Family-Loving Freak

Maybe I’m a freak. On a local mamapreneur thread we were asked what we would want to have, if we had the courage to ask for it—everyone else was asking for Teslas and winning the lottery; I want six kids.

I realized there are two things I’ve treasured most in life and regretted the least: travelling around the world and adding to my family. For me, “big family” brings up memories of choking-on-our-tears laughter with all my siblings and my parents in one room, memories of sitting around the living room with the fire burning while we all did our own thing but still together, memories of travelling across Canada in a van and pitching tents along the way. A big family increases the likelihood you’ll have someone you can turn to when you just don’t know where to go. A big family increases the likelihood that when I’m old, I’ll have someone to talk to—like I joked with my physiotherapist today, if I have six kids, I’ll have one to call me on every day of the week plus one day of rest!

And maybe I am crazy. And maybe I wouldn’t enjoy having another three kids or so. And maybe I won’t even be able to bring more live children into the world. I don’t know. But there’s a joy in not knowing, the same kind of joy you get when you’re travelling: you don’t know exactly what experiences you’re going to have, but you know it will be an adventure, and the odds are pretty highly in favour of this being a pretty grand adventure.

I’m travelling in this adventure with my best friend, the man whose company I enjoy more than anyone else I’ve ever met and whom I’ve vowed my life over to. He’s amazing. I never imagined marriage could be so fun and so beautiful. (Of course we argue! But I hadn’t realized that arguing in marriage can be good, that it can be a sign that we consider each other worth wrestling with until we come to a mutual conclusion). This man is also extraordinarily courageous: in some ways, the idea of having more kids makes him nervous, but he’s open to it, both because he loves me and because he honours God. That’s true courage right there.  He’s courageous, he’s interesting, he makes me laugh, and he honours God—that’s one heck of a life companion. And so far I’m crazy about the little people we’ve made together.

We’ve been blessed with four children so far, three with us. Each pregnancy has demanded a lot of trust from us that all things would work out well. With the first, my husband was unemployed and in the country on a vistor’s visa. With the second, we had to find a new home and we suffered through his terminal diagnosis and death. With the third, my doctor had advised against getting pregnant again so soon for mental health reasons (but I knew she was mistaken), again we had to find a new home, I felt like I was dying from what turned out to be gallstones, and my body was severely taxed by the weight and bulk of two wonderfully lively babies, and then we somehow survived a very blurry first year with twins. I haven’t regretted a single one of these pregnancies. Each child has been an awesome gift I have the privilege of continually deepening my understanding of—even Matthew.

We’ve used Natural Family Planning, which some people erroneously equate with the Rhythm Method, and it’s been very effective (my favourite method under the NFP umbrella term is the Marquette Method, perhaps because I get to do little science lab experiments in my bathroom, but perhaps also because I just find it extremely easy). If we were to discern through prayer that we shouldn’t have more children for some grave reason, we could limit ourselves to three as effectively as if I were to ply my body with artificial hormones, which, thanks be to God, I have never considered. (We’re not even supposed to eat the meat of animals given hormones—how is messing with my own hormones for years on end for an elective reason a good idea?).

But I want more kids. Sometimes, I’m not even sure why. After all, three kids is hard, really hard. I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I’m on antidepressants. I’m not sure I’m a great mother. I don’t like all the chores. I like my “alone time.” Yet, none of this would magically transform for the better if I stopped at three. I guess I’d be past the “baby stage” sooner, but then what? I don’t want to be surrounded by Teslas at the end of my life. I want my kids there, my beautiful children I’m so proud of because they are.

I want to think that maybe, if I really do love my kids as much as I hope I might, they will take that love and multiply it, spreading it through the world. I want them to take the joy they discover at home and the talents they develop with the support of our home, and I want them to take those into the world and make it a better place. I hope to instil in them this little flame of God’s love that I have and invite them to spread it—just as at the Easter vigil, the flame from the Easter Candle is spread to the little candles of all the attendants in the church, so too do I want our light from Christ to be passed on.

And me? What will be my reward? I probably will never drive a Tesla. I may never even own a house. But to know that the Light has spread exponentially because I was open to sacrificing a little more sleep, a little more time, a little more money, a little more me—then I will know without a doubt that my life was not wasted.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.

Matthew 16:19-20

The Saint as One Who Finds His Worth in God

I don’t have much to say, and what I have to say has been said before: one defining aspect of the saints is that they find their self-worth completely in God.

