In the past, I’ve loved to dig deeply into a Holy Father’s writings on the family. There, I’ve always found a source of comfort, consolation and encouragement for the very countercultural calling that is mine. I’m raising nine children to be faithful Catholics. Frankly, it’s a daunting task neither celebrated nor supported in today’s mainstream society. I wondered if there would be anything in this new document for mothers like me.
We are emerging (please, God) from a season of grief, a season that has forever changed us, forever marked us. As I share with you the gifts He generously bestowed into moments of sorrow, some moments stand out, illuminated by grace.
I have a personal relationship with Christ. That is, He and I talk off and on all day long, inside my head. It’s our relationship — real, alive and very much awake and aware of my world, the sphere in which I orbit, the daily round of my private life. I bring Him my needs and my concerns and my praises. And I try mightily to hear what He is telling me. In His word, Jesus shows me again and again how to pray in silent solitude. Then, He shows me how much He wants community for me.
Christ had a solitary habit of prayer. He knew that in quiet moments before the Father, all alone, He’d demonstrate for us how to avoid falling into the traps of spiritual pride, how to avoid the attention of others as we beseeched the Lord. When we pray alone, we limit distractions and we aren’t tempted by comparisons or pretenses or ostentatious hypocrisy. Solitary prayer can be focused and powerful. It’s also readily available. Everyone — even a mom home with half a dozen little ones — can curl up in a corner somewhere for at least a hastily offered, “Lord, make haste to help me.” Private prayer is the continuous, every day conversation of friendship.
But God made us for community, too. He wants us to have a personal relationship with Him, but He doesn’t want it to be entirely private. The prayer Jesus modeled for us in perfection begins with the phrase “Our Father,” not “my father.” He intended us to pray that prayer often and He intended us to pray in community.
During Holy Week and Easter Week, in addition to the many liturgies traditionally prayed by the church community, I found myself in church to pray — together with many — two other times. The first was a rosary offered to beg for healing for one of our own. The second was a rosary offered for the repose of his soul. Both times, I was struck by the power of the prayers of those gathered there. Each decade was led by a different man in the pews. Each time a strong voice rang out in the otherwise silent church — the anguish of the one who was beseeching clearly wrapping itself around his vocal cords — I was struck by the inexpressible comfort that comes with knowing that someone has come alongside to bear the burden of praying.
It is critical to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). It is also critical not to stay in there with the door shut. Prayer nurtures in us a spirit of trust in God. Public prayer helps us to develop trust in one another. Prayer together with other Christians requires planning and initiative unnecessary for private prayer. For those of us who are shy and introverted and very private, the biggest struggle is just getting there — whether “there” is a church filled with people or the company of a friend we’ve asked to pray alongside us in a time of need. We have to exert the effort; it’s so worth it.
Jesus “took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). He taught them happily when they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). He gave them the communal Our Father. Later, after Jesus dies, they know how to find Him in prayer, together: “They lifted their voices together to God” (Acts 4:24) “and when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).
We need each other. We need to gather in His name and beg grace on behalf of one another. We need to be comfortable not only saying “Will you pray for me?” but also “Will you pray with me?” Together, we can push open the floodgates of grace.
Outside my window: Spring has burst into bloom. It was beautiful in my front yard on Easter Sunday. I wish I had pictures. I got a few yesterday, with my kids in their Easter finery, but not one of them is a picture that all people in the photo approved. So, you can't see them;-). Today, it's raining. I hope the wind won't blow all the blooms away before I can capture them for you.
(Updated: the sky cleared and Katie got out with the big camera.)
Listening to: Sara Groves: Floodplain. Highly, highly recommended.
Clothing myself in: Jeans and a sweatshirt. I got up early and I had a good, long quiet time, but I neglected to get a shower before some guys came to work on our house. It now appears that it will be a day-without-a-shower because we have no hot water for the duration.
Talking with my children about these books: Christian is taking a course on mystery writing and literature. I have zero interest in mysteries. I haven’t liked them since I outgrew Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. However, this is a very poorly executed online course that takes at least two people to figure out, so, reading mysteries it is. Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Sherlock Holmes, now all in my repertoire. Go me. #neverstoplearning
In my own reading: See above;-).
