Sunday, January 29, 2012

What, Me Judgmental?

If you saw a young couple climbing some church steps, the woman laden with a baby on one hip, a large diaper bag on the other side and holding a toddler by the hand, and the man carrying nothing, then the woman struggling to open the ten-foot-tall, heavy cathedral doors for her husband, what would you think? I doubt you would conclude, “Oh, that poor man! No doubt, though he is young and looks perfectly healthy, there must be something wrong with his arms that prevents him from being the gentleman he’d like to be.” I know I wouldn’t think that. I’d probably have thought something more like, “What a jerk! Why doesn’t he help her? What a dysfunctional relationship!”
      But in fact the first conclusion was the right one. I know, because I was that young woman, and at the time my husband had a serious nerve condition attacking both his arms. With all the pain, difficulty, and worry it caused, one of the hardest parts was knowing that people were misjudging him wherever we went. We learned about the cross of being misunderstood, often without the power to explain.
      When we hear Jesus’ words, “Judge not” in our day, this is not the kind of thing we think of. Judging itself has been misjudged, certainly misunderstood. It’s not judgmental, for instance, to point out when someone is making a mistake. When I was a very new parent, I was with another mom, her toddler in a sling on her back. While my friend was talking, her little girl pulled off a leaf from a low-hanging branch and began sucking on it. Aghast, I still didn’t say anything, presuming my friend thought that her daughter should be able to experience her environment. Then she glanced back and gasped, grabbing the leaf out of her child’s mouth, fearing it was poisonous. I felt awful, that my fear of being seen as judgmental had outweighed my judgment.
      No, sometimes it can be a duty to say something to someone, unwelcome as it may be. That’s not judging.
      The judging Jesus means is when we usurp God’s place and judge someone’s heart or eternal destiny. We can often know if an action is moral or immoral; what we can’t know is the culpability of the person acting. We don’t know if that person’s conscience was properly formed, we don’t know his circumstances, or her intentions. If that person in childhood was exposed to a great deal of lead, impairing his ability to inhibit his impulses, or to a trauma that left her scarred and needy, how would I know? I can’t look at people and deem that they are going to hell because of this or that. We can’t even judge ourselves properly. Only God knows all the factors; only He can judge.
      Most people know this. Our society frowns very gravely (even judgmentally) on the idea of judging others. In fact, many are so afraid of judging, they go to the other extreme and proclaim that almost nobody is a sinner, indeed, practically nothing is a sin anymore. Part of the problem here is that people don’t distinguish between “sin” and “wrongdoing.” We can’t always tell if someone is sinning, even when we can definitively say that they are doing something wrong. Wrongdoing applies to the action, no matter the culpability of the doer. Sin is wrongdoing that the doer knows to be wrong and does anyway. It is not judging to recognize wrongdoing when we see it. Judging is concluding that another has sinned without adequately knowing the person’s mind and intentions.
      Yet while our society has a horror of mentioning "sin", at the same time, it’s perfectly all right to talk about others’ choices—or indeed almost anything about them—behind their backs. That isn’t seen as judgmentalism or gossip; that’s just ordinary conversation.
      Ironically, while we wouldn't dare judge someone's actions, we have no problem judging someone's heart and intentions. (Yet spiritual writers used to call this "rash judgment.") A coworker, fellow driver, neighbor, or stranger does something, and we impute to them a motive. He wants my job. She did that on purpose. He cut me off to spite me, etc. But how often do we really know why someone did something or if they foresaw or intended its negative impact on us?
      We also don’t excuse others they way we do ourselves. If I have trouble being polite, I’m liable to think, I’ve had a rough day; I just can’t help it. We like to think God understands—He’s seen what we’ve just been through—and either He downplays our snappishness or is on our side. But how often do we think this way when someone else is grumpy? Aren’t we more likely to think things like, “Gee whiz, what a grouch!” Or “What does she think, the world revolves around her?” Even when we know the other person has had a difficult day, we don’t make allowances as we would for ourselves, but think, “Yeah, well, we all have tough days sometimes; get over it.”
      There are a couple reasons why we do this. We jump to conclusions about others’ motives partly for practical reasons: we do need to be on our guard against those who mean us harm. Also, we don’t want to be anybody’s fool. But we take our terror of gullibility to the point of becoming cynical. We must always remember that we really don’t know what’s going on inside other people. It's not being a Pollyanna to give people the benefit of the doubt; it is taking into account that we don't know everything.
      As for excusing our own behavior but not others’, this is often due to a good dose of plain old selfishness. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means taking the time to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and treating others as we treat ourselves.
      We’ve got to remember what Jesus said after He said, “Judge not”, namely, "lest you be judged. The measure that you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1–2). In other words, God will be as generous, forgiving, and understanding to us as we are to others.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Baby Matters

