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Wrestling with the Fourth Commandment

alec vanderboom

I remember attending a Lenten retreat with a visiting priest several years ago who said "you've got to reflect honestly before confession and not go in on automatic pilot. One of the worst things for me to hear is a ninety year old woman saying 'Father forgive me, I dishonored my father and my mother...."

At this point, I blanched in the front row. The priest met my eyes and continued, "you know, because that means her confession is all routine. I dishonored my Father and my Mother, I stole a penny from my Mother's purse, it's all stuff from her first confession at age 8."

I couldn't explain it to a priest eight years ago, but I'm fully convinced I'm going to be one of those ninety year olds who confesses "Father forgive me, I dishonored my father and my mother." That's a sin I can stumble upon even when my parents are dead. Because, I mess up on this one all the time.

My parents and I have had some epic battles during my childhood. Usually, they were not battles that my peers experienced. Mom was totally cool the day I called her from play practice and asked for an emergency lift because my male ride was high. "You should good judgment," she told me when she picked me up.

Meanwhile, my Senior year I got grounded for three weeks from driving the Family car for turning in an English paper late. To increase the punishment, my mom wouldn't let me get rides to cross-country practice. For weeks, I had to bike 2 miles home after 15-20 miles of "conditional" runs. "Look at Abby's cross-training dedication!" my coach called out after watching me get on my 10 speed after practice. "I wish you would all bike home after our runs." "You have no idea how non-voluntary this is!" I thought as my cramped legs attempted to give out on the painful ride home.

The whole time I sat in RICA, I wondered "how are my parents going to take this conversion of Faith?" Is it going to be easy breezy lemon squeezy, or is it going to be a daily showdown?

In the beginning, things were easy. My parents came to my Easter Vigil Confirmation. But somehow, I think they didn't really think the whole Roman Catholic thing would "take." It was after I started to "change" that things got hard.

In my early conversion, things were much more tense and ugly. We had some big disagreements over going to Sunday Mass when I visited them, having their grandkids close together, my decision to quit my job and become a stay-at-home mother. These differences were painful and awful. I remember coming home after one Christmas visit. I had just turned 30 and Alex was 2 months old. My 30th birthday party at my parents home was so awful, I just laid in a black puddle back home in Madison for a full 2 weeks after our visit. "I have got to get myself a therapist," I thought. I did, and therapy helped.

The thing I realize now, is that while the show down over my Sunday Mass obligation Alex's conception were awful, they were also clear. I knew that no matter what my parents said, I had to go to Sunday Mass. I needed to make that point with charity. (My latest solution is to let Mom pick if she wants my family to go to Saturday vigil or Sunday Morning Mass during my visits with her.) Still, at the end of the day, complying with my parent's wishes by not going to Mass was not an option.

I've made the stand about NFP and Mass and not eating meat on Good Friday. Now the subjects of our inter-generational tensions are not spelled out clearly in the catecism. The duties between what I owe God and the deference I owe my parents are in this murky gray area.

For example, my mom is in town to attend her high school reunion. My sister says "Let's take her out to see Momma Mia." I'm totally silent on the phone and I have no idea what to say. When my sister took my mom to see Momma Mia on Broadway, I thought the play was a light-hearted wedding farce with Abba Songs. Then I just read a review and found out the bride "might" have one of 3 fathers. As a writer, I'm putting myself through a strict "out with morally objectionable art" fast. Do I say anything? Do I just go, so that I can have a good time with my Mom? Do I suggest another movie without saying anything about my weird Catholic beliefs about what makes good art?

I used to wish so much that my parents and I belonged to one of those happy, always Catholic Italian families. Then our squabbles would be about how much pepper to put in the spaghetti sauce. There wouldn't be this inherent tension over God in the middle.

Now, I don't know. I know that having parents who disagree fundamentally with the Catholic church (they are called Protestants for a reason!) does not give me a free pass on the 4th Commandment. I know that being the black sheep in the family makes me much more sensitive about the difference between my personal preferences and the actual requirements of my new Faith.

So I'm stuck in the middle. I'm trying to parse out how to serve God and how to honor the ones who co-operated with God to give me life. I make lots of trips to confessional as I fail to make this distinction.

Lately, I've just thrown the whole thing up to Saint Bernadette. You'll remember that Saint Bernadette's parents forbid her to go to the grotto. But Our Lady expressly wished her to make several visits. What does Saint Bernadette do when her mother says "promise me that you'll never go back to the grotto?" Saint Bernadette responds: "I promise you that I'll never go back without your permission." She found a way to reconcile her duty to Our Blessed Mother and her duty to her mother on earth.

This week, I didn't worry about the Momma Mia problem. I prayed instead. Every time I found myself slipping into "what is Mom going to say when she hears about my crazy movie fast...?" I just said a prayer to St. Bernadette instead.

She came through! Turns out that my little brother took my Mom to this movie she's talked about for ages before she even made the trip to D.C. to visit her two daughters. For today, no conflicts. I made my Sunday dinner plans with my parents for 11 PM on Sunday. No conflicts tomorrow, either.

Thanks be for the Saints. Thanks be for the confessional. And Father, I'm trying my best to get rid of this old 4th commandment problem in my 30s instead of in my 90s!