One Theresa at a time: A quick note to new Catholics

By this time of year, newly baptized Catholics have really begun to settle in to their pews, physically and metaphorically. The solemn rites are long since accomplished, the party is over, and now the hard and joyful work of practicing the faith begins.

At this stage, it’s not uncommon for new converts to begin to take on a slightly baffled look, because while they definitely felt overcome with Paschal joy at the time, they may now also feel overwhelmed with . . . Catholicism in general. Specifically, the vast and bewildering array of cultural and liturgical and pious practices and customs and traditions that never came up in RCIA, but which everyone around seems to know about, and treats as if they’re completely foundational to their faith. Saints, prayers, holy days, sacramentals, pieties, practices, not to mention synods and sodalities and bitter Twitter fights over doctrine. It’s all a bit much. 

Fear not, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve been a Catholic for most of my life, and I feel exactly the same way. Just about every time I spend time with a large group of Catholics, in or outside of church, I end up hearing something that makes me feel like a newcomer. 

I have come to conclude that the Catholic church is, like, really really big, and as such, it is, like, really really full of stuff. I’m never going to feel completely caught up, and that’s okay. As long as I keep trying to come back to Jesus, it’s okay. 

Here are just a few of the things that I, as a nearly lifelong Catholic, still find confounding:

I can’t keep my creeds straight. When I was little, my mother had me memorize the Nicene creed. Or possibly the Apostle’s Creed. It was definitely the one that we didn’t say at Mass, and I could say it! as long as we weren’t at Mass. If we were at Mass, I could only say the one everyone else was saying, whichever one that was. You just get swept along with the general rumble of the crowd and you don’t stand a chance. I fully understand that people have shed blood over whether it ought to be homoousios or homoiousios, and I admire that, but if I were at Nicea, let me tell you, I would have not have been helpful. The body is not made up of one part, but many, and I am the part saying, “Wha?” and I’m too old to change. And yet I am still a real Catholic. 

I can only know about one Theresa at a time. There are about fourteen different St Theresas (including Thereses and Teresas, not to mention Thérèses). Some of them said something about how people are like flowers; some of them apparently are little flowers in some way that escapes me at the moment. We have a picture of one of them dressed up like an entirely different saint, purely to be confusing. The one I’m very clear on is Mother Teresa, because I remember when she was alive and hanging out with President Reagan, who was also alive at the time. I saw them on TV, so that helps. But then there is the Theresa with the nice cheeks. You know the one. Beyond that, I am completely at sea, and when people start going on about the Interior Castle, my eyes glaze over and I wonder if there will be sandwiches at this thing, or what. And yet I am still a real Catholic. 

I have no idea how to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I’m very much in favor of mercy, but when I see a chaplet, it’s pretty clear to me that that’s just a stumpy little rosary, and I feel that this is much easier to lose in the washing machine than a normal rosary. So what you should do is get yourself a normal rosary, say part of it, and fall asleep. Boom, divine mercy. Boom, real Catholic! 

The liturgical calendar in general.  I’m already losing my mind over here trying to keep Christ in Christmas while buying presents for everybody but not too many presents, and making sure we’re all sufficiently praying for the souls in purgatory while we dress up like zombies, because if we don’t do that, we’ll drive our children away from the faith, and so on. And we won’t even talk about what it does to your psyche to cook for Passover while you’re fasting on Good Friday.

So I have given myself a pass for, for instance, having to look up every single Holy Day of Obligation every single time, every single year, and I don’t even feel bad about it. I only have so many brain cells. When I hear about people also keeping track of First Fridays or First Saturdays and then also ember days and rogation days and whatever the hell it is, I just assume they are praying for me, or people very much like me, and it will all even out. See above: Divine Mercy. Boom. 

In short, it’s a big church. A very very very big church. And if you keep coming across things that are unfamiliar, don’t think of it as evidence that you’re a stranger. File it under “treats for later,” and maybe you’ll get to it in this world, and maybe you won’t. But someone is definitely praying for you, and we’re so glad you jumped in and became a real Catholic. Just keep coming back to Jesus, and you’ll be okay. 

