Monday, December 29, 2008

A Childhood Lost

One of the first things that got me interested in Africa and its people was my contact with a Nigerian priest sent to the Archdiocese of Chicago. My parents befriended him soon after he arrived, and he has been a fixture in my life ever since.

He is a remarkable man; full of life and song, overflowing with love, energy and personality. Looking into his face at any moment, you would see joy and a genuine enthusiasm for your own company. In every way, he radiates a remarkable and infectious spirit.

What you would not see from looking at him, or ever guess from his demeanor or conversation, is that he was a child soldier. I do not want to divulge details, but they are really unnecessary save for one important fact: his time as a soldier ended.

He is one of the lucky ones who have been able (through the assistance of, in his case, the Catholic Church) to recover from the psychological abuse they suffered at the hands of the armies who trained them. Many others die before reaching adulthood, or are so twisted by the drugs and brainwashing they endure that even when released from the army they are unable to function in society.

Their numbers are rising. A recent map compiled by PBS highlights 18 countries where child soldiers have served, and UNICEF places their numbers at around 10% of the total number of combatants worldwide (some 300,000.) Children are attractive recruits for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they are cheap to feed and easily manipulated. Many of the armies who use child soldiers target civilians, and it is more expensive and more difficult to motivate an adult to kill innocent people than it is to brainwash or drug a child to do the same. In some cases, the targets of such warfare become the next wave of combatants -- when a unit of these soldiers arrives in a village their orders are often to kill/rape all the adults and abduct the children to be trained as soldiers.

The brainwashing begins immediately. If a child refuses to join willingly, the army kills his/her brother or sister, mother or father, or uses mutilation and torture to show them the futility of resisting. Once at the camp, they are fed a combination of drugs to dull their senses, confuse and energize them. One former child soldier referred to the combination of cocaine, alcohol and marijuana he took before a raid as a "morale booster."

Sexual abuse is common and widespread. Girls as young as 13 or 14 are openly used by the adult officers and the children that inevitably result are used to carry ammunition, run errands or test landmines before being added to the army when they are old enough. Boys are abused as well, either by being raped themselves or by being forced to rape others. Those who refuse or try to escape are killed or tortured.

The pain and trauma do not end when the war ends, either. Child soldiers remember many of the brutal acts they were forced to commit, they have nightmares and anxiety about the things they did or that were done to them. They can rarely go home; people remember what they did as soldiers and can neither trust nor forgive them. They are not usually seen as victims of war, though that is exactly what they are. Even those with families still living usually face ostracism, especially the girls who have been raped and borne children. The psychological damage is difficult to repair, and former child soldiers still feel violent tendencies and irrational hatred for groups or ethnicities they were trained to eliminate. Most of them are significantly behind in their schooling and have no social skills or ability to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. Rehabilitation and retraining are essential.

While the UN has established prohibitions against the use of child soldiers (anyone under 18) enforcement is sorely lacking. Rehabilitation programs are severely underfunded. What is needed most is a greater recognition of the problem and a concerted effort to support those organizations working to end/repair the practice of children as soldiers. This interview discusses the essential role religious NGOs play in the reintegration of former child soldiers back into normal life. To put it simply, governmental organizations can only do so much, and are often only given money on a temporary or emergency basis. The long-term job of working with communities to allow former child soldiers back into society is mostly done by religious organizations with a continued presence in the area. We must support them.

Christ came to us as a little child, called the children to Himself and told us all, "Unless you are like these little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Here at Christmastime, when we celebrate the miracle of God With Us, let us pray for those children who have been warped by war, their innocence and trust stripped away, their childlike energies used to commit terrible crimes. Let us pray for hope and healing, for forgiveness and reconciliation amongst all the victims of these crimes.

The following organizations* work to eliminate the use of child soldiers:
Amnesty International
Child Soldier Relief
Global Youth Partnership for Africa
Human Rights Watch
International Red Cross and Red Crescent
International Rescue Committee
Invisible Children
War Child International
Virtue Foundation

For futher reading, please try:
Children at War
A Long Way Gone
First, Kill Your Family

* This is probably a subject for another post, but I want to briefly address it here. It is my belief (guided by the precepts of my faith) that many charitable organizations are misguided on certain issues (abortion, contraception, religious freedom and/or sexual orientation, to name a few.) I know many people of good conscience who refrain from assisting such associations monetarily. I respect this but do not agree. I think the battle against those things we disagree with must be waged actively and vocally, but not at the expense of the good and important work these organizations are also doing. The exception to this is when the organization is DIRECTLY harming the very population I am giving them money to help. When I learned, for instance, that the IRC provides abortions as part of its "health services" to victims of rape in the Congo, I stopped sending them money to help rape victims. I would, however, provide them money for refugee camps (unless I found out they perform abortions there, too.)

Charitable organizations are bound by law to appropriate money only to those programs the donor indicates. An open check sent to the Red Cross can be used for anything, but one which says specifically that the donor intends it for flood relief can then ONLY be used for flood relief. I take advantage of this to ensure that my money does not support things I do not believe in, even if the larger organization itself supports such things.

For Catholics who wish to ensure none of their contributions are spent on activities that conflict with the principles of our faith, I recommend Catholic Relief Services, which is present in nearly every country in the world and has a widespread mission of providing material and spiritual assistance to every person in need.

I also want to note: if I provide a direct link to an organization on this site, that indicates it has been personally vetted and I have not found any evidence that it either provides abortions or is funded/managed by an organization who does.

Picture credit.

Monday, December 15, 2008

New Directions

I've been overwhelmed lately with emotions. Part of it is from medication I'm taking (mood swings and ultra-sensitivity have made for some pretty ugly days around this house.) It's become abundantly apparent to me that I have difficulty controlling my emotions. No one seems to have a good answer for this. Everything I've read and heard just comes down to one solution: Do what's right and don't worry about how you feel.

I can see the wisdom of that. Mostly, that's what I aim for. I don't feel like getting up at 2 am and patting the baby back down to sleep, but I do it. I feel like giving all our money away to an orphanage in Uganda, but I count pennies at the grocery store instead. I'm pretty adept at doing what I need to do. Sometimes kindly. Sometimes not. Yet I am still a roiling sea of resentment, frustration, impatience, intolerance and misery.

The other advice I often hear is to Give it to Jesus. Umm, apparently, Jesus doesn't want it? Because somehow I still have all the pain. He must have given it back or something. Who knew the Christ was a re-gifter?

Anyway, being as there doesn't seem to be a way to change my emotional reaction, I think a bit of a switch is in order. It is time to stop whining about how difficult it is to be Woe-Is-Me and focus instead on the ones this blog was designed to focus on. The poor. When I first started, I intended to post maybe 25% of the time about my personal efforts to Take the Poor With Me. The rest was supposed to showcase the lives of the poor, highlight NGOs doing good around the world, share prayers and novenas and Saints who focus on the poor, maybe with a dash of politics every now and then.

Thus I intend to start focusing on some of those other things. Look for more regular and useful posts in the near future!

Picture Credit.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Prayer Request

Please pray for the Christians suffering persecution in India, including torture, forced conversion, loss of property, mutilation, rape and murder.

Catholic Online has a Virtual Vigil of Prayer and Solidarity for our brothers and sisters suffering this terrible persecution. Please sign it and pledge at the very least to pray a Rosary for them.

As today is Tuesday, I would like to offer a short reflection on the Sorrowful Mysteries in light of the tragedy taking place in India. May we, through prayer and sacrifice, join our hearts to theirs in a fervent petition for the Lord's protection and intercession!

