutes to get him pinked up. Like Maia and Eva, he has Jeff's blood type (A+), and so, as with Eva, our ABO incompatibility was borne out by jaundice, which required two full days of phototherapy and LOTS of blood tests. No fun there, but I consoled myself by thinking that he didn't know any better about life outside the womb and that his experience of life would greatly improve upon going home.
Also, like his siblings, Robert was born on a great feast day, in this case, the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So we've managed to hit a good day every time: St. Anselm, St. Lucy, St. Teresa of Avila, and now the Guardian Angels. And whereas Maia was born three days before my birthday, Robert was born three days before Jeff's birthday. Like his siblings, Robert has a family name; my dad is Robert. He also has a saint's name--actually, two saints' names (both St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Sebastian are pretty cool saints).

I think he looks the most different of our children, given his rectangular rather than round head shape. But like everyone else, he is a great baby, doing all the stuff that newborns do - eating, pooping, sleeping, stretching and occasionally crying. He is a great addition to the family.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Revisiting the Universal Call to Holiness with "Twelve Guideposts Godwards"

In the research for my dissertation I did over the summer, I spent a lot of time with Homiletic and Pastoral Review, which was (and is) a popular publication directed primarily toward clergy. Granted, it's easy to get distracted by the 1950s and 1960s ads, like the one for a special program for "late vocations" to the priesthood, i.e. "ages 17-25", the numerous Toomey ads for "year-rounder cassocks," and, later the Rambusch ads for "updating" churches (accompanied by "before" and "after" pictures). But most of my reading has been focused on the change in the sacrament of confession and practices of the virtue of penance.

In all this research, I found a little gem of practical advice. Fr. Joseph M. Champlin wrote this article entitled "Father Confessor and Future Sister," HPR Vol. LXIII, No. 2 in November of 1962. As you can probably ascertain from the title, it was written in order to give advice to a confessor who might be hearing the confessions of a young girl who is interested in religious life. But the reason that I find it interesting is that I think there is a common misunderstanding about Vatican II's "universal call to holiness" (Lumen Gentium, Chapter V), especially when paired with "full, active, conscious participation" in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 14) and what is commonly called the "priesthood of all believers" (cf. Apostolicum Actuositatem, No. 3).

The universal call to holiness obviously implies that everyone - lay and ordained - are called to be holy. But unfortunately it is frequently represented to mean that whatever the laity do is automatically considered holy.  The universal call to holiness ought to inspire the laity to seek holiness through spiritual practices and the sanctification of work and daily life, not to ignore growth in the spiritual life as though a "universal call" means laity are de facto holy while priests do all the spiritual work of prayer etc.

I said that the universal call can be particularly problematic when paired with a misunderstanding of full, active, conscious participation in the liturgy and the priesthood of all believers. Ironically, this is a sort of post-Vatican II clericalism that still exalts priests as automatically holier than the laity, and attributes this holiness to their role in celebrating the Mass.

Sometimes, therefore, the laity mistakenly think that the way they become holy is - like the priest - to "do something" at the liturgy. Such examples of "doing something" include being a lector, a Eucharistic minister, a choir member, a gift-bearer, or an usher. Becoming a permanent deacon has also been upheld as a great way to be involved with the liturgy. But just to clarify, once you're a deacon, you're ordained, not lay. And if we take this as our paradigmatic example of "full, active, conscious" participation in the liturgy, women will unfortunately be excluded.

I don't think there is anything bad about laity fulfilling these functions of lector, Eucharistic minister, and so on. I've definitely spent a fair number of my Masses serving in these ministries. But the primary way the laity participate - fully, actively, consciously - at the Mass is by PRAYING! I remember it wasn't until very late in my childhood that I realized when the priest said, "Let us call to mind our sins," that I was supposed to be, well, calling to mind my sins. So also, it took a liturgy class for me to discover that when the priest says, "Let us pray," and then pauses, he's expecting the congregation to be praying silently for a few moments in preparation for his own spoken prayer. I'd often absent-mindedly spent those little pauses thinking about what I was going to eat after Mass.

Anyway, here's the problem I'm trying to address. Occasionally it happens that we might meet a Catholic who has recently come alive in her faith - perhaps she's a re-vert to Catholicism or a convert. Or perhaps he might have never fallen away from Catholicism, but just now feels a desire to intensify his practice of the faith out of a newfound thirst for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (as Evangelicals would say).