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A version of this essay was first published on August 1, 2022 at The Catholic Weekly

How to pray after receiving Communion

You would think that, by now, I would know how to get through the Mass. I don’t have little babies to keep me trotting up and down the aisles, and I don’t have toddlers that need to be taken to the bathroom three or four times. I’m not even breaking up rosary tug-of-war tournaments or fishing pieces of the bulletin out of anyone’s mouth. I have arrived: It’s finally just more or less me and the Lord.

And I’m finding I’m not exactly sure what to do — especially right after I receive Him in the Eucharist.

This . . . seems like a problem, because I know perfectly well that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. So it feels weird to receive it and then go back to my pew and not be overwhelmed. I know spiritual integrity is not about emotion, but it really is disturbing that I find it much easier to focus and pay attention at every other part of the Mass. Right after receiving the Eucharist, though, my mind wanders, and I hate that.

There are, of course, prayers for this. It’s never a bad thing to look up prayers written by someone else for a specific occasion, and you get zero points for having memorized a prayer, or for coming up with something original. But somehow I can never find the right page, or it never occurs to me to print something out ahead of time. And to be honest, I have never found one that I really like.

You can see that I have a tendency to fret and interrogate myself over whether I’m praying right, which very effectively prevents me from praying at all. And I hate that, too. Although I take some comfort in remembering that even the twelve apostles, who knew Jesus personally and intimately and were sitting at the same table with Him at the very first Mass, were also pretty confused, and were not sure what to say or think when He started offering them His body and blood. This is strange stuff!

Some people will say “Just tell Jesus what’s in your heart!” Fine, but also not happy with my own extemporaneous prayer. Somewhere along the way, in my efforts to focus my conscious prayer properly and not miss the moment, I started to feel that the miracle of transubstantiation was sort of the main attraction, and that it was this mystery that I must train all my attention and focus on.

Don’t get me wrong; transubstantiation is very cool. There’s plenty of food for thought, as it were, in the idea of Jesus using ordinary, physical food and making it into his body and blood that feeds us. But it would be a mistake to lose sight of the thing that happens whether we consume that food or not: Christ does not die again, but he does give himself to us again. He does not suffer again, but he does come to save us. Right there, at the altar, right in front of us.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, but we don’t necessarily go to Mass only to receive the Eucharist. We still have the obligation to attend Mass even if we don’t intend to receive; and while we’re there, what we witness and, to whatever extent we’re able, what we join ourselves with, is the sacrifice of the Mass. I have found it very helpful — centering, if you can tolerate that word — to recall and dwell on the unbloody re-creation of the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than on my subsequent reception of it.

In fact, it’s been a relief to put the focus on the sacrifice, rather than on receiving. On Him, rather than on me — imagine that.

Maybe I’m making this sound very theologically elevated. It’s really not.  It’s sort of like realizing that someone has been quietly, faithfully tending and irrigating your farmland, and will continue to do so, should you chose to plant something. 

Here’s a little background:

Several years ago, I got it into my head to interview one of my children on the occasion of the annunciation. I suppose if it had gone poorly — if she had claimed there were four persons of the trinity, or that the middle one was named Jeremy — I wouldn’t have saved it; but as it happens, it went well. So well that it popped into my head the other day, as I was struggling with these questions of how to arrange my heart at Mass.

Here’s the pertinent part: I asked her what day it was, and she said it was the annunciation, “when Mary was told she was having a baby”.

Me: Who told her that?
Kid: A angel.
Me: What did the angel say?
Kid: You are gonna have a baby.
Me: Who will the baby be?
Kid: Jesus.
Me: Is Jesus just a regular boy?
Kid: No.
Me: Who is he gonna be?
Kid: A ruler of the world.
Me: A ruler of the world like a president or a king?
Kid: No.
Me: How?
Kid: He made the earth, he made everything, he even made himself!
Me: Kind of! God was not made. God always was. There was never a time when there was no God, ’cause that’s what we mean when we say ‘God’: That nobody made him. So, when the angel said to Mary, ‘You’re going to have a baby,’ what did she say?
Kid: ‘But I’m not even married!’
Me: And what did the angel say?
Kid: I don’t know.
Me: The angel said, ‘Don’t worry, this baby comes from God, and God will take care of you.”
Kid: But he is God
Me: It’s confusing, huh?
Kid: I know. Maybe God had a duplicator machine.
Me: Okay. So, anyway, so what did Mary say? Did she say, ‘Heck no, I don’t want any part of that?’
Kid: No.
Me: So what did she say?
Kid: ‘Thank you.’