First Sorrowful Mystery: Agony in the Garden
Dearest Lord, You spent the night before your Passion in prayer. You knew the trials You were to face, and though You faced them willingly, You felt all the fear and misery of a man led to his death. You know the terror in the hearts of our Christian brothers and sisters in India, who have watched their friends and families tortured or killed and know they may suffer the same. Strengthen them, Jesus. Infuse their hearts with the power and strength of the Holy Spirit, that they may face their trials with You beside them. Comfort and console them in their darkest hours.

Second Sorrowful Mystery: Scourging at the Pillar
Dearest Lord, though You were innocent of all wrongdoing, your enemies handed You over to be scourged and beaten. You suffered unspeakable pain for our sins and washed away our iniquities with your blood. You know the pain our Christian brothers and sisters in India are facing for their faith. Protect them, Jesus. Keep them from being delivered into the hands of their enemies, and bring an end to the violence that plagues that region.

Third Sorrowful Mystery: Crowning with Thorns
Dearest Lord, You endured the mockery of the Roman soldiers who dressed You in purple robes and placed a cruel crown of thorns upon your brow. As much as the pain of those sharp thorns, You felt the pain of their scorn and anger against You, who had come to Earth to save them. You know the sorrow of our Christian brothers and sisters in India who are persecuted for their faith, for living their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel. Fortify them, Jesus. Let their suffering be witness to your greatness and a beautiful example to the world of what it truly means to be Christian.

Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: Carrying of the Cross
Dearest Lord, even after suffering hours of abuse, You still were made to carry your cross, the instrument of your death, all the way to Calvary. So grave were your wounds, so deep your injuries, that You fell three times and Stephen was pressed into assisting you. What an honor, Lord, to share your suffering and bear the burden of your cross! We who share a faith with our brothers and sisters in India can also share their suffering. Though we do not endure the magnitude of their trials, we may fast, pray and make sacrifices in solidarity with them. What an honor, Lord, to forgo a meal or spend an hour in Adoration for them, and for You!

Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: Crucifixion
Dearest Lord, as You hung upon the cross broken, bruised and bleeding, You turned your thoughts to those who persecuted You. Even in the moment of your death, You forgave them and extended the fullness of your love to all those who tormented You. Those people committing evil acts against our brothers and sisters in India are your children, too. You love them with the same generous, merciful spirit that You love all your people. Forgive them, Jesus. Help them see the error of their ways and stop this persecution. Heal their hearts and open them to the Truth of your Word. Comfort all those who have lost family members and loved ones, as once You comforted your Mother as she stood at the foot of your cross.

Blessed and merciful Lord, Hear Our Prayer! St. Jude, patron Saint of impossible causes, Pray for Us! Blessed Virgin Mary, Patron of India, Pray for Us!

Picture credit.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sweatshops vs Prostitution

An excellent post on Vox Nova (by Katerina Ivanova on the difficulty in finding clothing that is made sustainably) contains an interesting thread of comments by people debating the repercussions of fighting sweatshop labor.

For the record, I don't agree with arguments like "But if they close the sweatshops all those people will be out of work and forced to turn to prostitution or starve!" From a wider perspective (a Catholic perspective) both slave/sweatshop labor and prostitution are equally evil and unjust. But opposing sweatshop labor is a step towards moral good: an economic society which pays its employees a fair wage. Doing nothing, or allowing sweatshops to continue as the "lesser of two evils," only perpetuates the status quo.

Each of us as individuals are morally obligated to do what we can and taking concrete, life-changing action. Yes, companies will close their sweatshops if they are told they can no longer operate them. And then what will the company do? Will they simply stop making clothes? Maybe. Or maybe they will open an sustainable, ethical shop somewhere else. Eventually (as is ALREADY happening) companies will realize the eyes of the world are on them. Companies CAN make clothing without sweatshops, so it's false to claim that denying them the opportunity to use sweatshops will destroy the industry. If all manufacturers are unable to operate while exploiting their workers, they will be forced to employ fair labor practices.

Take the United States as an example. We had child labor, slave labor, unsafe working conditions, hazardous factories dumping deadly chemicals into name it, we've done it (and in some cases still are.) But overall, companies who operate in America comply with fair labor practices because the public and the government demands it. This has been the progression of the fair labor movement; it is the ultimate goal -- not to force one company or one country to operate effectively, but to create a society where exploitative labor is unacceptable. The most important step towards that is awareness. Without transparency, companies can flout public mores with impunity. This is partly why I consider the media (and journalism in particular) the most powerful tool for change.

The second step rests with us, the public. We must demand that companies find ways to operate ethically. It is a tragedy that this will result in the temporary worsening of many people's living conditions. The only way to mitigate such damage is to Take the Poor With You. Boycott unethical companies by refusing to buy their products. Go to that wedding in an old dress. And with the money you would have spent, contribute to charitable organizations that assist the poor and unemployed in countries affected by the boycott.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians died during World War II to rid the world of the Nazis. Pacifists might argue that since people were dying either way, the deliberate taking of another life could not be morally justified. But the Catholic principle of just war declares that it can. We must declare just war on oppression wherever we find it, even if it means engaging in what would otherwise be considered a great evil.

I believe if the greater good is being served and society is moving towards equity, justice, freedom and sustainability, then the evils that may come as part of the change are not only justified, they are in fact moral.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Getting Ahead of the Game

I received an insight during my Rosary meditation a few days ago that I thought I would share. On the last of the Joyful Mysteries, it occurred to me what Jesus was doing teaching the elders in the Temple at age 12. He was proclaiming the kingdom -- fulfilling His mission as He had been sent here to do.

But it wasn't the right time. At age 13, a Jewish boy reached the age of maturity and took on the responsibilities of an adult member of the community. But it was not until age 30 that a Levite became an active member of the Temple roster. In other words, a man became a priest at age 30. (There's double symbolism in the fact that Jesus wasn't of the tribe of Levi, though his cousin John the Baptist was, but instead of the tribe of Judah who were traditionally the kings and leaders of the Hebrews. So Jesus was both Priest and King, God and Sacrifice.) The Levites were teachers and explained the Torah when it was publicly read. Jesus began his ministry at an age when He would be respected. He was fully God from the start of His life, and knew the mysteries of the universe as well as His future. He must have been eager to do God's will, to get out there and preach to the lost flock of Israel.

But it wasn't the right time. God sent His parents, especially His mother, Mary, to
remind Him that He was still a child under their direction. When they took Him from the Temple, "Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them." (Luke 2:51)

He waited for the right time. That's what I need to do, too. I can't rush things because I want them now, even if I want them for the "right" reasons. All things happen in their proper time. I must trust that God knows best and follow Him. I must take direction from the people in my life whom God has gifted me as guides and partners.

I'm hearing very clearly from several sides: Not now. I'm hearing clearly: Trust Me.

I want to cry "Then when?" but that's not the right response. My response must be to return home (to God) and be obedient. Strengthen me, oh Lord, and guide me.

Picture credit.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I have been MIA these past months from a combination of writer's block, emotional frustration and personal crises. Everyone is mostly healthy now (my son broke his arm in early May and has been sick since mid-June with a nasty stomach bug that just won't.go.away and which everyone else has shared) and we're past all the big events that have taken so much of my time (trips to visit family, planning my son's 5th birthday party, and houseguests.)

My heart has been stilted for a while now. I'm trying to keep busy so I don't think about the constraints that keep me from acting as I wish to, but every now and then something reminds me and I'm upset all over again. On Thursday evening I was making dinner when the phone rang. Our alma mater was calling to thank us for the generous gift we gave them.

