Frog and Toad at Cana

Not long before he died, I was complaining to my father I couldn’t persuade any of my kids to go to a Catholic college. I said I knew they were getting decent educations at the places they chose, but still, I was sure my plan was better than theirs. Half jokingly, half dead serious, I groaned,  “How will they ever find a nice Catholic to marry?”

My father said, “Well, I found one at Brooklyn Public College!” He was half joking, half serious, too: the joke being that, when he met my mother, they were both about as far from Catholic as anyone could be.

They had both been raised as non-practicing Jews, met at college when they were both cutting class, got married in secret in a hurry, had a second public ceremony to appease the parents, dabbled in Buddhism, moved to a kibbutz in Israel, came home, briefly joined a cult, found the Lord, and then eventually became Catholic — my mother and older sister first, and my father and the rest of us a year later, when they had already been married for about 20 years. They ended up as a happy old married Catholic couple, but they certainly didn’t start that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage and God’s will and who belongs together and how and why marriages work. It is very true that it’s smart to do a thorough investigation of your own understanding of marriage and of your spouse’s expectations before you take the leap. But it really is a leap. You can’t guarantee that doing everything the smart way will result in a strong or happy marriage, and you can’t guarantee that a strong and happy marriage will stay that way. Sacramental grace is mysterious and unpredictable, and so is human nature. It’s a leap.

My parents made each other truly miserable sometimes. We kids saw a lot of that. You probably could have made the case that they didn’t belong together.  But by the end of my parents’ lives, I could think of all sorts of ways that God’s will had indisputably been carried out in their marriage.

Even my mother’s dementia seems to have worked some kind of transformation on my father, and the last years of their lives together did something mysterious but important to him. They weren’t even really together; he just visited her in the nursing home every day, fed her, prayed with her, and was delighted when she would occasionally mumble “amen.” By the time he died, he was a happy man; happier than I ever remember seeing him. And then, her final work done, my mother died too.

Does this mean they were made for each other? Yes and no. They eventually became made for each other, I know that. I know couples who seem so incredibly well suited for each other, it’s hard to imagine them living any other life other than with each other. And I know couples who are monstrously incompatible, and seem to belong with each other even if they don’t make each other very happy. There are all kinds of successful marriages. Marriage is strange. Life is strange.

The other day, we prayed the second luminous mystery of the rosary, which is the Wedding at Cana.

“When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you,’” we read.

Jesus hadn’t yet done any public miracles, and apparently didn’t think it was the right time to start yet; but Mary was apparently focused on saving a young couple just starting out from the embarrassment of not being able to serve their guests. We’re all familiar with the somewhat amusing account of mother and son having a little spat, and the mother confidently assuming he’ll do what she says. But it occurred to me for the first time: They are both sinless. This means that neither one of them could have wanted to do something that was against God’s will. And yet they disagreed about what was best to do! What does this mean?

I think it speaks to the notion that God’s will is hardly ever one specific action or decision. Sometimes it is certainly clear: Don’t murder, for instance. Don’t do evil. But it’s much more common, when we’re faced with choices, to be torn between a few different possibilities which might be good, but we’re not sure yet how they will turn out. It’s pretty rare that we can just “do whatever he tells us” and know for sure that we’re doing the right thing. Even when one choice seems like the natural, godly, wholesome choice, and the other seems more murky and less desirable, we really can rarely say, “This one is definitely God’s will, and that one is definitely not”.

We have to take a leap, and the leap is important, but even more so is what comes next. It’s rarely the leap that puts us either in or out of God’s will; it’s what we make of where we landed, and what we do with the grace we find there.

I was mulling all this over when a quote popped up in my Twitter feed. It was a line from one of my favorite “Frog and Toad” stories by Arnold Lobel. Toad, after admiring his friend’s garden, wants to start one of his own. So he plants the seeds, but they don’t immediately sprout. Fretting, and increasingly frantic, he spends the next few days exhausting himself with trying to make it happen: He plays music for them, he reads poems to them, but nothing works. Then Frog gives him some advice:

“Leave them alone for a few days. Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them. Then your seeds will start to grow.”

