Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sign Of Peace

The curly-haired little girl left the pew for the outward aisle every couple of minutes, and during the priest's homily. The mother, a thin woman with the same dark curly hair and a face free of make-up, turned her head, watched her toddler, and then slowly rose to her feet to follow, her face tight and unhappy. Most of the time the dad didn't even look as he and their two sons, close in age, sat quietly in their places. The mother kept bringing the little one back only to have the same situation arise, the same exasperation playing across her features, setting her mouth in a straight line of frustration.

It's easy to judge in this situation. Why doesn't the mother just make the little girl sit? Keep her from wandering out into the aisle, blocking with her body, and hold the child? Why doesn't the dad help, keeping her on his other side, hemmed in with her brothers? If nothing else, why don't they sit in the cry room? They should not get up during the homily.

But the cry room...well, its very small in our church. It's hard to see the priest or to hear. When I sat there with our younger kids, I felt cut off from my Man and my eldest and from the mass, and church is very much family time for me. As for blocking the child, holding her and preventing her from going into the aisle, I have a toddler, and I know this tactic mostly works. But it is exhausting, and the parents must work as a team to control, calm and distract their children. It makes mass a true commitment of one's will. The continual shepherding of young children can make it seem much longer, and there are even times when my Man or I had to leave our seats and take our toddler outside or into the narthex or even to the restroom for a nurse. (For my part I always preferred going outside. In the bushes, trees and grass - even the pebbles in the landscaping - I found more of God than in the stuffy cry room. I could pray, or if by grace the speakers were on, I could follow all that transpired in the sanctuary while walking back and forth with my young one in the fresh air.)

Those days are mostly behind us, but you should not doubt one little bit that for my husband and me the Sign of Peace has extra meaning, coming when it does during the liturgy. There has always been a tad bit of humor mirrored in our parental eyes as we bend in for a kiss and say, "Peace be with you" before bending over each of our kids. In our heads we add, We're almost there. There is also additional emphasis, a passionate addendum of God bless you and preserve you, in the words and the handshake from those around us who see our four children and their often rambunctious adventures in the pews and observe all our best efforts to corral them. These people may be slightly put out by our youngest two playing or arguing or staring at those behind them, by our girls dancing to the music or by our toddler's constant migration on the kneelers, but they also admire our perseverance in bringing four kids to church each Sunday. And they watch us react to and curtail our kids' behavior, and they see, I hope, that it has improved from week to week.

For the family I observed today, I wanted peace and a blessing. I don't know if they usually sit in the cry room or some other section of the church and were only trying to sit altogether in a new spot, but I wanted them to hang in there, not give up. When the dad and the boys got up after the mother had deserted her seat for the sixth or so time, I hoped sincerely that they were not abandoning mass. I was very happy to see them all come back in time to receive the Eucharist. May God bless you all, I thought.

In a conversation months ago about kids' behavior in church, my husband had a friend confide in him that he and his wife didn't go with their only child to church because they were afraid the boy didn't know how to behave, having never been to mass. My husband's point was simply that a child will never know how to behave in church if you don't take them and instruct them. It's work, but it's good for them and for you.

Our family has not always had the commitment to mass that we have at present, especially when our oldest two were babies. When we didn't attend mass, we told ourselves we would pray Our Father together and read scripture like my own family did on Saturdays in my childhood. But wouldn't you know, we got to doing frivolous things, like watching television, and forgot to read. I would often only realize our omission once our children were in bed, and I stood praying over them just outside their doors.

Slowly, we began to realize as our church life grew, that if we didn't go to mass, our Sundays felt long and pointless. My husband realized, despite my hopes, that he was not going to discuss the Bible or even read it with the same passion as my dad did for his family.

"I'm not your dad. We need to go to church," he said.

He is right. Occasionally, when the kids are sick, we stay home, read from the Bible and the kids read aloud from the Children's Bible. Then we discuss it, and I ask the children questions. I have my dad's passion for God's Word and all theology, but I also have a strong tendency to ramble, winding through various subjects, beating the devil out of each one, before finding my original point again. It's good to keep the sabbath, but for our family it's better kept in church.