I said, "Oh. Sure, no problem." and then asked my husband if we had given them something. Yep. $20. I know it's not much, but according to his arguments, we can't afford ANYTHING for charity right now. I wish I could say I accepted the news with grace, went off and prayed about it, then respectfully discussed the matter with him a few days later. But instead I snapped, "Then you won't mind if I give $20 to our Church building fund, will you?"

I still wonder if I'm doing the right thing by doing nothing. There's always another financial setback (our insurance company just raised our deductible from $300 per person to $4,000 because of all our trips to the ER in the last couple months) and it just doesn't seem to me that my husband has any incentive to change his thinking. We are further from being able to adopt and give to charity than we were when I began this blog a year ago, yet I've been praying daily, offering up my Masses and sacrificing my own principles for the sake of our marriage.

Trust. The theme of every message I've gotten recently comes down to one simple fact: I am not trusting God to perform a miracle for me. I still think there's something I need to be doing, or saying, to convince my husband to my position. It might take years for his heart to be softened, and in the meantime I absolutely cannot be nagging, prodding, complaining or whining.

I just wish that it didn't hurt so much. That I didn't start crying any time someone even so much as says "Africa." That passing the empty basket at Church didn't cause me physical pain. That I didn't have to throw out every envelope from Save the Children, St. Jude's Hospital, Save Darfur, Samaritan's Purse...

In conversation with a friend the other day, it became clear that God is asking me for concrete sacrifices dedicated to my husband's conversion. I'm incredibly self-indulgent. When my alarm goes off in the morning, I press snooze for half an hour. I snack constantly. I'm on the computer a hundred times a day. I sometimes skip prayer to watch TV. I wallow in self-pity and bad moods, show all my emotions as soon as they appear, rant and complain more than I care to admit, and generally indulge every whim.

I'm willing to make sacrifices for the poor. Why not for God and my husband?

I've decided to start small. Getting up when my alarm goes off. (I call it "Sit up for Jesus!" and that's what I say silently to myself every morning. "Sit up for Jesus, Tienne. Sit up!") Fasting from one meal a week. Limiting myself to one serving size of desert after a meal.

I'm hopeful these little sacrifices will strengthen my will and fit me for the trials to come. Conventional wisdom says things will get worse before they get better. Mary, my model, be with me and guide me. Shower me, God, with strength. Amen.

Monday, May 5, 2008

What I Need Most

I am on my second round of antibiotics for a sore throat that has been with me on and off for three weeks now. The whole family has been sick with it, but even so the tenacity and virulence of this bug is pretty amazing.

The first round did its job well, or so I thought, but while visiting my mom last week the soreness came back with a vengeance. My parents' good friend, who is staying with them, suggested we pray over my throat and I happily agreed. I believe in healing. I know if God wanted to, He could have rid me of that sore throat in that very instant.

But for some reason He never wants to. I remember when I was suffering a severe case of hyperemesis with my second pregnancy and another family friend with the gift of healing laid hands on me and prayed that God would cure me of the debilitating nausea. As he prayed with confidence that I would be healed, I asked him, "Why are you so sure that God wants to take this away?"

He looked surprised, and answered, "Because God doesn't like people to suffer."

Except me, I guess. Needless to say, my hyperemesis continued unabated another 10 weeks until I was fully into my 5th month of pregnancy. Which leaves me wondering, "Why doesn't God ever want to heal me of physical suffering?"

I think it's partly because I don't need the miracle. It wouldn't help my faith to be healed, and it wouldn't help my husband find faith, either. I read somewhere that God worked miracles to help people believe. Well, I already believe. In fact, it might negatively impact my faith, given how tied I am to the more physical aspects of faith like almsgiving and public worship. Perhaps God wants me to continue on in my faith without any miracles. Is that a lesson I need to learn?

Or could it be that I need the suffering? It's hard to imagine how I (or my family) could NEED 20 weeks of torture. My hyperemesis was hard on everyone -- on my mother who nursed me full time and took care of my son as well, on my husband who lived alone in our home and saw me only for 10 minutes a day, on my son who had very little interaction with me while I was ill, and on me, too. Throwing up multiple times a day, enduring IVs for deyhdration every three days, intense and constant nausea and the sheer boredom of being able to do nothing but lay in bed and watch bad daytime TV certainly qualifies as torture in my book.

I needed all that? Really? I needed a trip to the emergency room last Friday at 3 am after I almost passed out while trying to take some medicine for my throat? What greater good is being served here?

But I know that one is. Perhaps God wants to show me the importance of family. I complain about them too much, really. My attitude could use a good adjustment. Sometimes I don't want to be around them, and I'm sure they sometimes feel the same way about me. But none of that matters. I am still called by God to love them, L.O.V.E love them and honor them and keep them close to me, no matter what. Perhaps God was using the hyperemesis to teach me unconditional love. My family showed me unconditional love by taking care of me even when at my worst, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Can I do less than return that to them? God loves me with all my faults. Should I do less for my family?

And, too, perhaps it's not all about me. I offered up my sore throat for those without medical care. When I had to go to the ER in the middle of the night, my mom was there to drive me. We had three hospitals to choose from, all less than 20 minutes away. I had my antibiotics within 6 hours, with almost everything paid for by insurance. With all that available, did I really need healing? I also offered up my hyperemesis, but I didn't do a very good job of bearing it cheerfully for those mothers in poor countries who have no maternity care at all. I tried. Somewhat...

God could heal everyone. He has that power. If I am willing to bear a little bit of suffering for someone who truly needs God's healing, isn't the humility, perspective and empathy I gain for others worth more than the joy of being healed? God knows which I need more.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Voting for the Lesser of Two Evils

A conversation with my good friend (and my son's godmother) along with this post from Radical Catholic Mom, has me thinking about our elected representatives. For the most part, none of them actually represent me. It doesn't seem to matter what party or candidate you vote for. Almost everyone on the ballot will espouse something so completely contrary to Catholic doctrine that conscientious voters are placed in the unenviable position of supporting something they hate. And it seems there's nothing we can do about it, not given the entrenchment of our two-party system.

Voting is a double-edged sword, in my opinion. The right and freedom to elect our leaders carries with it an implicit responsibility to choose wisely...and a corollary responsibility for what our leaders then do with the power we give them. Our faith encourages us to vote, most especially because participating in our government is the best way to influence the activities, direction and philosophy of our society. We can sit out an election here and there, providing we do so for good reasons and not simply out of laziness, but for the most part we must vote.

Thus, we must support candidates and positions that we do not like. Most politicians view our votes as approval for their ideas and beliefs. We don't get to vote on the issues, just on the candidates. So how should we best communicate the fullness of our position when our vote alone can be misleading? My friend had a brilliant idea that I wanted to share with you all. Vote, and then go right home to write a letter to your representative.

Dear So and So:

I have just voted to elect you into office because I feel your position on the following issues most closely represents my own. I wanted to send you my best wishes and assure you that I will be praying for your term in office, that you might be guided by the Holy Spirit and given wisdom in all your decisions.

There are several issues on which we do not agree. I wanted to take this opportunity to speak to you about them, partly because I want you to realize my vote does not imply my approval of everything in your platform, but mostly because I believe you are a reasonable person with the best interests of our people at heart. This is why I feel the way I do about these issues. Please take this information into consideration when you are faced with legislation or choices that may affect them.

I love America and am proud to be a citizen of this great country. I hope we can work together to bring freedom and prosperity to everyone in this nation and around the world. God Bless you, and God Bless America.

