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Filtering by Tag: Religion

New Years Eve Redefined

alec vanderboom

I spent my twenty-fifth birthday dressed in long underwear, new earrings and a damp felt hat. I’d dragged a bottle of champagne to the banks of the Thames River. My friend, Gloria and I, didn’t bring glasses, so we took swigs straight from the bottle, surrounded by a crowd of two million.

It was December 31, 1999. Deciding to celebrate the junction of the millennium & my first quarter century with a hop across the pond seemed glamorous and exciting as I discussed it with my housemate at 2 AM in snowy Madison, Wisconsin. The dream in actuality was not so glamorous.

The weather, as winter weather always is in London, was that awful spitting rain that somehow chills to the bone far worse than an actual blizzard. I wore three layers in anticipation. Still, every piece of me ached with cold. The crowd, which seemed gloriously thrilling as I rode the Underground into the city, now turned into an overwhelming force. People pressed up against me with inches to spare. There were drunk, rude guys trying to “cop a feel” and no room to move to avoid them. I realized that if I slipped on the wet pavement, there would be no way Gloria could ever get me back on my feet. I’d be trampled by the massive crowd, which kept surging forward in unpredictable waves.

Gloria and I popped the champagne cork to celebrate my birth-time at 10:31 PM. She took a picture of me waving underneath Big Ben. After a few happy swigs, we realized mournfully that we had an hour and a half to kill before midnight. What were we going to do?

Looking around, I realized that we were close to Westminster Abbey. “Want to hang out in a church?” I asked her. “Yes” was her enthusiastic answer.

We filed into the famous church at about 10:45 PM, happy to unwrap ourselves from our wet coats and soaked mittens. I said a quick prayer of thanks and then lost myself in my own daydreams. (Church sanctuaries were a homey, familiar place for both Gloria and I. Back in Madison we were housemates at an inter-faith Episcopal College Dorm called “St. Francis House.”)

Within a few minutes an organ started playing, and then a few parishioners filed in. “They are having a special service tonight?” I asked. Gloria, who was a Catholic from Columbia, knew all about New Years Eve vigil. I, as an American Methodist, had no idea what was going on. Gloria helped me find my place in the prayer book. We were happy to find an honest reason to stay out of the rain.

The memory of that night made an impression on me. Inside the ancient stone church, there was warmth, music, calm, a comfortable space to move around and to be myself. Outside, was the large, chaotic crowd. I felt as though the church was a safe ship amid a stormy sea. I said my prayers for world in the new millennium. “Why was Mary involved in ushering in world peace?” I wondered.

Before this past New Years Eve, I always thought the story of Jon and I started with two New Years Resolutions. (On January 1, 2000, the shy Jon decided to “start asking girls out” for the first time. Meanwhile, after reading “She’s Come Undone, my 2000 year resolution was to “drink people’s milkshakes accept the love that is offered.” A mere three weeks later, Jon decided to uncharacteristically send a free drink to the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. I was about to decline, since I’m clearly “not a girl who accepts drinks from strange men in a bar.” Then the “accept people’s milkshakes” line came into my head, and so over the objection of my friend and five of her burly brothers, I went to the bar to get my free shot. The bartender was a girl named Beth, “the guy that sent that to you is down there, in the orange baseball cap. He’s really nice if you want to say thank you.” I started to walk towards the guy in the orange cap. He was so shocked to see me that he promptly fell off his bar stool. That sheepish grin as he climbed back on his barstool went right to my heart, and gave me courage. “At least, he’s not a Casanova!” I thought happily. “My name is Jon & I have two dogs,” so started the conversation, which is still going on eight years later, only now its over the din of teething babies instead of the roar of Wisconsin beer drinkers.)

So, I’d always credited our marriage to two lonely people making a resolution to look harder to find love in a New Year. Celebrating vigil at midnight with my family this year, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I clearly remember that night on Dec 31, 1999. I remember feeling scared, and jostled, and needing a safe refuge from the maddening crowd. I remember finding a quiet church, and spending the night in an earnest prayer for peace—asking the aid of a Blessed Mother I never knew I had.

Our Blessed Mother heard my prayer for world peace. She didn’t direct me to start an inter-faith summer camp or send shoeboxes of school supplies to Africa. Instead, she guided me to my husband, a shy boy who had been living two blocks from me the entire two and half years of my falling, flagging, time in law school. She guided Jon and I into Holy Matrimony and towards a conversion of faith to the Catholic Church. A peaceful family life is the building block of a peaceful society. Now Jon and I are humble bricklayers in tasks that we never knew the world always needed.

In 2007, I capped off my birthday celebration by waking three sleepy children, dressing them in their Christmas best, and packing them into a church pew. Mass began at 11:30 and ended to 12:38. It was the first time that Jon and I had ever skipped the 10, 9, 8 . . . countdown to midnight. We prayed. We sang. We didn’t know the clock had turned until our priest gave us the time at the close of Mass. My birthday was officially over. Then I realized that I’d been born just in time to celebrate Vigil Mass on Our Blessed Mother’s special feast day. It didn’t matter that I didn’t learn how to say a rosary until age 28. I’d been a Mary’s girl, all along!

Happy Feast Day-St. Martin de Torres

alec vanderboom

In 4th Century France, when the "good news" of Christianity had just begun to spread among the crumbling Roman empire, a 15 year old boy was pressed into military service by his pagan father. As Roman solider, Saint Martin de Torres began to study this new faith. At age 21, Saint Martin was so moved by the plight of a cold, nearly naked beggar, that he took his beautiful cloak and cut it in half with his sword. One half Saint Martin gave to the beggar and one half he kept for himself. That night in a dream, Jesus came to him dressed in the half of the cloak Martin had given the beggar. Jesus said "what ever you do for the poorest of the poor, you do for me." Jesus also told Martin that his studying was over, it was time to take his vows to formally join the Catholic Church.

This story, which is passed down for over 1500 years, is a startling example of "charity." Charity is different from benevolence, which is defined as giving from your excess. Mother Theresa said that "charity is sharing when it hurts." It was an extremely cold day when Saint Martin meet the beggar. As a solider, he had only one cloak. Yet Saint Martin is so moved with compassion that he shares his cloak with another who has greater need of its warmth.

My family celebrated this feast day by going to Mass, donating a new men's coat to our parish's coat drive AND THEN, driving to the National Gallery to drink in this fantastic portrait of St. Martin by El Greco. (There are so many benefits to living in the Capitol City!)

El Greco's seven foot high picture is amazing to contemplate in person. St. Martin has a young mans face, gawky ears and peach fuzz on his upper lip. His eyes are downcast with long lashes. His face has such a feeling of peace, gentleness and contemplation. One hand steadies the house and the other deftly starts to tear his luxurious green cloak in half. The body of the beggar is equally amazing. Its as if, El Greco is forewarning us of Jesus' presence. The beggar's right hand is in a form of blessing and his other hand take the cloak with such simple thankfulness and honor. There is no shame in his being barefoot or naked. He takes St. Martin's cloak as easily as if it was one of our children asking us for a glass of water. (Isn't that what charity is? The act of sharing resources shouldn't be anymore complicated that giving your toddler a glass of water on a hot day).

There was so much to think about looking at this huge portrait. We were the only ones in the room--a Catholic family which prayed to St. Martin and grew closer to him in spirit while contemplating this devotional work of art. I told my husband later, "those pictures must be so lonely." El Greco's artwork originally hung in a famous chapel in Toledo, Spain. Now his work hangs in Gallery No. 28, a back room of the National Gallery which is barely visited by bored, tired tourists.