This is not strictly scriptural, but doesn’t it sound right? What do you say what someone offers you Jesus? You say “thank you.” And he will never take advantage of your gratitude, or use it against you, because he’s not a regular boy.

Many times over the years, from many people, I’ve gotten the advice to simply be quiet, simply rest in Jesus. This is not bad advice, but I don’t think people realize how aspirational it comes across, to an anxious person. It’s sort of like telling an unemployed person to have a nest egg for their retirement. That does sound wonderful, but how to get there?

Well, if you’re an anxious pray-er who would like to rest more in prayer, just saying “Thank you” is a good way to start. Or even just remembering, “I am here because someone is offering me Jesus” is a good way to start. You don’t have to know exactly what it all means; it’s more like you’re acknowledging that you’re there in a receptive mode, or that you would like to be. It’s simple, it’s honest, and frankly, it puts the ball in Jesus’ court. When you go to Mass, you show up because you  know (or even maybe you just hope, or would like to believe) Jesus is coming; and when He does, you say, “Thank you.” When the sacrifice of the Mass happens at the altar, I try to remember to say “thank you.” If I’m able to receive communion, I try to remember to say “thank you.”

And that’s it. That’s the whole thing. You can elaborate on this approach and you can certainly grow in sincerity as planted seeds take root; but I suspect you can’t improve on it. Because Jesus is not a regular boy. 

 

 

 

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A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly on August 9, 2002.

Image: Andrzej Otrębski, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Mellifluus on distraction in prayer

Today, a few days before his feast day, is a great day for this story about St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

Bernard was riding his horse up into the Alps to give a retreat, and as he passed a farmer along the road he heard a loud grunt. He stopped to look down at the him, and the farmer remarked, “I envy you, with nothing to do but pray while I have to kill myself working in this rocky soil.”

Bernard said, “Well, praying can be even harder work that digging around those stones.”

“I doubt that very much,” the man said, “With that beautiful horse and the gorgeous saddle, what do you know of hardship?”

Up till then Bernard hadn’t given any attention to his mount. He said, ”It is a beautiful horse, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end without taking your mind off it, I’ll give you this horse.”

“That’s so generous of you,” the man said; and he began praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…do I get the saddle too?” 

(more here from Word on Fire) 

I knew the basic story, but not the context that the man considered prayer easy; and I didn’t realize it was St. Bernard who featured as the wise monk.  St. Bernard is the patron of our local church, but I know almost nothing about him (but I’m reading up! Here’s some great information from Amy Wellborn). The white plaster statue of him that used to be in the narthex includes a large bee near his feet — I guess because he is known as “Doctor Mellifluus,” or “honey-sweet doctor [of the Church]” because of his sweetly flowing eloquence.

Speaking of distraction from prayer, that narthex is where parents of small children often find themselves when they’re fulfilling their Sunday obligation in the most basic way: by being bodily inside the walls, even if they can’t catch more than a second or two of actual prayer time. Our parish is pretty kid-friendly, but the narthex makes a good rumpus room for the truly bonkers; and that is where St. Bernard stood, too.

One mother I saw kept her kid happy by carrying him up to the feet of the statue, finding the bee, making contact with her son’s little hand clasped in hers, and going, “BZZT!” Kid laughs, forgets to wreak havoc, everyone’s happy. Honey sweet, indeed.

We can draw a few things from this:

First, that saints don’t require us to know anything about them. They’re here to help, period. St. Bernard, who happens to be a great Biblical scholar and reformer, is perfectly content to also be Anonymous Plaster Bee Guy Who Entertains Buggy Kids. It’s a very good thing to do your homework and get to know the saints, but you can also just stretch out your hand and ask for help from all of God’s friends the saints, and they’ll oblige. I can think of numerous stories of people reaching out to saints, drawn in by some random appealing detail, and they turned out later to be a very willing patron. There’s a pretty good Thomas More story on this theme.

