Liturgy of Light

My two younger children attend a Montessori school centered on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I am a huge fan of the school, and of the catechesis, and on Friday I was reminded powerfully of the reasons why. After the youngest child’s time in the Atrium, parents received the following message about their experience from guide Sarah Kulwicki. There is nothing to be added to what she says, except perhaps to pray that God grants us the grace to experience Jesus in the way these children do.

Liturgy_of_Light_1Today in the atrium we had a special Easter celebration called the “Liturgy of Light.” 

 For the Liturgy of Light, we enter the atrium with the lights off and gather around the atrium Paschal candle.  The Paschal candle, or the Easter candle, reminds of about the light that came back into the world after Jesus rose to new life on Easter Sunday.  The imagery of light is an important theme for the 3-6 year old in the atrium.  Do you remember being a young child? Maybe you were afraid of the dark.  Light brings us a feeling of security, of warmth.  Early in the year we hear from the prophet Isaiah (who lived 700 years before Jesus was born!) who said that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Who is this light?  The children joyfully respond, “Jesus!”  Jesus is security, Jesus is warmth. 

 As we lit the Paschal candle, I proclaimed “Jesus is the light which no darkness can overcome.”  We remember that ever since that glorious Easter day, the light, Jesus, has remained with us even to this day.  I read the scripture passage of the women discovering the empty tomb and finding out that Jesus was alive again.  Then, one by one, I lit a small candle for each child using the light from the Paschal candle.  The awe, wonder, and reverence during this moment was amazing.  The children gazed upon the light, carefully holding it in their hands.  We sang joyful Alleluias and “This little light of mine.”  At the end, each child brought forth their candle to place next to the Paschal candle.  We were able to see how all of our individual lights together made an even brighter light.  Jesus shares his light with us, and we can share his light with others. 

 As a follow up during the work time, children had the choice to spend more time with the Paschal candle lit and their own individual candle lit.  There was a small group of children that remained at the Paschal candle after the presentation and asked if they could do it again.  I lit the candle again and asked, “Do you want to say a prayer out loud, sing a song, or sit and enjoy the light in silence?”  They asked to sit in silence.  They quietly gazed upon the light.  A child asked, “Can I get the Good Shepherd to hold to say a prayer?”  She brought it to the rug and chose to say a silent prayer in her heart.  She passed it to the next child.  Each of us took turns saying a silent prayer.   They asked me to read the scripture passage again.  They laid on the ground and looked at the light of their candles.  This spontaneous moment of prayer and reflection lasted about 20 minutes. I am grateful to have been a part of this beautiful moment guided by the awe and wonder of the children.

May the light of Christ be with you this Easter Season!

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What’s Down Syndrome?

I am running behind: World Down Syndrome Day was yesterday. In our house, though, every day is Down Syndrome day, so I am posting the video made by the Lejeune Foundation this year. We watched it together, the children and I. My daughter Anna, who has Down Syndrome, wasn’t as interested as I expected. My 8-year-old son, however, asked the $64,000 question: “what’s Down Syndrome?”

I’m not sure whether I answered his question perfectly. He doesn’t know anything about genetics, or chromosomes, or anything like that. I tried. But I don’t think it matters. He’ll grow up knowing what trisomy-21 looks like.

Family.

mothers in Rome?

At his General Audience this week, Pope Francis lauded mothers and the work of mothering–not that this is anything new or unusual. The Pope frequently recalls his own mother, refers to the Church as our Mother, and reminds us to call on Mary, our Mother.

But it has long bothered me that the praise of mothers and motherhood doesn’t carry with it an open ear to the wisdom that work often produces in those who have been trained by it. So it was nice to hear that worry reflected in Pope Francis’s words: “the mother is rarely listened to or helped in daily life, rarely considered central to society in her role.” Not only that, but “in Christian communities the mother is not always held in the right regard, she is barely heard.” And yet, in Pope Francis’s words, “human and spiritual formation” comes from mothers. Not, of course, that fathers and grandparents and others do not contribute, or that every mother does this unfailingly. (Heavens no!) Here Pope Francis echoes the Council’s teaching on the family. For example, Gaudium et Spes 52 describes the parents’ vital role in the spiritual formation of children, and Lumen Gentium 35 says explicitly that, in Christian households, “husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.”

Because I am a mother, I suppose, I take these themes in the Church’s teaching in LG, GS and elsewhere very much to heart. Although I do a lot of ‘other’ things–teaching and writing in various contexts–I find the growing edge of my spiritual life in the daily work of being a mother. Mostly it’s the building up of patience and humility that I need. The practice of love requires both, and doing the “petty and unsexy” things (to quote David Foster Wallace) for my children has been the way forward for me in the familial school for the Lord’s service. Certainly there are countless other ways to develop the necessary disposition for Christ-like love; this just happens to be mine.

