Lay Hold of Goodness

A year ago – or maybe closer to two – I was at a friend’s house.  She had a little hand-written note on her refrigerator, on red construction paper, which said,

“Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.  -St. Isaac the Syrian”

I commented that maybe I needed one of those for my fridge.  We could use that sentiment in my house.  So, being the woman she is, my friend moved the magnet and handed the note to me to take home.  It was on our fridge until we moved; it seems to have disappeared in that (ongoing) process.  But the impact hasn’t left us.

The girls were preparing for a All Saints’ Day party.  (How cool are our friends?  One hosted a party for 40+ children and their moms, and the kids prepared saint themed games, and everyone dressed up as saints and told the group about the saint they were dressed as.)

Anyway, Isaac needed a saint to impersonate.  Of course, Issac the Syrian (aka Isaac of Nineveh) was his choice because, well, his name was also Isaac.  And I knew the quote from the fridge…so we looked up the rest of the quote so Isaac would have something to say about Isaac the Syrian at the party.

Phew.  This is going somewhere, I promise.  Here is some more of the quote, from OrthodoxWiki:

“Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.”

Ouch.  Of course, I had to share that one with Craig when he got home from work.  And he looked up the rest of the homily, and took to it like a Cajun to gumbo, and has been working out its implications in our daily lives ever since.

And I even found myself using it a day or two ago.  (It only took a year – or maybe two – for the idea to be imbeded in my brain enough that I thought to use it!)

It was a little like this:

“Daughter A, can you please wipe the table?”  (Of course I was at least this polite.)

“No, it’s not my turn, and Daughter B skipped wiping it after breakfast, so she should do it.”

“Well, Daughter B is already laying down for quiet time, so could you please do it this time, just to help me out?”  (I was carrying a tired baby, who also desired nap time, and trying to do something else…who knows what…but it wasn’t very compatible with wiping tables.)

“No!  She should do it.”

[Lightbulb appears over my head]  “Daughter, remember how we have been talking about laying hold of goodness, instead of justice?  It would be just for me to drag your sister out of bed and make her wipe the table, but here is a chance for you to lay hold of goodness by doing it even though it’s not your job.”

“No!”

The table had to wait quite a while before it was finally wiped.

I suppose we can’t all live up to the standards of the desert fathers all the time.  

Despite such minor setbacks, I’m not giving up on this one.  I would guess that roughly three-quarters of the fights in our house have to do with someone thinking a situation isn’t just – who gets the last cookie, who has to do the extra chore, etc.  And this includes myself, with thoughts like, “I cooked, and did the dishes, can’t someone else at least take out the trash?”

Which would probably be just – but my whining about it doesn’t help any of us grow in holiness.

So I’m not prepared to take on all the dirty work, just to be good.  I don’t dare to hope that my kids will decide to follow my example and suddenly want to fold all the laundry and clean the chicken coop.  But I can start thinking a little differently about these situations, and start trying a little harder to do what’s good, rather than what is simply just.  I can try to point my kids in this direction, too.  Maybe if we can ask ourselves “what would be good for me to do” instead of “what would be just to me” we would make some progress.

After all, it’s God’s goodness, God’s merciful justice, that I’m counting on for forgiveness for all those times I’ve fallen short of goodness, or even simple justice.

Big Blue Whale

By Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Nick Maraland

Image result for big blue whale book

This is my kind of kids’ non-fiction.  The text is informative but engaging, and not overwhelming with too much information.  The illustrations are also fun and clear.  

Priorities, or For the Love of Butter

First, the funny story.

A friend of mine had just had a baby.  The baby was fussy and spitting up a lot, and so she thought the baby might be reacting to the cows’ milk my friend was drinking.  She might have to cut out dairy.

She was willing quit milk, cheese, and the like, for the good of her baby, despite her great love of these foods.  Butter was another story.  Surely there was a way to not have to give up butter.  It turned out that dairy was not the problem (we can all breathe a sigh of relief with her!), but the whole situation (isn’t it funny how these things work?) left her with a slightly harrowing spiritual insight.

You see, she is an Orthodox Christian, and to keep Lenten and other fasts, she *should* have been giving up dairy to keep the fast.  Of course she was often nursing or pregnant, and so didn’t have to keep the fast strictly.  But really, she supposes she could have given up butter and cheese and been none the worse off.

Her spiritual insight?  That she has disordered loves.  She loves, in order, 1. butter (which she was determined to find a way to keep in her diet); 2. her baby (for whom she would give up cheese); 3. cheese; and 4. God (for whom she would not give up butter or cheese).  Of course, we all want to be able to say that God is at the top of this list.

So that is a lovely story about our priorities in life, and self-reflection, and how God can use all kinds of situations to teach us and help us grow.  But in reflecting on this story over the last couple of weeks, it occurred to me that there is another lesson here, hiding under the surface.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to challenge anyone’s love of butter, ordered or otherwise.

What struck me was the language my friend was able to use to describe this new self-knowledge she had attained.  She had found herself to have “disordered loves.”

Which, if any given person takes a couple of minutes to puzzle out, she could probably find that the phrase means “loves in the wrong order.”  Yet it’s not the sort of phrase any given person on the street might use, nor is it an accident that my friend would use such a phrase.

She has had a Catholic, classical education, including a good bit of philosophy and theology, which does not count the reading and study she has done on her own in these areas.