The National Gallery is open late, until 6 PM on Sundays. Jon & I are planning many more trips to stare at the Saints with our three little Catholics. What a great way to inspire a strong devotion to the Communion of Saints.

The MovieGoer-Into the Great Silence

alec vanderboom

Impossible to overstate how much I've enjoyed this latest Netflick pick- a peep into the life of the monks from the Grande Chartreuse monastery. The life of the monks first made me homesick for my former life as a scholar. The "father" monks live in alone in cells, spending time in prayer and study. A lower order, called "brothers" who wear blue denim habits delivers steaming vegetable stew, clean laundry and letters from home through a small door in the cells. All time is spent in silence, except for the powerful words of the literary and few "recreational" visits.

The difference between these two types of monks is briefly described in their official website.

"A Carthusian community consists of cloistered monks, priests or those destined to become priests (Fathers) and monks converse or donate (Brothers). Cloistered monks live in the strictest of solitude. They do not leave their cells other than when allowed by the rule. They occupy their time with prayer, readings, and work (sawing wood to heat themselves during winter, gardening, transcribing, pottery, etc.) The Brothers ensure that the various needs of the monastery are met by their work outside of the cells (cooking, carpentry, laundry, work in the woods) It is a unique ideal, lived in two different ways. The Brothers work in as much silence and solitude as possible. They have their share of life in the cell for reading and prayer, yet it is less demanding than the Fathers. That is why their cells are smaller. Both ways of life complement one another to form the unique Charterhouse and correspond to the different aptitudes of those who wish to lead a Carthusian life."

When I rented this documentary, I thought I'd long for the life of a father. Uninterrupted time for contemplation of the sacred scripture. Time for writing, thought, prayer. Clean laundry delivered through a window in my cell. Such a contrast to my currently inability to string two sentences together in a blog post without being interrupted by a hungry baby, battling siblings, a husband who has misplaced his wallet or a dog with diarrhea.

Instead, it was the humble life of the little brothers in blue which drew me. The way they carefully cut the celery for the stew. They way they shoved snow from the garden tracks while the Mass bells were calling their fellow monks to prayer. This is the way most similar to my life as a stay-at-home mother. Watching the simple, necessary tasks done with such love and devotion had an uplifting effect on me. Even the acetic monks need clean clothes and full bellies.

The focus on solitude and silence and aspects I wish to embrace more fully in my life. In contrast to the more communal life of the Benedictine monks, the Carthusian monks embrace a more solitary life. The basic premise is this:

"It is because of this solitude that each of our cells is called a Desert or Hermitage.

The cloister and cell only assure an external solitude. It is only the first step whose goal is to encourage interior solitude, or purity of heart: to keep one's soul away from any and all things not of God or which do not lead to God. It is at this level that the Carthusian meets the sudden impulses of his thought and the changes of his feelings. As long as the monk discusses with his "self", his sensibilities, his worthless thoughts, unreal desires, he is not centered on God. It is here that he experiences his weakness and the power of the Spirit which he learns bit by bit "...the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart which allows God to enter by all path and access." (Statutes 4.2) (quote from their official website.

Food for the Journey

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I got inspired by Joshie’s five languages of love for God post this Sunday. After the Eucharist, I followed his example of putting my hand on my stomach and my heart. I also want to try to put into words (since I'm verbose by nature) how profoundly grateful I am to be taking the Eucharist as a Catholic.

For a Methodist, Communion is grape juice passed along a silver tray in individual dime size cups and crumbled bite size pieces of bread from Kroger. The words of the Mass are the same "take this bread in memory of me" but the signs are just "symbolic." The bread is still bread, the grape juice (non-alcoholic as a tribute to teetotalers) is just juice. I felt more in touch with Jesus by praying on the alter rail after Communion than I ever did after taking a sip.

Now, as a Catholic, I am allowed to take the Eucharist, each Sunday. (And every day if I wish). All that's required is that I stay in a state of grace, go to confession regularly, search my conscious before each Mass, and take the body & blood as reverently as possible while holding the hands of a few squirmy children.

For these small, helpful sacrifices, I'm allowed to infuse Jesus into my body. I receive food for my journey.

I can't tell you how much that means to me. I don't have to have everything figured out on my life path. I don't have to be "in control" or to pace myself. I can get exhausted. I can become overextended. Whether it's a taxing pregnancy day or a hard visit with house guests, I know that each Sunday I can refresh myself with our Savior.

I'm so grateful that after 29 years of being a Christian, I finally came home to the sacrament of Eucharist in the Catholic Church.


alec vanderboom

My family hosted a college friend from Australia and her family last week. There were physical and spiritual challenges. Jon & I spent each night sleeping on the floor of the kid's room. Alex did avoid hitting & biting anyone not related to him by blood for an entire week.

This unusual occurrence was overshadowed by her husband's insistence, he is a music teacher with sensitive ears, that my children avoid all noise in the living room or in the car. The objected noises included humming, squeals of delight and random shuffling noises made from kicking feet against the carpet. Meanwhile, my friend finally disclosed that her hatred of the Catholic church stems from being baptized in the faith but not brought to Mass until age 16. She felt embarrassed not to know the words and never went back. So there was many opportunities to water my seeds of meekness during the week. After a few missed turns on the Capital Beltway on Saturday afternoon, I got them to Dulles Airport in their rental car with time to spare to make their connecting flight to L.A.

At 7 PM on Saturday, while the kids are jumping on the bed in the room that has been forbidden territory all week, Jon takes a call from my nervous friend. She misread the time of take-off. The family has missed the plane and can't leave for Australia again until Monday. They needed shelter for two more nights. I love my husband. Without missing a beat he says to a stranded family without a rental car, without a car seat, and that has recently been not so nice to him, "Of course you can stay here, we'll be right out to pick you up."

So we practiced hospitality for an additional seventy-two hours. It was way beyond what me, my kids, my husband and my tiny, colicky newborn could handle. But you know what? It was awesome. I prayed and prayed for grace from Our Lady.

She let me know that she had a special plans for this family. The husband, an Anglican, ended up taking home my "Devotion to Our Lady." He confided that is reading up on St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Best of all, he announced that he was taking his wife and his one year old daughter to church again once they got home. My friend had all of these excuses, "it's to hard to take a young baby to church, etc." I sat in silence, holding little Maria, not sure what to say. Then I realized that I didn't have to say anything. Her husband was all decided that they needed to start going again. That's when I made this powerful realization. When you go to Mass- after a hard week as a hostess, and your husband handles a 4 year old, a 3 year old, and a newborn all by himself while you sing in the choir for the first time in two years- your actions matter.

As our beloved St. Francis of Assisi says "Preach the gospel aways, sometimes use words." I'm so thankful that my family had a chance to stretch the limits of our virtues this week. I'm excited that our home is noticeably Catholic-not just from the blessed crucifixes on our walls, but from our daily interactions as a family. And while it's uncomfortable to have friction with a former friend who knew me in my pre-Catholic, pre-parent days, that friction is also a marker of how far I've grown in faith in the three years since her last visit. I hope to grow even deeper in the faith by 2010.

My Bibilical Namesake

alec vanderboom

My biblical namesake was a real inspiration to me this past week. As a wife of King David, her story is not well known. So I thought that I'd share her heroic virtues with you.

1 Samuel 25: 3, 14-28, 30-35, 40-42

“The man was named Nabal, his wife, Abigail. The woman was intelligent and attractive, but Nabal himself, a Calebite, was harsh and ungenerous in his behavior.”

[King David sent servants to request donations of food from Nabal after his soldiers protected Nabal’s shepards earlier in the year. Nabal pretends that he doesn’t know who King David is and denies that he received any benefit from him. King David is outraged and about to lead 400 soldiers against Nabal & his family.]