And this, of course, works. The seeds start to grow. Toad has done the work that’s indispensable: He has put the seeds in the ground. Then he wastes a lot of effort and anxiety trying to force things to work out well in the time he expects. Finally, he gives up and while he sleeps, the larger forces at work, the rain, the sun, and time work to achieve the thing he is longing for. The seeds sprout. He has his garden.

And . . . an angry boy in Brooklyn ends up married to a nice Catholic girl who brings him to Jesus and makes him very happy, eventually. A mother has done her best and then tries to sit back and let her adult-ish children make their choices about college and everything else, because they are adults, ish. Let the sun shine on them. Let the rain fall on them. Let people take their leaps, and let the Holy Spirit do what he does when they land. It really is the only way.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself. I have taken the leap. We’ll see.

***
A version of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly in August of 2021.

We were all out of ideas, so we tried the rosary

My husband and I agreed: It’s not that it’s magic, or anything. It’s definitely not magic. But it’s unmistakable: Saying a decade of the rosary together every day is changing our lives. Not drastically. Just a little bit. But undeniably.

We are not the kind of couple you’d look at and say, “Oh yeah, they’re big into the rosary.”

I never liked the rosary. I was never sure if I was supposed to be focusing on the mystery, or the prayer, or my intentions, or some combination. It was what you did as a penance, or because your parents made you. I never knew if I was supposed to be coming up with some brilliant new insight into the life of Mary, or finding some kind of spiritual comfort in the familiarity of the *lack* of brilliant new insight, or what. And darn it, I always lose track and end up saying either nine or eleven Hail Marys.

But more and more often, dealing with the problems that naturally come with full lives, we found ourselves saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I just don’t know what to do.” And while there is some relief that comes with realizing your own limitations, sometimes we really did have to do something, and we were just at sea. We do both know how to work our way through a set of beads, though, so at very least it seemed like a rosary couldn’t hurt.

We already go running together most days, so we decided to make a decade of the rosary part of the routine. Since we’ve made it a daily practice, literally come rain or shine . . . well, things have been better.

Surely, part of the improvement is attributable to human psychology: When you decide to commit to doing something to make your life better, that in itself helps. By making an effort, you’re signaling to yourself that you’re worthy of effort and worth taking care of; and this is a thought that, repeated often enough, is very likely to improve your outlook on life. It’s a self-fulfilling self-help routine.

But that doesn’t explain everything.Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via Maxpixel (Creative Commons)

 

Frog and Toad at Cana

Not long before he died, I was complaining to my father I couldn’t persuade any of my kids to go to a Catholic college. I said I knew they were getting decent educations at the places they chose, but still, I was sure my plan was better than theirs. Half jokingly, half dead serious, I groaned,  “How will they ever find a nice Catholic to marry?”

My father said, “Well, I found one at Brooklyn Public College!” He was half joking, half serious, too: the joke being that, when he met my mother, they were both about as far from Catholic as anyone could be.

They had both been raised as non-practicing Jews, met at college when they were both cutting class, got married in secret in a hurry, had a second public ceremony to appease the parents, dabbled in Buddhism, moved to a kibbutz in Israel, came home, briefly joined a cult, found the Lord, and then eventually became Catholic — my mother and older sister first, and my father and the rest of us a year later, when they had already been married for about 20 years. They ended up as a happy old married Catholic couple, but they certainly didn’t start that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage and God’s will and who belongs together and how and why marriages work… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay

Napoleon at the baptismal font

There’s really no sense in saying, “I’m interested in Christ, but only a little bit, please.” You gotta go all in.