Second, if a quick “bzzt” of contact is all you can manage in your prayer life, then DO THAT. Don’t wait until you can get on your knees and say twenty decades without your mind wandering — because, as the story demonstrates, focused prayer is harder than it looks, even highly motivated people can’t seem to help but be distracted. It’s just the human condition. So the remedy is to keep making contact, keep coming back, keep regrouping, keep putting a check on that tendency we have, like restless kids in the pew, to lose focus and bug out.

We don’t have to be the most skillful bees; it’s God that will bring honey from the rock, if he so choses. But you do have to show up; and you do have to eventually acknowledge that it’s not about your efforts, at all. It’s about Jesus. “All food of the soul is dry”, he professed, “unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it.”

Third, I forget what three was for. Oh yes! St. Bernard, pray for us.

Bzzt!

 

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Image: honey bee, photo by Oregon State University via Flickr (Creative Commons)

God vs. me

Several years ago, I started saying a novena to St. Michael. There were several serious situations that needed rescue, and I thought, there’s clearly a battle going on here; why not go to the guy with the giant wings and the big, flaming sword?

Imagine my surprise when the novena talked mostly about . . . humility.

Opening prayer:

St. Michael the Archangel, we honor you as a powerful protector of the Church and guardian of our souls. Inspire us with your humility, courage and strength that we may reject sin and perfect our love for our Heavenly Father.

In your strength and humility, slay the evil and pride in our hearts so that nothing will keep us from God.

And the closing prayer is even more striking:

St. Michael the Archangel, you are the prince of angels but in your humility you recognized that God is God and you are but His servant. Unlike satan, you were not overcome with pride but were steadfast in humility. Pray that we will have this same humility.

It is in the spirit of that humility that we ask for your intercession for our petitions…

A strange virtue to emphasize for a figure we’re used to thinking of as a conquering hero. Why would the prayer stress Michael’s humility?

One reason is to draw out a contrast between him and his virtue, and their opposites. We’ve all heard very often that Satan’s downfall was pride. Without thinking too deeply, we might be led to believe that this means Satan just got too confident, and God had to squish him down into hell to avoid competition. This is, of course, a comic-book version of cosmology, and has nothing to do with actual theology.

Let’s be clear: When we talk about the sin of pride, whether it’s Satan’s fateful cosmic sin or our own homegrown variety, we don’t mean self confidence, or believing in oneself, or even vanity. We mean an inordinate love of self. Literally inordinate, as in out of order, as in putting oneself in a place where only God belongs. Pride means that, for all the things for which we should look to God, we look to ourselves, instead.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you do it often enough, it literally ruins your life. When pride is really serious, we look only to ourselves, and never to God. This is why it takes an angel with a sword to fight back against the sin of pride. It’s a big deal.

Humility is the opposite of this horrible error. Humility is when we have things in the right order: We know when to look to God and when to look to ourselves. We understand what our place is in relation to God. We understand who we are. We do not confuse ourselves with God, or try to take on roles that belong to him.

I’m struck how, in the prayer, it describes a sort of battle that takes place not in heaven, but in every human soul: the battle between pride and humility. Unlike angels, we live in time, and don’t make cosmic choices for all eternity. Instead, we make choice after choice after choice, building habits, growing in virtue, failing, backsliding, starting again.

And I’m realizing, as I get older, how often these battles aren’t always a matter of good vs. evil, of the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil vs. the human soul. Sometimes they are! But some of the struggles we find ourselves fighting are, perhaps, a different battle in disguise.

In his spiritual memoir He Leadeth Me, Fr Walter Ciszek speaks of the dreadful shame and horror he felt after he cracked under the pressure of psychological torture in the Russian gulag. But eventually he came to see that his very failure was a kind of release for him — a chance to stop looking to himself for strength and courage, and instead to depend totally and radically on God.

The battle he had been fighting wasn’t exterior at all. It was actually within himself. It had been hard to see, because what he was struggling to do was God’s work; but he was struggling to do it using his own strength and perseverance, rather than relying on God’s. That’s why he identifies his struggle as a lack of humility.

“Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to His will is what the virtue of humility is all about,” he says.