But Nabal’s wife, Abigail was informed of this by one of the servants, who said “David sent messengers from the desert to greet our master, but he flew at them screaming. Yet these men were very good to us. . . Abigail quickly got together two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of pressed raisins, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. She then said to her servants, “Go on ahead; I will follow you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal.

As she came down through a mountain pass riding on a donkey, David and his men were also coming down from the opposite direction. When she met them, David had just been saying ‘Indeed, it was in vain that I guarded all this man’s possessions in the desert, so that he missed nothing. He has repaid good with evil. May God do thus and so to David if by morning I leave a single male alive among all those who belong to him.” As soon as Abigail saw David, she dismounted quickly from the donkey and, falling prostrate on the ground before David did him homage. As she fell at his feet she said:

“My lord, let the blame be mine. Please let your handmaid speak to you, and listen to the words of your handmaid. Let not my lord pay attention to that worthless man Nabal, for he is just like his name. Fool is his name, and he acts the fool. I your handmaid, did not see the young men whom my lord sent. Now, therefore, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as you live, it is the Lord who has kept you from shedding blood and from avenging yourself personally. May your enemies and those who seek to harm my lord become as Nabal! Accept this present, then, which your maidservant has brought for my lord, and let it be given to the young men who follow my lord. Please forgive the transgression of your handmaid, for the Lord shall certainly establish a lasting dynasty for my lord, because your lordship is fighting the battles of the Lord, and there is no evil to be found in you your whole life long. . . And when the Lord carries out for my lord the promise of success he has made concerning you and appoints you as commander over Israel, you shall not have this as a qualm or burden on your consciences, my lord for having shed innocent blood or for having avenged yourself personally. When the Lord confers this benefit on your lordship, remember your handmaid.

David said to Abigail: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today. Blessed be your good judgment and blessed be you yourself, who this day have prevented me form shedding blood and from avenging myself personally. Otherwise, as the Lord, the god of Israel, lives who has restrained me form harming you, if you had not come so promptly to meet me, by Naval would not have had a single man or boy left alive.” David then took from her what she had brought him and said to her “Go up to you home in peace! See, I have granted your request as a personal favor.”

[Nabal this is struck dead by the Lord for his sin]

“David then sent a proposal of marriage to Abigail. When David’s servants came to Abigail in Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent us to you that he may take you as his wife.” Rising and bowing to the ground, she answered, “Your handmaid would become a slave to wash the feet of my lord’s servants.”

Living the Visitation

alec vanderboom

This week we host a family from Australia for five nights. I don't think I'll be able to post much on my blog. I'll be back on Sunday.

Please pray for me. I've got a colicky newborn. Last week, I became convinced this visit would be a disaster. Now, I'm hanging on to the image of our Blessed Mother at the visitation of St. Elizabeth.

Dog Church

alec vanderboom

On Saturday, I attended my first blessing of the animals, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. What an adventure. After five years, I'm still not used to how Catholics manage to appear exactly 20 seconds before Mass begins. At 10:52, my family and my 11 year old dog were standing in an empty field beside our parish house. Did I dream up this event at 11 AM? I started making an apology to the kids, when more and more cars started to appear.

Soon there was a little circle of pet lovers. Mostly seniors, with three or four young families. The two cats were encased in crates and kept far from the dog pack. "Boxed Lunch!" exclaimed one of the girls. In reality, all of the dogs, including ours, was well behaved. There was only one dog, a Rottweiler, they said, who had to stay in his owners car.

We're in a new parish, so I didn't know anyone at the service. It was a friendly place to share your dog with other pet lovers. One woman asked if she could pet our dog. She said she just lost her dog a few weeks ago. "We're just cat people, now" she said sadly motioning to her husband holding their cat. Another mother timidly asked if we had seen her missing dog. "We live next to the church. Our dog ran away Thursday and we can't find him. Our other dog has become so depressed she stopped eating." No one had seen the dog.

Father came with a visiting priest from Togo, to start the service. It was simple, and sweet. Nothing odd about promising your dog will be with you in heaven. Rather there was a reminder that the animals are a part of God's creation. Animals were saved by Noah from the flood. Our beloved pets are companions who help us reach heaven. My husband, who is a steely non-crier, got a little misty thinking of how Sara has given us a feeling of protection and security even after our move to a big city.

Father gave a brief homily about how St. Francis told a wolf to stop hurting an Italian village. Then he threw holy water on each of the pets. Maria (age 4 months) was in her car seat carrier. "Is there another pet in there, Father asked, after blessing our dog." "Oh, she's a human." He laughed. "Well, here's little Holy Water for her too. Can't hurt!" So Maria got blessed also. At the end of the service, we prayed for the lost dog to return to his family.

Today, we were in the car on our way to Sunday Mass, when Hannah said "We forgot Sara!" I had to explain that we only did a special service once a year in honor of St. Francis. This message had to be repeated a few times.

Finally, Hannah knowingly said. "Yes, Dog Church is only once a year. Regular church is a lot of times a year."

I hope you each had a holy Sabbath.

St. Francis of Assisi

alec vanderboom

October 4th is the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi

Sermon to the Birds

"My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God." Saint Francis of Assisi - c 1220

These words come out of a beautiful context. Saint Francis eventually felt torn between a life of solitude & prayer, or one of continued preaching. He asked Saint Clare for advice. She told him to keep preaching. When the messenger came to St. Francis with Saint Clare's words, he was deep in the forest. Immediately after hearing her advice, he started running down the road. The first living thing he came to was a flock of birds. He started preaching to them. His words still make an impression nearly 800 years later.

If you want to explore Giotto's painting which wonderfully reflects this event check out this link.

Tonight we are having pasta for dinner, & biscotti for dessert (rumored to be St. Francis last food request on his death bed.) We'll be saying the "Canticle of the Sun" and "Make me an Instrument" prayers together as a family. On Saturday, our dog, Sara, will be blessed for the first time at the pet blessing service at our new parish. Are you doing anything special at your house to recognize this great saint?

The Communion of Saints

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As a former Protestant, I'm unused to relying on the intersession of the saints. I said the line "I believe in the communion of the saints" in the Apostle's Creed a million times. I never used it. Saint Francis, was just plain Francis of Assisi to me. He was an exciting hero whom I admired greatly. Yet I would no more think of calling on him for help in my daily life then I would say, my namesake, Abigail Adams.

As a new Catholic, I've inched towards an understanding of the saints. In the beginning, I thought nothing of turning to Jesus directly for every little barked shin. I hesitated, however, to bother the saints with anything but the most serious prayer requests. It seemed impolite, somehow, to trouble them. They were in heaven, they had earned their right to rest. Jesus was divine. I knew that he had to be patient with me. Endless patience from the saints, I wasn't so sure about.

I'm growing in devotion to Mary through the work of St. Louis D Montfort. Prayers to Saint Joseph have always come more easily to me. Yet the Saint that has really helped me bridge this gulf, is Saint Jude. This Saint has never, ever let me down. I go to him all the time for lost things.

At first, I only asked St. Jude to find important items, such as my husband's missing passport. Then I had a major breakthrough during the long episodes of morning sickness with baby Maria. Alex and Hannah would come to me and say "Mama, I can't find my tea set!" I'd want to help them, but there was no way I was moving my aching body for something trivial. So we struggled for a few weeks. Then I finally hit upon a formula. "Go pray to St. Jude first. If you can't find it then, I'll come help you look." Man, if that didn't work every time.

I don't know how it works. St. Jude had a photographic memory. I don't know if he telegraphs the likely location of the missing object or after praying to St. Jude we all take our search much more seriously. I just know that it always works.