My husband and I watched a movie tonight that had been recommended to us, Murder Mystery on Netflix. It was mostly “meh” by my critique and I can’t say I could recommend it, but it was mildly entertaining and led to a Life Reflection: namely, the above. The first scene sets up a cop character who is lying to his wife about being a detective because he wants to impress her. His self-worth lies in impressing her. Many other characters invest their self-worth in wealth.

I have met people who have placed their sense of self-worth in intellect, in refined judgement and discerning taste, in their possessions, in their abilities–in short, in their own identities.

It is very important in our day to build our own identities and sense of self-worth. It’s not a new idea by any means: I recall Petrarch excitedly seizing upon the idea back when the Middle Ages was melting into the Renaissance, and surely this is what motivated the Pharaohs to be buried in the manner they were, but today Everyman is being encouraged to be the author of his own happiness. “Our only limitations are those we set up in our minds,” I recently read, a quotation attributed to Napoleon Hill. By pseudo-Jedi power, we can will our desired future into being, and that is essentially the highest level of being.

Catholics do not believe this. We believe our self-worth rests in God alone as His adopted children. We don’t even find our self-worth in how good or holy we are. At the end of the day, we have absolutely nothing to do with our self-worth at all, and have absolutely no control over it: there is nothing we can do to make ourselves any more or less valuable.

This is good news! For some crazy reason, God has evaluated us as being so precious that He gave His Son as ransom for us. We couldn’t aspire to be more valuable than that, could we? It is also good news because it means that no matter how much evil we may have committed, we are still infinitely valuable in the eyes of God. Our self-worth lies in Him alone.

However, even though we know and believe this as Catholics, we don’t always live it out, thanks to sin and fallen nature. We are distracted by the world and begin to judge ourselves and others on the basis of various merits: beauty, wealth, intelligence, health, abilities…. I believe many of us are constantly judging according to erroneous criteria, and therein lies our sorrow. How can we be happy if we have always to be grasping to hold forever that which we invest our self-worth in?

“Being good” is one of the erroneous traps I often find myself falling into. It’s not a bad one in itself–none of the traps really are–but I often get down on myself for not being a good mother, a good housekeeper, a good teacher. I see how I could be much better and grieve that I am not. Again, this is not in itself bad, or it wouldn’t be, if I then turned it over to my Father. Without Him, I begin to believe the lie that my self-worth is dependent on how good a mother I am, etc. God does not think like man, though: He desires that we be good, certainly, and it pleases Him very much when we succeed, but it is our love and our trust He wants. He wants us to live in Him, for that is our true purpose in life.

Although it can be useful to be motivated by worldly prods to become our best selves, the great saints are those who have ultimately forgotten those worldly influences and who place all their sense of self-worth in God. Whether they are spoken well of or ill, it matters not to them. Whether they succeed or fail, it matters not. They live for God. Their identity lies in Him, and thus so also their happiness.

What to do after a bad Confession

Like all other Catholics who have been practising their Faith for years, I’ve been to Confession countless times. We all know that God gives different gifts to different people, even among those whom He calls to serve as priests. Usually the most we have to complain about is a “boring,” cookie-cutter penance of three Hail Marys (if you think that’s boring, just consider how tedious your sins are!). But, occasionally, we experience a Confession that is not simply uninspiring, but a truly bad experience. I had one such experience recently, and I will share how I dealt with it.

Over the weekend, I was blessed to participate in a retreat. The direction was good, the food was wonderful, and I slept like I haven’t slept in years. Indeed, I must confess I slept through most of the silent meditation sessions, so exhausted had I arrived. It was truly a gift in all respects. Of course, there was opportunity for Confession offered by a number of priests anticipating a large number of penitent retreatants, so I went. Let’s call him Fr Well-Intentioned, for I do believe he is a well-intentioned man, and he is very kind—dare I say, too kind? During the course of the Confession, Fr Well-Intentioned gave me the advice that I “shouldn’t bother” trying to set time aside to pray since I am a busy mother, and that instead I should find God in “the smiles of children and flowers.” Setting aside all amusement I took in his idyllic vision of motherhood full of meadowy frolics and grateful, angelic children, I became quite alarmed at this counsel, which raised a big red flag in my conscience, as well as a great fear.

In many ways, I’m a fair-weather friend to Our Lord. I have struggled for years with the discipline of prayer, and the recognition of this was part of what made me desire religious life before the Lord opened a different door to me. Recently I’ve begun setting aside time—maybe ten or fifteen minutes while the children watch Paw Patrol—and I have seen the fruits of it. The prayer time is always subject to interruption and incompletion, but my intention is to try, just try to offer a little of the day in a more intimate way to my Beloved. So, when Fr Well-Intentioned advised me to sacrifice this prayer time in the interests of my “busy-ness” I knew he was wrong, but I also knew that me, being weak, might easily take this advice from a voice of authority and use it as an excuse to neglect my attempts to build my spiritual life once again. Hadn’t I already tried his advice and found it wanting? Truly, the danger lay in his authority as a priest, combined with my present weakness.

