I am probably dipping into really dangerous waters here. There have been a lot of heated debates about modesty and what constitutes modesty, and I would rather not go there. However, yesterday I got into a forum scuffle because someone posted a link to their priest’s homily on Sunday where he spent 15 minutes talking about what constituted appropriate dress. It made me mad, not really at the priest but at the tone of the forum thread. In the interest of fairness, I will post the link to the homily and I will point out that I think the priest was trying to be gentle and generous in his words, he did not choose a warm, summer day when some might feel purposefully shamed to speak his words. However, I did find the topic inappropriate for a homily, especially because it was aimed predominantly at one segment of the parish population (women) and the talk came in conjunction with the reading about the Samaritan woman at the well. I also want to point out right now, I dress modestly and I believe we should dress modestly for Mass. I keep my girly parts covered well and good. However, modesty is in the eye of the beholder. Some might not think I dress modestly because my skirts (when I wear them) come only to my knees. I wear pants, and not only pants, but often wear jeans to Mass. You can see my neck and in the summer, I sometimes where sleeveless tops. (It’s hot in the state!) I think I am modest, you might not. I am not going to debate what is the “true” definition of modesty.
What I really would like to address is the attitude that made me mad. Sadly, I find it too much in Catholic circles. Being a convert from Evangelicalism and having experience in some Fundamentalist circles, I really thought that Catholics had a better understanding of grace and mercy. In fact, one reason I became Catholic is because of the grace which flows in and through our faith. So the numerous men and women who posted on the thread “atta boy Father, so glad you had the kohonees (did I spell that right? I was going to use a different word but it wouldn’t have been modest) to speak up about this because frankly we are so tired of women dressing like sluts in Mass and causing these poor men to stumble.” The vitriol and self-righteous tone really irked me.
Look, we’ve all been there and watched someone, most of the time a young woman, walk up to serve as a Lector or Extraordinary Minister and inwardly gasped “oh no.” I remember seeing a beautiful young woman one day in Mass walk to the front to do the first reading. I actually know this young woman so I know her and I can tell you that her intent in her dress is not to “seduce,” “tempt,” or in any other way make a man stumble. She was wearing a dress that was light-colored and unfortunately, she didn’t see the need to wear a slip or camisole under it, and so her undergarments were really quite visible. But the dress was beautiful, and she is a faithful Mass goer, and serves faithfully in the parish. Some of those on that thread yesterday would have denounced her as “a slut.” I will not. She is not. I am sure when she left her house she thought she looked pretty and well dressed to be a participant in the Mass.
Some people kept insisting that someone has to say something about these women who dress so provocatively and inappropriately for being in the Lord’s presence. Well, maybe. But I think a better way of addressing the issue is for the pastor to establish a dress code, or to write a pastoral letter addressed to both men and women (men wear shorts to Mass too!), or for someone in the parish to have a one-on-one conversation. But addressing it from the pulpit was just an invitation for the tongue-waggers to get their tongues moving. There was lots of laughing in the background during the homily. I am sure there was more than one person who was like “I am so glad that Father is talking about this because you know so-and-so dresses like a slut and she’s a Eucharistic Minister! At least I know how to dress appropriately for Our Lord.” All sorts of “tut-tutting” and “tsk-tsking” was probably going on afterward. Don’t even try to tell me that Father’s homily did not occasion the sin of gossip in some because you know that in every parish there are “those” people who gossip.
I think the congregation and the priest missed the point of Jesus’ encounter at the well. Yes, she was a “loose-living” woman. She’d been married to five other men and was shacking up with a sixth. The priest made a point to ask to the congregation what they thought she was wearing. But you know what? The story doesn’t say, because that isn’t the point. Jesus didn’t say to her “I have something really important to say to you, but your dress is inappropriate for talking to me and you might cause my disciples here to lust after you, so go home and change and then come back.” No. He met her right there, sinner that she was, and invited her to a new life. Does that mean she left Jesus’ presence the same as when she met Him? No. But nothing is said about how she dressed. She might have just gone on dressing the way she had always dressed, but she was following Jesus from that day onward.