“For humility is truth, the full truth, the truth that encompasses our relation to God the Creator and through Him to the world He has created and to our fellowmen. And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested. It is self that is humiliated; there would be no ‘humiliation’ if we had learned to put self in its place, to see ourselves in proper perspective before God and other men. And the stronger the ingredient of self develops in our lives, the more severe must our humiliations be in order to purify us. That was the terrible insight that dawned upon me in the cell at Lubianka as I prayed, shaken and dejected, after my experience with the interrogator.”

Later, he says:

“It was not the Church that was on trial in Lubianka. It was not the Soviet Government or the KGB versus Walter Ciszek. It was God versus Walter Ciszek.”

A strange battle indeed.

Sometimes, spiritual battles really are a matter of taking up our swords and fighting courageously against a clear evil in front of us. But sometimes they are more subtle, and more insidious than that. Sometimes the terrible pressure we feel is coming from the inside, as we try to maintain an agonized control, or illusion of control, over our own lives. It can’t be done. I do keep trying, but I know it can’t be done.

It’s God vs. me, and I at least know who I ought to want to win, even if I don’t always feel that way. St. Michael, come to our aid, and help us stop fighting God.

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This essay was originally published under a different title in The Catholic Weekly on March 14, 2022.

St. Michael Icon image by George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A good way to use the adoration chapel

When I was in college, my roommate and I used to hang out in the chapel on campus sometimes. She liked to do her homework there, because it was so quiet and peaceful. Sometimes, if she had the place to herself, she would sing, because the acoustics were so good. I thought both practices were a little weird, and not really the right way to use the chapel, which ought to be used for prayer.

My best friend and I would sometimes hurtle into the chapel and land on our knees to rattle off a few desperate decades of the rosary, begging Mary to help us pass some test we hadn’t studied for, because we had spent the night drinking beer in the woods, instead. I knew some of the upperclassmen (including our big sisters) thought this was a pretty shoddy practice, because the chapel was a spot for quiet, contemplative prayer, not vending machine-style intercessions.

Then there were some tormented evenings throughout my early adulthood when I would turn up in any unlocked church I could find just because it was open and I didn’t know where else to go, and all I could do was sit there and feel terrible because I didn’t know how else to feel. It seemed like at very least it couldn’t possibly hurt to feel that way inside the walls of a chapel.

Then for a long time, after I started my family, I was too busy to go to the chapel. There were years and years where I was barely even physically at Mass on Sundays, because I was always wrestling with a toddler in the foyer, or dragging a screaming baby out of the building, or trotting back and forth to the bathroom with a kindergartener. I looked back on those previous years when the chapel just stood there waiting for me, and I could pop in any time I wanted, and I couldn’t believe how poorly I used that precious time.

There was a good long spell a few years ago when I made wonderful use of the chapel. I had a whole program of prayer worked out, and I made sure I followed through on all of it every time. I prayed every kind of prayer I knew how to do, and I brought a list of people to pray for. I was so busy and so thorough, and did so well. I kept this up for as long as I could, until I got too busy again.

And I’m still busy, sometimes miserably busy, but I decided to sign up anyway. Or I guess because of how busy I am, I decided to sign up. I have started to figure out that the busy-ness doesn’t go away; it just shifts and takes on a different character.

Now when I go to the chapel, I don’t use my time well. I don’t use my time at all. I just sit there. These are strange days, and it seems like there is less and less I am sure of, fewer and fewer things I feel comfortable putting into words, even silently, even in prayer. So mostly I just sit. The time passes slowly.

Sometimes I feel like a rock at the bottom of the ocean, much too heavy to be stirred much by waves moving overhead. Sometimes I fall asleep, and that doesn’t seem so bad.

That’s the good thing about not having an agenda: Even if you can’t manage to stay conscious, you’re not missing anything. All you’re trying to do is be there, and you can do that when you’re asleep. Just be there.

Somebody said that the way to encounter God is to empty oneself, because God cannot bear emptiness, and will fill you with Himself. I can’t say that I have noticed that happening. I have noticed that I have some pity on my past self, though. I no longer look back and think, “Oh, what a fool I was to use the chapel so poorly. I should have known better; I should have done differently.”