Despite six months of constant success however, my search goes something like this.

"I desperately need to find the baby's pacifier."

"Pray to St. Jude, Mama" says Hannah with perfect faith.

"St Jude, help us find Maria's pacifier" I say out loud. But then mentally add "But if you can't find it this time, that's okay, I'll still believe in you."
Then wham, the pacifier appears in an unlikely place. "Oh, thanks St. Jude."

"But if you can't find it this time . . ." still mentally adding that coda despite St. Jude's perfect track record of success.

I'm sure St. Jude is doing far more important work at your house than finding lost pacifiers, tea sets and beloved spider man comic books. I'm grateful, however, that he is patiently teaching me that the saints will never ever let us down. Hopefully, some year I'll reach the stage where I'm not anxiously checking on the Internet, "Did Oliver Hill Farm get saved?" Rather, I'll confidently know in my heart "of course our Blessed Mother took care of that need for us."

Dangerous Blessing

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St. Frances of Rome,

Help us to see the difference between what we want to do and what God wants us to do. Help us to discern what comes from our will and what comes from God’s desire. Amen.

HT: Jen@ e tu jen for introducing me to this new favorite saint

The Strange Choices Made by Artists

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I've gotten some tender sympathy about the state of our shoe closet after posting


While each of the lines in that post are true, it also obscures the larger issue that my husband and I "chose" to pursue this current life, even with all of its hardships. We started out with a pretty stable life as a non-profit lawyer and an art professor. After having Hannah, however, we elected to drop out of our planned future to pursue a vague vision of an integral life tied to Catholicism, art, and parenthood. At first we tried to do this as entrepreneurs. Then we thought the answer was a move to New York City. When both those dreams failed- we didn't move back to Southern Ohio where comfortable jobs awaited. Instead, we came to start living a new slate of dreams founded in the nation's capital.

It's hard to explain that even with bill collectors calling and a newborn with infant reflux who constantly squirts up on my shoulder, I still wouldn't trade places with any of my law school friends who started out making $100,000+ at age 25. I wish my family's financial troubles would end. I wish the baby could find a better drug for her stomach acid. But I don't wish that I was sitting in a more conventional life spending my day shopping for window treatments.

This divide has lead to some odd conversations with my former classmates. Friends tell me of their office troubles and then wonder why I'm not there too. Meanwhile, I stand there, conscious of the purple circles of sleeplessness under my eyes, faking my active listening skills and thanking my lucky stars that I'm now a stay-at-home mom.

This passage I found today in Maugham's "The Moon and The Sixpence" seemed to speak about this gulf and the futility of using words to breach it.(The Moon and The Sixpence is a fictional account of artist Paul Gauguin. The title comes from a critique of the protagonist "Of Human Bondage" who it was said "like so many young men he was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.")

"I told Tiare the story of a man I had known at St. Thomas's Hospital. He was a Jew named Abraham, a blond, rather stout young man, shy and very unassuming;but he had remarkable gifts. He entered the hospital with a scholarship, and during the five years of the curriculum gained every prize that was open to him. He was made house-physician and house-surgeon. His brilliance was allowed by all. Finally he was elected to a position on the staff, and his career was assured. so far as human things can be predicted, it was certain that he would rise to the greatest heights of his profession. Honors and wealth awaited him. Before he entered upon his new duties he wished to take a holiday, and, having no private means, he went as surgeon on a tramp steamer to the Levant. It did not generally carry a doctor, but one of the senior surgeons at the hospital knew a director of the line, and Abraham was taken as a favor.

In a few weeks the authorities received his resignation of the coveted position on the staff. It created profound astonishment, and wild rumors were current. Whenever a man does anything unexpected, his fellows ascribe it to the most discreditable motives. But there was a man ready to step into Abraham's shoes, and Abraham was forgotten. Nothing more was heard of him. He vanished.

It was perhaps ten years later that one morning on board ship, about to land at Alexandria, I was bidden to line up with the other passengers for the doctor's examination. The doctor was a stout man in shabby clothes, and when he took off his hat I noticed that he was very bald. I had an idea that I had seen him before. Suddenly, I remembered:
"Abraham," I said.
He turned to me with a puzzled look, and then, recognizing me, seized my hand. After expressions of surprise on either side, hearing that I meant to spend the night in Alexandria, he asked me to dine with him at the English Club. When we met again I declared my astonishment at finding him there.It was a very modest position that he occupied, and there was about him an air of staitened circumstance. Then he told me his story. when he set out on his holiday in the Mediterranean he had every intention of returning to London and his appointment at St. Thomas's. One morning the tramp docked at Alexandria, and from the deck he looked at the city, white in the sunlight, and the crowd on the wharf; he saw the natives in their shabby gabardines, the blacks from the Sudan the noisy throng of Greeks and Italians, the grave Turks in tarbooshes, the sunshine and the blue sky and something happened to him. He could not describe it. It was like a thunder-clap he said, and then, dissatisfied with this, he said it was like a revelation. Something seemed to twist his heart, and suddenly he felt an exultation, a sense of wonderful freedom. He felt himself at home, and he made up his mind there and then, in a minute, that he would life the rest of his life in Alexandria. He had no great difficulty in leaving the ship, and in twenty-four hours, with all his belongings, he was on shore. . .
"Have you never regretted it?"
"Never, not for a minute. I earn just enough to live upon, and I'm satisfied. I ask nothing more than to remain as I am till I die. I've had a wonderful life."

I left Alexandria next day, and I forgot about Abraham till a little while ago, when I was dining with another old friend in the profession, Alec Carmichael, who was in English on short leave. I ran across him in the street and congratulated him on the kinghthood with which his eminent serves during the war had been rewarded. We arranged to spend an evening together for old time's sake, and when I agreed to dine with him, he proposed that he should ask nobody else, so that we could chat without interruption. He had a beautiful old house in Queen Anne Street, and being a man of taste he had furnished it admirably. on the walls of the ding-room I saw a charming Bellotto, and there was a pair of Zoffanys that I envied. When his wife, a tall, lovely creature in cloth of gold, had left us, I remarked laughingly on the change in his present circumstances from those when we had both been medical students. We had looked upon it then as an extravagance to dine in a shabby Italian restaurant in the Westminster Bridge Road. Now Alec Carmichael was on the staff of half a dozen hospitals. I should think that he earned ten thousand a year, and his knighthood was but the first of the hors which must inevitably fall to his lot.
"I've done pretty well," he said, "but the strange thing is that I owe it all to one piece of luck."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, do you remember Abraham? He was the man who had the future. When we were students he beat me all along the line. He got prizes and scholarships that I went in for. I always played second fiddle to him. If he'd kept on he'd be in the position I'm in now. That man had a genius for surgery. No one had a look in with him. When he was appointed Registrar at St. Thomas's I hadn't the chance of getting on the staff. I should have had to become a G.P., and you know what likelihood there is for a G.P. ever to get out of the common rut. But Abraham fell out, and I got the job. That gave me my opportunity."

"I dare say that is true."

"It was just luck. I suppose there was some kink in Abraham. Poor devil, he's gone to the dogs altogether. He's got some twopenny-halfpenny job in medical at Alexandria-sanitary officer of something like that. . . The fact is, I supposed, that it's not enough to have brains. The thing that counts is character. Abraham hadn't got character."

Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour's meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.

But I said nothing, and Alex Carmichael proceeded reflectively:
"Of course, it would be hypocritical for me to pretend that I regret what Abraham did. After all, I've scored by it." He puffed luxuriously at the long Corona he was smoking. "But if I weren't personally concerned I should be sorry at the waste. It seems a rotten thing that a man should make such a hash of life."