Let's open the doors of communication and keep them open throughout our representatives' terms! I know from experience that writing one letter or sending an email to a politician puts you on their mailing list forever. How wonderful is that! We get to hear all about their activities and are provided with the perfect forum for expressing our opinions on them. Do we get emails and flyers when our favorite stores are having a sale? Do we have our favorite news sites bookmarked online or fed into our RSS folders?

Shouldn't we be as involved in the political process as we are with things that affect us much less drastically?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Wisdom From Old Traditions

I've just returned from celebrating the Passover Seder with some family friends. Having married into a Jewish family, and also having grown up in a heavily Jewish area, I am as familiar with the ceremonies and celebrations of Judaism as I am with my own faith. It was comforting, beautiful and spiritual to participate in the Seder as I remember it from my childhood, and to see the different traditions this new family has developed.

It was also comforting to have to deal with my 5 year old son's rambunctious behavior during the prayers and readings. Praise God! It's not the Church he's sitting still!

I had an interesting conversation with the host during the evening. As he humbly reminds me whenever we talk, he's not a rabbi, but he's certainly studied the Talmud and is a great source of information on tradition and theology.

I've been turning over the question of sacrifices in my head since I read it in my book on Stewardship, and can't quite put my finger on why it bothers me so much. An anonymous commenter wrote in my previous post on the subject that my current efforts to help the poor by living simply and increasing my prayer time ARE like the ancient offerings I find so inspiring simply because they have no visible effect. It requires faith to do them and believe that some good will come.

That's, I think, the crux of my problem. I wouldn't say I have little faith. In fact, I've always felt I had an abundance of it. I've always felt sure of God's presence in my life and believed the truth of His existence. I don't need miracles or proofs...If I found out tomorrow that absolutely everything in the Bible was wrong, that Jesus never existed, that humans were seeded on earth by aliens from another galaxy, I would still know that God was real. I have my doubts like anyone, but they are always allayed by the simple faith that He exists. Period.

But faith is just the first step. All my life, I've felt completely in accord with James when he talks about the need for action to complete ones faith:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
-- James 2:14-17

This is the classic "Show don't Tell" that every aspiring writer must take to heart. If I claim to be a Christian, I must BE a Christian. I can't simply talk about Christ's love. I have to SHOW it with everything I do, in all my thoughts, words and deeds.

This is why I can't find peace with the limitations I'm operating under right now. The most I can do for the poor is pray for them, and doing that without also giving money to charity feels like I'm telling the poor "I wish good things for you" and then walking away and leaving them in need.

My Jewish friend had a perspective that's somewhat helpful as I struggle with my situation. I asked him about the destruction of the Temple, and how the resulting loss of the priesthood has prohibited the Jews from offering sacrifices. "Do you feel that your faith lost anything when the sacrifices went from material things to solely spiritual ones? That in some ways, prayers cannot replace the very real act of taking something and burning it?"

He said suffering was never really the point of the sacrifices. It wasn't so much that God wanted His people to feel the absence of the first fruits, or the bull, or the lamb. The laws on what to sacrifice and when were meant to serve as reminders of God's presence and blessings. Keeping Kosher, for instance, is not about doing without certain foods. It is a lifestyle that keeps God at the forefront of our thoughts, and also a way for an observant Jew to set himself apart from the society he lives in, as another visible reminder that God is what is most important to him.

So that has really resonated with me. These things I am doing may not really have any impact on the poor, but they still DO impact the world. They are visible reminders, to me and to those who know me, that God is present among us. They are witness to my faith and the importance of God in my life.

If I can do them cheerfully, consistently and lovingly, they may be the best ways to evangelize others. They are an opportunity for me to share my knowledge and help others think about the poor in their lives. I can't do much right now, but others can...if they are so inclined. Taking the poor with me through my actions also brings them into the lives of those I associate with, and if that inspires someone to give then I HAVE helped the poor (indirectly.)

Instead of focusing on what I'm not doing, I should think about what I am doing. The Jewish people did not abandon their faith when the Temple was destroyed and their entire way of relating to God had to change. They found ways to live apart in witness to God and preserved the intent of their laws.

Their example can serve as an inspiration to me, and a reminder of why I'm doing this.

Picture credit: TRAVIS SPRADLING/The Advocate

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I haven't been posting much lately because I'm still in a holding pattern, still praying and trying to do small things for the poor like keep my grocery bills down, be nice to my children, and refrain from eating meat at restaurants.

My husband and I had a wonderful date-night dinner at a local Moroccan restaurant where everything was organic, cooked from scratch and delicious. Ethnic food is always the best bet for eating healthy at a good price. Your average chain restaurant is loaded with fat and one point on the road a few years ago my husband and I tried to eat at your friendly neighborhood chain restaurant and there wasn't a single item on the menu that wasn't either deep fried or meat-based. We like to support local businesses as much as we can, and happily we like Indian, Asian, African and Middle Eastern cuisine, so it works out well for us. For some reason, eating local, ethnic food often means the restaurant is in a strip mall. So much for atmosphere!

I may have inadvertently caused a scandal at my parish by writing an article that did not comply with Church teaching. Pray for me, if you will, as I discern what to do.

Both kids are sick with ear infections that are draining through their eyes and nose. (Yes, the image is as lovely in person as I'm sure it is in your head!) So I've got both of them home with me this week and nothing planned. I can't go to the gym because I don't want them to infect the other kids in day care. My son can't go to school, we can't have anyone over and we can't go to anyone's house. The words stir-crazy definitely apply, and it's only day 2!

We got our sewer line fixed at 1/3 the cost and no damage whatsoever to our lawn, porch or basement. Praise God! The method they used feeds the new pipe through the old one, so all they need to do is brace their machine against a foundational wall (which they did by cutting into the cement floor of our storeroom) and dig a small hole down to the pipe where it joins with the main city sewer line. In all, it wasn't anywhere near the cost or trouble we thought it would be. I even got the chance to practice my Spanish with one of the guys who did the work, and they company sent someone the next day to repair our storeroom floor, remove the extra dirt from our front yard and sweep the street clear of dust. God really took care of us.

So that's it. Nothing profound. Nothing inspiring. I did just finish a nice chapter on the importance of suffering in The Truth Of Catholicism by George Weigel, but I can't seem to get my brain to function enough to write meaningfully about it. Maybe the virus the kids have is draining my brain, too.

Good night, dear friends. I think I should get some rest.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ancient Offerings

I am reading in my Stewardship book about the different types of offerings made by the Jews to Yahweh, as chronicled in the Old Testament.

It seems to our modern sensibilities entirely wasteful. Whenever a building was consecrated, or someone committed a trespass against their neighbor, or whenever a prayer was answered, they would bring an animal to the Temple and burn it. All of it. The cooked meat wasn't given to the poor or anything, the hide wasn't used, nor the hair, the horns or hooves. Everything was given to God.

It's amazing to me to consider that level of worship. It's the equivalent of taking five hundred dollars and burning it in your fireplace. That's it. Gone. Like you never had it. The money goes nowhere, it simply disappears from the world.

Not only does it require a level of trust in God to replace what we've just given, but it illustrates in a very tangible way the profound faith the Hebrews had that God was real: He existed as surely as the offering did.

In some ways, I think it's easy to give to charity, especially when you give to a reputable organization that operates programs you believe in. You know for a fact that your money is going to good use. You can think about it helping someone and feel a sense of pride and solidarity that you yourself, personally, have helped someone. In a sense it's buying a service, -- even if you're not the direct beneficiary, you're controlling how the money is spent.