Now, if that were all, I might have simply took the matter to prayer and worked through it on my own. However, Fr Well-Intentioned, bless him, assigned me a well-intentioned but impossible penance: he offered me a line I vaguely remembered from Scripture about how precious I am to God, and told me to reflect on it “until it sank in deep.” I was already confused and distracted by the bad counsel I’d received and didn’t think to ask for a more refined description of my penance, but as I was walking away and feeling confusion and frustration and even anger, the weight of the vague penance fell upon me: open-ended and ambiguous, I would never be able to walk away from the penance feeling confident I’d fulfilled it. It’s likely I’ve been assigned such similar penances before, but there was a time when, not having children, I could sit in prayer until I detected God’s movements in my heart that I’d done what I could. I do not have this luxury anymore. To assign an open-ended penance to a mother is to torment her. I’d say it’s a bad move on the part of the confessor regardless, but I can now say from experience that it is a torment to an exhausted, weary mother who can only clutch at the occasional prayer time and has no mental energy left for frolicking in vast meadows of prayer. Motherhood has made me wonderfully efficient in my spiritual life and has done much to detach me from my formerly highly emotionally-based spiritual life. Whether I feel God’s love for me or not does not matter so much anymore so much as I know that I am honouring Him. Not to say that I don’t prefer times of consolation, but when desolation strikes, I have no time to sit around and beg God to return to me: life keeps on going, and I wait for Him, striving to be patient and faithful in the apparent darkness.

So, what did I do? My first instinct was to go to another priest hearing confessions, a priest I know and trust, but his line was long and moving slowly and I was not sure I should take up his time when I had already been to Confession. So I called my Dad. 🙂 I’m incredibly fortunate to have a father who has been a true spiritual guide and teacher in my life and who knows Catholic doctrine thoroughly. Dad’s advice confirmed my instincts: this had been a bad Confession, and that I should talk to another priest. Dad went further to say that what I could do is try to fulfil my penance as best I could for about five minutes and then, at my next Confession, preferably within a week, tell the priest exactly what had happened and how I had done my best to fulfill the penance given me. This was reassuring. My dad is certainly not a priest, but as a trusted spiritual authority throughout my life, this set me at ease.

As it happened, I ended up waiting in line to consult with the trusted priest. After all, getting to Confession when I’m at home with my family is challenging and I could not commit to getting to a priest within the next week or two with any confidence. On the retreat I had TIME. So I prayed my rosary and waited my turn. I am so glad I did.

The second priest heard my tale (marvellous, considering the effusive tears that wouldn’t stop streaming), gently gave his sacerdotal authority to my desire to set time aside for prayer insofar as my family duties would allow, and invited me to give a mini re-do confession for which he promised he would offer me a very concrete penance with a start and a finish. And so it happened. I walked away with the taste of freedom in my mouth that comes when you know you have been forgiven and when you have been given the incredible gift of a tiny but (so to speak) tangible way in which you can make repair for your offences, a co-participation in your own redemption.

The take-away, in brief: if you experience a bad Confession, go to a priest you know and trust and ask him to help you.

A Mother’s Prayer by Julienne du Rosaire

Mother Julienne du Rosaire was not a biological mother but a Dominican nun, and thus, I suspect, the mother of many saints, especially considering the following prayer that she composed.

As the mother of small children, I rarely have enough mental and spiritual energy to read it all the way through, but a paragraph taken here or there helps refocus whatever energy I have.

Jesus, I give you my heart so that you may replace it with your heart and so that I may thus love God our Father as you do, love my brothers [and sisters] as you do.

May it be no longer I who live, but rather you; I who pray, I who adore, but rather you; may it be no longer I who work, but rather you; I who suffer, but rather you. May it be no longer I who love, but rather you.

May your gaze transform my eyes so that I may look upon all people as you would, with kindness and benevolence.

May your light full my mind and may it radiate through me and enlighten those whom I meet.

May your love set my heart ablaze and move through my words and gestures, filling all with your meekness, your goodness, your humility, your tenderness.

May my life be an incessant prayer of praise of adoration and if love to God, our Father, through a sincere “yes” to his will at at every moment.

Taken from a prayer card published by Les Dominicaines Missionnaires Adoratrices.

