Dateline China: Because We Are One Body

I met Maria Holland here at YIM Catholic when she commented on one of my posts about a Lenten hymn attributed to Gregory the Great.  She is attending Xiamen University in the city of that same name.  It is a city on the East Coast of the People’s Republic of China. Due east, and directly across the Taiwan Strait, lies the island nation Taiwan. Having recently written several posts about painting master and poet Wu Li,  I must have China on my mind. So I checked in with “our correspondent in Xiamen” and ran across this post that gives us a slice of life in the Catholic Church in China. Continue to check in on Maria at her blog Adventuring Towards… (see sidebar).

Guest post by Maria Holland
This morning, I went to Zhangzhou for Bishop Cai’s first Mass in his hometown. We lined up outside the church in the rain to greet him as he stepped out of the car, all dressed up in his new bishop duds.

Mrs. Zhang (my Chinese mom) and I found a place, a small vacancy on a kneeler, and stationed ourselves there to wait for Mass to begin. The sanctuary was loud but I was trying to ignore the noise (and the stares) and pray. Out of nowhere, a woman came up to us, pushed Mama out of the way, handed her a camera, put her arm around my waist, and posed for a picture. Picture taken, she faded into the crowd without so much as a thank you. I hope she treasures that picture of her and I, thin-lipped smile on my face, forever.

Today was perhaps worse than usual, especially for church. This is difficult for me, because I try to be forbearing and understanding of Chinese people’s behavior towards me but . . . I’m just not that good of a person, not good enough to smile for every picture and respond to every “hallow?!?”. At church, I’m even more conscious of a duty to those around me.

I have many reasons for going to Chinese Mass here in Xiamen – more convenient time and location, Chinese language practice, making friends, experiencing the Catholic Church in China. I get a lot out of it, but deep down I hope that I give something back. Here in China, where the church is separated from the Roman Catholic Church by political disagreements, language barriers, and relative isolation, I hope that it some small way I can be the face of the Universal Church. I hope I can remind them that the creed we confess is the same regardless of language, and let them see the solidarity that we share in this faith, in which their sadness is my sadness and their joy is my joy.

But on days like today, I’m pretty sure that none of that message is getting through. On days like today, I feel like the only purpose I serve is distracting those around me from the real reason we’re both in church. I’m the sore thumb, the squeaky wheel, the elephant in the room.

This is sad for me. Honestly, I don’t really mind the kids pointing; kids will be kids everywhere. They nudge their parents, indicate me sitting behind them, and I force myself to smile for them. But I wish the parents would take advantage of this opportunity to teach their children a lesson, to tell them that I’m not a foreigner, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is no us and them in the Church; we’re all members of the Body of Christ, and “there should be no divisions in the body”.

Thankfully, there are some who seem to understand this, for which I am eternally grateful. I vividly remember one conversation with LiuQin (the woman who drives me crazy) and Fr. Cai (#2); she told him to greet me by saying “Hello, foreigner!”, and he corrected her, saying that there we were all just brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of the priests, when giving me communion, will say “The Body of Christ” instead of “基督的身体”, which is a small gesture that acknowledges both our shared faith and our different languages. My heart basically melted today when, during the Sign of Peace, Mama awkwardly extended her hand towards me; she had apparently figured out how we do things in America and wanted to shake my hand as she wished me peace. (Here in China, the Sign of Peace consists of shaking your hands, palms together, towards others while bowing.)

After Mass, firecrackers, and food, we went back home. I spent the majority of the day in my room, avoiding the monsoon outside and all. Some items from the news:

Apparently the Shanghai pavilion at the Expo has a 6-D show. I was already impressed by the 4-D (??) movie we watched at Hulishan, so I can’t even imagine what kind of crazy stuff goes on in a 6-D exhibit! Maybe I’ll go see the Expo after all .

And if you believe that, then North Korea has successfully carried out nuclear fusion, “the holy grail of cheap, clean energy that has heretofore eluded every other scientist ever.”