Burning a ram on God's altar doesn't return that sense of pride. It doesn't feel like you're doing anything concrete.

It's one of the most humbling forms of sacrifice and worship I can imagine, and I don't know what the modern equivalent could be. There's nothing in my life that I give back to God in the way the Hebrews gave holocaust to Yahweh.

I am humbled and astounded by their fidelity to their Covenant.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


After the Mass of the Lord's Supper Thursday night they had adoration of the Blessed Eucharist until midnight. Considering that I spent half the Mass walking the hallway with my 18 month old and the other half fighting annoyance and biting my tongue, I figured I needed to go back and actually pray for a bit.

I had some trouble finding it, and embarrassed myself fully at one point by walking into St. Francis Hall where I heard music and saw what looked like a monstrance only to find a group of teenagers reenacting the washing of feet beneath a large mounted cross. Under their confused stares, I walked along the back wall as though I just came in to check the room out and scurried through the other door. Asking a person in the hall didn't help me, either.

So I finally found it in the Church gym and knelt down to pray. The Host had an honor guard of Knights of Columbus (I love those guys. They're so great.) that changed every 15 minutes and lent an air of formality and ceremony that made the experience that much better.

I definitely had to expend active energy to stay awake and keep my focus on Christ, but unsurprisingly it was much easier to feel God's presence when I was sitting right in front of Him than it is when I'm in my living room at home. For the first time in a very long time, I was able to hear God's voice. And I received an important insight:

God placed me here intentionally. Sometimes I feel like life would be easier if I had (pick one of the following: married a Catholic, become a nun, gone into the Peace Corps) and that my current crosses are in large part my own making. I have to remind myself that I would still have crosses in any other vocation; they would just be different crosses. I would still have to carry them. I would still probably whine and resent that life isn't all roses and strawberry cupcakes.

God reminded me last night that this path, the one I'm on, THAT'S my path. He has chosen these crosses for me specifically to grow my soul in the direction it needs to go. He has always placed me directly in the path of temptation. I can only imagine He does this because He wants me to grow stronger. I'm not meant to run from my problems and challenges. I'm meant to face them.

I once read that Ghandi used to sleep with young virgins as a test of his willpower. Those without faith might roll their eyes and say "Sure...and he was sleeping the whole night." But I believe God does similar things in our lives. It's easy to get discouraged by constant temptation or the omnipresence of obstacles, but without these things our will cannot strengthen.

On that note, we've had another sewage backup in the basement. *sigh* This one wasn't as bad because my parents are staying with us and they were able to alert us almost immediately. The professionals got it unblocked and then I went downstairs with Lysol, paper towels, two sponges and a plastic garbage bag to rectify the situation.

The plumbers should be coming to fix our pipes this week. We're just waiting on one more estimate and the check from the insurance company (we're not sure how much it is and for some reason they won't tell us over the phone) to see what our options are.

I don't think it's coincidence that this happened right as my parents were visiting, on the very day my sister and her boyfriend arrived, and on Good Friday to boot. The stresses on my soul this weekend have been pretty high.

Adoration on Thursday helped me cope with them, I'm positive. Not that I was perfect or anything, but the knowledge that God was not allowing all this to hit me at once in order to destroy me, but to temper me by fire, bolstered by efforts to work with Him instead of giving in to despair.

It's only through carrying our cross and being crucified upon it that we will come to our own Easter.

The Lord is risen, Alleluia!

Picture credit.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Peanut Butter Blues

I've been volunteering on Thursday mornings with Catholic Charities in my area. I like the work; I'm tutoring an immigrant woman from Sudan and visiting with an elderly lady (and trying to help her son find a job.) It's nothing earth shattering, but I like the people and I'm glad to be doing something concrete for others.

On my way home I always pass the same intersection, where there is usually a homeless man with a sign: "Anything will help, even a smile!"

I used to see homeless people all the time. My college town was full of them, as were the cities I lived in after graduating. It was common for me to pass three or four homeless people on my way to work every morning, and the same ones again when I went out to lunch or on my way home. So I got used to carrying dollars in my pocket and handing out leftovers after lunch. If I had nothing, I gave them at least the dignity of eye contact and a smile or a wave.

It bothers me exceedingly that I can give nothing to this homeless man. The first time I drove by him and saw the sign I had a bag of apples that one of the people I help had given me. So I rolled down the window and handed it to him. The second time I saw him, I had nothing but a smile, so I gave that and he waved and smiled back.

Well, last Thursday morning I was determined to give him something substantial, even though I couldn't give him any money. So I made him a lunch. I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, put in an apple, some carrot sticks, a piece of chocolate and a bottle of water. I even put a little encouraging note in the bag and set it on the front seat in preparation for quick handing out the passenger window.

He wasn't there.

I even circled around the block and went into a store to make sure I wasn't just early and had missed him. Nope, no one. Empty corner.

I could have cried, not only because I wanted to do something for him and had been thwarted, but because the incident served to highlight once again that I am operating under severe limitations. I am not free to help people when I see them. I have to be prepared to do good, I have to find creative ways to give, and, as in this case, it often means I can do nothing.

The crux of my problem, though, is a bit more personal. I hate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I only made one because it's the only kind of sandwich filling we had in the house. I never buy cold cuts (meat only twice a week doesn't allow for that, not to mention the expense and presence of preservatives.) But here I was, driving home utterly disappointed with this sack lunch that would go to waste if I didn't eat it. The sandwich wouldn't keep for a week, and I'd used the wrong kind of jam to serve it to my son (those of you with children will understand. "Mommy! This jelly has lumps!" and it's summarily rejected.)

So I had to eat it. Have I mentioned how I hate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? I had to swallow past my gag reflex a couple times and disguise the taste with the carrot sticks. Let me confess to you how stupid I felt offering up my difficulty eating it for the homeless man, who was likely sitting hungry somewhere at that very moment. But it really was a sacrifice for me to eat it.

And now I'm torn. Do I make another sack lunch for him next week? If I don't and I see him, I'll be kicking myself for days that I missed the opportunity to do something for him. But if I do and he's not there...I just REALLY don't want to eat another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I should make him a lunch. Cardinal George eats sandwiches he doesn't like. St. Therese of Lisieux would probably go so far as to eat a PB&J every day just as she did the leftover food the other nuns rejected.

Meh. I really wish I could just hand him $5. If nothing else, I think this is why God has put this obstacle in my path. It's a hard lesson to learn, but the truth is that handing over a 5 spot won't do as much for my soul as choking down a sandwich I despise will.

Still, I really hope he's there next week.

Picture credit.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Back in the Saddle

We've had a major financial setback, in the form of raw sewage inundating our basement. Apparently, there are two points in our main sewer line that aren't moving water as they ought. Our pipes backed up last week and we didn't notice it until a ten foot area of our finished basement was soaked.

Needless to say, we don't have the money lying around that it's going to take to fix this. I figure this should increase our debt by about 50%, perhaps more.

But I'm surprisingly untroubled about it. After the initial shock and horror of finding such a thing in our basement, my first thought was how much time this was going to add before we were able to give to charity, tithe, and adopt (my three main goals for our family.) I fretted about it for a day and God spoke very clearly into my heart.

We're never going to eliminate our debt. But that doesn't matter, because God's going to change my husband's heart so he's open to tithing, giving to charity, and adoption even WITH debt.

So I don't really care. The house could burn down around us and it'd be a HUGE pain, but we'll figure it out somehow. My poor husband, on the other hand, is having trouble eating and sleeping because he's so worried about how we're going to find the money. I figure we'll just take out a loan if we have to. It's not like we have no assets. It's not like we're living paycheck to paycheck without any cushion or credit.