Thus, my own little insight: our vocabulary affects our spiritual life; or, more broadly, without some degree of knowledge and study of spiritual things, it will be more difficult for us to attain to the growth we desire. 

Of course, it is totally possible for someone who has done little or no study of the spiritual to realize, “Huh, I guess I love butter more than God.  Oops.”  But it seems to me that without having at some point thought about the fact that we love some things more than others, and that God is one of the options of things to love, and that He ought to be the first of our loves, as well as what love looks like – ahem, sacrifice – that is, without this prior foundation, it would be much more difficult to come to the realization in the first place.

So what are we to do?  I don’t think the lack of a degree in philosophy or theology or scripture means we aren’t capable of this sort of spiritual insight.  However, I do think that we shouldn’t hope for self-knowledge and growth if we aren’t putting in a little bit of work.

Some of this is easy – pay attention to the scripture readings at Mass.  Read the Bible often.  (A study Bible with a good commentary can be even more helpful.)  Pick up a book on spiritual things once in a while.  Go to lectures, if you are so lucky as to have the opportunity, on theological topics, or take the theology-for-lay-people classes that some diocese offer, usually in the evenings to accommodate working peoples’ schedules.  Pray – and ask God to show you where you need to grow.

That is all fine and good, but here’s my real concern: are we giving our kids the vocabulary to talk about and ponder spiritual things, as well as we are able?  We have the advantage, in our home, of a Theology MA to answer (and pose!) these questions.  But even when Craig isn’t home, I have to be ready with the words that will help my children understand their faith.  My words form their conception of God, the Church, and what it means to be a person of faith.

Shoot.

No pressure, right? 

It is daunting, day in and day out, to not just break up the sibling bickering and direct our children towards virtue, but to do it in such a way that they grow up with the language that creates a framework – a scaffold, perhaps – on which to build their understanding of their faith.

I feel like I should digress and point out that faith is possible without understanding; that a relationship with God is what counts; that many holy people don’t use fancy theological language to describe their love of God…and all this is true.  And yet, we have been created with intellect, and spirit, and body, for that matter, and God wants us to use all of them to seek Him out.  (Of course, there should be one or more attributions here for this idea – Aquinas, I think – but that part I usually leave to the resident MA.)

All of which goes to show that I myself have a long way to go towards doing this well.  Listening more closely to those conversations between our theologian friends will probably be one of my starting points.  

And at the end of all my own philosophizing, (or is it theologizing?) I have to thank my friend for her love of butter, and her desire to love God better, and her humility, which allowed her to share this story with me, and me to share it with you.  Because it was her funny, self-deprecating story which started my reflection (should there be a tangent on time for reflecting, even on the mundane?  Not today!), and it is her story, and, of course, her friendship, which I hope will spur our family along on the path to greater holiness.

It’s a Good Day When…

…the old lady at the bookstore stops you to say, “My, what a big baby that is!”

Yeah, this is the same baby who was so small that we couldn’t take him out of the incubator to hold him for the first week and half he was alive; the same one who was eating 10 mL at a time, and that through a feeding tube; the same one who, when he was curled up, was about as long as Craig’s hand.

That baby astonished this dear woman with his sheer girth.

God is good.  If I forget for a minute to be grateful, he reminds me.

Yep, it was a good day.


May I recommend:

To my daughter, who taught me not to worry about time

a beautiful reflection on motherhood via The Washington Post.

Have a beauty-full day!  (I know it’s cheesy.  I couldn’t help myself.)

 

Denver’s “Angel of Charity” and her Little Red Wagon

There was a great article in the Washington Post on Monday about Servant of God Julia Greeley, who died 100 years ago this week.

Julia was born into slavery in Missouri, and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.  She later moved to Denver, where she worked as a housekeeper.  There she became Catholic and began the ministries which would continue for the rest of her life.

Julia gave to the poor, and when she didn’t have what someone needed, she begged until she got it for them.  She would make her rounds after dark, so that her charity would not become a spectacle, or an embarrassment to the people she helped.  She would load her little red wagon with firewood, clothing, food, and whatever else she thought might be needed, and walk the streets of Denver doing good.

Julia was an evangelist, too.  In particular, she had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart, and distributed pamphlets about it to fire stations.  She thought that as dangerous as it was to be a fireman, it was important for them to hear the Good News before it was too late.

Julia never did anything spectacular.  She just loved and gave of herself every day of her life, in charity and humility.  What a beautiful example, to remind us that no gift is too small, and no person too [seemingly] insignificant to do God’s work!

On Thursday, June 7, Julia Greeley will become the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral since it was constructed in 1912.

You can read more about Servant of God Julia Greeley and her cause for canonization on the website of the Julia Greeley Guild.

Close to Home

I guess that title could also refer to our renewed search for a permanent dwelling place (prayers for that, please!)…

but this poem hit close to home, considering what we’ve been through during the last six months.  So I thought I’d share it.  Thanks to poets.org and their poem-a-day project for bringing it to my attention.

The Things That Count

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when

          you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.

And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along

          alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a

          groan—
Dear, these are the things that count.

My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God,
Not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or

          song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go

          wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when

          the way seems long—

Dear, these are the things that count.

A Poem for Mother’s Day

The Lanyard – by Billy Collins

“The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

I don’t recall ever giving my mother a lanyard, but I fear there may have been more than one macaroni necklace.
Thank you for everything, Mom, and I love you!