How to Keep Order at Home: A Guide for the Hopeless in the form of a daily checklist

I’m pretty hopeless at keeping order at home—or I had been. Although I love routines and schedules, they were never much of a part of my life at home, and any time I tried to impose them upon myself, I failed. I’ve read books upon books (I love A Mother’s Rule of Life and Home Management: Plain and Simple) and chastised myself for reading instead of doing; I’ve read blog post after blog post, joined helpful Facebook groups, downloaded countless organizational apps (from checklists to calendars to time monitors), and used up many pieces of paper brainstorming ways to bring order into my life, and nothing really helped. I started when I was quite young with trying to make a schedule for my summer, just like I had at school. I didn’t get past the first block. A couple years into starting a family, I realized that a schedule was as realistic for me as finishing my dissertation: surely a set of routines would be the way to go! But I still found myself stuck, scattered, and completely overwhelmed. Occasionally, I found it helpful to make a checklist of things I needed to do the night before, but realistically I found it hard to make a checklist the night before consistently. Some nights—many nights—my brain was too frazzled to think straight about the morning. Yet, if I waited until morning, it would be too late.

I’m not sure why it took so long for me to realize what I needed was a standard “night before” checklist that I could print out, stick in a binder, and use daily. A checklist especially for those days when it seemed like I just couldn’t focus on anything, let alone accomplish anything. A checklist of the should-be obvious.

I made the above using a template in MS Word. If you don’t have MS Word, you can still make it on Google Docs, or any other word processor. In fact, I made up a document on Google Docs that you are welcome to borrow. Please note that it is not a template yet. That means you need to COPY and PASTE the contents onto your own document or everyone else is going to see your changes. You can access my Mother’s Daily Checklist here. Have fun!

My next assignment: a weekly checklist!

*** Please note that I’ve added a place to record my daily weigh-in on the Google Document. This is because I have a good twenty pounds of pregnancy weight to lose and I find it motivational to keep track of whether I’m gaining or losing. If you are a healthy weight, please do not weigh yourself daily!!!***

Lent, 2019

In a few short days, Lent will be upon us once again. It always seems strange to start Lent in March, but it has allowed me this year to prepare myself better. The past few Lents have been impossible with my mental health at an all-time low, but things are good now, really good. I feel like myself again, and my true self has always longed to love God more and more and more. As St Peter puts it so well, What else is there? (Ok, more like “to whom shall we go,” but that’s basically the same thing.) So, I’m excited about Lent. I can’t wait to have a really good incentive to deny myself, because by nature I’m pretty lazy and it’s just easier and more fun to indulge. The only thing more fun than indulging is rising to the challenge not to indulge for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom. 😆 I’m so competitive.

What are you giving up for Lent? I’m giving up sweets. There was a time I thought giving up sweets was so cliché. But you know what? So are my sins, and my concupiscence doesn’t vary all that much. Giving up sweets is hard. Not becoming Cookie Monster the moment Saturday anticipation hits during Lent is also hard.

I’m also going to be putting my phone out of reach for most of the day, way up on top of a bookcase where I’ll need a stool to reach it. I don’t want to be the mother who is always clutching her preciousssssss. I’ve got three precious children to hold instead, and these years are passing so quickly while I divide my attention between them and “oh! That’s a great organizational idea!” and “I should try that in my studio!” It will be much better for all of us if my attention is not divided from the task or child at hand. Christ, after all, is found in the present, and when one’s attention is divided, one is not truly present anywhere.

And that’s it. I have nothing else I plan to do, except fill up my free time with spiritual reading, something I’ve also let fall by the wayside. I’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God. I also plan to re-read A Mother’s Rule of Life. Do you have any books you plan to read for Lent? Let me know in the comments, or on my Facebook page! 😊

How to become a saint – how my perspective has changed

I’ve always been captivated by the stories of the Saints. My earliest memory is one of fascination and some horror as I flipped through an old illustrated book of Saints for kids, observing the wide spectrum of gruesome ends depicted and fixating on the beautiful dresses that adorned the queen Saints (my favourite pictures in Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections were likewise those of elegant princesses). From there, I grew to a crude awe of Saints like Padre Pio and Joseph of Cupertino, whose lives were a series of unfathomable miraculous events. I kind of wanted to be miracle-working Saint Superhero. Ultimately, I wanted to feel special and be special. I was charmingly naive to the real toll of bearing the stigmata or the humiliation of levitating in view of others. It was an awkward, immature stage of spirituality, much in line with the awkwardness and immaturity of those early teenage years.