Thinking and thinking: About the way I spent Holy Week and the way God met me there. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday (the Feast of St. Joseph), our family's good friend, Mike Greiner had a heart attack in the parish parking lot. Though everything possible was done at the scene, he was on life support and things did not look promising for survival by night's end. On Monday of Holy Week, my mother-in-law died after a suffering terribly with cancer. Throughout the week, I was at home, caring for a child who’d had a tonsillectomy. I was at home, welcoming children who came to play with my children while their parents held vigil in the ICU and our friend slipped from this life into eternity with Jesus. I was at home, cooking for lots of people, both in my home and not. I was at home on a week where Monday brought news of my mother-in-law’s death and Saturday brought news of my friend’s death and all the days in between were taken with caring. And for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t feel burdened in the caring. I felt alive. That’s grace, my friends.
Carefully Cultivating Rhythm: This week is Easter Week. As nature would have it, it’s also Bluebell Week. And now, it’s the week of two funerals. It’s the week of hard goodbyes that creep upon me at odd hours. A child who has understood since September that Grandma was seriously ill and who was praying she wouldn’t suffer longer, is suddenly overcome with the idea that she’ll never see her again. My world stops in that moment. Together we grieve. Then, I wait. For she is not the only child in this large family. Grief looks different on different faces. Grief is carried differently by each of them. The big ones are off in their own places, reconciling loss and the obvious absence of community who knew… I see cousins who are at the same universities reach out for one another. And a young man on the other side of country, who had braced himself for his grandmother’s death finds himself unexpectedly flattened when his friend and mentor dies, too. Too much. Too far away.
And yet grief takes on the rhythm of the liturgy. Grandma slipped from her suffering to the cadence of the rosary being said at her bedside. Mike Greiner fell on the feast of St. Joseph and went to be with Jesus just as the churches lit their candles for the Easter vigil. The rhythm of faith and life and death and hope.
Creating By Hand: I have some costume sewing to do. I really, really have some costume sewing to do. And layette sewing, too. Still. I still do.
Learning lessons in: We shall take the nature notebooks into the woods and draw and draw and draw.
Encouraging learning in: Gosh. Things I so didn’t emphasize in the first 15 years of homeschooling! I’m all about how to take a test these days, and how to write for the rubric, and how to read the assignment and read it again, and how to budget time. And how to find the answers. Yes, it’s very important to know how to find the answers.
Keeping house: We are spring cleaning and I’m nearly intoxicated by Mrs. Meyer’s Peony scented stuff. But I still love Honeysuckle, too. I bought a few bottles of each and now I tell my eager helpers they can choose their favorites. It honestly makes it less of a chore.
Crafting in the kitchen: I made Easter dinner for a bunch yesterday. I like to cook for a crowd. But we delivered. Around our table was just the usual everyday crowd. This fact was super hard. Because the boys are coming home for funerals, they couldn’t come for Easter. And the cousins didn’t come, either. So it was just us. Katie and I cooked up a storm and I delivered to our friends. Sarah delighted in setting our table with china and I let her do the centerpiece. We tried to tell ourselves it was all so fun. Then, we let down our guards and had a good cry—two introverts bemoaning the small crowd and quiet house. Who’d have guessed?
To be fit and happy: We’ve had some gorgeous weather and I’m walking again. Look for #morningrun to return to this space next week. I’m kind of giddy at the idea.
Giving thanks: For the grace of God.
Loving the moments: when ardent, serious, very intense prayers are answered and hope unfurls.
Living the Liturgy: These fifty Easter days: I want to live them fully. Once upon a time, I used to talk to my friend Colleen every morning on the phone. We held each other accountable. We challenged each other spiritually. We lifted each other up. We wiped more than a few tears. Then, she moved to Costa Rica and the daily habit was broken. We still talk and we’re getting better at managing communication into the jungle;-). But now, I have a lovely little volume right next to my Bible chair. Colleen is once again poised to be a part of my morning prayer. Won’t you join us? It’s not too late!! You can get a copy of On the Way: The Road to Pentecost right now and we can all pray along together and encourage one another. There’s a Facebook page for chatting and accountability. It’s going to be good. Come along!
Planning for the week ahead: For all my renewed hope, these are set to be challenging days. Grief is tricky and unexpected. We will lean heavily upon the graces of this holiest week, grateful, grateful to live the liturgy in a community of believers.
I’m in a precarious position as I write this column. It is the Friday before Palm Sunday. We are but a few days from Holy Week. This column will be published on Holy Thursday, just as the most somber days of the year begin. Three days later, it will be Easter, the most jubilant day of the year.
As I write, my husband’s mother hangs on to the faintest whisper of life. Before I hit “send,” she could be gone.