I know that I should probably dress in something a little nicer than jeans for Mass. I know it. However, I don’t dress in jeans because I am intent of seducing men of the congregation (Lord have mercy that’s not going to happen even if I truly dressed like a hooker), or wanting poor, celibate Father to stumble in his commitment. I wear jeans because right now, that’s what I have to do in order to get to Mass. It’s fast, I don’t feel the need to put make up on if I all I feel like is a dash of lipstick, and I don’t have to make my hair look fabulous. Because I don’t always feel like going to Mass and if I felt like I had to go the whole nine yards, I wouldn’t. I show up anyway, and Jesus shows up to meet me at my well, and that is all that matters.
This is part of my Word for 2014 “Release Series.”
This week I have received a very unexpected gift. A parish in our community was having a Lenten mission and though I had no plans to attend it, I did attend all three nights. The mission was held at our former priest, Fr. J’s, new parish. New parish, that is funny because he’s been there almost three years but to me it will always be his “new parish.” Anyway, one of his priest “buddies” was going to be leading the mission, Fr. T from Rhode Island. I thought we’d just go to Mass Sunday evening and hear his homily but not stay for the mission later in the evening. However, when we walked into Mass, there was a HUGE print of this painting by Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn:
It was and is utterly captivating. As an aside, I believe that if either university I attended had offered an Art History degree, I would have studied that instead of History. I spent 18 months at a college near Philadelphia, and on Sunday afternoons, when I could afford the train fare, I would take the train into Philly and spend the afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was free on Sundays for students and I would spend hours walking through the galleries of Renaissance art pondering Flemish, Dutch, French, and Italian paintings. Such good memories, but I digress.
Fr. T. gave a promo “pitch” during his homily that enticed me to buy the kids junk food for dinner, drop them at home with my oldest as a babysitter, and head back for the one hour mission talk. It.Blew.Me.Away. Wrecked, I tell, you, utterly wrecked is how I left the church each of these three nights. Not only did Fr. T give a beautiful reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, focusing on the younger son the first night, and the elder son the second night, but the whole talk the first two nights took place within the context of a holy hour. There is this huge beautiful painting and then in the middle of the altar is a more gorgeous Jesus in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr. T shared an equally beautiful stories at the end of his talk each night which left me in tears. One of the points that Fr. T made is that most of us do not have a hard time seeing ourselves in the younger son, rather it’s the elder son in whom we struggle to see ourselves. He has a gift for storytelling that leaves me wondering if he is truly French Canadian as he claims but is instead Irish.
Now, we Catholics are credited with being really great at guilt. Jokes are made about “Catholic Guilt” all the time, and it’s true most faithful Catholics are pretty quick to recognize their sinfulness. However, I was raised Protestant, and I came into the Catholic Church in 1998 already an expert in guilt. The difference is that I think Catholics understand forgiveness a bit better than Protestants and more readily accept they are forgiven, probably because they grow up with the Sacrament of Penance. I think they really get that once forgiven, it’s done. Me, I grew up being told that God hates sin and can’t be around it. I was also told that we are all sinful at our core, so that’s why you have to follow all of the rules. Of course, in Protestantism, the rules change. They are more fluid, and they tend to be different depending on the denomination you are a part of, and if you have an upbringing like me where we changed denominations fairly regularly, it can be difficult to follow the rules. But, I am a rules gal. Give me the rules and I am going to follow them. Except for when I don’t. Then, once I come out of my little acts of rebellion, I fall into the mire of believing “I am the most wretched human being on the face of the earth and God could not possibly love me.” You see? I can’t see myself as the younger son because he at least had the smarts and the courage to go back to his father, not just to repent, but to accept the forgiveness offered. Because you know that’s what the younger son did. I think he knew in his heart the nature of his father and he knew if he went back that it would be safe and everything would be OK. I think he knew this in the very depths of his being because he did know the father. Just look at the way Rembrandt painted his interaction with his father. On his knees, face buried in his fathers chest, and accepting his fathers embrace. You don’t do that if you don’t really know how someone is going to react to your sinfulness. Doesn’t it make you want to cry how beautiful that moment is that Rembrandt captured? It brought to my memory a moment I will never, ever forget. It’s no secret that I struggled with my youngest son’s adoption, and that I still struggle with mothering him because he’s a tough kid to parent. His early childhood trauma has left him with scars that make it nearly impossible for him to trust, to relax, to tell the truth, etc. He feels the whole world is always out to get him. So this moment I remember happened maybe six months after his adoption, maybe a little longer. He was upstairs on the landing, he was raging at the other children and had nearly pushed one of his siblings down the stairs. I couldn’t control him and I was so very angry because he had frequent violent outbursts back then. As I stood at the bottom of the stairs vowing once again that either that child goes or I go, My Love came out of his office. He scooped up our raging son in those huge, strong arms of his, and he held him close, not letting our son go. He was talking gently to him. I watched as my husband put his forehead to my son’s forehead, letting his glasses slip down a bit so that they were looking eyeball to eyeball, and he whispered words of love to him, words I couldn’t hear but love just oozed out of the scene. It’s a moment seared in my memory because I knew I had glimpsed a depth of love that could only be a mirror of the Father’s love for us. My husband later confessed to me that he didn’t find my youngest son very likable when he was like that but he loved him because he could see the wounds of his heart. My husband understood the love of the Father.
