Pufferfish Devils

As the week draws to a close and I anticipate another Sunday’s homily, I recall the simile we were given in last week’s homily that has accompanied me through the week: we need not fear the Devil or any of his henchmen, for they are more scared of us than we have right to be of them, seeing as Christ has won the battle; indeed, the priest urged us, they are like pufferfish, wishing to appear more frightening than they truly are. The priest also encouraged us to call out in the name of Christ these demons that plague us, and to command that they go away. Relevant to my recent struggles, he mentioned that while anxiety can certainly require medical attention (and he urged us to seek that kind of help if we need it), it can also have a spiritual source. The pufferfish image was memorable, seeing as my three-year-old son has a favourite page in one of his natural history books illustrating a meeting between a porcupine fish and a shark, with the shark approaching until frightened away by the porcupine fish puffed up, who has successfully given the illusion that this small prey is a threat.

Father’s counsel was just what I needed: this week, when negative thoughts crossed my mind, I called on Christ to cast them far from me. With the confidence of a Christian, I myself told them to flee in His Name, reminding them (and myself) I belong to Him, sealed by Baptism and Confirmation. If, like Peter, I quaver a little and start to sink, I cry to Jesus to save me, and He reaches out His hand. We cannot lose if we stand in Christ. It’s been several days now, and I’ve experienced a peace I haven’t had in a very long time, perhaps since before receiving the devastating news about my son Matthew two years ago (shy five days). It’s giving me hope.

Moreover, I’ve applied this teaching of the Lord’s mastery to my physical tension, which is related to my anxiety. My physiotherapist recently prescribed a practice called Mindfulness, and even sent me some audio files. I listened to one on falling asleep, something I struggle with most nights. It was all well and good, if a little odd, until it started to invite me to imagine beings encircling my bed, at which point the relaxation therapy backfired completely as my alarm bells started ringing loudly. As a Catholic, I don’t like to dabble with anything that invites ambiguous spirits, as experience has shown us that this can open the door to evil spirits, so I dropped that like a hot coal. At the same time, I recognized that the bodily tension I live with every minute of the day, even while sleeping, really ought to be addressed, especially as it’s become increasingly painful. Every night, therefore, I’ve been making my prayer one of surrendering the tension in my muscles to the Lord, asking Him to help me relax each one. I’ve never drifted off so easily.

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Be gone, devil fish!

In other news, I sacrificed my home and family to the completion of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth this past week, and it was not in vain. I hope I might have time to write some reflections soon, for it was as rich as the very earth she kept describing.


New Year’s Focus: Praise

On December 31st, the Ghost of Facebook Past revealed to me that over the past decade that I’d been on Facebook, two recurring New Year’s resolutions have been to cut back on anxiety and to cut back on Facebook. Now, one charming aspect of having a relatively poor memory is that I frequently experience surprise; I suppose I could find it humiliating, and occasionally I do, but more often than not it’s refreshing, perhaps especially because in other areas of my life I exhaust myself with my tenacity. So on New Year’s Eve, as I was warming up to rise to the traditional invitation to change my life for the better, much to my surprise and horror and amusement, I discovered the same old resolutions hanging up from years past like wives in Bluebeard’s closet.

Moreover, unlike those noble folks who resolve, say, to exercise more in the new year and spend New Year’s Day jogging, the Ghost returned to me on January 1st to reveal that I had failed in my resolutions on the very first day.

OK. Assessing the situation, I can see that neither my own strength of will (or lack thereof), nor my pleading with the Lord to pour out His grace on me, nor even my determined resolutions made quasi-public for the sake of accountability are getting me anywhere. It’s time to fight my demons with a new tactic:


As the Catholic Church tends to focus more on the Sacraments and rote prayers, I haven’t had a great deal of experience with the spiritual practice of praise beyond the Glory Be and the Praise and Worship songs that were sung at the youth retreats I sought out since I was a teenager, and that my soul felt some attraction to but my intellect and musical taste often recoiled from. Indeed, it is largely thanks to those retreats led by NET Canada that I was taught to have a conversational relationship with God, something my soul thirsted for. I knew about praise but I didn’t really practise it. Probably the closest I came to it was in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when Jesus sits on the altar in the form of the Eucharist and we just sit in silence, gazing at each other in love (this is really quite impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it; the first time I encountered Adoration it seemed very strange indeed).