When will you read this? In the silence of Good Friday afternoon, or Easter Monday, as you catch your breath after a day of joyous celebration? The line is so fine this week of the liturgical year: life and death, grief and joy, fear and hope.
Faith finds us there, along that fine line. Faith — like a muscle that is stretched and stressed and, please God, strengthened in the moments of grief — carries us from the grief to the joy, from the fear to the hope. There on the death side of the fine line, though, waiting and hoping to hope in joy, we are brokenhearted. It is the person of Jesus who sits with us in Gethsemane, who weeps with us at the tomb, who gives us reason to rejoice on the glorious morning of new life.
We hear the promise in the dark of night: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18). Deep grief changes lives. Deep grief tests souls by stretching taut against every good thing we’ve ever believed and straining against the faith we’ve always taken for granted. Under the weight of sadness, hearts bow and souls cry out in despair. The question is whether we cry out to the Lord who has taken all of our grief upon His own shoulders. Will we let Him come close to our broken hearts? Curled up tightly, defensive against the pain, we are tempted like never before to shut Him out, disbelieving that any good God would allow the dark of a Friday on Calvary. Will we exercise our faith and let it grow in the pain? Will we test it and find that God truly is good, all the time, even on the grief side of the fine line? Will we believe in the triumph of Easter morning?
Cellophane Easter grass strewn across the living room floor and half-eaten chocolate bunnies are the stuff of Sunday afternoon. But Easter, true Easter, lives most gloriously in the soul of the person who has wrestled grief and the doubt it sows in one’s faith and lived to know that Jesus is real. We have to make the first move, however tentative it is. We have to reach for Jesus and ask Him to walk along the fine line. Part of growing in faith is making a decision to believe and to be vulnerable in belief. Strengthening faith means living on the grief side of the fine line and deciding that we trust God’s plan and, further, that we want Him to be our safe place. We want Him to take us to the other side, the joy side. Slowly, we unfurl from our defensive posture and let our souls inhale grace.
“You get to write the story.”
The first time I said it this week was via text message to a boy in despair. You get to write it. You’re the hero of your story, and you get to decide how it unfolds. He wasn’t buying it.
The second time, it was a whisper into a little girl’s ears. It’s your story, and you get to be the hero in it. Tears rolled down her face.
“This is not the way I’d write this story,” she said. “I don’t want to have a chapter like this one.”
OK. Good point. This little girl is watching her big brother, her sister-in-law and the niece who is also her best friend move across the country. At the same time, her grandmother is dying. She wants a new book.
Together, as a family, we are learning that the story of our lives is kind of like a MadLib book. Remember those? The sketch of the narrative is roughed out for you, but there are blanks to fill. You choose the noun or verb or adverb when prompted, and the way you choose determines the final story. These are crucial lessons as my children grow into adulthood. Choose well what you put in the blanks; the story depends on your choices.
It’s not entirely true that we are masters of our fate or authors of our stories. It is true that we have to live what life asks us to live. Into every life, God allows sorrows as well as joys. He lets us carry the crosses of illness and grief and disappointment. They are part and parcel of ordinary life. That is “skeleton,” the rough sketch of the story.
We choose how to fill in the blanks. We hold the pen that will move across the paper and determine the direction of our days. No other person alive holds our pens; each one is specific to the person who wields it. The pen writes on our minds, to be sure, but more importantly, it writes on our hearts and our souls. It’s there that the story is truly authored. We write the soul story.
A soul story isn’t a resume or an itinerary or a ledger. Our true stories aren’t told on our pay stubs or our business cards. Our true stories are told in the daily decisions to live lives of complete trust in our Creator. Want to know what to write in the blanks? Want the secret to surviving the grief and turning the page to find joy? Ask God how He wants you to fill in the blanks.
Remember that everything that happens is allowed by God, and in that same recognition, remember that He gives sufficient grace. If you are 7 years old, that means you tell yourself that God knows you’re sad and He’s sad with you. You can fill in the blanks of your story with words of affirmation, little reminders of His love for you. You can lift your head and wipe your tears and look forward with hope to see how He fills the hole you feel.
You write the soul story. You can fill in the blanks with bitterness and anger. No doubt there are such words that will fit there. Or, you can fill the blanks with grace — His grace. If you let Him, He’ll offer you all the right words to fill in the blanks and make you whole.
Outside my window: Nick is warming up to play the sixth soccer game of the weekend. I’m sitting in the car, collecting myself before venturing into a world of relative strangers and forcing myself to be cheerful. Michael and Kristin are not far from here at all. I’m a few short miles from the airport and planes are taking off overhead. One of them will carry their little family to California. I’m not yet ready step out of the car and into the company of people who say things like, “Good thing you have eight more. You won’t miss the one.” Um. No. That’s not how this works. Not at all.