Most of my friends who were studying abroad this semester are done and headed home; they left America after me and returned before me. I have been gone a long time, but as I’ve learned on previous trips to China: no matter how long you’re here, you always feel like you’re leaving just as you’re getting the hang of it.

This evening, I went out with my friend Aleid for a late dinner of barbecue and a dessert of 豆花 (sweet tofu soup). We went from there to Dreamer’s House, a bar/coffee shop/hostel located in an awesome building that climbs up and clings to a hill. A band was having their farewell concert downstairs, but we met up with some friends and found a nice spot near the very top just to talk. Good night after a long day!

Because We Need To Let Go With Compassion

Allison writes: Meredith and I met in Raleigh, North Carolina, when Greg and I were engaged and Meredith and her husband were newly married. All of us were, at the time, working journalists. Our families have grown and moved since then, but we have kept in touch for nearly 20 years. Meredith and her husband now are raising their three children in Noblesville, Indiana. 

Guest post by Meredith Cummings
Thursday didn’t begin well. I  looked at my eighth-grade son’s online grades before he left for school and then failed to hold my frustration at him in check. There he stood, head down, shame on his face, as I let him have it with my angry words. I managed a “Have a good day,” before he left, but I didn’t mean it, and he knew it.

An hour later, I drove to my children’s school, for Mass and the May Crowning of Mary. I usually love this day, as the school’s new First Communicants come dressed in their handsome suits and beautiful white dresses and veils. The soon-to-be graduating eighth graders dress up, too. But today, I was mad at my son, and I had too much to do. I didn’t have time for this. Later, reflecting on Our Blessed Mother, a mother thrush in the rosary garden, and some words by the Dalai Lama shifted my perspective.

I ducked into the last pew in church but glanced at my son standing next to his friends up front, so many fine-looking young men and women in their almost-grown-up suits and dresses. My son stood among them. I couldn’t tell by looking at his expression if he had forgotten our morning encounter.

After Mass, I followed the crowd of happy children to the parish rosary garden, home to a magnificent statue of Mary. The sky was azure blue; the fragrance of spring flowers perfumed the air. As everyone gathered together to offer prayers of thanksgiving for Mary and this special day, I glanced at a corner of the garden and remembered the momma bird and her babies who’d occupied that space a few years ago.

A mother thrush had built a nest in the mulch, and when the children gathered for the May Crowning back then, she was none too happy. She squawked and flapped her wings and defended her babies with all her might. The school children respected her warning cries and gave her space, and so she and her babies joined us in the holy ceremony.

Now a few years later, I thought more about this bird. As a mother, she instinctively protected her newborns; loved them, nurtured them, cared for them. I recently heard the Dalai Lama speak. Tibetan Buddhists believe he is the latest reincarnation of  their spiritual leaders. He said  he believes people who are truly compassionate themselves first learned that compassion from loving and protective mothers. I believe he’s right. And yet, at some point, mothers must let go.

After loving her babies and caring for them, the thrush taught her children to fly and explore the world on their own. Mother Mary was no different. Upon hearing she was pregnant, she said “yes” to an unborn child and suffered many unpleasant consequences as a result. Once the child was born, Mary and her husband escaped to Egypt to protect their young son. As he grew and began to assert his independence, she was filled with worry when she lost him in the temple. But she, too, eventually had to let go so he could make his way in the world. It was hard, I’m sure, but she did it.

A tear trickled down my cheek, which had warmed in the late morning sun. I looked at my son, standing so tall and handsome among his peers. It’s been a tough year for him as he’s juggled Scouting, children’s choir, exams and choosing a high school, and it will get tougher as he moves forward. And yet, I know instinctively that he’ll be fine. He’ll struggle. He’ll make mistakes, but he’ll be fine as long as he has a mother who protects, is compassionate, but also knows when to let go. After the crowning, I walked up to my son and apologized. Of course, I wouldn’t dare give him a hug in front of his friends, that would humiliate him, but I did squeeze his shoulder. He grinned at me and apologized, as well. He even let me take his picture by the Mary statue.