I, as it turns out, don’t know The Father very well. It was a little epiphany I had right at the beginning of Lent. I know about him, I know of him, I don’t really know Him. “RW,” you ask, “how is this possible that you get along this many years in your life as a Christian and you don’t know the Father intimately?” Well, let me tell you, it’s because I am the elder son. I’ve known that for while now. I didn’t really need Fr. T to provide that little revelation to me (sorry Fr. beat you to it.) Remember? I am a rules gal. I follow the rules. I do what the Church tells me to do. I do what God tells me to do. I do it but not always with the right heart. Sometimes, I am pinching my nose because the idea of complying is a bit repugnant to me but I must do it because, you know, it’s a rule that I have to follow. I “knew” that if I followed the rules, I was bullet-proof, nothing truly bad could happen to me. Imagine my disbelief as I am watching My Love’s heart, the heart that loved so largely, the heart that loved like the Father, the heart that I loved, stop. I kept thinking was: “This.Can.Not.Be.Happening. Pinch me, wake me up, this is my worst nightmare.” Imagine the subsequent conversations I have had with God: “I did everything you asked of me. I adopted four children. I didn’t even want to adopt the last two but You said they were our children. I didn’t think I could parent two more but I said OK because you promised me you would be with me. And then you don’t even answer my prayers for my husband’s healing. You don’t even care that I have to raise these four children, all of whom YOU told us to adopt because you said they were our sons and daughter. How am I supposed to do this alone!?!” Oh, yes, and then there were the times I slung a few cuss words his way because I had followed the rules and yet, a bad thing happened. All you have to do is read the parable of the Prodigal Son and you can see I am the elder son. He was all up in his father’s face too about all the good things he did for him and how he didn’t break the rules. The elder son did not know his father at all. He didn’t know his father’s nature or he wouldn’t have been surprised by his father’s reaction. He would have trusted his father. Not only that, I think if he knew his father, he would have been with his father looking, waiting, hoping, praying his younger brother would come home. Instead he stands outside the house, looking like he’s eaten something sour, and refusing to enter into the joy of the father because he just didn’t get how his father could forgive so readily. Fr. T talks about the placement of the elder brother in the painting as having a chasm between he, his younger brother, and his father. A chasm the size of the Grand Canyon is how he put it. That’s pretty much how I feel about God, the Father, most of the time. I feel he’s so very far away, I can’t get near Him and frankly, why would He even bother to come near to me? Because, you know, I am a sinner, and God hates sin.
Fr. J has shared with me about Lectio Divina, an ancient form of prayer. He recommended a book because he knows I am a book nerd. He also encouraged me to participate in a teaching retreat, which I am signed up to do in June. I have been a little unsure about Lectio Divina as a form of prayer because I am such a rules follower. I don’t tend to trust my own instincts because when you have faith that changes as quickly as the tide at the Jersey Shore, it’s a little hard to trust. I wasn’t sure I could “find” my passage of scripture or my “thing” that I would pray upon. However, as I left Mass tonight, I knew as I have never known before, I would be spending the next few weeks, months, maybe years, praying over the Parable of the Prodigal Son and this painting while asking the Father to help me in my unbelief.