We'll be okay.

I would be very, very, happy, though, if I never saw raw sewage again. YUCK.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

ORDER! Order in the home!

As Lents go, this one has been a bit of a flop. It bothers me because I'm usually GREAT at Lent. I pick really hard sacrifices, like giving up TV or secular music, and then I'm rabid about adhering to it. I began dating my husband in college shortly after Lent began that year, and I remember distinctly sitting on the couch with him one Friday evening trying to come up with something to do. Movies and any sort of TV were out. Dinner, drinks or dessert were out because I was fasting. As a good Catholic girl, I wasn't about to sit there making out with him to pass the time, and we'd been talking for hours and were over that. I remember his roommate came into the room and asked what we were doing, and when we explained our restrictions he just kind of looked at us and left. It's a moment I'm particularly proud of.

But this year I've been all over the place. I think my mistake was not setting a firmer sacrifice. Giving up "laziness" is too nebulous for any real success. Part of the problem is that there's ALWAYS something that needs to be done. So even when the kitchen was clean, the kids in bed, and my Rosary said, I felt guilty taking an hour to watch TV because I could be doing Spanish homework, mapping apartments for my volunteer work, reading/studying Scripture, etc etc etc.

In some ways, too, I feel like my industriousness got in the way of my deeper goal: to get closer to God. I had imagined if I gave up internet surfing I'd have all this time to read important books and pray for people, but I just ended up doing more sweeping, organizing and laundry. A clean house is nice -- very nice -- but not really my Lenten objective. Additionally, I used cleaning the kitchen as a catalyst to keep myself away from the computer or TV. It worked for the most part, but by constantly cleaning the kitchen I removed the one chore that my husband usually does to help out around the house. He's been telling everyone this is the "best Lent ever!" but I think our relationship has been hurt by it. Without this act of sacrifice to say he loves me, I've been looking around at the coat rack I bought in December that he still hasn't hung and thinking, "Doesn't he love me?"

It came home to me in a big way as I was reading "A Mother's Rule of Life," by Holly Pierlot, which a friend has lent me. I've heard it highly recommended elsewhere in the blogosphere as well, and for some time I've been pondering the idea of setting a real schedule for myself that puts a priority on time for prayer and orders my days a bit better. Really, if I have spare time, it's far too easy to waste it on something frivolous, and when Lent is over I won't have any reason not to.

When the author spoke about the chaos of her life and feeling as though she were always three steps behind, I thought about Et Tu, Jen?'s series of posts on praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and how implementing hard stops has helped her be LESS busy even without removing any of her responsibilities. And when Holly Pierlot ordered the 5 P's of marriage (Prayer, Person, Partner, Parent, Provider) I realized how skewed my priorities were. My current life is something like Provider, Parent, Partner, Person, Prayer. You'll notice that's EXACTLY the opposite of what it ought to be. I feel I should clean the kitchen and THEN read to my kids. I all too often watch TV instead of reading Scripture. At the moment, I'm putting my youngest's needs in front of my husband's, though I'm continuing to work with her in hopes this is a temporary situation.

Given how strongly drawn I am toward homeschooling, I think a reordering of my life is rapidly becoming a MUST DO rather than a "might be nice." My inclination as a procrastinator is to wait till after Easter, especially since I have so much to do before then, but I think I've already learned that the more I have to do, the more important it is to prioritize and work out a schedule that realistically takes into account the amount of time I have.

My whole family will be here in 10 days. I've also invited my husband's side for Easter lunch. I am already overwhelmed by my mental list (clean and paint playroom, move bed upstairs, buy 6 pounds lamb and figure out how to cook it, sort through summer clothes and set aside for warm days, buy my daughter a pink bow to match her Easter dress, get a mattress for the top bunk, plan the weekend's meals...) half of which I probably don't really need to do before they get here, but I want to do because I'm afraid they will comment on it. My mother is the consummate host, so I feel all this internal pressure to make things perfect.

It can so easily get out of hand. I don't want to spend this trip arguing with my mother about my lifestyle choices, biting my tongue at my sister's impatience with my kids and obsessing over small details that should not matter. It will be Holy Week. I want the focus on God, not on whether my parents will like the salmon I bought for our Lenten supper or whether my sister will be annoyed when we all leave for Mass.

So I want to pray about this for a few days and see if I can come up with a schedule that puts my home, my heart, my priorities and my life in order. The back of Holly's book asks "Are you desperate, yet?"

I think I'm desperate.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Call and Response

Part of my Lenten sacrifice is to give up secular reading. So I've put aside the George R. R. Martin fantasy series I'm in the middle of in favor of The Confessions of St. Augustine and Stewardship: The Biblical Basis for Living, by Ben Gill. The latter had a particularly thought-provoking section on God's covenant with His people and our responsibilities within it.

In the Bible, we see the word "berit" referring to God's covenants. In every instance it is God who makes the covenant with us. We aren't coming to God with our needs; He is coming to us, knowing what we need and offering consolation and salvation. His offer is unilateral and non-negotiable, but our "yes" cannot be merely a passive response, "Oh, you want to do this for me, God? Okay."

In each particular instance, God's covenants demand an active response. The covenant with Noah is the first time we see "berit" in the Scriptures and as Ben Gill puts it,

When God made a covenant with Noah the latter understood that covenant in terms of an immediate stewardship of the Earth's animal life. ... Noah's existence was devoted to God's command that he act as a steward for the preservation of the animal life God had created. From the very first mention of the concept covenant in the Old Testament, the word is always connected with a stewardship of that which God has given.

God comes to us, in His mercy, offering salvation. Our part of the bargain is to actively worship Him and by that worship, to care for each other and the Earth. The relationship entails a sort of call and response where God comes to us and we, in turn, reach out to Him and then to each other.

When God told Noah of the flood, his response wasn't to build a boat that would house his family and the animals that were his personal property. He built the ark, a massive construction designed to house every single animal; predators and prey, insects, reptiles, even mosquitoes I dare say. Noah's activities were not aimed at self-preservation, they were acts of stewardship for the good of God's creation in obedience to His command.

The proper response to God's covenant, therefore, is stewardship. It is at once entirely natural and entirely proper to respond this way. We were created to give back, and our nature leads us to that inclination providing we understand first and foremost that everything we have is from God. Once that humble acceptance has been reached, the next natural course of action is to make a return to the Lord. It is only when we allow ourselves to become distracted by the lure of worldly possessions and the competition for status in our society that we lose sight of what we are bound, through creation, to accomplish.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that our position or possessions are the work of our own hands. After all, we learned the geometry equations that earned us our high school diploma. We studied the literature and sat for the exams that comprised our university degree. We applied for, solicited and dedicated ourselves to the job that furnishes our weekly paycheck. The sweat of our brow puts food on our table, a roof over our head and clothes on our backs.

We have to look deeper. We have to see farther.

We have to acknowledge the design and grace that put us in the path of the opportunities that led us to where we are. In the language of "berit," God descended to us with the knowledge, ability and opportunity for advancement. Our passive response was to capitalize on it for our own gain.

Now it is time for an active response, for us to make a return to God for what He has done for us. Up and out...up first in thankful appreciation to the God who is so generous, and then out to the rest of creation in responsible stewardship of our leadership role.

Without stewardship, we are not fulfilling God's covenant with us. The call and response is stymied. We are passive recipients, not members of the body of Christ.

Remember what God asks of His house in the parable of the ten gold coins...