As I walked to my car afterwards, I said a prayer of thanks for the two mothers – Mary and the thrush – and for the wise Buddhist monk, who helped me realize the importance of my role as a parent. Just before I reached my car, I thought about running into the school to get my son’s suit once he’d changed into his school clothes, but I thought better of it. “No, he’s a responsible young man. I’m sure he’ll put it on a hanger and get it home without any problems,” I said to myself.. Later in the day, as I waited in the car at pickup, one of his friends came barreling across the parking lot.

“Hey Charlie, you forgot your suit.” The boy opened up his backpack and threw a wrinkled, mangled wad of clothes at my son. I bit my tongue and said a quick Hail Mary, and then I turned to my son and asked him about his day.

Because Lena Horne Found Solace in the Church

Once I read that her funeral was to be held in a Roman Catholic Church, I kept reading obituaries of Lena Horne, hoping to find clues to her own faith journey. Ms. Horne, an African-American who broke racial barriers in the entertainment industry, died last week at age 92. I never did find an article explaining how this amazing civil rights activist and entertainer chose to have her funeral in a Catholic Church, but here is what I could glean. I pray that her enchanting voice is joining the chorus of angels in eternity.
Many clues about Ms. Horne’s faith life came from the most comprehensive obituary I could find, not surprisingly, in the New York Times. Her funeral Mass, attended by hundreds of mourners, was celebrated at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Its former pastor, the Rev. Walter F. Modrys, S.J., met  Ms. Horne at a dinner party when she was in her 70s.

“That was quite intimidating,” he said. “What does a rather ordinary and reserved Catholic priest say to Lena Horne?” They struck up a conversation about “feeling shy in front of people.” One can infer that the two became close, because other reports recount how she took her family to that parish for years on Easter Sundays and how Rev. Modrys attended her 80th birthday celebration at Lincoln Center.

Ms. Horne was born in the Bedford-Stuyvestant section of Brooklyn. Her father was a numbers kingpin and left the family when she was three. What followed was a life of travel with her mother, who was herself an entertainer. Ms. Horne dropped out of high school and joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York. Eventually, she moved to Hollywood and became an international superstar. Among her accolades –  four Grammys and a Tony. She disappeared from the public sphere about 10 years ago.

She long was politically active, particularly in the Civil Rights Movement. This activism began when she refused to sing during World War II for the USO when African-American servicemen were seated behind the German POWs. (The Army then would not integrate the audiences with white and black American soldiers).” She participated in the March on Washington, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching laws and visited President John Kennedy at the White House a couple of days before his assassination.

A glimpse into her value system came in 2004, after ABC announced that Janet Jackson would play Horne in a TV biography of her life. In the weeks following Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” debacle during the 2004 Super Bowl, however,it was reported that Horne had demanded Jackson be dropped from the project. “ABC executives resisted Horne’s demand,” according to the Associated Press, “but Jackson representatives told the trade newspaper that she left willingly after Horne and her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, asked that she not take part.”

So what did I learn from these accounts of her life? Lena Horne used her God-given talents during a difficult time in American history, entertaining us with her beauty and the beauty of her voice and while also raising her voice to fight for social justice. At the end of her days, she found friendship with a Catholic priest and comfort and joy in attending her home parish. I am reminded of what St. Paul said in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service, the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.

Lena Horne, known best for her signature song Stormy Weather, walked through stormy weather all her days, never forgetting to share her gifts and to fight for justice. Now we pray she has walked into the arms of a loving Father who never abandoned her and never will.

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The Silver-Bullet Selection (Music for Monday)

Over the past seven days Allison, Webster, and I have been delivering the goods for you (we hope!). From Dali to de Sales, Angels to training wheels, “Praise” and friendships, contrarian attitudes and awe-inspiring art and verse.  As I say from time to time, Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesh—We’re bushed!