One way of responding to such a person is to say: "That's great! Wanna be a Eucharistic minister?" Or, a particularly savvy pastor might have in mind a particular area where he needs assistance and take advantage of the person's enthusiasm and skills such, "Excellent! We need a 3rd grade catechist on Tuesdays!" Again, let me affirm that being a Eucharistic minister or a catechist can be a great way of serving the Church. And each of these activities (not to mention joining service organizations like St. Vincent De Paul Society, Rosary Society, Knights of Columbus) can truly help people to advance in holiness by providing avenues for good works and the company of others seeking holiness.

On the other hand, the universal call to holiness cannot be summed up as simply greater participation in ministries at Mass or Church organizations. Nor is the "priesthood of all believers" meant to imply that we all have to be involved in some aspect in the liturgy beyond the prayerful and liturgical actions associated with praying the Mass. In fact, that decree on the Apostolate of the Laity specifically says that the laity are consecrated for the royal priesthood "not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world.The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate."(3)

Rather, the sanctification of daily life must be a constant aspiration and struggle, not lived out in a few hours each week, but in every moment of the day. For that little flame of desire for holiness to become a fire, it must be fanned by a regularity of practice and constant discipline. But while this can be challenging for those of us with active family lives, this spiritual discipline is a more practical and useful beginning than are some of the the Church ministries or organizations that require us to be away from our families, whether during Mass (my husband's and my service as Eucharistic ministers and lectors basically ended when we got outnumbered by kids in the pew with us) or during the week (a great way to destroy a family is to have husband or wife gone every night participating in Church activities).

And this is where I thought Fr. Joseph Champlin's advice for a young girl considering religious life (which is canonically a lay state, by the way) could be useful for revisiting the universal call to holiness. His suggestions are all traditional Catholic practices, but unfortunately in this day and age, there are far too many of us that are ignorant of them. Whether for our own personal spiritual development, or for the next time we have a chance to advise someone who has recently come alive in the faith, here are Champlin's

“Twelve Guideposts Godwards”

1.       Confession – have a regular confessor and go frequently (e.g. monthly, weekly)
2.       Mass- attend with missal every day if possible
3.       Communion – receive every day
4.       Visits to the Blessed Sacrament – visit Jesus daily to honor Him and to receive strength in daily trials
5.       Examination of conscience – one minute each night about how well you have served God
6.       Aspirations – pick out a few indulgenced aspirations and say them often during the day
7.       Rosary – say it every day when you can 
8.       Spiritual reading – a few minutes each day, especially before bed, read some spiritual book      recommended by the confessor
9.       Obedience – be obedient to parents, teachers, confessor, daily crosses
10.   Cross – don’t complain and accept daily unpleasantries
11.   Moodiness – learn to control emotions, avoiding extremes and maintain calmness
12.   Cheerfulness – maintain an exterior smile even when troubled in heart

There are a few other basic Catholic practices that Champlin fails to mention, probably because he assumes the young lady would already be doing these, as were most Catholics of the time period. So I would add to his list, making a morning offering in order to dedicate all the work of the day to God and saying the Angelus at noon. Regular use of holy water, especially before bed, and time for mental or contemplative prayer are also beneficial.

Of course, it may be challenging to add in all these practices all at once. But if introduced gradually, I think most of us can find the time for them (especially if we cut out distractions in various forms of media, e.g. Rosary instead of listening to the radio in the car, and limiting Internet and television time). And these practices should help us to sanctify our family life, increasing our patience and willingness to make sacrifices cheerfully for the good of spouse and kids.

Champlin had high hopes that the reward for such good direction of a "future sister" would be the benefit of many prayers from the convent. But I have to say that even if such a lady discerned not to become a nun, the development of these practices in her life would still be of benefit for the Church. For, in responding to the universal call to holiness, nourished by the Eucharist and full, active, conscious participation in praying the liturgy, such a person would no doubt serve well as royal priest witnessing to Christ throughout the world, making spiritual sacrifices in everything that she does. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Maia Co-sleeping

Even now that she has her own bedroom, Maia hardly ever sleeps alone.

 Here she is with "Teddy," her dad's childhood bear (who is missing an eye...)
And here she is with her twins, Benjamin and Bernice. They recently got a "crib" (a white plastic crate) and so they haven't been sleeping with her lately.