So where do Napoleon and his crown-grabbing ways fit it? Well, I have seen a good number of Catholics who strongly identify with Catholicism and are heavily involved with other Catholics. The drive and hunger is there. But as soon as it comes time to kneel and accept something good and meaningful from God, they don’t just gleefully, joyfully go for it. Instead, they grab it out of his hands and bestow it on themselves.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Marie-Victoire Jaquotot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

When we’re mad at God because we’ve sinned

The other night, I was having a mild panic attack in the middle of the night, and I dealt with it this way: I breathed in while thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” and then breathed out while thinking, “But I place my trust in Jesus.” I accepted my ignorance and my uncertainty, and I reclaimed my knowledge of the one true thing that will always be true, which is Jesus Himself.

It got me through that one bad night. But there has not been a single second in my life when that was not an appropriate prayer.

Read the rest of my latest from The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Max Pixel (Public Domain)

Thanks, Mom.

twopenny starvers

Does she cook and clean for us and do our laundry? Oh, yes, she does. She feeds us with grace, with the Word of God, and with Eucharist, and she invites us to throw our smelly old sins down the chute and — okay, here the analogy breaks down. I guess she washes, dries, and folds our consciences for us, and leaves them in a tidy stack on our bed? She bustles around, caring for our needs, even anticipating our needs, telling us what we need and making sure we have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of what she has to offer us, from birth to maturity to death.

She knows us intimately, cares for us personally, never stops thinking about us, never stops loving us, never stops desiring everything good for us. But the Church is about more than us — and she’s about more than giving us stuff, too. Mother Church isn’t just a sacrament dispenser, who fades into existence for an hour here and there, whenever we need something; and we should be careful not to treat her that way.

Read the rest at the Register.

***

image by Paul Townsend

(And I realize it’s some obscure Anglican tradition in the photo, but I found this image so charming, I couldn’t bring myself to find something else.)

A little fish can go a long way!

ICTHUS

He had to rethink his strategy. A good idea is only a good idea if people will actually use it. So instead of distributing the iron in formless lumps, he tried shaping the iron into a fish — specifically, one local to the communities he hoped to help.

Read the rest at the Register. 

***

At the Register: An Army that Intends to Win

The Bishop reminded the confirmandi that it wasn’t that long ago that they received a cross of ashes on their foreheads, signifying to them that this day is fleeting, this life is fleeting. We will all someday die. Then he reminded them to take note of the new cross that was on their foreheads as he spoke. This was cross made of sweet, spicy chrism, a shining cross which has something new to say: You were not made for death.

Oh, I had forgotten! Just because that is where we are headed, that doesn’t mean it was the original plan. And it doesn’t mean it’s the final word. Being confirmed means you are part of an army that intends to fight, an army that is ready to die if necessary — but you are part an army that intends to win.

Read the rest at the Register.

I can’t resist adding a picture of my lovely daughter with Bishop Libasci and my mother-in-law, who looks a lot more like my daughter’s mother than I do!

God is faithful, but we’re not marrying God.

PIC split tree bound back together

Every day, I bless a merciful God that there was no internet to speak of when I was younger. This means there are no insanely humiliating photos of me in a crop top and acid wash harem pants. It also means that I never published an article like this one in Catholic Exchange:  Marriage Is Work.

In this piece, which I absolutely would have written as a newlywed, the earnest, not-yet-married Emma Smith hears her secular coworkers lamenting the way their ex-husbands had cheated on them

“There’s so much of that out there!” my boss exclaimed. “I know one of my girlfriends who is cheating on her husband and I know a couple of other people where both of them are cheating. I guess you’re lucky if it doesn’t happen to you.”

Smith goes on to explain to the reader that she knows that her soon-to-be husband will never cheat on her.  She knows this.  She knows for a fact that it simply will not happen.

Marriage isn’t a drawing of the straws, where if your spouse cheats on you, well, “sorry, you just drew the short straw. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it!” It’s not an institution where if you are a strong, happy, and healthy couple you’re just “the lucky ones.”

And she knows, she says, that people will think she’s just young and naive for knowing that her husband will always be faithful.