That is why I hope for that family I observed today that they don't give up on attending mass together. Their little girl is precious and adorable, and eventually she won't try to escape from the pew with her dollie anymore though she may still want to. Her mama will soon find that she can sit by her husband and hold his hand while their children sit close, quietly if not perfectly still. Mass will become for them, I hope, what it is for me: a time to be peaceful as a family and centered in spirit despite the lack of peace in the world.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Good Fight

I will not lie. At times I read the paper or watch the news or listen to the stories of people haphazardly having children with multiple partners, bringing these children into an environment of disorder and sometimes neglect or abuse, and despair comes.

Yet, if God loves the world and His Son died for it, and others are fighting the good fight in the face of profound human weakness or outright evil, what right have I at all to give in to hopelessness? As a child of God it is very dangerous to judge or dismiss your fellow human beings. You are dismissing yourself as well by default. And love.

Recently, on the July 5th show of Rock Center with Brian Williams, there was a piece about painkiller-addicted pregnant mothers. The number of mothers bringing newborns into the world in these circumstances has nearly tripled between 2000 and 2009. It is distressing to see these babies, because they are beautiful (how well I remember my own, my fierce love for them and their superpower over me!) but extremely agitated, and unlike a normal newborn, a good nursing session will not calm them as they go through withdrawal. More upsetting is the fact that some of the moms interviewed said this little child was the second or third drug-exposed infant they had delivered.

Somebody has to fight the fight here, because you give up on these kids and their mothers and society pays hugely in the long run. And it will undoubtedly affect whether that child can ever come to know God. Thankfully, despite the emotional roller-coaster they must experience daily, the nurses and doctors treating these babies and their mothers for addiction keep up the painful endeavor to comfort these innocent babies and lessen their pain, to get the mothers into treatment, counseling and teach them coping skills for when they take their little one home. As one nurse pointed out, they keep the babies in the hospital so long (an average of sixteen days at a cost of usually $39,000 +), because an extremely agitated baby and a mother with no coping skills makes for a scary combination.

I can only imagine. I am a mother of four, and some of my babies were much fussier than others. My third basically lived on me in her sling for the first five straight months, including naptime and bedtime. I was utterly exhausted. If while caring for such a high-need baby, I had been battling an addiction and depression as well, I am not sure how well I would have coped. So may God bless all the nurses, doctors, and mental-health professionals who are not giving up this daunting battle against human weakness and the cycles that are perpetuated through generations of families.

And God bless bikers, bikers who are fighting for kids who have suffered child abuse. I'm talking about the non-profit group called Bikers Against Child Abuse, or BACA, a group started in Utah in 1995 by John Paul Lilly, clinical social worker and play therapist. He saw the need to give these terrified kids, whose abusers often continue to threaten them and contact them, a sense of security - a family of protectors.

The bikers have all undergone thorough background checks. They use road names such as Fat Daddy or Venus, and they give the children their own road names to protect their identity, plus their own do-rag, vest, and blanket with the BACA logo. More importantly, they are there to make the child feel safe anytime. They go with the child when that child needs to appear in court to testify against their abuser. They camp out all night in the driveway or lawn of children who are afraid their abuser will come back, children who can't escape their nightmares at night. If the abuser or the abuser's family show up at the child's school or home, the family can call BACA, and the bikers ride out as fast as they can. They stay in front of the child's house, several of them together, and they keep watch - sometimes with a handgun on the hip (one of the only times they will wear a weapon around the child).

These bikers give the kids back a sense of safety, a sense of loving thy neighbor, that was lost in their horrific ordeal. Because of the bikers' often tough appearance, the child feels that they have friends who are stronger, scarier than their abuser. It can make a difference in whether that child will testify or not at trial, whether they will play outside again. It can make them smile for the first time in a long time when they see this rough and tumble group of bikers pull up in front of their house with their motorcycles and watch them transform into cheerful surrogate uncles, aunts, grandmas and grandpas.

