Mary: A mom who had to let go

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot

When I was a junior in college, I studied in Paris for a semester.  As I boarded that plane at San Francisco International Airport, hauling my comically overstuffed Samsonite, I was nervous and excited and totally ready to immerse myself in a foreign culture.  And I had a fabulous time … so fabulous, in fact, that I resolved to go back and live there again someday.

About a year later, I did.   After graduating from college, I found a position teaching English in a  Parisian suburb, used my junior year connections to find a reasonable studio apartment, and embarked for nine more dirt-poor but unforgettable months in the City of Lights.

It’s only now, years later, that I fully understand what my mom had to go through while I was gone.

She hid her worry pretty well, all considered.  But looking back now, I can understand the anxiety that must have been there, especially that first trip. After all, I was going off to a foreign country I’d never seen before, living in a big city with a host family none of us had ever met.  There were the differences in language, culture, and social norms to navigate.   There was the very real chance that I might meet some dreamy European male who would sweep me off my feet and inspire me to take up  permanent residence in the other hemisphere.  And my two stays in Paris happened before the advent of email and cellphones made the world shrink in size.  There were many, many  times that I was out with friends on the town, or on a train to Germany or Italy, and there was absolutely no way for my parents to contact me unless I called them first.

I’m sure all of this was going through my mom’s mind before I ever boarded that Northwestern plane on that January evening.  But she hid her fears well, because she knew how desperately I wanted to go.  She knew how much I’d been aching to see the world, and  that I’d never be entirely at peace until I let the waters of a totally different culture close over my head for a while.  That’s what moms do: we let our kids go chase their dreams, even though it costs us a heckuva lot to see them leave.

And Mary did this too.  She let Jesus go off and preach and teach and fufill his own potential, doing what he was born to do.  I believe that Mary was a woman of great faith, but let’s not forget that she was also a mom, and I suspect that she worried pretty ferociously about her baby.  After all, he wasn’t off talking about puppy dogs and rainbows and safe, nonthreatening things; he was challenging the system, pointing out hypocrisy and pettiness, which is an excellent way to make people want to shut you up for good.  She must have known that he was getting on the wrong side of very powerful people who could cause very powerful trouble.  But she also knew that this was his calling, that it was what he was born to do.  She couldn’t keep him from it.  All she could do was love him, hope for the best, and pray like mad that he’d be safe.

That’s what my mom did, twice.  It’s what I’ll likely find myself doing someday, if my boys have inherited even an iota of my wanderlust.  And as we let our kids go off and pursue the lives they are dying to live, we can rest assured that we are in good company.  In this — as in so many things — Mary was there before us, showing us how it’s done and loving us as we do it.

If this post sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one that I wrote four years ago.  School has been crazily busy lately, too busy to write anything new, so I decided to rerun an old favorite.  And hey — it’s May!  What better time to honor Mary? 

Rush slower

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If there’s anything that modern moms do well, it’s rush.

We rush from one thing to the next: from school dropoff to work, then from work to school pickup, then to the grocery store, then to the soccer or baseball or swimming practice, with that obligatory stop at the gas station shoehorned somewhere into the middle of it all.

And — if you’re anything like me– all that rushing can really sap your energy.

I wish I were better about praying through the rush.  I’m not; usually I’m too focused on watching the clock, the gas gauge, the traffic patterns on the streets around me to take a deep breath and recognize the presence of God.

But today, as I left work and got into my car for the first leg of the afternoon rush, I noticed something growing in the dirt patch by the parking space.  There, poking through the carpet of old oak leaves, was a plant with purple flowers.

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See that green thing?  Look closer …

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I have no idea what kind of plant it is.  I don’t even know if it’s what we’d classify as a weed, not a flower.  But it didn’t matter.  It made me happy.

Forgetting the schedule for a moment, I pulled out my phone and snapped some pictures.  The flower swayed in  the breeze a bit, and I had to be patient and wait to snap it in closeup.  But I finally did, and I felt better for having stared into the face of this beautiful little bloom, growing so silently and quietly in the middle of a dirt area near a parking lot, this gorgeous little thing that pulled me out of the rush for a brief, blessed moment.

It’s tempting to rush faster, to try to get everything done quickly so I can finally relax once the to-do list is completed.  But maybe that’s not the best way to go about this modern mom-life of mine.

Maybe the answer is to rush a little slower, slow enough to notice the flowers along the path.   That’s a kind of prayer, after all, and it does a soul good.

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Grateful.

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My dad on his First Communion Day

A dollhouse.  A Cabbage Patch kid.  A luggage set.  A wristwatch.  My parents have given me many gifts over the years, gifts that came under a Christmas tree or  wrapped in birthday paper.

They’ve also given me the kind of gifts you can’t put in a box: a college education, intellectual curiosity, the security of knowing that home would always be a safe place to fall.  I’m grateful for all of these.

And, the older I get, the more I appreciate another gift, too: the gift of being raised Catholic.

Dad again: middle row, second from left.

Dad again: middle row, second from left.

I didn’t always appreciate this gift.  In my college years and early twenties, I worked hard to put a certain distance between myself and my childhood faith. It wasn’t  that I regretted being raised in the faith; I could (and did) get a lot of mileage out of Catholic school jokes, and it was nice to be an English major who understood any and all Catholic allusions.  But my religious upbringing felt like a weight attached to the hem of my skirt, keeping me from moving easily into new experiences that I wanted to try.

I could never have imagined that I’d end up where I am today: a practicing Catholic, a woman who goes to Mass by choice, a writer who somehow can’t get away from scribbling about her faith, a mom who is as excited about her son’s forthcoming First Holy Communion as she would be about a trip to Hawaii.

