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The Annunciation In Three Movements

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

A New Kind of New Year’s Resolution

While I’ve never been much for making New Year’s resolutions, I do try to think about the things I’d like to do differently and the things I’d like to accomplish each New Year. And that is the thing about resolutions – they are all about “I”. This is not necessarily a negative; goodness knows there are an infinite number of things I could and should work to improve upon in my life and in my self. But this is where most resolutions begin and end – with ME. Which is likely why most of mine fade into the background, because I lack the resolve, strength, memory, or will to fulfill them over the course of the year. There is a paradox here – I want to be the one to make the necessary changes, but the truth is I am my own biggest obstacle.

Mary Untier of Knots. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary Untier of Knots. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Catholic Church celebrates New Year’s Day as the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. This is a day, the first day of a new year filled with hope and promise, in which the Church invites me to remember that I have a mother who is very concerned with everything that concerns me and all those I care about. She wants me to remember to involve and include her in my thoughts, plans, hopes, dreams, and resolutions for the year. This year, instead of going it alone as has been my past practice, I’ve decided to turn over my resolutions and all that needs fixing and improving and adjusting in my life to someone else’s more capable hands: Mary, the Untier of Knots. (Read more . . . )

40 Days of Prayer for Lent

Prayer and image from the 40 Days for Healing the Wounds From Abortion website

Prayer and image from the 40 Days for Healing the Wounds From Abortion website

Click here for more information, support, and resources.

On the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux

Words to live by on the Feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face:

“If I did not simply live from one moment to the next, it would be impossible for me to keep my patience. I can see only the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to think about the future. We get discouraged and feel despair because we brood about the past and the future. It is such a folly to pass one’s time fretting, instead of resting quietly on the heart of Jesus.”

St. Therese, help me always to believe as you did, in God’s great love for me, so that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day.

For more information and resources about St. Therese of Lisieux, click here.

The Vocation to Faith in Love

“Miranda,” by John William Waterhouse, 1875

“Each of us is loved by God with a limitless, unconditioned and unconditional love that we can never destroy or even diminish. We are loved into existence; cherished in our existence; affirmed absolutely in death and beyond. This love is independent of our merits or demerits. Nothing whatsoever can separate us from this love. For it is the breadth; it is the length; it is the height and it is the depth — there is nowhere beyond it, above or below it. It is All: the limitless ocean that encompasses our tiny, threatened, fragile yet infinitely precious self. This is not merely impersonal, protective benevolence but a love that gives self, that offers inconceivable intimacy and that seeks reciprocity. We can never define or draw a line around what God will do for each one of us. We are exposed to the infinite. Against this truth what does our sense of impotence matter? In genuine faith — which must, of course, be worked for — and in that surrender of self which is faith in act, we begin to discern that, far from our helplessness being a human misfortune, something that ought not to be, it signals a limitless calling and is the other side of a vocation that goes beyond what can be perceived by mind and sense. To accept it is to assent to our vocation, to becoming who we truly are, to being truly human. We are made for union with the divine, nothing less. We are called to share the life of God. Our restlessness, our insatiable longings, our discontent and  experience of helplessness are to be traced to our divine destiny. Commitment in faith to this truth is to destroy existential anxiety. Faith alone can overcome the world and the threat the world imposes. It does not follow that we lose the feeling of anxiety and fear — we would be the poorer for that — but these now play a role that is creative not destructive. Fear can cripple, paralyze, prompt us to shirk and evade life. Faith enables us to live with reality, braving its challenge.”

— From Essence of Prayer, by Ruth Burrows OCD

Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.

Empty Canvas

Well, our raised bed garden is all set to go for this year. Those two tall sunflowers in the background shot up wild out of nowhere, likely vagrant seeds from the sunflower house we planted for Skippy a few summers back (see photos of that adventure below). The basil was an act of desperation, snatched up at Trader Joe’s because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the seedlings I’ve ordered to arrive. But the rest, each square foot grid, is empty of plants and filled with fresh organic soil, waiting for something to grow in it. Emptiness waiting to be filled with possibility.

British landscape architect William Kent once said that “gardening is like landscape painting.” And I suppose it is similar in some ways —  you begin with a blank canvas, which might be an empty and barren patch of earth, or one overrun with weeds and stickers. You prime the space by clearing it and turning over the earth, and then carefully plan/compose the arrangements of flowers, vegetables, or shrubs and trees that you want. You select to “paint” with the best seeds or seedlings you can find, and set to work placing them on the canvas of earth in an attempt to match your vision. You do the best you can with what you know, learn new techniques to help the piece along, and try to make up for problems along the way.

But this is where any similarity to landscape painting ends. For the painter has virtually complete control over his project and, eventually, will either finish or abandon his piece. For the gardener, however, what comes next is really out of her hands — and the “piece” is never really finished, but instead demands constant care and attention well beyond the initial endeavor.  Things may grow, or they may not; they may succumb to disease or pests, or may thrive and grow with great energy. Who knows? Like any painter who commits the idea in his mind to canvas, the gardener ultimately deals with uncertainty about what the end result will be.  But unlike the painter, that uncertainty is never eased by a truly finished product.

In the end, gardening, like every other art, is an act of faith in that, ultimately, what happens there doesn’t really depend on the gardener, but on something higher than her. It isn’t for the gardener to worry about what will happen — her job is to do everything she can to create conditions in which something can be made out of nothing, to create a place where the impossible can become possible,  and then she must leave the rest to God.  

Being in the garden teaches me humility, patience, gratitude, hopefulness, trust, perseverance, and joy. It reminds me of the important things I need to pay closer attention to. It reminds me to watch for the ways God works in my life and to trust Him in doing this work, as the unseen gardener that He is. Like Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden after he has risen from the dead, mostly I don’t recognize his presence or his work in my life. My life is like a garden in which He plants lots of seeds — people, events, ideas, struggles, failures, successes, disappointments — all signs pointing to him, all of which have the potential to grow into something wonderful, into more than they at first seem to be. Every event, just like every seed, contains all that is necessary to produce a gift of grace. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail can grow to become a great oak tree of grace in my life. God is continually making something out of nothing, both in my garden and in my life. And He never fails to surprise me. 

Post Script

A few summers ago, we agreed to forgo the “traditional” vegetable garden I normally plant in order to experiment with a sunflower house for Skippy. It was generally a success — the sunflowers grew nearly as tall as the house and provided a private, cool alcove for him to relax and read a book in. But they also provided a recreational living area for all sorts of creatures, some more amusing than others — we failed to realize that wasps adore the caterpillars that adore sunflowers. So the sunflower house also became a wasp house, of sorts, which Skippy eventually grew afraid to enter. Still, it was a memorable experience and one which we remember fondly.