Pregnancy and Mortification

(Here I am, making it look easy.)
The end of my first pregnancy happened to coincide with Lent, as Maia's due date was Easter Monday. I remember when Jeff asked me, with Lent approaching, if I had thought of what I might do as my Lenten penance. "Gosh," I said, "I thought maybe I'd weigh 40 pounds extra, have a constantly sore tailbone, non-stop acid reflux, sweat profusely in public, wear all unflattering clothes, have swollen hands and feet, get winded even on short walks, and generally just be uncomfortable." Novice husband that he was, Jeff smiled and said, "No, really, are you giving something up?"

And while I can rattle off a list of the discomforts of pregnancy pretty easily, I also admit that I have had pretty "easy" pregnancies compared to many women I know. Nonetheless, when a fellow parishioner approached me after Mass one day and asked how I was feeling (people love to ask pregnant women how they are feeling), and I said, fine, she proceeded to observe that I must have easy pregnancies if I've been willing to have four of them. To be honest, I think the underlying thought behind this comment was related to a daughter-in-law (or perhaps a couple of them) who is done having kids because the pregnancies were so tough. Or maybe I was just feeling defensive, because I responded that by eight months pregnant, there's nothing really easy about being pregnant, whether dealing with the oppressive summer heat (and no central AC mind you) or chasing an active toddler or whatever. I guess I just wanted it to be clear that I'm not having another child simply because it's "easy" for me to be pregnant nine months, give birth and then raise another child. Pregnancy, birth, motherhood--these things take sacrifices, let's be honest.

It's not that I want a gold medal or a trophy here, or some kind of "every day should be Mother's Day" existence. But I don't think we're doing anyone any good by pretending this stuff is easy. Of course, there are some women who just love being pregnant and seem to have no complaints. I think by the end of the pregnancy, however, most women are ready to be done being pregnant and have the baby in their arms. And many women find pregnancy to be extremely challenging - not just the physical discomfort, but the emotional roller coaster, the psychological aspect of "feeling fat" and so on. It's no wonder that so many women seek inductions towards the end of their pregnancies. Pregnancy IS hard! And it's also not surprising that one way to frame the sacrifice of pregnancy is to say that it's all worth it in the end, when you get the baby handed to you and it's all over... or rather, it's all just beginning. This is true for most of us, but I still think there's more that can be said.

One traditional Catholic teaching has been the penitential value of offering up unchosen suffering, or bearing cheerfully with the ills of life, as Catholics often said. Pregnancy provides all sorts of unchosen discomforts and inconveniences (some quite unpredictable, with variation from pregnancy to pregnancy), and there are various ways that people deal with these - complaining, for example. And believe me, it is hard not to complain when you wake up with basically non-functioning elephantine hands every morning. But another way to deal with these unchosen discomforts is to make some kind of effort to accept them as mortifications - little ways of dying to self, embracing the cross, living for others. I've found that having specific prayer intentions for various discomforts can be helpful in making them meaningful. They become not just cause for complaint, but an opportunity for prayer.

And I have to add that one of the great things about offering up the mortifications of pregnancy is that they are temporary. Unlike chronic ailments, the discomforts of pregnancy generally come to an end (OK, some exceptions) after the child is born. I always say I can't wait to go back to my binge-eating habits after I'm done with this stupid GIRD! (Just joking of course...) Knowing that there is an end in sight can help to get through to the end with more than just resignation to the discomforts. Even if it's hard to remain "cheerful" with the ills of life, one can find ways for pregnancy challenges to become meaningful and prayerful along the way, and not simply dependent upon knowing the reward that lies in store.

No one said it would be easy. But it can be worth it, in more than just one way. 

To the Top!

Just to back up the comment about Eva's climbing skills, here are some photos from the Cleveland Zoo this summer. Maia did a great job getting to the top of the rope structure. Eva got to the point where she was just a little too small to climb up on the ropes. So she shimmied up the pole instead. The older kids there were a little taken aback at the ease with which she made it to the top.

 Above is Maia already at the top, and Eva climbing up the pole.
 Here Eva is still climbing up the pole.
 Here she's at the top, and this photo gives more perspective on how high the rope structure is. Note the older kids looking up at her in shock.
 Here are the girls starting to come down.
And here is Patrick dreaming about next year, when he'll be up at the top, too.