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.
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.
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.
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!!!***
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! 😊
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.
Well, I’m back again with the audacity to write yet more about parenting and how to do it. I’d never claim that one size fits all when it comes to parenting, although I think certain principles might be universally applicable. Today’s topic is, I am quite confident, one of these universally applicable principles. As I’ve been reflecting on parenting for the last month or so, a theme has been recurring in my mind, one that I think must be the foundation of good parenting: delighting in one’s children.
I’ve been reflecting on this for a couple reasons. First of all, some weeks ago, I took my son to the emergency in the middle of the night, worried he might have meningitis as he had been woken by neck pain. Happily, we were not given that diagnosis, but what I was given was a great gift: a doctor-in-training who examined my son happened to have the most amazing bedside manner of any doctor I have yet met, and he showed that he not only cared for my son physically, but he talked familiarly with my not-quite-four-year-old son. He asked my son extensively about his favourite tv show and about school, and he conversed with my son in such a way that my son opened up to him completely. For me, this was a wake-up call. I had felt so guilty about the copious amounts of time I’d let my son watch tv that my censorious judgement told me not to talk about it with him, so as not to encourage an interest. How utterly ridiculous! The truth of the matter is that my son likes cartoons, and I should therefore take an interest in them and, if anything, guide him to think about cartoons and the world in the way I want him to see these things, to use cartoons as the basis of forming his perspective. But at the very least, I really must step into his world and not try to ignore it. He’s a small child so many of his interests may well be dull to me, but that’s where love steps in: we take a certain interest in the things the people we love enjoy simply because we love them. The second reason I’ve been reflecting on this topic is that, at the urging of my family who could tell I was not myself, I’ve started taking an antidepressant, and the effect has been so liberating that I find myself with much more energy and natural impulse to shower my children with affection and give them the attention they’ve been longing for.
I am one of those lucky people who grew up with parents who adored me and all of my siblings. Quite possibly the best gift my parents gave us is that they made it absolutely clear that they loved us and that we are loveable. Their love never expired, and it was unconditional, nor was it competitive: they did not choose “favourites.” Although they very much wanted and expected us to behave, we knew that even if they were disappointed in us, they would never love us any less. My parents communicated their delight in us in a number of ways. My little encounter with the medical student reminded me of one of them: taking time to talk and taking a sincere interest in us. My mother especially, as a stay-at-home mum, took on the role of entering into the minutiae of our everyday lives, but my father would also express interest and spend lots of time talking with us, albeit in a different way than my mother would.
My father has often emphasized that with children, it’s not quality time that matters so much as quantity of time. It’s the repeated, consistent, everyday engagements that build a solid foundation. How each parent does this will differ, although there are some basic patterns. If you’ve read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, you’ll be familiar with various ways in which you can express love, and that for each person, some ways are more effective than others. As a parent, I try to be aware of how my children best respond to love, but I also aim to cover all my bases and show them that I love them all by using words, showing physical affection, taking time with them, doing things for them, and giving them things they enjoy. The first two come most naturally to me, and the others come fairly naturally as a parent as well, although I have room for improvement.
One thing I do not remember Gary Chapman addressing, however, is the look of delight. This is something my parents excelled in, and something I learned about in words from the Sisters of Life, who actively try to bring Jesus to women who feel alone and unloved. One of the most important things that they do is delight in these women.
The way we look at people can have a tremendous impact on how they feel about themselves. Even the Gospels deemed it significant to record that Jesus looked upon people with love, a crucial detail for a people who so easily buy into the Devil’s lie that we should only expect isolated punishment from a harsh and exacting God. I remember as a child how much it mattered to me how my parents looked at me, and that they looked at me. There was even one particular moment I remember doing or saying something I hoped would get me “that look,” and, God bless my parents, I was not disappointed. I knew my parents delighted in me and saw the goodness of God’s creation in me. They looked upon me and were satisfied, and by doing so all throughout my life they imprinted deeply on my soul that I am a creature worthy of love, deserving of being cherished, simply because I exist.
Without the gaze of love, words and actions lose their efficacy. Our brains might accept that we are loved, but our souls have not felt it. Has it not been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul? For all the poetry of that expression, there is truth in it. As a parent, I aim to look at my children with love, to delight in them, to communicate to them that they mean everything to me, that they light up my world, that when I look upon their beautiful bodies, I see that they are Very Good, that their souls are worth more than all the stars in the sky, and that they (and their father) bring me more joy than anything of this world. When my children do something “cute” and seek my glance, I hope I am there, gazing upon them with love. When they try to share their world with me, I hope I give them my full attention and interest. When I look into their eyes, I hope they get the sense, even if they don’t quite recognize what it is, that I see in them the beauty and sacredness of God himself.
Now, practically speaking, I can’t look upon my children with this contemplative gaze of love at every moment of the day. I can’t even listen to my son’s chatter at every moment of the day, if for no other reason than I find it completely exhausting! That is fine; it is realistic. This is why quantity of time matters. If, every day, I spend some time with my children, looking upon them with love, spending time getting to know their little persons, they will find it hard to doubt that they are loved unconditionally.
This also lays the foundation for discipline. If I devote so much energy to demonstrating my love, will my children not understand that even when they are being corrected and even punished for their misdeeds, that I love them? There is much fear that punishing a child will lead to psychological damage. I think there is certainly a risk of this, particularly if the child does not know he is his parents’ whole world. If a child is secure in his parents’ love, though, he will ultimately understand that his parents discipline him and outline strict boundaries out of love, because they have his best interests at heart and are applying the full force of whatever wisdom they have acquired to his upbringing. This is why I am no longer afraid to mother my children with authority: because I am confident that they will know that they are loved, and that in fact it is love that motivates me to correct and discipline them. My parents always made this clear. They even made it clear by apologizing to us when they later realized that they misjudged situations or responded in ways they shouldn’t have. This is important, too: to have the humility to apologize to your children when you make mistakes. Rather than weaken your authority, I believe it strengthens it because, after all, true authority is built on love. Because we knew that our parents only wanted what was best for us, we learned to trust them. Time also taught us that although our parents aren’t right all the time, they do have a lot of wisdom and it is in our best interests to consult with them, even now as adults when we have outgrown obedience to them. The disciplinary structures that I enforce now will hopefully lead to such a beautiful and mature relationship with my children when they grow up, too.
There is such a sacredness to this life as parents. We are given precious souls to foster and guide, to shower with love and to act towards as God acts towards us. There was a time I hoped I might be a contemplative nun (even though I knew in my heart it did not suit my personality at all), and in recent weeks I’ve been discovering that the beauty of the contemplative life is not restricted to convent walls by any means. When I look upon my child, I gaze at him with a look similar to that I have received from God myself. When I spend time with him, it reminds me of time I spend in prayer: time set aside to be completely present, time during which I’m constantly swatting distractions away, time in which I abandon the constraints of chronos and enter into kairos.
May God bless you and your family!
Let all that you do be done in love. ~ 1 Cor. 16:14