Thanks Rembrandt. And, thank you Fr. T for a really beautiful gift.
~ The Reluctant Widow
I used to think I had to be somebody important to accomplish things, but now I know that Jesus ordinary people more.
- Bob Goff, Love Does
For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading through Bob Goff’s book Love Does. I first became aware of Bob Goff a few years ago while reading Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Miller’s book is a memoir about his desire to write a better story, not just for print media, but to write a better story for life. That idea of writing a better story with our lives is something that really captured my heart. I knew that in adopting four children from overseas, we had already written a better story for ourselves, but had begun a better story for our children. But that desire to do more, has never really left me. Sometimes when all was quiet in the house, my husband and I would bounce ideas around of how we could leave the traditional US life script behind and do something radically different. In Goff’s book, he spends most of the book convincing the reader that it can be done, that all that is really necessary is to love in a radical way, the way that Jesus loved people, and then to jump “off the map.”
In many, many ways, this book was inspiring, and it came at a really good time. I think. It comes at a time when I am looking at my children, hearing their arguments, the way they pick at each other, the way that they are constantly wanting more – more food, more toys, more games, more attention, more, more, more. I just want to place my hands over my ears, scream, and say “make it stop!” We hear almost daily from Pope Francis the admonishment to leave consumerism and materialism behind. Even before Pope Francis’ election, I felt this desire, but the truth is that I am a wimp when it comes to implementing these beliefs with my children. That is my flaw, not theirs, that I can’t look them all in the eyes and say, “No, we are going to choose a better way to live.”
There were many stories in this book that really inspired me, but the one that impacted me the hardest, was the story he told about the school children at the Restore Academy in Northern Uganda. These children who at one time were either child soldiers, potential child brides, heads of household at 12 years of age, and on and on with the horrors these children experienced. These children, who are just like the children that we might be asked to sponsor through a Christian aid organization, became sponsors themselves. No joke! They planted, tended, and harvested crops to raise money to sponsor a young, fatherless boy, in Portland, Oregon. Seriously?!? Children who came from less than nothing, had probably very little to call their own their whole lives, were working hard so that a young boy without a father in the US could have some things he wouldn’t otherwise have. Whoa! That is radical. I feel like such a schlump with the little bit I have done with my life.
Ah, and there in lies the problem with the book if we don’t read the book with a balanced understanding of our own calling, our personalities, our stage in life, and our financial resources. I admire Bob Goff for his ability to not just seek “whimsy” (as he calls it) but how he sees the opportunities everywhere. That is a unique gift of his personality and others who might be internally wired like him. I am not one of them. I am not naturally gifted at seeing the whimsical side of life. It doesn’t mean I can’t, because on many occasions in my own way, I create moments of whimsy with my kids. My children are not hardwired the way his children are to thinking outside of the box. Mostly, my kids are struggling each day to figure out what the box is and how to make sure they keep their space in the box. I needed to tell myself that the people in his life that he inspired to “go off the map” were in a position to make those radical choices. I am not. However, I can make some smaller choices that will still help me to feel that I am actively loving in the world around me.
In recent months I have been feeling the tug to downsize our lives further. We have downsized our house by about 700 sq ft, yet we have all the necessary spaces for our family, at the same time we upgraded our yard, neighborhood, and cut our commuting time. I’ve been getting emails and feeds in my Facebook from a website called “Becoming Minimalist.” There are articles and tips galore on how to take small steps over time to remove unnecessary clutter from our lives and create a simpler life for your family. I have also spent the last year reading several of Sr. Meg Funk’s books from the Matters series. I have read Tools Matter and Discernment Matters in their entirety and I am still working on Thoughts Matter. Sr. Meg has spent years researching, writing, and teaching a spiritual discipline based upon the 5th century desert monk, John Cassian. “Drawing on the writings of the fifth-century monk John Cassian, Funk goes on to explore deeply using such tools as memory, imagination, and rational thinking–tools right out of early Christianity–to work on inner healing. She also explains how other positive tools, such as ceaseless prayer, manual labor, and isolation, may lead to uncluttering the mind and purifying the heart” is part of the book description for Tools Matter. Using the tools, to unclutter my mind and to work toward a more pure heart (pure motives), will help me to discern more properly the ways in which God is calling me and my children to better show His love in this world.