I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual. But again, I held my tongue, for who am I to argue with a knight?"pg. 165-168

Interesting food for thought. Has anyone ever accused you of making "a hash of your life?"

Christian Hero: Magdalene Scholl

alec vanderboom

Scholl monument

Magdalene Scholl was an extraordinary mother of five who lived in Munich, Germany during WWII. Two of her children, Sophie Scholl (age 21) and Hans Scholl (age 23), were executed by the Nazis on the same day, February 22, 1943, for leading a non-violent student resistance group. “The White Rose” passed out six illegal leaflets that urged University of Munich students (most of the them on study breaks from their obligation to serve as officers in the German army) to withdraw from the Nazi party and oppose Hitler. The Nazi’s restrictions on free speech were so great during this time period that this tiny collection of leaflets is one of the only examples of internal dissent ever voice against Hitler during the entire war.

A medical student, Hans Scholl, founded the White Rose after becoming disillusioned during his service as a German army medic. Hans saw first hand the horror of the Jewish Ghetto in Poland. He was certain that once the German people knew the truth about the Nazi party that they would rise up in revolt against it.

Full of angst in 1943, Hans wrote a passionate appeal for German citizens to stand up against Hitler. He wrote the first four leaflets (or essays) with the help of his friend, Alexander Schmorell (a devoted Russian Orthodox). The two printed and passed out the leaflets in secrete. Han and Alex’s essays are wonderfully earnest and sensitive appeals to conscious, filled with quotes by Goethe, Aristotle, Ecclesiastes, and Lao-Tzu. Here is a brief quote:

“I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.” From Leaflet IV.

To read all six leaflets in their entirety go to to

As a responsible older brother, Hans kept his sister, Sophie, in the dark about the White Rose, not wishing to expose her to danger. Sophie sensed something was up and demanded that Hans tell her everything. Once she learned of their secrete mission she insisted on joining the group. As the only female member, she was incredibly useful because she was the least likely to arise suspicion. Sophie even helped get a contraband copying machine to expand the printing process.

On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie skipped class to stock the hallways with the sixth leaflet written by their beloved philosophy professor, Professor Huber. When the lectures were finished, some students paused to pick up the illegal leaflets on their way to lunch. After the storm of students passed, however, Hans and Sophie saw that many leaflets remained. Not wanting their hard work to be in vain, they decided to throw the remaining leaflets onto the floor of the main hallway. The two siblings carried the leaflets up to the third floor and Sophie flung them off the railing. A janitor saw the students and reported the incident to the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie were immediately arrested

On February 22, at 8 AM, the siblings were brought to trial for treason and faced the death penalty. (These events are faithfully captured on the film “Sophie Scholl: Final Days” available on Netflix.) Both siblings were incredibly brave and levelheaded. They insisted on taking the full blame of the group’s activities on themselves. The only time Sophie cried was in her cell when she realized that through hand-writing analysis the Gestapo traced and arrested a third member of the group. Christoph Probst was a beloved friend and a father of three children.

Sophie and Hans parents, Magdalene and Robert Scholl, reached the trial in Munich at 12:00 PM. The guards at the courtroom tried to bar their entrance. “But I’m the mother of two of the accused”, Magdalene cried. “Then you should have raised your children better!” was the Nazi guards reply.

Robert broke into the courtroom but was immediately tossed out after trying to intercede as a defense witness for his children. At 12:40, the Judge, who was infuriated that these children from “good German families and schools” had dared to oppose the Nazi Party sentence them to death. Robert and Magdalene then raced to various administrations trying to get a stay of execution. By 2:00 PM a friend in official office warned that it was hopeless and urged them to make a final visit immediately with their children.

This excerpt is from a first-hand account of Magdalene’s last visit with her daughter

“Then a woman prison guard brought in Sophie. . . . Her mother tentatively offered her some candy, which Hans had declined. “Gladly,” said Sophie, taking it. “After all, I haven't had any lunch!” She, too, looked somehow smaller, as if drawn together, but her face was clear and her smile was fresh and unforced, with something in it that her parents read as triumph. “Sophie, Sophie,” her mother murmured, as if to herself. “To think you'll never be coming through the door again!” Sophie's smile was gentle. “Ah, Mother,” she said. “Those few little years. . . .” Sophie Scholl looked at her parents and was strong in her pride and certainty. “We took everything upon ourselves,” she said. “What we did will cause waves.” Her mother spoke again: “Sophie,” she said softly, “Remember Jesus.” “Yes,” replied Sophie earnestly, almost commandingly, “but you, too.” She left them, her parents, Robert and Magdalene Scholl, with her face still lit by the smile they loved so well and would never see again. She was perfectly composed as she was led away. Robert Mohr [a Gestapo official], who had come out to the prison on business of his own, saw her in her cell immediately afterwards, and she was crying. It was the first time Robert Mohr had seen her in tears, and she apologized. “I have just said good-bye to my parents,” she said. “You understand . . .,” She had not cried before her parents. For them she had smiled.”
-taken from Jewish Holocaust archives at

This passage has caused a lump in my throat all week. “Remember Jesus.” “Yes, but you, too.” The last words between a mother and beloved daughter. Sophie would be executed by guillotine in front of her brother at 6:00 PM that night. The Gestapo guards were shocked at her calm demeanor. “Not a hair on her head turned” as she faced the gullitonine. Her final words were “God, you are my refuge into eternity.” Her friend, the father of three little children, Christoph was baptized as a Catholic just before his death by the priest that offered Sophie and Hans their last confession. He told the priest “now I can die with joy.” Hans had to watch a sister and friend die. His last words were “Long live freedom!”

We know so much about the type of mother Magdalene was from her actions. “Remember Jesus.” And her daughter offers her the same consolation. She raised her children to love each other and to be so connected to the Holy Spirit, that they alone, seemed to figure out that opposing Hitler- in this peaceful, non-violent way, was worth the risk. Times had changed so radically for Magdalene. When her son Hans was born, her husband was a celebrated mayor and the town they lived in fired a 21 gun salute in honor of his birth. Now the German state had just murdered her two children after a fake trial. How did she survive after that loss?

She survived using the same sacraments that I use as a mother. The Eucharist. The Stations of the Cross. Her children were united with the unfair condemnation of Jesus himself and suffered the same penalty.

Did their sacrifice seem worth it to her? When I first heard of this story in the National Holocaust museum I was a college student and felt thrilled about the siblings bravery. Rereading their words as a writer, I’m touched. As a mother, I’m also baffled. Suddenly the pain is so much more real. If I were visiting Alexei in the prison cell it would probably be less “Remember Jesus,” and more anxiety: “Why are you here? Why did you drag your little sister into this? Was a few words thrown from a school railing, worth it?’

At the time, Sophie was convinced that her death would cause the students to rise up and end the war. That didn’t happen. The war dragged on for two more years. Sophie and Hans’ younger brother died in Russia while serving the German army. The rest of the family was imprisoned until the Allies freed them in 1945. (Including older sister Ingrid, who heard about the White Rose and refused to join her siblings because that was such a dangerous idea!)

When we make the conscious effort to pass on the faith to our children all we can know for certain is that a strong Catholic faith insures “a good death.” We can hope this means a peaceful death at age 95 while holding the hands of loving children and grandchildren. But a “good death” can mean dying at age 21 at the hands of an evil tyrant. Sophie died in front of her brother and newly baptized friend. She had the graces of the sacrament of the sick imparted heroic virtue. I’m sure that her mother, Magdalene, played a large part of her children’s strong Catholic faith.

The Mass Reading from August 27, which we celebrated in the Columbus Cathedral, is a fitting conclusion.