I guess that’s how faith works, for many of us.  Your parents give you the foundation, and you grow up knowing that it’s important, that they cared enough about it to pass it on to you.  And then you have to wrestle with it at some point, maybe pull away from it for a time, maybe take some steps down another path.

But for many of us, that childhood faith remains one of the strongest influences we know.  It’s part of our identity; it’s comfortable, and comforting; it’s a link with the people whom we love, the people who have always loved us.

And maybe, as we get older and talk to our parents, we find that they once did the same dance we did.  They too pulled away from their faith, tried out something new, wrestled with questions.  And yet they returned to their Catholic roots, drawn back to the faith they knew as children.

And they passed it on to us.

Me, 1981.

Me, 1981.

And, years later, we pass it on to our own children.  We know — oh, boy, do we know – that this Catholic heritage is many different things at different times.  We know that it’s mysterious, captivating, frustrating, challenging, comforting, inspiring, perplexing, beautiful, visceral.  We know that it is sometimes all of these things at once, for good or for bad.

But most of all, we know that it is a gift: a gift that keeps on giving, from one generation to the next.

How [not] to be welcoming

Welcome

 

How do we make church a welcoming place?  There are many strategies: introductions, nametags, friendly ushers, donuts after Mass.  And yet the real work of welcoming isn’t something we can delegate to the parish staff.  It’s something that has to start with the people  in the pews.

People like, say, you and me.

Let me take you back in time, to a noontime Mass at a nearby parish.  My husband was sick, so it was just me and the two boys.   I missed most of the Liturgy of the Word because I was trying to keep my younger son from narrating his picture books in a loud voice; I missed the homily because of both boys’ sudden urgent need to use the bathroom.  We all filed out of the pew, leaving the books scattered on the seats, and joined the line for the restroom.

Once business was concluded, we headed back to the pews.  And as we drew closer, my heart sank to find that a man was now sitting in our seats.

There was still room for the three of us to squeeze in, so we did.  The man obligingly moved over, but I was still miffed.  As if Mass with kids isn’t hard enough already, I thought to myself, now we have hardly any room.  And with all these books, isn’t it obvious someone was sitting here?  The Mass went on, and so did the pity party in my head.

And though I didn’t vocalize these thoughts, I’m sure they were discernible.  My posture, my expression, the waves of disapproval emanating from me: it was probably pretty obvious that I didn’t want that man there.

But after the Mass, I realized I hadn’t been fair.  This was not a personal slight; it was simply someone taking a seemingly empty seat so he didn’t have to stand at the back.

And really, what did I know about this man?  Perhaps he was a Catholic returning to his faith, attending Mass for the first time in years.  If so, would his strongest impression of it be the young mom who was subtly but unmistakably peeved at him for taking a seat he’d thought was empty?

And even if he was a regular parishioner,  didn’t I still have a role to play in making him feel welcome?  Wasn’t  there something I could have done to reflect God’s generosity and love?

Yes, there was, and  I hadn’t done it.  I resolved to do better next time.

Because here’s what I keep realizing: Mass is not about reserving a space for my own private worship.  It’s about sharing a space with others.  We go to Mass because  even if we don’t know each other, even if we never see each other again, for a brief but powerful hour we recognize that we have a shared identity as children of God.

And though Mass is about encountering Jesus in the Eucharist, we also find Jesus in the families  squeezing past us in the pews.  We find him in the woman who comes in late and trips over our feet.   We even find him in the man who takes our seat when we’re taking our kids to the bathroom, and if we give that person the cold shoulder because he’s keeping us from the Mass experience we want, we’re missing the forest for the trees.

But if we’re genuinely kind to the people around us, if we smile and make eye contact and willingly share our space, we’re edging a little closer to the kind of church we’re capable of being: a church that welcomes everyone, just as Jesus does.

And I like knowing that every Sunday is a new chance to get it right.

Musical prayer: The Deer’s Cry

I first heard “The Deer’s Cry” on retreat a year ago.  One of the retreat leaders played it for a morning prayer, and it is, I feel confident saying, probably the best song I can think of to greet a new day.

I arise today 
Through the strength of heaven
Splendor of fire, speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea
Stability of earth, firmness of rock.

The lyrics are based on a longer prayer attributed to St. Patrick, though apparently some believe it was written later, around the eighth century.

I arise to-day
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s eyes to look before me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
From all who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul

See what I mean?  This is very good thing to hear early in the morning.  Even if your resident cruel merciless power is nothing worse than a bad morning commute, it helps to be reminded that you don’t face it alone.

Christ with me
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ in me

Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ on my right 
Christ on my left

I don’t just listen to this song in the morning. It helps me at any time of day when I feel vulnerable.  When my mother-in-law was dying last summer, and Scott was in New York with her, I remember listening to this song alone on the sofa after the kids were in bed, and I cried and cried but it was the kind of crying I needed to do.  And I thought about Joan’s life, and all of our lives really, and how we may not always know it, but the world is positively saturated with the presence of Christ; we can’t escape it, thank God.

It’s a truly beautiful song.  If you don’t know it, take a listen.  There are a few versions on YouTube but somehow I really like this one, in spite of the bad video quality.  It’s a singer named Rita Connolly singing at the inauguration of the Irish president Michael D. Higgins.

It’s a shaky recording, but it’s a rare chance to witness the song sung in the context of real life.  You get to see all the people at the inauguration listening to the words and, I’d venture to guess, finding the day that much better for hearing them.   That’s always true for me, at least.