The top of my OB-Gyn's appointment record reads: “Elderly Multigravida.”
      If someone my age weren't already having a mid-life crisis, that might spark one. I'm well aware that I'm getting older, but “elderly”? It's a bit much. I may be pregnant at an older age than is common, but it's not like I'm an octogenarian.
      And what about “multigravidas”? That sounds like my situation is grave in multiple ways. But I learned the other day that it merely means I've had at least one child before this pregnancy.
      It shouldn't surprise me then, I suppose, if it colors how the medical staff treat me. The push for contraception, for instance. I thought that might diminish over time, but no. Even after I told one doctor that natural family planning has worked very well for us (after all, there's a seven-year gap between this pregnancy and my last one), he still said, “Well, if you change your mind and want your tubes tied, just let me know.” If we've been happy with NFP all this time, why would I get my tubes tied now? Especially with menopause looming? If we could handle NFP for 22 years, I think we can manage it for a few more. I guess he forgot how “elderly” I am.
      They remembered my age, however, in their consistent pressure about testing. Though I repeatedly said I wasn't interested in the various tests for abnormalities, they kept offering me not only the ordinary tests but also the super-duper sonogram and a visit to the genetic counselor. One OB thought I just didn't get it, and she had to spell out for me that the chances of “problems” were much higher at my age. So I had to spell out to her: it doesn't matter if the child has Down syndrome or any other “problems”; we're not going to abort her, period.
     I heard on the radio shortly afterward that 90% of Down-syndrome babies are aborted. I guess that explains their persistence. But how terribly sad.
     I have friends whose children have Down syndrome, and they're wonderful. One of them is so sweet and friendly. Instead of calling me “Mrs. Flood,” he says, “Hi, Flood!” which always brings a smile to my face. Another boy is so affectionate, it's not enough for him to hug people, those around him have to hug each other too. So whenever we visit them, he's always making sure we hug his parents numerous times. And this is typical of Down's children—they are notoriously loving and lovable. If such a child came into our family—one who would help us to remember the big picture and the importance of loving each other—we would rejoice.
     Of course, it wouldn't always be easy. Down's children also present certain challenges. But then every child presents challenges, and from a spiritual perspective, sometimes much more serious ones.
      And of course, I may very well have a child with more severe difficulties. Or one that will die soon after birth. We may very well have some intense suffering ahead of us. I'm not blind to this; I just don't see the point in worrying about it.
     You see, the Lord taught me a lesson about this a long time ago that thankfully in this case I haven't forgotten. My husband was suffering from a severe nerve condition in both arms that kept him from doing the simplest tasks—even buttoning his own shirt or washing his hair. I had to do everything for him, as well as take care of our two small children. We went to Mass every day, though, and were amazed at the power of God's grace to get us through this daunting period. Even when we heard that my husband might become paralyzed, we had peace—the peace that only He can give.
     It was when I heard that the condition might spread and leave his legs paralyzed too that I collapsed. I told the Lord I didn't see how I could handle that. And I got an answer. He showed me that before we had gone through all this, I would have said the same; back then I couldn't have imagined the graces He had in store for us. Similarly here, I couldn't imagine handling that cross because He hadn't yet given me the grace to do so. It was like trying to cross a bridge before you got to it. If our path led to that bridge, His grace would be waiting there for us. I didn't have it now because I didn't need it yet, and might never need it. 
     (And thanks be to God, I never did—not only that, but my husband now has nearly full use of arms again.)
     So I'm not worried about what kind of baby God sends us. Every baby is a blessing. What He wants me to be concerned about is what kind of mother I'll be, that I'll live up to the honor He's giving me of parenting this child, and her siblings
     And that will depend on how much I depend on Him. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dream On!