Recently my husband and I moved to a new home only steps away from a parish run by the Companions of the Cross, a congregation of priests whose charism is charisma: they are the charismatic branch of Catholicism and place a strong emphasis on healing and praise. When we first arrived at the parish we marvelled at the almost jarring marriage of the sort of enthusiasm in music and preaching that we associate with our Protestant brethren with the incredibly beautiful solemnity of the altar attended by incense and Gregorian chant that we associate with pre-Vatican II Catholicism. We quickly fell in love with our new faith home, however.

Driven by the desperation severe physical pain can bring (yay, gallbladder!), I attended a healing service our church offered in the fall. There I had an experience unlike any in my life hitherto, replete with speaking and singing in tongues, but I was also given my first real lesson in praising God.

Now, for all that I’ve benefitted from the laid-back culture of my upbringing on the West Coast, I’m a somewhat uptight individual. Catholicism’s structure suits me. I thrive on rules and obedience comes easy, relatively speaking. I also embarrass easily. Raising my hands up to the Lord in the sight of others, daring to sing whatever harmonies might come to my head without a score and at the risk of hitting a wrong note, letting tears fall in public, and just letting myself relax my grip in general are all the sort of actions that my pride is constantly patrolling to keep in check. And I think a lot of my anxiety stems from this need to feel like I’m in control. So waddya know, the Lord seems to have led me to a parish that offers me what I would call an Ignatian antidote, namely, to combat an error, practise its opposite (this is not wisdom that was confined to Ignatius by any means, but it was in an Ignatian environment that I first studied it objectively).

The antidote to my anxiety, I believe, is praise. It is also, I suspect, the antidote to much of my pride. Score! Two great hurdles in my life to be combatted with one and the same resolution!

What is praise?

I want to differentiate between praise and other holy activities such as petition and thanksgiving. It’s good to ask God for what we need and to thank Him for all He’s given us and all we trust He will give us. However, praise is different. It is, essentially, using our words to express our delight in someone and our admiration for him.

Upon reflection, I do this a lot in my life — I praise my husband and children constantly. Aren’t you wonderful! How are you so handsome/cute? You are so good! You are so loving! You are so precious! How kind you are! How thoughtful! You are the best husband/*name-of-child* in the whole world! I am so blessed to have you in my life! It’s a habit I learned from my mother, and it does a lot to build relationships up. Moreover, if I force myself to praise someone when our relationship is suffering, it does a lot to strengthen and renew the relationship. It recognizes the inherent and essential goodness of the other.

How often, though, do I praise God? You are wonderful! You are merciful! You are all kindness! The source of all happiness! I adore you! I bless you! I praise you! And so forth.

My mother-in-law, when I shared with her the events of the healing service, shared with me a story from one of her Christian encounters: that a man who was resolved to praise God in everything was at a fancy dinner and spilled a drink across the white linens and even on the hostess’ dress. In response, he praised God for allowing the humiliating episode to happen. The hostess at first was, understandably, a little put out, but in the end his witness to the love of God attracted to her convert to Christ, too.

This story inspires me: first, the man’s first response to disaster is praise; second, he makes his praise public. My response would have been to let the event affect me negatively, and I certainly would not have first praised God openly. While I’m not ready to introduce the latter into my life, it’s high time I embraced the former. When minor disasters strike in my life, my response is to panic, cower, run, rage, despair — anything but calmly accept, trusting that God is in control. When I look at my current state objectively, I see that I’m rejecting a lot of opportunity to grow in the love of God and others, simply by my failure to praise Him in all things.

This year, then, in the attempt to give greater glory to God and to overcome those obstacles that hold me back from becoming the person He made me to be, I intend to practise praising Him in all things, but especially in those moments that I’m tempted to despair or grow despondent, or when I feel a surge of anxiety.