And being a mother–especially a mother of a child with Down Syndrome–has shaped my theology and my whole way of thinking about the world. Pope Francis says, “mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism…mothers…’divide’ themselves, from the moment they bear a child.” I’m not sure I would have put it quite that way before, and I am a little embarrassed at the way Pope Francis praises mothers. I’m not all that good at it, not that self-sacrificing. Still, I know what he means here, and I have heard other mothers say similar things. I used to say, when my older children were still babies, that it was as though my center of gravity was somewhere outside myself. Now, my eldest is 13 and my youngest is 3, and I realize that I haven’t given up my body for a finite period of time. No, long after the carrying and bearing and nursing are done, my body still somehow belongs to them as well. I don’t understand this, and I don’t doubt that some mothers would disagree. (And I expect that fathers experience something similar and yet distinct, and that parents who adopt experience the process of dividing in a different way, but no less intensely.)

This is not to say, of course, that mothers are somehow superior. (Good grief, no!) But I would argue (yes, argue, and I don’t do that unless I really think it’s necessary) that mothers have a particular contribution to make to the upbringing of the Church. It is no accident that we consider the Church our Mother, and that we look to the Mother of our Lord as example, guide and help. That this is all so, and that the Church has not found a place for the wisdom of the mothers within her is a little disturbing. Like the society that takes advantage of “the readiness of mothers to make sacrifices for their children,” the Church has praised mothers “from a symbolic point of view.” Maybe this persists because mothers don’t make sacrifices for their children in order to be praised or heard beyond the bounds of the family. It would be silly to expect that, and constantly disappointing. The children themselves don’t listen–unless mine are the exception!

Mothers do need the Church. Pope Francis is right about that. But does the Church not also need mothers? Does the Church have nothing to learn from the mothers who have kept the faith, and who have raised their children to do likewise? This to me is an amazing achievement. Moreover, it is one of the key things St Paul asks of bishops in Titus 1:6. Bishops (or “elders”–St Paul uses both terms in the passage) should be “blameless,” have been married only once, their children should be believers, and they should not be accused of debauchery or rebellious. Bishops nowadays usually don’t raise children in the typical manner. So the criterion isn’t employed.

But maybe St Paul was on to something here. Maybe there is something about raising children (and this for mothers and fathers alike) that shapes us, that makes us fit for leadership in the Church in a particular way. It would be wonderful to see the Church take advantage of that wisdom and experience in the way that St Paul recommended. Lay people have something to contribute to caring for the body of Christ. I don’t know much about the hierarchy, not really. But I do know it’s not impossible for laypeople to become cardinals. What better way to take seriously the wisdom of those who have served the Church by raising their own families than by recognizing them as equals in care-giving in the body of Christ?

Of course, maybe by then the mothers (and fathers) would rather settle down to a quiet life. I don’t know. I am not there yet. It’s just a thought.

Advent

My children are involved in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If you have never heard of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, think of it as catechesis, Montessori style. During Advent, the focus of the sessions is (for the older children, ages 6-12) on the prophecies. This morning, I was with the upper elementary (ages 9-12) group, who were reading through part of Ezekiel 34–the Good Shepherd. We read through the familiar (to us grown-ups, anyway) text, and one verse struck me particularly. “The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, and the sick I will heal…” (verse 16, NABRE). And the people will know that God is God because he will save them.
 
We don't have to figure it out first. We don't have to find our way home: God will gather “the strays.” We think of Advent as a time of preparation, as we look forward to celebrating the miracle of the Incarnation and to the return of the Lord in glory. But I find it very easy to lose sight of the relentless love of God and God's unstoppable salvation as I prepare. I should prepare my heart, I think, clear out the junk that gets in the way of receiving Jesus. And I should prepare my house, so that the space for celebration will be festive and welcoming. In so far as possible, I should help my family prepare, especially my children. After all, it is so difficult for them to focus on the coming of the Lord when all around them the focus is on preparing for Santa Claus.
 
God and my children have something to remind me, though: it is the Lord who comes, and his salvation is with him. The miracle is that God has turned the hearts of his people (1 Kings 18–a wonderful narrative) back to him. The miracle is that God breaks into our hearts and into our lives, and into our world. No one has ever seen God–we can't! “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known” (John 1.18). Christmas isn't something I do. Christmas is something God has done and is doing. My kids know that. They know that Christmas happens, and they expect it with joy.
 
So, I have strayed; God will bring me back. My soul is sick with sin; God will heal it. I have been lost; God has found me, again and again. To prepare for Christmas is to remember this, over and over, and to rejoice in it. Advent is joyful expectation, hopeful preparation, for Christ has come into the world.

Standing still

I should be writing about tenderness. (Apologies @NDLiturgyCenter…) Or I should be washing Anna’s hair. But I’m not. I’m here.
 