The over-riding theme in this past week’s readings from the Gospel of John has been caritas, or Christian love. We learned of the new commandment, “Love one another as I love you.”

This song by U2 helps me to remember the new commandment. So on this particular Monday, at this particular time, it is a kind of silver-bullet song singing of the cure for what ails us. After all, without love, Allison, Webster and I (and you too, dear reader) are only “resounding gongs and clashing cymbals.” But with love, we are as we are meant to be—One.

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Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same
Will it make it easier on you now
You got someone to blame
You say…

One love
One life
When it’s one need
In the night
One love
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don’t care for it

Did I disappoint you
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Well it’s…

Too late
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one, but we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head

Did I ask too much
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it’s all I got
We’re one
But we’re not the same
Well we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again
You say
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other



For the Art and Poetry of Wu Li, SJ (1632-1718)

Remember me and the pleasure I get from finding things out about our faith and sharing them with you? Well, I’ve been called Mister Google around these parts. But after this find, maybe it should be Doctor Google. You be the judge. [Read more...]

Because We Need To Lose the Training Wheels

A visiting priest offered an interesting metaphor during his homily for the Feast of the Ascension at our parish. He said that when Christ ascended, He took the training wheels off the Apostles’ bicycles. He let them know that it was time to ride on their own. He promised to send a helper to them, and ten days later the Holy Spirit descended to guide the apostles, and the rest of us. Christ’s ascension tells us that we can ascend to heaven the way he did, if we follow His teachings. Today, He needs us to complete His work here on earth, with the Holy Spirit as our guide.

Here is how a Doctor of the Church, Pope Saint Leo the Great, described the meaning of the Ascension to believers:  ”The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity. A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body, in which as man he is inferior the Father. For while his glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment.”

Since Thursday, I’ve been thinking a lot about training wheels and bicycles. It occurs to me that there is another way to extend the priest’s metaphor. For those of us who were raised Catholic, adults put training wheels on our bicycles when we were children. In some cases, those training wheels were broken—a lousy priest, a substandard Catholic elementary school, or a misguided parent installed them. But you know what? Those adults did the best they could. 
Whenever I encounter a cradle Catholic still ruminating over difficult childhood experiences in the Church, I think: Don’t let those ghosts from the past affect how you live your faith now. Take your training wheels off. I don’t mean to minimize the experiences of any children abused by trusted adults. I truly cannot imagine their pain. But even then, I would say: Don’t let the damaging actions of a wounded person affect your own connection to our Creator. 
If I could talk candidly to every lapsed Catholic (and there are millions in the United States alone) I would say: Learn—again or for the first time—about what the faith teaches. Forget whatever negative experiences you might have had with flawed human beings you have encountered in the Church. The people who make up the Catholic Church can be wounded and petty, but so can every other person on this rotating rock we call home. The Catholic Church is a supernatural institution that exists in space and time, and beyond those dimensions.
To be sure, many adults do wonderful jobs guiding children in the faith. When I read blogs by Catholics like Julie Cragon and Sarah Harkins, I sometimes get pangs of jealousy, imagining what  a loving parish community they were surrounded by as children. From what I’ve read, their paths of faith were smooth—from positive experiences of faith as children to mature faith lives now as spouses and parents.
That wasn’t the case for me and tens of thousands of others.  Like many baby boomers, I’m the product of a miserable parish CCD program of the felt-banner late 1960s and 1970s. I never learned a thing about Church history, or the Communion of Saints, or the Doctors of the Church, or the Liturgical Year, or dogma about Our Lady, etc. As a young adult, I never fully left the Church, but I certainly was erratic in my practice of the faith. At times, I found going to Mass stifling, dull and “irrelevant.” The sad piece is, I didn’t even understand the basics beliefs and traditions of the faith to comprehend what I was rejecting. What drew me back to the Church was opening my heart to the innumerable experiences and people within the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit kept sending my way, like a drumbeat on my stubborn soul. 
To those of us who did not have wonderful childhood experiences in the Church, I propose that we think of those Catholic childhoods as a time when we were riding bicycles with training wheels. Our parents, our teachers and our pastors put the training wheels on. They hoped and prayed that one day we would be able to ride on without them, with the Holy Spirit as our guide and Heaven in our sight.