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
which he has granted them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love. – Isaiah 63:7

Mary and the Innocents

“In my struggles with these questions, I found it surprising and somewhat reassuring to discover how many theologians believe Mary had it tougher than the rest of us, because her sinless nature made living in our sinful world especially painful. Like Jesus, Mary probably approached the world with acute sensitivity, alert to both the tiniest whispers of God’s voice and the slightest suffering in the lives of others. The casual cruelties and everyday injustices we inflict without thinking probably disturbed Mary more than they would someone with a calloused, sin-hardened soul. And the torture and Crucifixion of her innocent son must have ripped her heart in two. Luke alludes to Mary’s sorrow in his story of Jesus’s presentation at the temple, where the prophet Simeon holds the infant Jesus aloft and warns Mary that her son is destined “to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own heart too” (Luke 2:34–35).” (from “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” by Colleen Carroll Campbell)

Today we commemorated possibly the most horrendous feast of the Church, at least from a natural point of view: the Slaughter of the Innocents. As a child the story horrified me, and now as a mother I’m possibly even more horrified. If you’ve never wrestled with the question of why God permits evil, then you’ve never spent much time reflecting on this story (cf. Matthew 2:16-18). It’s like a demonic parody of the celebrations befitting a royal birth: the King of the world is born and the local powers that be mark it by a massacre of babies – and not even just the newborn babies, but all boys up to the age of two. The mere thought is enough to make me feel physically ill.

One of my favourite passages from Colleen Carroll Campbell’s excellent book is the quotation given above, which affirms something I’ve come to understand better as I’ve grown in my faith and devotion: namely, that the closer one is to God, the more sensitive one becomes to evil, and it naturally follows that Our Lady, preserved from sin since her very conception, would have been highly sensitive to even the slightest offences that she both witnessed and endured.

It seems to me quite possible Mary learned of Herod’s response to her Son’s birth. If the news did not follow the Holy Family to Egypt, would she not have learnt of it upon her return to Galilee? And what would have been her reaction? What went through Mary’s mind and heart? Her empathy and love was beyond that of most people; if she learnt of it soon after the deed, she was newly postpartum and experiencing the extraordinarily acute feelings that hormones tend to foster; moreover, she held in her arms just such a one: an innocent, feeble, utterly vulnerable and fragile baby, making the horror of child-slaughter all the more vivid. Simeon had warned her that a sword would pierce her heart – surely this was a sword, whatever other swords might follow. Did the thought flit across her mind, as only great compassion could entertain, an almost-wish that her Child might have been sacrificed in the place of the babies killed for His sake, that they and their mothers and families might have been spared? Did she remember this inclination at the foot of the Cross, some thirty-three years later?

This is all speculation. Scripture does not mention that Mary knew of the slaughter, only that Joseph was told that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and that they had to travel as far as Egypt to escape. I sometimes think, however, that the Lord may have prepared Mary’s heart over the years to offer her Son’s Sacrifice in full communion with Him, something we try to do ourselves, especially when we participate in the Mass. Any mother knows that Christ’s Sacrifice was as much His mother’s insofar as her suffering would surely have been as great as His had He not been God taking on the sins of the world, for what brings greater pain than to watch someone we love with all our heart suffering? There are, I gather, many wonderful reflections out there on Mary’s participation in Calvary, but I haven’t read them yet myself. I base my suppositions on my experience as a mother, and on my having experienced divine preparation for great suffering in my life.

In any case, let us remember the innocent and seemingly insignificant souls whose sacrifice history would have forgotten, save for Matthew’s testimony. And let us consider with how much love and patience and trust in God Our Lady would have endured this horror, just as she endured the Crucifixion of her baby boy, no less innocent than the day He was born.

The Forgotten Verses of Christmas Carols

Do you remember the Christmas carol “We Three Kings”? Could you sing it all? For a few years growing up, carolling was a little family tradition, and in high school I sang as part of the choir; thus, Christmas Carols and I became intimately acquainted – and I love them. However, I have a complaint: almost everywhere carols are enjoyed – radio, choirs, and even church – they are enjoyed incompletely. Some discretely drop a verse or two; others are thoroughly bowdlerized. If we’re talking mere Christmas songs, such as “Jingle Bells,” my disappointment is somewhat nostalgic: oh, how sad, we’ve jilted poor Miss Fanny Bright once again. But when it comes to sacred Christmas carols, the disappointment goes much deeper, for we are cutting out beautifully articulated theology that ought to form us as Christians. Take “We Three Kings,” for instance:

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.


Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him God Most High.


Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.


Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Earth to Heaven replies.


The monologues of each of the magi remind us of the significance of the gifts brought to the Christ Child. My personal favourite verse has always been that of Myrrh; this verse does not allow us to forget the tiny Infant’s fate, it does not allow us to mistakenly think of Christmas as joyful celebration that conveniently forgets the truth of our human existence: that it is one of suffering, that we need a Saviour. Of course, it would be anticlimactic without the next verse of triumph, summarizing the entire carol, and reminding us that Christmas is nothing without Easter.

Here’s another forgotten verse. Do you know which carol it’s from? You’ll probably know by the end:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Yes! “Joy to the World”! It’s the apparently discomforting third verse, using words like “infest” and “curse” and, well, alongside such imagery, even “sin” starts to sound a little undesirable! Couldn’t we just leave it at joy and love, Mr Watts? This third verse renders only too vivid our wretched state (another idea we like to exorcise from a hymn, by the way, namely “Amazing Grace”) and total dependence on Christ for more than cozy feelings – for our redemption!

In any case, even abbreviated carols are still lovely and it’s important to remember that we have been given a reason to rejoice and be merry, but the joy will remain shallow if we forget the cost it came at. Moreover, those who are suffering at Christmas may think this holiday has nothing to offer them, since “it’s all happiness and joy.” On the contrary, the Catholic Church always has Christ’s suffering and death at the forefront of her mind, along with His resurrection. And Christmas Mass is still the Mass: the commemoration of the Last Supper. Perhaps today we ought to be all the more aware of the extent to which He entered into our suffering and abject lowliness: a Child, born in less than favourable circumstances, born with a destiny like ours to suffer and die, but a destiny unlike ours inasmuch as, being perfect, His suffering was all the more acute and totally undeserved. One wonders what the various visitors to the stable saw in that Baby’s eyes. What did the eyes of God look like as a baby? Did He know?

Nurturing Christ Within

“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart.

“This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.

“We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in the hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in a martyr spirit or with that worse spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.

“We shall do it just for one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world.”  The Reed of God (by Caryll Houselander)

In this chapter on Advent, Caryll Houselander begins to unfold her reflections, through Mary, on the primacy of Christ in our lives and the gentleness of the workings of the Holy Spirit within us, noting as Teresa of Avila more famously preached that Christ has no body on earth now but ours. She observes that often our circumstances do not seem extraordinarily holy, but that like pregnant Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, it is enough that we are present, bringing with us the silent presence of Christ within our souls.

Caryll’s writing (you must forgive me for taking liberties in referring to her by her first name, but she is too intimate an author to be referred to coldly by her surname) reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the experiences of a mother. She herself never had children, yet she understands the experience of a mother stunningly well. She clearly had a remarkable gift for empathy.

The extraordinary act of Our Lady visiting her cousin immediately following the Annunciation has won my admiration all the more after three of my own pregnancies. It’s possible Mary was spared many of the pains of pregnancy, but the growth of another human being is an enormous undertaking. I have yet to meet a mother who is not completely wiped out in her first trimester, yet it is in these first three months that Mary runs to assist her cousin, a time when most of us would prefer to be waited upon ourselves! In my first two pregnancies, the exhaustion was such that I remember excusing myself from charitable deeds. It was only through the example of others going out of their way to help me during a very difficult time that I learned to shift my perspective from self-absorbed to self-giving. And not only self-giving, but Christ-bearing. Yes, we necessarily are preoccupied with an awareness of a secret life within, but while we nurture that life, it directs our life: we do everything for our child, and we must to everything for our Christ.

I was impressed with Caryll’s identification of that “worse spirit of self-congratulation.” We have often been reminded not to act as martyrs (“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Matthew 6:16), but the spirit of self-congratulation is subtler and certainly more insidious because it is more prideful. I am no stranger to this temptation! It is easy enough to reprimand oneself for desiring the acclamation of others, but to route out from one’s heart the desire of one’s own self-affirmation? When you are battling this, you have levelled up in your fight to live for Christ alone! For it is complete poverty when you renounce even your own evaluation of your deeds — the complete poverty of total freedom, I would add.