Then I watched The Mission and fell hard in love with the Jesuits, St Ignatius, and the idea of doing great things for God. St Maximilian Kolbe was a great hero of mine as well. I wanted to bring the love of Jesus all around the world, fight like the bravest of spiritual soldiers, and perhaps die a martyr’s death. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam! I was ambitious for the higher things, right? Or so I thought.

My voracious appetite for spiritual reading led me to discover the Church’s supreme estimation of the interior life. I had a new aspiration: to become a contemplative, preferably a cloistered one, a Trappist or something if I were really heroic. I’d read little pamphlets about the slightly insufferable Thérèse of Lisieux, pamphlets that made me feel guilty if I didn’t replace the toilet paper roll if I finished the last one (dang it, conscience! Ignorance is bliss!), and I figured I’d better buckle down and learn to appreciate her. I couldn’t really get through the autobiography. It was far too simple for my sophisticated soul. Thérese got put on the back burner while I fell in love with God through St Augustine, some guy who had beat me to my trick of writing letters to God, and some eighteen centuries earlier, at that!

Eventually, as an undergrad, I encountered von Balthasar’s Two Sisters in the Spirit. What a gift that book was to my all-too sophisticated soul! It was essentially an intellectual translating Thérèse’s simple spirituality into a language a mind hampered by excessive sophistication could understand. This opened my soul to a whole new world of simplicity and humility, and I dove deep.

But I still wanted to be a great Saint. I wanted to do something for God. I wanted to be something for God. I wanted to change the world! Looking back, I am alternately embarrassed and charmed. I am a little ashamed of my blind pride, but I am also charmed by an enthusiasm that I see in my young son: that drive to be the superlative human being in all endeavours. It’s an adorable, trusting, childlike but yet immature stage of faith: instead of “when I grow up, I’m going to be the strongest and the fastest!” it was “one day I’ll be the holiest! I will be the poorest in spirit! the purest in heart! I will do great things for God!”

And, you know, Josemaria Escriva urged people to set as their goal to become great saints. However, there’s striving to become a great saint and there’s striving to become a great saint. One busies itself with becoming great, and the other becomes a beggar.

In recent years, I have not had as much time to devour holy books. I also have three children, so I can no longer spend long hours in prayer. I don’t really even have much time to build an interior life. My life is no longer conducive to my making myself a saint —thanks be to God!

I am a beggar. I am busy just trying to survive on the streets of my life. In between ensuring three small children are properly dressed to venture out into the increasingly cold weather and cleaning up the mess of food fallen under high chairs that children in impoverished countries would happily devour but sadly meets the compost bucket instead, I say, “help me, Jesus” and “I love you, Jesus” and “help me to love you more, Jesus” and, most beautiful of all, “thank you so, so much for your love for me, Jesus!” In five years of marriage that has included twins, stillbirth, unemployment, mental illness, and a perpetually messy home, I have grown in touch with my utter weakness and helplessness, but I have also discovered the greatest joy of knowing that Jesus loves me. Jesus is crazy about me. And what’s more, Jesus is the most incredibly, profoundly, heartbreakingly, terrifyingly beautiful thing I’ve ever caught glimpse of, and I could just sit in awe of his majesty, the burning, blazing furnace of his love.

I am not a great saint. I am not sure I ever will be one, but honestly, I don’t much care anymore. If it pleases Jesus to use me in some way that I am one day upheld as a model to the Church, so be it, although the thought amuses me seeing as I can barely offer up chocolate for a day for some intention at present, nor do I have any discipline of daily prayers. If it pleases Jesus to let me remain a simple soul who struggles daily to overcome her weaknesses and give him glory, who lives in relative obscurity for the rest of her life, that is fine. I only ask that I might share Him in some way with others, that I might make Him known and loved. How I will do that, I can’t determine: circumstances determine that. On the other hand, how I will do that is quite simple: I will bask in his love, and he will in turn allow that love to leak out of me as I go about my daily business.

My interior life is this: on Sunday, I go to Mass and receive the Sacred Host. Jesus takes up residence in the tabernacle of my heart, and I essentially ask him to make a monstrance of my eyes. And that’s it. I go about my daily life. I try to live a good life, but I’m currently in a season of healing. I am praying that He might lead me one day to a season of more active spirituality, one in which I can take on penances out of love for him, but for now I need to know His love for me, and I need to glory in it, and I need to adore Him, and He’ll do the rest. And I do know this: I know that He will lead me to heaven so long as I keep going to Mass on Sundays and avoiding mortal sin, so ultimately, whether I’m a great Saint or not, He has promised to transform me into a saint.

I love you, Jesus.