Because the Quality of Friendship is Just Different

We learn by contrasts, brass beside gold. Two years along, I am still learning what it is to be a Catholic, but one thing is clear: I have never known such friendships. Within the past week, I have been confronted with a “friendship” from years past, one based on power, fear, and lies. This week, I also have had numerous encounters with Catholic friends. What a difference!

How to understand this difference? “The first thing to worry about is whether something is to be loved or not. If it is a lie, I cannot love it.” The line is from a Catholic writer I admire, and reading it today brought this question of friendship into focus. Some people, some friendships are based on lies. I can try to love such people, and maybe if I were Mother Teresa or Maximilian Kolbe, I would. But I’m not and I can’t, so I turn to where the gold is.

Or as my wise-beyond-her-years daughter told me this morning, “Dad, just because you have to forgive someone doesn’t mean you have to stay in the line of fire.” There are “friendships” that should be left behind, and there are friendships we make on the road to Emmaus.

I think this is the difference. Like two fishermen who encounter Christ, we are bonded together with our Catholic friends because we have a common destiny, a common desire, a common love. It’s not about you or me. It’s about you and me, gathered together His name.

I have found gold in my parish friendships.

There’s gold in my friendship with C., whose e-mails are always a joy to read. C. has had health troubles, but she always has a smile for me, and a line in almost every e-mail to make me think and be grateful.

There’s gold in my friendship with P., whose troubles are mostly professional. I enjoy calling P. on his cell phone on his way home from work to catch up, to let him know I’m thinking of him, to share a laugh or a moment or a thought.

There’s plenty of gold in my friendship with F.—but, heck, readers of this blog know that I mean Ferde. He is not necessarily the last person I would be attracted to if I were not a Catholic, if we did not have Christ in common, but I might be the last person for him. Ferde once said to me, and he said it to tweak me, “That’s the difference between you and me, man: You’re upper crust and I’m lower crust.” I didn’t deny the comparison—I come from comfort, Ferde had to fight for everything he has. Instead, I only said, “Yeah, Ferde, but together we make a great sandwich.”

Every day, I find gold in unexpected places. Just this afternoon I was at the coffee shop across the street from my office, and I ran into R. I see R.’s wife at the coffee shop in the mornings sometimes, but—unlike self-employed me, for whom it’s always casual Friday—R. is a hardcore working professional who has to dress up for the job and commute to the city. I don’t envy him, although today I have to admit that he looked very sharp in a bow-tie. He must have been home early from work, taking his kids out for a treat. Though I don’t know a lot about him, in the sense of name rank and serial number, I imagine that R. is the sort of slightly shy but brilliant person who can seem standoffish. We run into each other regularly on Sundays, but it never seems that I pull two words out of him.

Today—well, it wasn’t Sunday, it wasn’t Church, it was late Thursday on a glorious spring day in New England—I stood and listened mostly as R. and I talked in the coffee shop for about ten minutes. Big deal, right? Two middle-aged white guys shooting the breeze? True, except that I understood that our friendship—because that’s what it is—isn’t based on power, sex, or money, or anything else that life has to offer. It’s based on our both being Catholic Christians and being very happy that way. We know hardly anything about one another, except that we both seem to love the Church, head and body. And so, in ten minutes of friendly conversation, I didn’t feel an ounce of suspicion or fear or doubt. It was, as they say, all good.

I’m sorry. This subject is hard to write about without sounding air-headed, lobotomized, superficial. But I know what I’m saying, and maybe you do too.

Because We Might Be Entertaining Angels

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a schoolmate of our fifth grader, a conversation that reminded me how blessed we are that God is always with us.