Listening to: Traffic. Game noise. Airplanes. Some random radio turned up way too high. At least that guy has fairly good taste in music. [edited to add: This game is at a church. I just realized the church is broadcasting praise and worship music. I am so grateful.]
Clothing myself in: Jeans, a cabled sweater, and NorthFace fleece jacket that doesn’t belong to me, but most likely belongs to Kate, the neighbor who frequently sleeps in my basement and always wanted to be Kimmy when she watched Full House;-).
Talking with my children about these books: Going West. We had a good cry. Now, we’re going to tackle all the chapter books together.
In my own reading: I’m going to tell you all about my reading later this week. It’s time for a big reading roundup booklist. I’ve got some sewing to report on as well.
Thinking and thinking: about how special my relationship is with Kristin. In some ways, we’re a lot alike. In many ways, we’re very different. Our differences complement each other though and I have learned so much from her in these past couple years. I know that the way she was in and out of my home, so often and for such long stretches, is a rare and extraordinary gift. I’m glad to have gotten to know her this way. Neither of us knows exactly what these long distance relationships will look like. I have a hunch I’m going to learn some valuable lessons from her in the next few months, though.
Carefully Cultivating Rhythm: Kristin and Lucy have been living with us for a few weeks and so our rhythm has revolved around them. It will certainly be strange to wake up tomorrow morning to the quiet. Neither Kristin nor Lucy is quiet.
As Michael’s family was leaving, Christian was arriving. Christian is very quiet (and Nicholas and Sarah and I will welcome him to our ranks). On Tuesday, Patrick will be home and he’ll bring a friend. The house will shift into big boy mode. I need to do a rare mid-week grocery shopping:-). I’m so grateful for the timing of this spring break. My Nicholas needs his big boys. Rhythm will be off, no doubt. Paddy always bring his own energy into a room and Christian is a night owl, but it will be good.
Creating By Hand: I have some costume sewing to do. I really, really have some costume sewing to do. And layette sewing, too. .
Learning lessons in: With a nod to my 100 day cough, I ordered some of these for everyone from Sarah to Nicholas. It’s a little bit of change in the way we approach literature-based learning. There are typos that drive me nuts. But for the most part, the structure and novelty of someone else’s very loose plans are good for us in this season.
Encouraging learning in: We are in full-blown midterm mode. The away college kids bring papers and deadlines home. Mary Beth has a boatload of work to do this week and Stephen has begun two dual-enrollment classes. We’re all about academic writing. (Psst, I like academic writing;-).
Keeping house: My house looks like a toddler got to do whatever she wanted wherever she wanted for several days in a row. It’s time for spring cleaning. It’s also going to be 70 degrees outside, so windows wide open, yay!
Crafting in the kitchen: Whatever those big boys want. Seriously. I’m taking orders.
To be fit and happy: I’m going to begin walking distances again. I’m still coughing quite a bit and I honestly don’t know how my lung capacity will be, but I’m going to try to build up again to the healthy habit I know I need.
Giving thanks: for the messages that have filled my phone since very early this morning and how grateful I am for good friends who pray when they say they’re praying. Grateful, too, for a dear girl in Charlottesville who popped in at just the right moment and reminded me with her presence that these big kids leave, but then they come home again, sometimes bringing people we grow to love. I worry about all the goodbyes my little girls have to say, all the time. Then I remember the friends they have found in people like Kristin. And Lexi…
Loving the moments: when Lucy raids the costume box and dances in the kitchen with Sarah for hours and hours and hours.
Living the Liturgy: Some days, I see striking resemblances between my backyard and Gethsemane.
Planning for the week ahead: We still have some very steep hills to climb this Lent. I know that. Last night, I talked to my friend Martha for an hour and half. This is remarkable because I still don’t really have a speaking voice (that 100 day cough and all). But I needed to be heard, and even more, I needed to hear someone who knows me forever, who walked with me through valleys, who understands what language it is that tunes my heart to hope. We have steep hills to climb. Martha reminds me to take baby steps to the elevator and that the elevator is going up.
Pondering: When I pulled up here at soccer, this song was playing over that broadcast system. And then, when I got in the car to warm up during halftime, this song was on the radio. I never buy music on iTunes. But I bought this song right there and then. I'm going to listen to it before I do anything else every morning for the forseeable future.