Instead, I think, “At least I was there. I was sitting there with the only one in the world who is always glad to see me.” And that’s a good way to use the chapel. Whatever I had at the time, whatever I was, I brought with me, and that’s what I’m doing now, even though it looks a lot like nothing at all. All I do is sit. At least I’m there. I believe it’s a good way to use the chapel.

A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on February 16, 2022.

 

Don’t be shy about saying grace in public

My kids once asked me if I knew what my own first word was, when I was a baby. And I had to tell them that it was “Amen.”

They were a little abashed. What a holy, prayerful child I must have been! But it wasn’t like that. My family always prayed before we ate, and since “amen” came right before the food, I thought it meant “Let’s eat.”

“AMEN! AMEN!” I would apparently holler like a pudgy little zealot, banging my spoon on the high chair tray like one hungering for the word of God, but actually just hungry.

The prayer we said before we got to “Amen” was a sort of all-purpose Hebrew prayer of blessing before a meal: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro. “Blessed art thou, o Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things exist.”

I have taught this prayer to my children, and this is the one we usually say before we eat at our house. It is very likely that, according to Jewish tradition, this is the wrong prayer to pray for most meals we eat (there are various prayers for different kinds of food), but as my kids tell their friends, we are only Jew-ish anyway, so we’re doing the best we can. I like it because it covers the bases: It acknowledges the majesty of God over everything that exists, including myself, and my family, and this plate of rigatoni or whatever. Amen, let’s eat.

And yes, we pray this prayer even when there are guests over. We give them a little warning that we’re going to pray in Hebrew, and they’re welcome to bow their heads if they’d like. Occasionally it has led to some interesting conversations about our heritage or about our faith.

And yes, we pray this prayer even when we’re eating out in public. I have always encouraged my kids to pray before they eat no matter where they are. I think it’s important.

They don’t have to make a big show of it. There is a fine line between being a witness and being a weirdo. To illustrate… Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: Saying Grace, a 1951 painting by Norman Rockwell. Painted for the cover of the November 24, 1951 (Thanksgiving) issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Wikipedia

 

Praying for Ukraine

This week we are praying for Ukraine, of course. I keep circling and circling the news like an anxious animal at a closed door, looking for a way in.

My great grandparents were from Ukraine, from somewhere around Kyiv. That is pretty much all I know. The photo above is them, about halfway through their migration. 

Their names were Zelda and Feivel, and the children in this visa photo are Gosel, Hana, and Schloima. Hana, the little one in the hat, was my father’s mother. It took years for the family to finally get off the continent — so long that my great grandmother had a whole other baby before they made it. I believe this photo was taken in Bucharest, partway through their escape. 

My great grandparents shed their old names and became Jenny and Philip, and the children became Jerry, Anne, and Sammy. They also left behind most of their physical possessions. My great grandfather was rich, a fur merchant. The story goes that he hid in the root cellar while the bolsheviks pounded on the door to conscript him into the army, so his wife told them he had deserted the family. Then they escaped Kiev and sold my great grandmother’s jewels, and just about everything else they owned, to buy boat passage.

So our family now has very little in the way of heirlooms. There are two brass candlesticks that one of my sisters claimed, which I assume are from the old country. I always thought they looked like someone had dropped an egg down inside them, but that’s all I know about them. There is a framed piece of yellowed cloth with a scene embroidered faintly on it, a girl leaning on a fence to face a young man in a cap, loose pants, and high boots, with a gun and a pack like a soldier. It has Cyrillic letters picked out along the bottom, and someone told me it says “Give me a kiss before you go.” (My mother wanted me to bring it in when our third grade class was supposed to bring in very old objects, but I chose instead a German beer stein carved like a bear that I had found at a yard sale.)

We have other little scraps of information and pieces of stories. My great grandparents were Jews, but the boat they boarded to cross the ocean was named the S.S. Madonna, and of course about eighty years later, my parents were received into the Catholic Church — at St. Mary’s, in fact. That’s the nice part of the story. The less lovely part is that, according to family lore, Gosel the little baby kept crying and the captain said that if they didn’t shut him up, they would throw him overboard. They eventually made it to Romania and then to Ellis Island. But any time that kid (my great uncle Jerry) made trouble, his mother would say, “I SHOULD HAVE THROWN YOU OVERBOARD LIKE THEY TOLD ME TO.”