The Reading is about the beheading of John the Baptist. Mark 6:17-29

“Since St. John the Baptist’s martyrdom to the present times, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and persecution at the hands of violent people. The blood of martyrs throughout the age’s bare witness to this fact. Their testimony to the truth, teachings and challenges of the gospel and their willingness to suffer and die for their faith prove victory rather than defeat for the kingdom of God. Through Christ’s victory on the cross they obtain the glorious crown of victory and everlasting life with Jesus Christ. What give us the power, boldness, and courage to witness to Jesus Christ and to the truth of the gospel? The Holy Spirit fills us with courage, love, and boldness to make Jesus Christ known and loved, She should never be fearful of those who oppose the gospel, those who challenge the teachings of Jesus Christ, because the love of Jesus Christ is stronger than fear and death itself. His love conquers all, even our fears and timidity in the face of opposition and persecution. We can trust in his grace and help at all times. Are you ready to make Christ known and loved, to stand up against the fad and trends of our society for what is right, true, and good according to Jesus Christ, and if necessary to suffer for his sake and the sake of the gospel? “

Handout from the Columbus Cathedral, Adapted form Irish Jesuits’ Sacred space

*In an ironic "vengence in mine, sayth the Lord", the Judge who treated Sophie and Hans so cruelly was killed on the bench by an Allied bomb attack. Eventually the air-raid sirens were heard. Everyone made it out of the courtroom. However, the Judge remembered that he had left out an important file and returned to his bench. He was killed while sitting at the bench by a Allied bomb.

Update: 9/22/07

My apologies for being a poor historian. Turns out that calling Sophie a Catholic, is a bit of a stretch. Her sister, Inge Scholl, described her siblings as being on the brink of becoming Catholic. Since Inge is a Catholic convert herself, that report could be a bit biased. Their mother was certainly not Catholic. I couldn't get a firm read on whether the priest that heard their final confession was a Catholic. Some sources said yes. However, the Scholl movie, which was otherwise extremely accurate showed the last priest as being Lutheran.

The real find during my "is she a Catholic or not?" web search, is this amazing find. A potential Catholic Saint was the person who most likely the one who inspired Sophie Scholl's actions. Sophie attended a service of Bishop Von Galen, nicknamed "the Lion of Munster." He directly challenged the Natzi's on their program of exterminating the mentally ill. Sophie had worked with mentally ill children during her work in "kinder care." She quotes Von Galen during her fiery defiance speech in the midst of her interragation.

How I became Pro-Life

alec vanderboom

(Note: this is an extremely long post. Grab a cup of tea and spend 15 minutes reading my conversion story. Leave a comment at the end to let me know that you got through it!)

My earliest memory on this subject comes at age eight, or there about, and screaming in the middle of a four-square court on a Columbus playground, “Well, I’m not a Republican because Ronald Regan makes women have babies when they don’t want to!”

My concern over abortion rights had a bizarre beginning. My mother started out her teaching career as a seventh grade history teacher in a special inner-city school for pregnant girls. This meant she that had daily exposure to girls ages 12 and 13 who were pregnant with their second or even third baby. So my mom, who was too tongue-tied to offer me an explanation of sex or even to urge abstinence, just kept telling me from age eight “If you ever get pregnant come tell me early so that we can take care of it.”

I knew that I was going to have an abortion if I got pregnant before I even had any idea how one became pregnant. I figured out from watching movies that passionate kissing must be involved. Couples kissed a lot and then in the next frame they had a baby. So I decided that there was some big electric clock-like counter in a couple’s bedroom and after a certain number of kisses in a row- say 500- a baby would suddenly appear in a Mama’s belly. (I distinctly remember having this thought as late as 7th grade.)

Skip to senior year in high school. We’ve moved to rural West Virginia, a place where teenage pregnancy is “rampant” or at least out in the open when girls decide on adoption rather than abortion. I remember standing in the lunch line as a freshman and being shocked at seeing 4 to 5 girls in line ahead of me with swollen bellies.

My senior year, my well-respected doctor, came to speak to my Methodist high school youth group about sexual education. After his chat about the dangers of syphilis, he calmly passes around tiny fetuses in test tubes. “See how small fetuses are,” he said passing them around. “They can’t live on their own. This is why it’s okay to abort them early.” The babies were impossibly small, under an inch long, and looked like unformed Martians bobbing up and down in formaldehyde, like some type of toy. He passed them around to show how uncreepy death was. A freshman girl ahead of me recoiled and refused to touch the two tubes. I remember distinctly pushing down the bile in my stomach, and grabbing the test tube in front of her. I felt like I had to be brave, and have a scientific mindset in front of my doctor. “Yep, this is not human. It might as well be a chicken embryo.” I thought, “Early abortion must be okay, just not late, late abortion.”
(I have no idea why this was permitted in my Methodist Youth Group. I’m sure that many adults in my Methodist church did not share my doctor’s viewpoint. But no parent or the youth group leaders ever complained about it. I can only assume that as a popular doctor, no one dared to complain to their parents about his tactics or his message.)

When it was time to attend Smith College, I looked carefully over the student health insurance brochure. The brochure said plainly that abortions were a covered service, kept entirely confidential from the student’s parents, and even secretly coded in the resulting medical bill. I’d never gone further than kissing a guy, but I remembered thinking at age 18, “this is good. I’ll be responsible and get the insurance for this reason.” It seems so important to be responsible and plan for this service before I was actually in a position to need it. I remember urging my dad to pay for the optional health insurance. He didn’t want to pay at extra $500 because I’d still be covered on his family plan until I turned 21. I fought hard, and kept saying “I really need this.” I never told him the real reason behind my urgency. I justified the extra cost to my parents because I figured it was far easier to pay $500 for a medical plan I may not use, rather than have to ask him for the money to pay for an abortion if I accidentally became pregnant.

I held onto my virginity until just a few weeks before my 21st birthday. My decision to lose it was so heartbreakingly innocent. I remember pacing up and down this hill by my dorm my junior year- weighing the pros and cons. I’d been dating this boy for five months. I’d reached the end of what I thought was the only “normal” time to be a virgin. (I had somehow decided was okay to be a virgin when you went into college, but if you were still one after age 21, you morphed into this scary, weird thing & no one would date you.) So now I’d come to the cross roads: so here was the basics of my internal monologue which continued for over two hours as I paced up and down this steep hill. “I love X. I really love him. But what if we don’t end up married college sweethearts like my parents? Hmm, well even if we break-up and I end up marrying someone else, my future husband is still going to know that I really loved X when I was 20, so what is the difference if I slept with X too?” “So what is the difference?”- that was conclusion what marked my fall from celibacy with a guy who broke up with me three weeks later!

While nursing a broken heart Junior year, I’d also enrolled in this intensive senior seminar called “Women and The Law.” We met once a week at a local café to talk with my favorite professor about musty Supreme Court cases and old articles from The Economist. This class was memorable because I actually got to debate policy while eating my favorite lemon poppy seed scones. I also asked a fellow classmate “How was your summer break?” Her unexpected answer “Great, I was an egg donor!” Out poured a hideous tale about shots, doctor visits and the advantage of a Smith degree on the price of one’s ova. All I could think of was “GROSS.”

So in the midst of this climate, I read Roe v. Wade for the fist time and I get this sharp, stabbing pain in my stomach. Suddenly the abortion debate is real. I had sex, I could have gotten pregnant, and in the middle of this frantic “debate” I realize that I personally could never have an abortion. I was a college student. I had options for employment. Even if it were hard in the beginning, if I got pregnant now, I wouldn’t hesitate to keep the baby.