Another recent acquaintance has introduced me to Ignatian spirituality. I think it’s a God thing because he could have no idea of how the Holy Spirit has been moving in my heart and in my thoughts. He sent me some links to a couple of websites and recommended a book, A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ. I can not share much about what I have learned because I am literally only a chapter into the book, but I can say that St. Ignatius of Loyola created his spiritual exercises with the intent that they would be performed while his monks were actively working in the world. That means the exercises can also be adapted for those of us who are actively living in the world. I believe this book will also help me understand this “crazy” new Pope we have who is always going around “lovin’ on” (that’s Oklahoma speak for showing love to others) people, especially those who are marginalized in our world – the poor and disabled, widows and orphans, those who have been treated unjustly. From the small portion of the book I have read, I think Pope Francis epitomizes what it means to be a Jesuit, which is very different from what my previous understanding of what it means to be a Jesuit. I am excited to read more about this spirituality which really seems very complementary to what I have been learning through Sr. Meg’s books, and is also complementary with how I believe the Lord is leading me to “release” attachment to the things that this culture says are necessary to being successful or to feeling love, but to instead become an active proponent of showing God’s love to the world around me (and teaching my children to show love to the world around them). We maybe won’t be writing to 250 world leaders to ask them if we can come interview them, and then give them a key to our house so they can come have a sleep over with us (chapter 10, pp 67-75), but we could have a garage sale to sell all the things we really don’t need anymore, and we could take that money and write a check to a charitable organization to be used to help others. Or better yet, we could actually show up at a charitable organization and do something they need done.
On the very last page in the book Love Does, Bob Goff printed his telephone number and said to feel free to call him sometime if I feel like it. I made it personal because something tells me that Bob Goff doesn’t really know what it is to meet a stranger. Everyone is a potential friend. I am contemplating taking him up on it to see whether he really answers. Bob and I don’t see eye to eye on religion. He’s a Protestant that sees “religion” and religious institutions as an unnecessary road block to actively showing the world the love of Jesus Christ. I humbly disagree. However, one of the things we do agree on is Love Does. I will let you know if he answers my call.
~ The Reluctant Widow
Today is a very special day in our house. It happens four times a year. Today we mark another “Forever Family Day” with my middle son. Seven years ago, on the Feast of St. Joseph, this boy, this bundle of energy, our comedian, and our tender heart, entered our family with quite a roar. I have always said he’s my “deep thinker” though most would never believe it because he is also the most likely to be named “Class Clown” in his senior year. He’s been cracking us up since the very first moments. In our hotel room not long after completing the paperwork, my oldest son built a pyramid out of brightly colored paper cups. His new younger brother saw them and immediately kicked them to make them tumble, all the while with a huge smile on his face. Older brother was pretty peeved for a minute until he realized what a fun game it would be to rebuild the pile so his brother could kick it down. Later on in the evening, our older son was at the far end of the room with his back to his brother. That little guy took all three years of himself, 36 lbs and 36 inches, and barreled down the room to tackle his older, stronger brother. My husband and I looked at each other and said, “this one is going to be a linebacker some day.”
My favorite photo from his adoption trip is this one. As I took the photo, I wondered to myself, “What is he thinking. Is he trying to find anything that looked familiar in this big, vast city?” He is not one to sit still for very long, but he sat at that window for over 30 minutes, and throughout the week would return to the spot again and again just looking out over the city. He may not be the most vocal about the grief he carries, or he may try to brush it aside with humor, but it’s there. Somewhere in that great big city is a foster mother, foster father, and foster sister that were his whole world until we came that day. I know it may be years and years before he can feel anything except that we “stole” him away from what was his. There is no explaining to a young boy that his foster family was not forever, that eventually he would have had to leave them either through adoption or by aging out of the “system.” He doesn’t understand he never would have received the quality of treatment for his cleft palate, and that his quality of life long term would probably not have been all that great. He still doesn’t understand fully what a forever family means. But he’s learning.