And yet, I can say that. I can say that because I have a faith and a God who stand behind me in that statement. And I can say that because the love my fiancé and I share is not human, it is divine. We love each other because we love God and we have discovered that in loving one another, we get to love God more fully. Moreover, the love that we have for one another is divine in origin. God gave it to us at our baptism and it had a full 15-20ish years to grow and mature so that when we met, it blossomed.

Well, let’s start with all the ways that Smith is right.  She says that “marriage is something you work on … marriage is a calling.”  And she is right.  She says:

Our faith allows us to make these promises [of faithfulness] because He who gave us love was faithful in His love until the end. … We as Catholics are granted the same strength of faithfulness to the end when we return our love to the one who is love. When we participate in making our love a sacrament, when we make a way for God’s grace to enter the world every day, when we demonstrate outwardly our inner devotion, we can say with full knowledge and confidence that we are not in a game of luck.

Yes indeed. A strong marriage doesn’t just spring into being on its own. If we translate our love of God into love for our spouses, and when we let our love for our spouses nourish our love for God, then we will be fulfilling our vocation.

But that’s it:  we’ll be fulfilling our vocation, period. That is all we can depend on: that God will be faithful to us.  Beyond that, things can get very messy.  When Catholics fulfill their vocation of marriage, it can turn out looking like an awful lot of things, and that includes ugly, painful things that may or may not ever get resolved in this lifetime.

Because here’s the deal: you aren’t marrying God. You’re marrying another human being. Your spouse is marrying you, and you are a human being.

And what do we know about human beings? They sin. They sin, and they sin, and they sin. Sometimes they enter into a valid marriage and then they cheat. Sometimes they understand fully what they are supposed to do, and they just don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes calamity strikes, and they crumple under the blow.  Sometimes they let their own sorrows and weaknesses and selfishness overcome the love that is offered to them. Sometimes — no, my friends, always — they are a tangled ball of good intentions and bad habits, unhealed wounds and unfounded desires.

Many, many times, the grace of the sacrament helps us to avoid serious sin. Sometimes, though, the grace of the sacrament helps us to forgive each other when we sin. Sometimes it helps us to survive when our spouses refuse to repent.

So the confident if untried Emma Smith is right in sighing over the fatalistic modern view of marriage — right in condemning the idea that some people just get lucky, and there’s no way of improving your odds. But she is disastrously, innocently, offensively wrong when she thinks that we can somehow guarantee that things will turn out well, just because we intend to work hard.

Ever heard of Hosea’s wife? Ever heard of Israel? Ever heard of the entire human race? God knows that this is what happens when you enter into a marriage with another human being: one way or another, sooner or later, your love will be rewarded with pain. And I know this because I love my husband — my faithful, loving husband — and I’ve hurt him.
I pray to God, and I hurt my husband.
I understand marriage, I believe in marriage, I have spent years upon years working on my marriage, and I hurt my husband. And He forgives me, just as I forgive him.

I am glad that Smith understands so well that the grace of marriage is something that must be actively pursued, consciously acted upon. And I hope that her confidence in her husband is rewarded with unbroken faithfulness and love, and that she will not be shattered when she discovers that he does have flaws. I hope that people read her piece and realize that it makes sense to look hard for a spouse who is trustworthy.

But I hope to God she is never involved in any kind of marriage ministry — not with the childish understanding of marriage that she has now. What will she say to the woman whose husband is cheating? Or to the man whose wife won’t stay sober, or won’t stop gambling, or won’t stop browbeating him in public? What will she say to the spouses who do work hard, and have found themselves sinned against? Maybe “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how you could have worked harder to prevent this. Good marriages aren’t just a matter of luck, you know.”

And what will she say to herself when she finds herself sinning against her husband? Maybe she will not cheat, but oh, she will hurt him. She will.  This isn’t a warning about your husband-to-be, dear confident, untried brides. It’s a warning about you.