So that is how I morphed from “I’m going to have an abortion.” To I’m personally against it, but people should have the right to make up their own minds about it.”

Then came two telling events in law school. First, I gave material aid to someone seeking an abortion. One of my close friends picked me up from the airport and said she was pregnant. I said “Congratulations!” She responded, “This isn’t good news.” I had this prickly feeling every time she talked to me about it. At that time, I thought that I might never have a baby of my own. I wondered if I should offer to adopt it for her. I raised the issue with my friend in one hesitant, poorly stated question “Have you thought about adoption?” My friend said she couldn’t bear to do adoption. It was going to be raise the child herself or have an abortion. After two weeks of debate, she asked me to go with her to the clinic.

Filled with ironic pride that I was "such a good friend", I had the "honor" of accompanying her to the clinic. When it came time for the procedure, I asked her if we should say a prayer for the baby. My friend said, “No, that will make this worse.” So I said a silent prayer, instead. (I don’t know why I felt moved to offer to say a prayer for the baby but still lack enough clarity of thought to not yell STOP!) I remember feeling sort of numb towards my friend, but thinking clearly that the other girls in the waiting room looked so sad. They were young, college kids and high school kids. Each had a female friend with her and the friend kept joking in an attempt to take away the pain “Think how much fun you’ll have with your boyfriend tonight at the party!” and “Maybe we can go out for chocolate milkshakes when you’re done.” Soothing the pain of an abortion with promises of milkshakes and boy-girl parties, it seemed so painfully young.

Five months later, I was shocked by the painfully cheap price of an abortion. I was manning the call center for our Family Law Clinic. A low-income mother called, furious, that there was no public funds for abortions in Wisconsin. “Shouldn’t that be illegal?” she asked. “Can’t I sue someone?” Her daughter was pregnant with a second or third child, and she didn’t have the money to get an abortion. It was going to cost $350. On and on this mother went complaining about the cost. “Doesn’t the state know how much more expensive it is to pay for a child on welfare? Why isn’t there more money for abortions?” I started out pacifying her and then I got more and more upset. I remember scrambling to get off the phone and finally hanging up the phone in relief.

Then we read Roe v. Wade in law school. I noticed for the first time that this case is a thoroughly rottenly decided legal opinion. It’s short. It doesn’t cite precedent. It rests on a first trimester, second trimester and third trimester framework which no longer matches the living saving technology available in hospital NCUs. Here I was wrapping my head around terribly complex constitutional issues- and this seemed sort of slapped together, poorly reasoned. How could this central Constitutional law question be so different from all the other Supreme Court decisions in my casebook?

In my last semester of law school, I met my future husband. Only, I didn’t know it at the time. I was graduating in six months and he was supposed to be my foray into guilt-free causal sex. This insight was made I was still a good Methodist girl who was living in dorm attached to an Episcopal Church. I was ridiculously proud that he was only my third partner at 26 and that we “waited” a whole three months. Of course, actual tears came out of my eyes and ran all over his head every time we had sex because I just couldn’t imagine ever breaking up with him.

My new boyfriend was a Catholic, which I should spell with a small “c” because he was only going to Mass five times a year and obviously had no qualms about having pre-marital sex with me. Even so, I knew that he’d draw the line at throwing away a potential baby. He’d be the type to honor his duty and become a father. While that touched me, it also freaked me out. Suddenly, I wouldn’t be the only one who decided what to do about a pregnancy. Also I wanted him to marry me because he loved me, and not feel like he had to stick around for a potential child. At the time, that seemed like the greater tragedy. To have a boy I loved stay with me, but for all the wrong reasons.

So how did I cope with these thoughts? I just doubled up the birth control! I went to our college health clinic before we started having sex and ordered a Depo Preva shot from a nurse practitioner. God Bless the doctor who freaked out that I was putting such toxic chemicals in my body and demanded that I switch to low-hormone birth control pills. I wasn’t excited because I didn’t think that I could remember to take them at the same time each day. But I consented. So their we were having sex with condoms & birth control pills. Within two to three months, I stopped taking the pill. I complained about horrible side effects- and my sensitive boyfriend told me to just stop- he hated me putting those chemicals in my body.

The condoms as birth control stayed the same while everything else changed in two years. I graduated, moved to Ohio, got a job, & passed the bar. He helped me move, started graduate school in New York, proposed the next weekend. We got married, 18 months after we met, in a valid ceremony in my home-town. We moved up our wedding a year so that we never had to “live” together, since we had both decided independently that co-habitation was bad for Christians. (That sort of summed up my bizarre thinking, co-habitation is wrong, contraception is not) During the Catholic pre-marital counseling (called pre-cana) I freaked out about the no-birth control rule. I remember saying, “I’ll agree to raise our kids Catholic but I’m not giving up birth control!” My fiancé agreed. Then came those awful September 11th attacks and I realized that I wanted his children sooner, rather than later.

To celebrate my husband’s 30th birthday, our first wedding anniversary, and his end of graduate school in New York (and hence an end to our nine hour commute)—we took a trip to Ireland. I had just converted to the faith that Easter after finishing a year of RCIA. Being around all those ancient cathedrals with my new shiny faith felt electric. I loved the cleansing feeling of my first confession. When we got home, I just thought that I don’t want to have to confess being on birth control. This was the entire basis of my conversion. I didn’t want to sit in a dark room, anonymously, telling a strange priest, that my husband and I use birth control. I didn’t know why it was wrong, just that the church thought it was. As a result, I was going to have the embarrassment of sharing the details of my sex life with a celibate stranger. Somehow, it seemed just easier to stop using it.

So I shared that incoherent idea with my husband and he agreed.

I remember clearly, we were cleaning up the bedroom and my husband took a long shiny roll of condoms, about fifteen left over from our Ireland trip, in a line so long it reached from his palm to the edge of our trash can. “Guess we don’t need these any more,” he said cheerfully and pitched the condoms inside. My entire line of descendants can trace their existence to that one bold act. My profound thought at the time was “Oh, those cost $22! Such a waste of money if we change our minds!”

So we became “open to life.” Sex, which had already turned into “making love” when we got married, suddenly became this profound, humbling thing. I thought that it would take us six moths to a year to become pregnant. I thought we’d have time for my husband to find a job, for us to settle into marriage, for us to find a similar way to record withdraws in our joint checkbook. Yet two weeks later, Hannah showed up!

I freaked out! I was happy. We called our parents. We set up our first pre-natal visit. Yet most of me was really numb. At the doctors office, I was surprised that the nurses kept saying “Congratulations!” I had a hard time connecting this new state of pregnancy with an actual, live baby appearing within nine months.

I remember so clearly when that all changed. It was a Saturday morning in July. I was fooling around on my husband’s computer and I found this great pro-life site that had real pictures and descriptions of each of the stages of fetal development. We were eight weeks in, and the baby’s heart had just started beating. I remember jumping around and telling my husband “the heart has started, the heart has started!”

We went for a walk downtown to celebrate. I remember so clearly, the bright sunshine, and the feel of my husband’s hand and the rough slope of the sidewalk and this electric feeling that there was a baby’s heartbeat inside of me. A heart beat that would go on her whole life, and it had just begun inside of me!

Then my next thought, "But she’s still a chicken! She’s in that chicken stage of embryonic development, so she’s not really a baby yet."

Then I realized with this all over clarity which somehow sort of hit my whole body at once, rather than just my brain, all chicken embryos are babies. Why should this baby be different? Why are we celebrating the start of this baby's heartbeat just because of a few external factors of her mother? I was white, married and had a graduate degree. As a poverty law attorney, I’d dedicated my life to fight for equality for people who didn’t look like me. I’d helped poor women get food stamps and housing and a decent education. Yet if one of my clients was unmarried, younger, with less education, she wasn’t supposed to be celebrating her baby starting a heartbeat. This was supposed to be a “problem” she should be busy getting rid of.