Two more girls were born, Beatrice and Miriam, and there was another baby brother, who died in a freak accident, when an older brother was throwing him in the air and he hit his head. My great grandfather also died, and the family struggled to keep afloat, and they moved a lot. Once, when they moved to a new apartment, they sent my great aunt Beatrice off to camp so they could pack up, and she assumed they were just getting rid of her, just like that.
 
But what she’s still mad about is the lost jewelry. My great grandfather replaced some of the jewels his wife had to sell, but it was pawned over and over again, and then lost. Aunt Bebe is in her late nineties, still angry about the lost rings. Or I guess just the loss, in general. I don’t know. 
 

So you can see, you leave the furniture and the jewelry and the furs behind, but the trauma travels light, and always comes with you. It always translates well. It takes a few generations to decide whether or not to laugh at these stories. I say terrible, murderous things to my dog; I try not to say them to my children. 

I’m not trying, as my friend would say, to “me-planet” the news, but as I say, I’m circling it anxiously, looking for a way in. It feels wrong that I don’t have more of a sense of connection with the Ukrainians than I do. I probably have relatives, actual family there right now. But my family who did leave Ukraine tried so hard to leave the old country behind and be 100% American, and they really succeeded; so all the connection I have is the story of how we fled. And as my brother said, when I see the photos of Ukrainians fleeing, they look familiar. They look like my grandmother. 

I am just praying that the Ukrainians don’t have to leave their homes. I have seen the pictures of the families sheltering in subway tunnels and I just want them to be able to come out again, to move back into their houses, to pick up the books they were in the middle of reading. To find that the milk in the refrigerator has not spoiled yet, and their great grandmother’s jewels are still in the box in the bedroom.

I cannot fathom the trauma that has already been imposed on them. There have already been deaths, heroic sacrifices, senseless losses. People say, “Ukraine matters to us all! Look how much wheat they produce! Look how much uranium ore!” Uranium ore? People have already had to flee with their lives packed into a suitcase. Dreadful things have already been demanded of children, of old people. I just don’t want them to have to lose it all. I’m praying that they can keep their homeland. Everyone ought to be able to keep their home. 

 

Leaning into the boringness of the rosary

For several years, family prayer night at our house went like this: We would shout, “Time to pray! Time to pray!” and everyone would slouch into the living room and hurl themselves onto the couch.

When everyone was sufficiently hurled and all screens were darkened, we would make the sign of the cross, then my husband or I would ask, “What are our intentions?” and the kids would mumble out a few names. Then we would say, “And what are we thankful for?” This was our stab at keeping prayer fresh, personal, and meaningful, and for our efforts, we invariably got the youngest child screaming out something like, ‘I’M GRANKFUL DAT ELIJAH GOT A NEW BUTT FOR A FACE” and we’d have to dampen the ensuing riot.

We would then launch into a rocket-speed recitation of a list of prayers that we kept adding to, because it seemed important that the kids knew more and more prayers. And it is important, except that even though I do not have the gift of seeing into hearts, I felt pretty sure that, while our lips were rattling out “our life, our sweetness, and our hope; to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,” we might as well have been saying “fadatta, fadatta, fadatta, beepum, boopum, bah.” It’s just human nature. Say the same words in the same order night after night, and after a while, you don’t even know what you’re saying.

We tried to correct it. We’ve made various stabs at liturgy of the hours, but keep discovering that we are both too lazy and too stupid to keep up with it. (Please don’t make suggestions about how to help this happen. I said “lazy and stupid” and I meant it.) We’ve tried this and we’ve tried that. And finally, back to the scriptural rosary we crept, like a dog to its . . . well-loved tennis ball that it keeps chewing on, because something in its poor simple brain makes it seem satisfying, comforting, and even worthwhile, and it was a gift from its owner.

I used to have no end of trouble with the scriptural rosary. I used to try to flog my brain into some kind of hyper-vigilant state where I would ferret out some new insight every time we revisited each mystery.

There we would be at the finding in the temple for the 723rd time, and I would give myself the space of ten Hail Marys to discover something I had never noticed before, some new little crumb of understanding hidden away behind Jesus’ sandal or some unexpected wrinkle in Joseph’s travel cloak.