This boy, let’s call him Michael, lives with his mother and brother in a small apartment in our neighborhood. When I pick my son and his pals up from school I usually give Michael a lift home, too. At first, I felt funny about giving him a ride home. I never had met or talked to his mother. But Michael reassured me that his mother had told him he could catch rides with any friends’ parents. Plus, I felt he was safer with us in my van than walking two miles home alone. Yesterday I learned how very loved this child is.

Michael’s mother works until about 8 p.m. Michael and his brother fend for themselves when they come home from school. The situation, far from ideal, is not unusual. When I worked one year as a teacher at an urban Catholic elementary school, most of my students were latch-key kids.

On Wednesday, after picking the boys up from school, I asked Michael if it was okay if we stopped by the Dunkin’ Donuts for a snack. He said “Oh, I don’t have a problem with that,” with a big smile. I took the boys to the drive-through for a box of Munchkins and some hot cocoa. Michael said he had never seen Munchkins. He sipped some of the cocoa and said he would save the rest  for his mom. “I know my mom would like this cocoa,” he said. “Definitely.”

As we headed from the Dunkin’ Donuts toward his home, Michael started talking about his home country, a war-torn place in the midst of a civil war. (The drawing above is by a child caught in the war in Chechnya, not Michael’s home country.) He told me that his mom divorced his dad because his dad had had a problem with drinking and with choking his mother. “Sometimes, people do get addicted to alcohol, honey,” I told him. “And sometimes that can make them do mean things.”  He said he hadn’t seen his dad since he was four years old: “We don’t even know where he lives.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. It was quiet in the car for a few minutes. Then Michael told me that three of his five uncles had been killed in that war. Among the dead was his favorite uncle, who had been killed in a roadside ambush for no apparent reason. “I’m so sorry,” I told him. “Oh, it’s okay,” he answered. “I have had five years to get over it and I am fine now.”

Michael is 10. When I first met him, I imagined him to be a sad and lost child, walking home alone after school, waiting for his older brother and then his mother to return. But I have come to see that he is a sunny boy, who feels safe in his new suburban neighborhood and with his school chums. He is bright and reads voraciously. He always says “Thank you” and “See you tomorrow!” when I drop him off.

At the start of the school year, the difficult details of Michael’s life might have made me cry once I got home. Yesterday, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm when he was talking to me. This is because I have come to understand that God is present with Michael at every moment. And that my job is to keep taking him home.

As St. Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.

“Praise” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I searched all evening for a poem with which to celebrate the Ascension. I found nothing worth publishing. But deep into the last chapter of a book I am writing about Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (which is making my posts here both few and far between), I find myself thinking every day about science and faith, about intelligent design, and even about the AIDS virus. And so, wouldn’t you know it, I came across a poem that blends all of these themes. It is by R.S. Thomas (1913–2000) (left), and it is called simply “Praise.”

A Welshman like Dylan Thomas, he was also an Anglican, like John Henry Newman before conversion. A pretty good combination and, I think you’ll agree, a pretty good poet too. 

I praise you because
you are artist and scientist
in one. When I am somewhat
fearful of your power,
your ability to work miracles
with a set-square, I hear
you murmuring to yourself
in a notation Beethoven
dreamed of but never achieved.
You run off scales of
rain water and sea water, play
the chords of the morning
and evening light, sculpture
with shadow, join together leaf
by leaf, when spring
comes, the stanzas of
an immense poem. You speak
all languages and none,
answering our most complex
prayers with the simplicity
of a flower, confronting
us, when we would domesticate you
to our uses, with the rioting
viruses under our lens.

Meanwhile, can anyone come up with a good Ascension-themed poem?

Because St. Francis de Sales Can Help Me Do Laundry

This is not our laundry room. Our most unlovely laundry room is in our cellar.