And that’s precisely the point. I am here. I know that this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it occurred to me (finally) today that God doesn’t call us to a vocation and then put us in a place where we cannot practice it. At no time since I started down the road of academic theology have I seen that vocation change. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many times I thought I was doing such a horrible job of my mothering and my academic work that I ought to give up the latter–not being able to relinquish the former, of course, or at least not as easily. Each time, however, something happened to confirm again that I was called to keep doing what I am doing. So I have carried on.
 
But it proceeds so agonizingly slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I feel like I am standing still. We had a great time having Wesley Hill with us this weekend–great conversations and an interesting conference as well. As I listened to Wes and Lewis talk this morning–about books and people in their respective fields–well, I listened. Didn’t have much to add, except the “Who is that?” and “So, what, exactly, is the argument of that book?” I read. But I don’t keep up. Not by a long shot.
 
The academic discourses to which I once thought I would contribute have moved on, and it seems like many of the people who are moving them forward are younger than I, with more recent PhDs. Usually when I observe this, it makes me yearn for the day when the kids will all be in school, when I can ‘catch up’, and focus on the academic game. Madness lies that way: I am not going to catch up. I read slowly and write slowly, and that isn’t going to change. And thinking about catching up both stresses me out about a future totally unknown to me and robs me of all the joy of today, of right now.
However it may appear, I am not standing still. Maybe the movement is as yet imperceptible (the Spirit of God brooding over the surface of the water…) but the thing about that calling to be a theologian is that it isn’t just something I will get to do when the kids are grown up a little. It is something I am doing now. I am just not doing it very quickly, or very publicly. My theological conversations happen in the personal realm, not the professional, and I am more likely to be away on retreat than at a conference.
 
I want to make sense of this. I want to know what this is for. Why have I come down this road? But I can’t. I can only pursue my calling right here, between the hair washing and the laundry folding, and in the hair washing and the laundry folding. I don’t know why I’ve gone this way. But I do know that where I am, God is, and I am not going to find peace by looking elsewhere.
 
Deo gratias.
 

Unnecessary drama

Some weeks I wonder why I bother. This week, two very different things have happened that make me think that all my worry about being the person who says this or does that is just nonsense. Silly. Because (in the first place) at the wonderful school my two younger children attend, there is the most amazing woman. Another mother, Catholic, articulate, wise, and faithful. She says the most amazing things, and teaches me loads every time we meet. I wonder whether anything I might have to say about being a mother and its relationship to Christian discipleship and the practice of theology needs saying. She knows it all better than I do already–and if she knows it, why, probably lots of other women (and men, too) must know it also. Who am I to teach, or to speak? God has already taught, spoken, and led others into greater insight than I have.
 
And then there's my friend John Swinton, whose recent article (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/10/06/4100871.htm) beautifully articulates what I also believe about mental illness–and teaches me about it at the same time. What little I have written on the subject is nowhere near as wise and gracious as John's work–and personally, he is the sort of person who radiates that wisdom and grace everywhere he goes.
 
So, should I give up? Ah, of course on dark days I think so. “Why bother?” has a distinct bitterness to it then. But when the sun is shining (as it now is, on a gorgeous fall morning), and my soul is quiet, I know with a happy certainty that the lights shining around me are not there to extinguish my own. How many stars are there in the sky at night? So I don't need to worry about lighting the sky on my own (as if I could), or to worry that my light is somehow superfluous. Maybe this is the easy yoke, the light burden: to know that whatever I think I must do in the world, I don't do alone. It is only a difficult burden to bear because it has to be borne with humility or it will be a very bitter task indeed.
 

But when you give…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:3, 4 NASB)

Hard words, but life-giving: only one audience really matters…and that 'audience' is the one who inspires every good, and beautiful, and peaceful work. Maybe that's how this verse is related to the bit about putting your light on a lamp stand that comes earlier in the sermon on the mount…so that the glory is always given to God.
 
Deo gratias.

Some Sundays

Every once in a while, the children do wonderful things at Mass. Sometimes, of course, they do the sorts of things that make me want to tear my hair out, or–more likely–to alternate with my husband, so I can go without the children. But no. That’s not really the way forward, is it? So I remind and bribe and plead…and sometimes they are miraculously good, and amazing things happen.
 
Today it was Lucy’s turn to remind me of the truth. Not that she was especially well-behaved: she decided at one point that the reason everyone was standing was so that she could run noisily up and down the pew behind us… We (the four of us over the age of 8) had received communion and returned to our seats. Communion wasn’t over yet; people were still receiving. Lucy got a little wriggly and talkative, forgetting the ‘whispering voice’ we like to use at church. So I talked to her a bit (using my best whispering voice) about what was happening, trying to explain why she should be quiet just then. In the course of our conversation, I asked her what it was that the priest was giving to people. ‘Peace,’ she said. Of course: ‘He is our peace.’
Good thing I wasn’t there on my own. See what theological insight I would have missed?