So he said, "A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. He called ten of his servants and gave them ten gold coins and told them, 'Engage in trade with these until I return.' ... But when he returned after obtaining the kingship, he had the servants called, to whom he had given the money, to learn what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, Sir, your gold coin has earned ten additional ones.' He replied, 'Well done, good servant! You have been faithful in this very small matter; take charge of ten cities.' Then the second came and reported, 'Your gold coin, sir, has earned five more.' And to his servant too he said, 'You, take charge of Five cities.' Then the other servant came and said, 'Sir, here is your gold coin; I kept it stored away in a handkerchief for I was afraid of you, because you are a demanding person; you take up what you did not lay down and you harvest what you did not plant.' He said to him, 'With your own words I shall condemn you, you wicked servant. You knew I was a demanding person, taking up what I did not lay down and harvesting what I did not plant; why did you not put my money in a bank? Then on my return I would have collected it with interest.' And to those standing by he said, 'Take the gold coin from him and give it to the servant who has ten.' (Luke 19:12-24)

God doesn't want passive self-preservation from us. He wants active, joyful, engagement.

He wants stewardship.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Lenten Joy

Ah, it's Lent! I love Lent. I love that all the world's Catholics are joining together in fasting, prayer and almsgiving. I love the anticipation before Easter, the solemn commemoration of the Passion giving way to the jubilation of the Resurrection.

I love how indelibly Catholic it all is: the communal aspects, emulating Christ's sacrifice, the repentance and symbolism that underlie every part of the season. I am never more proud to be a Catholic than at Lent.

I don't have anything profound to say. Just that I'm very happy right now and eager to do something good for God.

My biggest vice is my inherent laziness. After examining my day with a critical eye, I noticed that after the kids are in bed, my activities for the evening can be summed up as "wasteful sloth." I watch re-runs of TV shows I've seen a hundred times. I surf the web endlessly. I sit on the couch and don't even do anything but sit there. And all this when there are books to be read, rooms to be cleaned, prayers to be said and things to be organized.

So in addition to giving up secular reading, I am determined to spend my time serving God. If I have an hour, it should be spent doing something productive. If, at the end of the day, my Spanish homework is done, the kitchen is clean, my Rosary is said and the husband is occupied, then I can relax. Everything in its proper time.

I also thought I'd post a rice n'beans recipe for Friday nights. Since we are mostly vegetarians, having fish on Fridays would actually be an indulgence for us. So I limit our dinner to a simple meal of rice and beans. I'm extremely fortunate that, as it turns out, this is my husband's favorite meal. Go figure!

Moros y Cristianos

1 lb dried black beans, picked through and washed
1 small onion, halved
4 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1/2 green pepper, cored and seeded
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano

1 T olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bell pepper, cored seeded and chopped
3 scallions, trimmed and chopped

2 T dry white wine
1 T red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, soak the beans in cold water to cover for 6-8 hours. Drain off the soaking liquid and fill to cover by 3 inches. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, bell pepper and spices. Bring to a boil and simmer over high heat for 1-2 hours. Add water as necessary to keep the beans submerged. (I do this in a crockpot for 6-8 hours, much easier and foolproof.) Prepare the sofrito: heat oil in saucepan and saute onion, garlic, bell pepper and scallions until soft. Stir into cooked beans along with seasoning ingredients. Simmer over very low heat 20 minutes, until beans are soft and most of the water has been absorbed. (The mixture should be soupy, but not watery.) Serve over rice.

Picture credit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Industrial Waste

It's Fashion Week in New York right now, and I'm enjoying a love/hate relationship with the whole affair. I love parts of it and hate parts of it and I hate that I love it.

The models in a runway show are usually made up to look like they're half-dead, with hair a bird wouldn't nest in. Their expressions fall somewhere between vapid and predatory, which doesn't exactly inspire me to put on the clothing. Not that I could, considering how much the stuff costs. Or how much skin it usually shows.

When a woman comes down the runway looking like this, I find it easy to sigh at what the whole enterprise has come to, and move on without being affected.

But for the most part, I enjoy looking at the clothing many designers create. This, by Jamil Khansa, is beautiful. I understand other people may disagree; fashion (like art and beauty) is entirely subjective. What one person considers amazing, another person finds urbane, what to one is avant garde is to another garish. From its earliest conception, fashion has taken wild swings from the sublime to the ridiculous. Elizabethan England, anyone?

Despite my interest, I am very uncomfortable with most of what goes on in the world of fashion, especially all the exploitation and self-absorption. This article about the obsession many teens have with designer labels illustrates the problem with how fashion is currently defined. It's not enough to dress nicely in clothing that flatters your figure and is appropriate for the occasion. Fashion is now the exclusive property of the world's top 20 designers (Armani, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, etc.)

That's not right, especially considering the prices these dregs command.
Want a pair of Roberto Cavalli designer jeans? Blue jeans. Cotton. That'll be
$435. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's really the accessories -- shoes, handbags, jewelry -- that strain your wallet. I would certainly shell out more money for something of high-quality fabric, handmade and unique, but fashion pricing stems primarily from the designers' name, not their work. And considering the preponderance of discount fashion outlets (Bitten, Forever 21, H&M, Isaac Mizrahi at Target) it's very easy to look great for $50. The question becomes, then: How can you justify spending $5,000? Or even $500?

It makes me wonder if there is any way to support this industry at all without compromising my core values. I think the short answer is: No. But it's not because fashion or style is inherently bad. It's because, like with most other things, it is through industrialization that we as consumers lose our power to affect the standard.

I spend more for organic meat because I believe the food industry is dangerous, wasteful, immoral and unhealthy. I could apply all those labels to the fashion industry as well, and it makes me sad because at its core I think fashion should be art, not industry. Clothing is a form of self-expression -- and why not? What could be more natural than to adorn ourselves in a way that speaks to who we are as people? So much can be learned of a culture just by the way they dress; the colors they wear for certain occasions, the level of ornamentation, the style, flow and fabric of their garments, and certainly the form it takes on the human body.

I don't think there's any dispute that the gown worn by Katherine Parr (or perhaps Lady Jane Grey) is as much art as this painting of her wearing it. Both take tremendous time and talent, both are the privilege of the wealthy, and both speak to what we value as a society. It is very different from modern fashion, but not wholly unlike what Dior or Givenchy can send down a runway.

I'm not of the opinion that anything which doesn't turn our minds toward God should be shunned. We are not all called to aestheticism. Jesus did not walk the world in animal skins like his cousin, John.

But I can't understand how someone can spend $765 on a pair of green snakeskin Manolo Blahnik low-heel slides when you can get stylish, high-quality, fair-trade shoes made from organic, recyclable materials for less than $100.

I think it's all right to indulge yourself occasionally as long as you Take the Poor With You when you do it. It's fine to buy things you love. Just buy responsibly and keep things in perspective. Remember how many people around the world freeze to death in winter because they don't have coats. Or walk barefoot everywhere because they can't afford shoes. Or go hungry so they can buy their kids a school uniform.

Style should come second to soul.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sigh of Relief

I had an impromptu playdate with a friend from church yesterday. I don't get to see her much because she homeschools her four kids and since our parish is undergoing construction on the main church, we're stuck in the gym for Mass without a cry room. Her kids just aren't at a point where they can be quiet during Mass, so she has been going to another parish and thus, I haven't seen her.

She's wonderful. Very kind, open, faithful and understanding. I've talked with her about every matter that concerns my heart and found her at all times completely sympathetic and helpful. Our parenting styles differ, but I consider her an excellent mother and somewhat of a mentor.