When I read about these extraordinary angels of mercy in the Arizona Republic this last Sunday, I was reminded that everybody has a unique vocation. Sometimes, from our own painful experiences, the grace to help others is born. John Paul Lilly was abused as a child, as were some of the bikers involved in BACA. A group of bikers befriended Lilly and empowered him to fight a fear of the world when he was young. Now his group BACA is an international agency for aiding children who have suffered abuse.

So, I will not despair. Because of the evil in the world, good people must give love, compassion, courage, hope and mercy to their neighbor. They have always bravely done it and they will continue to do it, thanks be to God. For myself, I know I must strive to join more fully in their efforts, concentrating not on what evil has been done but on what good can be done.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Religious Phase, and A Thorn in the Flesh

Later on, like practically everyone else in our stupid and godless society, I was to consider these two years as "my religious phase". I am glad that that now seems very funny. But it is sad that it is funny in so few cases....If the impulse to worship God and to adore Him in truth by the goodness and order of our own lives is nothing more than a transitory and emotional thing, that is our own fault. - Thomas Merton from The Seven Storey Mountain

A few weeks ago at the park, I was talking to a couple of Catholic friends about our upbringings, whether they were religious. Mine was, but we really had family church with Dad in our home, on Saturdays, and it was sufficient. One dear friend was raised in Nicaragua where going to church on Sunday was pretty much a cultural obligation. The other was raised by a busy single mother in the USA, and only went to church with friends and their families. Both said that they remembered having the desire to pray often at about nine years of age.

I thought this was very interesting, and I wondered if this is something that occurs with most children around that developmental stage, the impetus to reach out to God. I also wondered if the opposite could often be true, too - a religious crisis. That is what happened to me at nine. I read a passage in the New Testament that scared the wits out of me, began to obsess about it and through months of mental agony felt certain I was going to offend God in an irreversible way.

Sadly, I felt that way again yesterday.

My old childhood affliction showed up with its WMD. And instantly, I was reduced, felt again that horrible separation from my Creator and the terror of it being permanent.

For years I had avoided this very specific torture, my personal thorn in the flesh, and I had come to believe that it could never debilitate me again. But yesterday, I became extremely aggravated about my special package of worldly concerns, and I mixed for myself a dangerous mental cocktail of weariness, frustration, self-condemnation, and depression. I should have seen the portal I was opening for an "angel of Satan" while stewing in my own insidious juices. But I didn't, and so I was an easy target. That is my own fault.

A thought struck with all its old familiar power, and after it came all the painful contemplations of what exactly I had thought, whether it was my own thought, and whether God would cease to have anything to do with me.

As I sat in the corner of my tiny kitchen, crying, and unable to distract myself with anything, my nine-year-old found me, asked if I was okay. After the third time, I finally answered him by lifting my hands mutely.

"It's okay, Mama," he said, having heard me tell his dad, obliquely, the source of my ordeal. "I've had bad thoughts, too. Really bad thoughts, and they used to bug me. It's gotten better - after about five days of praying."

That made me feel a tiny bit better. And then I remembered this passage from Saint Paul, but very imperfectly:

That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Unfortunately, when I remembered it I could only recall the "thorn in the flesh" and how Paul begged God to remove it, and I did not recall where in Paul's letters I could locate this passage. I wanted to find some comfort in it, because I remembered my dad quoting it to me when I was a child, suffering from my spiritual malady.

This morning I woke up, and bad as it may seem considering it was what I probably most needed, I did not feel like going to church. Besides, we were too late to make 9 am mass. Nevertheless, my husband insisted we go to the eleven o'clock.

You can imagine my astonishment and my gratitude when this passage from the letter to the Corinthians was the second reading. I had prayed God to bolster me, forgive me, not to desert me or deny me his Holy Spirit in the aftermath of my temporary defeat yesterday. And though I am nowhere close to a St. Paul, I felt assured as I followed the reading in my missal today that He would bolster me, forgive me, stay with me and keep His Comforter with me even in my abject weakness.