Of all the aspects of being a mother that I cherish, laundry isn’t one of them. My patient, loving husband washes and dries nearly all the family laundry. The laundry I then fold makes it into baskets that I carry to the first-floor family room, or, if I am feeling particularly ambitious, to the second-floor hallway. We generally pull clean clothes from the piles in the baskets. Obviously, I am a lazy laundress. But over this Mother’s Day weekend,  reading St. Francis de Sales gave me a burst of inspiration.

Something about laundry slays me. It never ends, does it? My family keeps wearing clothes and needing clean clothes. Even though our family is small, the laundry never ever really ends. Five years ago, in anticipation of a visit by the Dalai Lama to Rutgers University, a group of Tibetan monks spent four days at the Zimmerli Art Museum, constructing a beautiful mandala. Then, shortly after completing the mandala they destroyed it in a public ceremony designed to be “a metaphor of life’s fleeting quality.” My friend Jane, who is raising four daughters, shook her head when I told her about the ceremony. She told me anyone who wants to understand the transience of life should do laundry. Here is a video of another such mandala-destruction ceremony. This is how I feel when I consider how quickly clean clothes become dirty laundry. 

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I am embarrassed by my lazy laundering. God has blessed me with a husband and sons, and, in addition to loving them, which I do with all my heart, my job is to take care of them. As tedious as laundry is, I know I should do it. Nothing says love like freshly washed and folded clothes in a dresser drawer. Many devout Catholic Christian women cite Titus 2 for their model of motherhood. So I checked it out. No surprise: I came up short.

Here’s what Titus says: Older women (Are they talking about me? I am 47.) should be reverent in their behavior (yes), not slanderers (working on that), not addicted to drink (check),  teaching what is good (check), so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children (I am not sure what kind of trainer I would be, but I do love my husband and children), to be self-controlled (my figure suggests otherwise), chaste, (always), good homemakers (ouch), under the control of their husbands (ummm), so that the word of God may not be discredited.”

Boy, oh boy. I need an intervention. And who better to turn to than St. Francis de Sales, the son of French aristocrats who taught that everyone, regardless of job or position, can lead a devout life? This 16th-century Doctor of the Church detailed this view in his work Introduction to the Devout Life, which I pulled off the YIM Catholic bookshelf and devoured this weekend.

St. Francis de Sales compares each of our vocations to a precious stone. When cast in the honey of devotion, each stone becomes more brilliant “each one according to its colour.” And “all persons become more acceptable in their vocation when they join devotion to it.” It occurred to me that one of the things I loathe about laundry is that, unlike cooking or even cleaning, I don’t feel I can put my stamp of individuality on it. In other words, I am so vain that I struggle to offer this gift to my family because it doesn’t please me enough to do it. What is the answer?

“In all your affairs rely wholly on the providence of God, through which alone any of your undertakings can succeed; labor, nevertheless, quietly on your part to cooperate with it….Do as the little children do; little children who with one hand hold fast by their father and with the other gather strawberries or blackberries along the hedges; do you while gathering and managing the goods of this world with one hand with the other always hold fast the hand of your heavenly Father, turning to Him from time to time to see if your actions or occupations are pleasing to Him; but take heed, above all things, that you never let go of his Hand.”

This led me to consider that I should see this otherwise tedious time amid the laundry as an opportunity for prayer. Once again, St. Francis de Sales provides instruction. First, he says, we have to pray in the presence of God. How do we do this? St. Francis de Sales offers four suggestions.

1. Realize that God is in your heart. He is not “out there;” He called us into being. He is in our very being.

2. Imagine how God beholds us from above. Because He does. He particularly beholds us when we are praying. How comforting to consider that God’s loving gaze is on us throughout the day.

3. Understand that Jesus Christ is at hand, right by our side, just as a friend would be.

And this suggestion of St. Francis de Sales I place last because I want to write it on my heart—

4. Cultivate “a lively and attentive apprehension of the Omnipresence of God, that is, that God is in all things and in every place and that there is neither place nor thing in the world in which He is not by a most true presence; so it is that the birds, where ever they fly, always meet with the air, so we, where ever we go or where ever we are, find God present.” Even in the laundry room.