Yesterday she helped me through the difficulties I've been having with my search for "peace." She comforted me with an insight I wanted to share:

God has put these feelings in my heart for a reason. The feelings are good, they are prompting me to holiness and devotion. And as they are good, they have a purpose. God is using them to work on my husband's conversion of heart. I don't need to deny, ignore or change my emotions. I need to offer them up to God in a spirit of hope.

*whew* I almost cried while we were talking. It was a beautiful gift to hear confirmation of my own inclinations from someone whose devotion and knowledge I admire so much. It's hard to find the right kind of fellowship. Even more important than listening, a good friend can both uplift you and guide you. I've been considering going to a spiritual counselor for some time, but I just don't know what I'd do with my kids. Anyone know a place that does spiritual counseling email? I'm in desperate need of someone knowledgeable to help me navigate the challenges I'm encountering with this effort. I haven't had much success going at it all alone.

I need to turn to God and arm my heart with His teachings, His comfort, His way. I'm not sure whether to stop talking about this stuff with my family or to try and discuss my point of view in the confidence that I'm sharing the truth, but right now I'm inclined to silence and independence. I certainly don't want to hide what I'm doing, but if last weekend is any indication, there's nothing to be gained from circular arguments with people who don't have any more insight than I do.

Picture credit.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Letting Go of "Peace"

I had a visit from a friend over the weekend. We did a lot of talking, and I shared part of what I'm doing to try and Take the Poor With me. I shared some of my frustrations with her, my feelings of impatience and the frequent sorrow that comes over me whenever I hear about women in the Congo raped to incontinence, or women in India outsourcing their wombs, and remember that right now, I can do next to nothing to help them.

We had a long conversation about peace. Her contention is that in order to feel peace, I have to truly let go of my desires in this matter. I tried to explain that I have already let go, that my whole self is now dedicated to saving money when I can and working towards the goal my husband has set for us rather than fighting for what I believe to be right or underhandedly giving away all my cash to charity and claiming I spent it on donuts.

But according to her, in order to truly let go, I have to stop wanting it entirely. If I hear a news story and still want to help those people in need, I haven't really let go. If I'm still irritated at the restrictions on our budget, I haven't really let go.

I don't think I need to spend much time telling you that this idea really REALLY bothers me. I do my very best to turn my pain and anguish over to God, that He might do what He wills with it. I am trying as hard as I can to bite my tongue whenever the topic of money comes up and let my husband lead our finances. Does that mean the feelings just vanish? NOT IN THE LEAST.

To me, her definition of "letting go" is really "giving up." How can I have hope unless I'm expecting change? And why would I expect change if it's something I don't want anymore? Since when is erasing the desire for something the answer? I think about Hannah, barren for most of her life, praying so fervently in the Temple that God would grant her a son that Eli thought she was drunk or crazy. How could Hannah simply stop wanting a child? That's the secret to achieving peace...telling yourself over and over again "I don't really want this" until it becomes true?

It sounds entirely wrong to me, but could that be because I'm not really letting go? I admit, I'm still irritated every single time I go to Mass, every time I pray, every time I read/hear God's word. Everything in my faith points to caring for the poor, to tithing, to sacrifice and sacrificial love. I'm constantly reminded of what I want to do and what I can't do.

My friend said that I should just be satisfied with my volunteer work and let everything else be, that I should find peace in submitting my will to that of my husband as God commands.

I don't even know what that would feel like. I know I'm doing the right thing by backing off and praying for God to take over. I completely, wholeheartedly believe in Church teaching and am confident that the decision I've made is the right one. So why don't I feel "peace" about it?

Either her and my definitions of "peace" are at odds, or I'm doing something wrong.

I would appreciate any insights anyone has to offer.

Picture credit.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Unintentional Hiatus

Gingerbread HouseI haven't posted in ages due to a combination of computer issues and Christmas-brain (you know, where everything is gingerbread and baby Jesus and celebrations and the idea of coming up with a post is just more work than you feel up to during a feast!)

But it's also because I haven't had any burning statements to make. I feel like I'm in a holding pattern, waiting for the go-ahead to move forward. Or maybe it's more like I'm under the tutelage of a very exacting ballet master who wants me to perfect the basic positions before I can move on to pointe. This is the boring, humdrum, repetitive part of obedience and it's leaving me a bit flat.

I'd like to say that I'm making good use of this time to read up on stewardship and research the Church's position on giving, tithing, obedience within a marriage and care for the poor, but I'm not. I'd love to say that I'm using it to perfect my skills as a mother so I can more easily adjust to having three (or four) when we finally do adopt, but that's not true either.

Mostly, I feel "meh." Like I'm going through the motions. I don't want to read about stewardship because it just frustrates me to see so clearly what I should be doing when I so obviously can't do it. I don't want to reflect on the sacrifices I'm making because I start to get resentful and wonder if they're ever going to end. I'm always working on motherhood and parenting, but now every failure, every setback, every lost temper and raised voice just illustrates how ill-equipped I am for the challenge of adoption.

It's strange that at the times when I most need to pray, I feel the least desire to. I know that focusing my energies on God, reading His word, and praying for the intercession of Mary and the Saints makes an amazing difference not only in the way I feel, but in what I am capable of achieving. The other day I spent some time nursing the baby and reading "The Art of Catholic Motherhood." I came out of that experience feeling uplifted. So why don't I do more of that? Why is my first inclination whenever I have a moment to do something meaningless and escapist like watch a reality show or surf the blogosphere?

Even planning my weekly menu annoys me. It shouldn't be so difficult for me to keep the weekly bill under $100. People live well on much, much less. So I feel like an idiot when I have to put back the block of cheddar cheese or serve my pasta primavera without sun-dried tomatoes because we can't afford them. I simultaneously resent the sacrifice and mock myself for the resentment. Sun dried tomatoes? Could there be a less essential ingredient to do without? What's worse, part of me feels that it's a pointless torture to even bother with it all. So I save $25 a would take twenty years to match our debt at that rate. The simple fact is that my efforts to save and sacrifice aren't going to get us anywhere close to our goal. We have fixed expenses that comprise the bulk of our spending (mortgage, car payments, insurance, etc.) and outside those expenses we have very little wiggle room to actually save money toward our debt. We'll only achieve our goal through the generosity of others: my husband's bonuses at work, gifts from our parents, etc.

I don't mind being dependent upon others. We've been blessed with loving, giving parents on both sides. Their support does not chafe me. But then I wonder why I bother with anything. If I have no control over our finances, if my husband doesn't care about solidarity with the poor, and if the money I save goes no where, why not just get whatever I want at the grocery store?

More to the point: if these sacrifices don't help me and they don't help the poor, what good are they?

Well, they ARE good, inherently. It is right to sacrifice. Even if it doesn't feel good, even if I find it frustrating and difficult, it's still a good exercise for my soul. That's, to me, the most compelling reason to continue. It's only by action that we can train our minds and bodies to desire what's good for them. As far as helping the poor, well, that's relative. Does my going without sun-dried tomatoes physically feed the poor? No. But if it forces me to think about those who struggle to live within limited means, and if it increases my understanding of others' experiences, then that's better than blithely grabbing the jar off the shelf and tossing it in my basket without a second thought.

I've always tried to live under the axiom "Do what you can." Right now, I can make small sacrifices. I can say my prayers even when I don't feel like it. I can think about the poor. I can be silent when I want to scream "What is wrong with you! This is all total BS!" I can be patient. I can be hopeful. I can trust.

Even if that's all I can do, it's still something.