So that started me on the road to becoming an obedient Catholic, one with a capital “C.” I’d never heard about “natural family planning” and so somehow confused it in my internet research with ecological breastfeeding. That left me blissfully quitting my job (I was the only one with health insurance) and planning a move to Wisconsin, before discovering that I was twenty-weeks pregnant with baby number 2. He was conceived during that mind numbing time of being a full time lawyer, and nursing a nine-month old baby. When we found out the date of conception, I turned to my husband and honestly questioned “We had sex in January?” We did, and thank goodness.

I remember reassuringly rubbing my huge tummy with a baby I called "Joey," when a college friend questioned "Are you sure this is the right time?” I already had one child under age one, neither my husband nor me had a steady job, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment the size of a shoebox. I told her confidently that Hannah didn’t seem to come at the right time either. Now, however, I know that God’s timing is perfect. And it’s true. We are still paying off a $15,000 credit card bill contracted during that time period, but how could the world exist without my son Alex?

My only truly “planned for” baby was my third child, Francisco. We sketched out the time line for our third child when Alex was only one month old. We took classes in Natural Family Planning. We successfully prevented conception during the awful time when we were unemployed and living with my husband’s parents. Once we had a new job, health insurance, and a new apartment, we happily reversed course. When we found out about Francisco, we threw a family “conception party.” I also prayed the rosary in thanksgiving and dedicated the baby to our Blessed Mother.

We were excited to find out that our new health plan offered a free ultrasound at seven weeks. My husband balanced a 3 year old and a 1 year old on each knee. Everyone strained to make out blurry blue shapes on the ultrasound machine. Then the doctor said, “Sorry there is no heartbeat. It looks like a miscarriage.”

Jon removed the questioning children from the room in a hurry. "What's wrong with the little baby, Daddy?" my daughter asked. I was left alone to hear the facts of a 'blighted ovum" from my doctor. We we got home and put the older babies down for a nap, Jon and I reviewed the prognosis. We refused to believe that the miscarriage had already happened. Instead, we prayed and prayed. My whole Catholic Mothers Group joined me in prayer. Our baby grew and developed a strong heartbeat. After two tense weeks, the baby passed his ultrasound: "Your little one looks great. The baby is right on track for where he or she should be at eight weeks." We thought that our conception date was just off and that now we were home free. On week thirteen, I went for a regular ob visit and discovered the baby died the day before. I had a miscarriage at home and we had a full Catholic burial with his body.

The profound experience of seeing my son, who died at 12 weeks and six days, made changed us from pro-life to vocally PRO-LIFE. My son was extremely small, less than four inches, but fully formed. He had toes, fingers, teeth buds inside his gums, and a tiny penis no bigger than a grain of rice. This last fact surprises people, who assume I’m just “wishing” that we had another son since it would be too early to possibly know for certain.

I had an upsetting conversation with my best friend over this issue, whose mother is ironically a science teacher. “He must have been older than the ultrasound date! If you could identify the genitalia, he must have been older” she confidentially stated. This was upsetting because I’d barely reconciled myself to a loss that just crossed over the first trimester. If I’d truly lost him in the second, I thought that it would be so much harder to have a fourth baby. “Let’s trust the experts,” my husband wisely said. I’ve since realized why people are so insistent that Francisco must have been older when he died. Babies aren’t supposed to be recognizable so early. That’s when abortion starts to hurt.

Now it all makes me sick to my stomach. Abortion. IVF babies thrown into the trash. Children aborted because they have Down syndrome. Or because their parents can’t afford the price of another college education. Or the fact that they are due before a marriage instead of after. As Americans, we are so judgmental about female children getting aborted in India, or the second & third children in China. Yet we also live in a culture that is throwing away children. My friends ask me “why have you changed?” But I’ve always been a child advocate. I took on tough child abuse cases as a lawyer and fought for better nutrition in schools. I’ve just moved back the time line on what counts as a child, and now I fight just as passionately for even younger kids.

This experience has given me a profound respect for the Roman Catholic Church. The church knew it was wrong and is the one institution that is consistently pro-life. As a mother and former Protestant, I wish I had embraced strict obedience in the Pro-Life area earlier. Instead, I participated in the death of one child. I debased my gift of sexuality with pre-marital sex. I may have directly killed some of my own children during my months of taking the pill, a chemical that causes abortions as well as preventing ovulation.

The real tragedy is that I freely committed all of these sins while continuing to imagine myself as "a good Methodist girl." I knew that I’d never, ever cheat on my husband once I was married. Somehow, I never connected that having pre-marital sex was just cheating on him before we had a chance to meet. In the same way, I wanted to be a loving mother. Yet, I never connected that only God could decide when you were “ready” to have a child.

I think that birth control also has a dangerous fallacy that there is a time in your life when you can be “ready to have a child.” I think we’d be doing a much better service to low-income women and young teenage women, to just admit that most mothers never feel truly “ready” to have a child. You can never have enough money, enough maturity, enough mental resources.

My proof is that with all of my experience, yesterday, my son throw a cheese grater at my newborn daughter. He hit her in the stomach, while I was inches away shutting down my computer and arguing with my four year old about why she couldn’t wash the dishes again right before Daddy was expected home for lunch. My son stood at my doorway and suddenly threw a cheese grater with all of his might. It bounced off his newborn sister’s stomach. I had a fearful few seconds when I didn’t know if, or how badly,the baby was injured. With every one in time-out, or nursing, I had a breakdown. I just thought, “Everyone is right. I have to many children. I can not keep an eye on them all. I’ve become the old woman in the shoe!”

My poor husband returned to work from his lunch break at home, knowing that he left a wife in bad state. I kept calling him every forty minutes with updates on how horrible life was with three children under age four allergy season. Then mercifully everyone fell asleep. I got to write a blog entry about Spartacus that made me feel human again. We decided to skip the trying to make dinner without any groceries drama and went out to eat to the newly discovered nearby “Noodles & Co.”

Then happiness unexpectedly hit me. My two kids politely shared a cheap plate of buttered noodles. My newborn was cooed in her car seat. Meanwhile, my employed husband drank a Japanese beer to celebrate Labor Day weekend.

I exclaimed over a yummy dish of Japanese noodles, “I love this dish, I used to order it all the time in Madison!” And my husband answered, “I loved that place, I went there all of the time.”

I made the discovery that for two and half years my future husband and I visited the same favorite noodle shop and yet never met. Then I strikes me what a gift this was- that we did meet on a snowy night of January 2000, and now I have a son who sings vintage Spiderman cartoon songs, and a daughter who shows off her newly painted her toenails, and a newborn who can now stare at ceiling lights, and even a little son in heaven who keeps us focused on all things eternal.

This was all “God’s Plan” and ever so much more thrilling than any plot that I could dream up myself!

The Future Depends On Love

alec vanderboom

Isn't that a lovely concept? This was the title of Fr. Benedict Groeschel's recent lectures in D.C. Unfortunately, I missed both last week. My confessor, didn't, however and recommended that I pick up his recent book "the virtuous life." (Yes, this is one of the main treats of going to confession at the National Basilica, you get to leave with a reading list)

I left the lecture poster hanging on my fridge (the one with the missing door handle because my 2 year old son thought that it would make a great light saber). Seeing the title makes me take stock, and frequently change my attitude when responding to my four year olds' never ending snack requests -- which usually seem to come as soon as the baby starts to nurse.