He’s been pretty angry since his dad died, not really because his dad died, but because he never really got to say “good-bye.” He reminds me often that I should have let the kids come see their dad more while he was in the hospital. It doesn’t matter to him that I was just honoring his dad’s wishes because his dad thought he’d be coming home soon. I remember sitting in the pew at the funeral and my middle son insisting he wanted to sit on the aisle. He kept reaching over to touch the casket, and one time he reached over and said, “bye Baba.” (Baba is what my children called my husband. It’s Mandarin for Daddy.)
This morning I received an email that I get daily from the Poor Clare Colettines in Wales. Each day, about 2:00am, I get an email with a prayer, a word of encouragement, or a quote from Pope Francis. Today I woke up about 2:30am and because I couldn’t sleep, I checked my email on my phone. I opened it up to find this photo big as life:
The photo made me smile and instantly brought to fore a memory of my husband holding our middle son in this way. Something in the tilt of St. Joseph’s head, the roundness of Baby Jesus’ face, and the huge hand cradling him. My husband’s middle name was “Joseph” and in so many ways, he modeled St. Joseph as an adoptive father and as a husband. My son, for all his lack of true understanding right now, has enough of a positive attitude toward adoption that he says someday he’s going to be an inventor, then an army guy, and then he’s just going to be a regular guy, get married, have children that are “borned” and adopted. I love how he places being a “regular guy” as the longest and last stage of his “careers.”
My dearest middle son, I know you often think you are forgotten or left out, and sometimes you are because you have always been “the easy one,” you don’t always demand the greatest amount of attention. I love you forever and always, to the moon and back. XOXO Mom
In February 2012, the lovely Jen Fulwiler of Conversion Diary, hosted a Wednesday link up on where we write. That was “BTB” or “Before This Blog.” I had another blog where I wrote and where I was not anonymous. This is what my writing space looked like back then:
This was my desk in our old house. I had it in the corner of the living room. I really liked that antique desk but when we moved into this smaller house in December 2012, the desk took up too much space in the room that was to be used as my office/sitting room. Today, three iterations on my space (which is really the sunroom and entrance to our home), I feel I finally came up with a great arrangement to provide the maximum pleasure for both writing and relaxing. I have also made it completely off-limits to the children. Theoretically, my bedroom should be my sanctuary. However, I can’t keep little bodies out of my room or my bed hard as I try. Their stuff creeps in my room, along with their little bodies. I have realized that until they are all in their teens, I am probably going to have a visitor or two every morning. (I still do not understand why God seems to find it so amusing to give a night owl such as myself, four early birds. Would that they could all be late sleepers!) The sunroom, the entry to our home, where I should be welcoming visitors, creating literary masterpieces (I wish!), and relaxing in peace, had become the dumping ground for everything that didn’t have a home and then some. I think it might be fortuitous that we were so sick this winter that people avoided coming to our house as though the plague lived here because I could never have let them in to see my mess. I would have had to stand at the door and yell through it “Go away. Nobody lives here.” Because we weren’t living. No one can live in constant chaos. We were merely surviving. Slowly but surely over the past two to three weeks, I have been reclaiming spaces for their original purpose from the garbage dump they had become. Today I not only reclaimed the sunroom, I CLAIMED it for myself and myself alone. Unless a grown up wants to come visit me, then I will share the space with you as we sip ice tea and fellowship. But children are not allowed. For the project, my sister and my mother were my helpers. It was a rocky start as my mother wasn’t listening to what I wanted but was trying to do it her way. However, once we established the ground rules, things went well and quickly. In two hours, I had my space cleared, one bag of garbage out to the trash, two bags of clothes for Goodwill, a box of things in the car that need to go to various stores to be returned/exchanged, and furniture rearranged to create a calmer and more welcoming space.
Want to see the new space? Drum roll please…
(I apologize for the darkness of the photos but I was using my iPhone and this room receives direct sunlight in the afternoon casting dark shadows in places)
Do you see that lovely chair set up by the window so I can overlook my front garden and patio? That is where you will find me tomorrow morning at 6:20am as I begin my day with prayer and Scripture. I still have some organizing to do on my shelves because although an office space, it is the entry to our home when welcoming visitors. But this is my space, my sacred space, my creative space, and rather than dreading looking at it, or dreading someone knocking on my door, I can’t wait to welcome my first guests. When my children try to enter the space, this is what they will see:
~ The Reluctant Widow