“This is good stuff!” I would tell my brain. “It’s a mystery, and you can never get to the bottom of it! So let’s find something new and wonderful! Go! Find it! Go!” This almost never worked, but I kept trying anyway.

Or I would sort of clench my emotional muscles and try to squeeze out some kind of spiritual fervor as we prayed. Sure, sure, we’re all familiar with the story of the wise men coming from the east to do him homage, but this time, let’s really feel it, let’s get right in there and get bowled over by the immensity of the amazingness of the incredibility of the thing that happened, nownit the hourv our death, amen. (That approach didn’t work, either, but I also kept trying anyway.)

I forget why we decided to try one more time, but we did. Despite these past failures, we have returned once again to this old practice of walking through the events of the life of Jesus of Mary, one bead at a time, a verse or two of scripture per prayer, just one decade a night, because that’s what’s sustainable. As with so many other things in my life these days, I’ve arrived at a possible workable solution by failing at everything else. The plan is just to respectfully witness what happened. Just speak the words if it’s my turn to lead, and listen if it’s not, and just be a witness.

What I’ve found is that the extreme familiarity is not a bad thing, any more than it’s a bad thing to be extremely familiar with the events and memories of my own life. In fact, that’s kind of the point: The mysteries of the rosary ought to be very close to our hearts, very familiar, very well-known. They ought to live with us. We do a different mystery each night, so it’s not the exact same prayers every night. The kids take turns leading, so there’s some variation there. There’s enough variety that you have to pay some attention, so we avoid the rocket prayer effect. But basically, it’s nothing new. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not arguing against taking the time to meditate deeply on the lives of Jesus and Mary. We’re robbing ourselves of a great richness if we only ever just zip past them and think of the mysteries of the rosary as a sort of decorative spiritual background. They ought to become personal at some point, and we ought to take the time to think about what they have to do with us, how they apply to us, how we can imitate them, what it must have felt like to live them, and so on. We ought to be open to insight, and we shouldn’t be closed off to emotional experiences.

But I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to try to torment ourselves into some kind of jarring insight or ecstasy every single time we approach the mysteries of the rosary. Spiritual novelty, it turns out,  is overrated, and probably has to do more with spiritual vanity than with a genuine thirst for holiness. Sometimes it’s more important to sit right where you are and just accept what God has given us, even if it’s just the same old same old. Especially if it’s the same old same old. (It’s called “humility.” Look it up, sweaty.)

I think that if God wants to tell us something new and interesting about the life of his mother and son, he absolutely will — maybe during the rosary, maybe at some seemingly random moment during the day. It’s all the more likely that it will happen if you’ve made the mysteries part of your life by reciting them faithfully every night. But you don’t have to go clambering after anything spectacular when you say the rosary. The lives of Mary and Jesus are a gift from God, and their comforting familiarity can be a gift, too. At this stage in my life, I’m more than happy to just chew them over one more time.

 

Image by DaModernDaVinci via Pixabay (Creative Commons) 

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)

 

Maybe you don’t have to do anything.

Some of the best advice I’ve gotten in my life didn’t sound like advice at all, at the time. It sounded like soothing nothings, like meaningless truisms from someone who didn’t understand what the problem really was. But in retrospect, it was the only possible course of action.

Take, for example, the time I complained to my priest that my prayer life was basically useless, because I was so distracted and couldn’t focus for more than a second or two. He smiled and said,  “Well, just keep coming back to it.”

This advice sounded so dismissive and simplistic at the time. But years later, I have to admit that there is no other advice. There is no trick or shortcut to prayer. As soon as you’re aware that your mind has wandered, just pick up where you left off, simple as that. Prayer is only efficacious because God is listening, anyway, so you just do your best and trust Him to make something out of it.

It was hard for me to see what good advice it was because there was some hidden arrogance in my frustration. I thought my problem was so subtle and complex, there must be a subtle and complex solution for it. But it wasn’t, and there wasn’t. I just need to get over myself and try again.

Another example is something that may especially come in handy to people who are, as they say, extremely online.  Are you ready? Here’s the advice: Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait.

This is more or less the advice my therapist gave me when I complained to him about a terrible professional bind I was in. Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image by Antranias via Pixabay