It’s important to share your dreams,” a friend told a group of us the other day. She’d been reading about how it helps us to confide your dreams with your spouse or a friend and about a company where people helped each other achieve their dreams.
      It was so foreign to me. I realized with a jolt that I don’t dream anymore. And the funny thing is I was such a dreamer in my youth.
      Why do people stop dreaming? Why are youth known for dreams and ideals and us middle-aged and older folks for our realism, if not cynicism? I suppose, to a degree, it's natural, a part of human experience.
      Maybe we avoid dreaming because some dreams came true, but still left us empty. Maybe because we’ve achieved our dreams, and we can’t think of new ones. Maybe we’re too busy. Maybe we’ve suffered too much. For some it’s too painful to try again, after the death of a beloved dream. Some, who had to let go of a dream, have concluded that dreaming is a form of attachment, opposed to being docile to God’s will.
      What does God think? Does He want us to be devoid of dreams?
      I think not. I would even go so far as to say that God has dreams.
      That may sound strange—how can the All-Knowing, Almighty One have any dreams? Doesn’t He know what is going to happen anyway? And can’t He make whatever He wants to happen, happen?
      Not altogether. Just because He knows what will happen doesn't mean that He's making it all happen or that it's what He wants to happen. And what is a dream if not a wish that we long for but that might not be fulfilled? A dream by definition is usually not a sure thing. By making creatures with free will, He made it possible for His own wishes not to come true.
      His attitude toward our dreams surely is that of a parent (He is our Father, after all). I don’t want my children to be dreamless; I want them to have good dreams. Dreams that will make them happy and holy, not dreams that will leave them miserable, either because the dreams are sure to disappoint or because they're dreaming of things that are not good for them.
      What does God dream for you and me? Is He dreaming that I’ll grow in patience? Is He dreaming that you’ll someday start that apostolate He’s laid on your heart?
      I don’t think He wants us to go from worldly dreams to no dreams, to cynicism. I bet He hopes instead that we will want to dream His dreams. If anything, He wants us to dream bigger dreams.
      How many of us dare to dream of being able to conquer this or that sin that we confess over and over and over again? Or to suffer with the patience and joy of a saint? To love as He loves?

I’m trying to come up with some new dreams. First of all, I want to spend more time dreaming about the Lord and my eternal destiny. I think that would make everything better.
But I should probably also come up with some dreams for this life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday I could enter into real contemplation and experience union with God like St. Teresa of Avila? Wouldn’t it be marvelous if I could become a mother like Mary? What if my greatest joy was God’s will and doing His will was my focus throughout the day? What if I could truly pray always and give thanks in all circumstances—and not by the skin of my teeth, but with a full heart? 
Ambitious dreams, yes, but if I want to dream God’s dreams, then I’ve got to dream big.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How Far Would You Go?

Guess what!” your best friend calls to say. “I’ve received a clear sign from the heavens that the one who will someday bring freedom, justice, and prosperity to China has finally been born. Terry [another friend] and I are going to see him, and we have room for you! We don’t know exactly where he is, and it’s a big country, so it’ll take some time and searching—we think at least six months, maybe a year. It will probably cost several thousand dollars, plus we’re bringing some gifts. I’m bringing the jeweled chalice my uncle the bishop left me; Terry’s bringing a golden casket for his burial (whenever that might be). Maybe you could bring the family jewels you inherited. Whaddye say?”
      Would you go?
     Somehow, I seriously doubt it—even if you had a intense interest in the welfare of China. Who could spare the time and expense of such a trip?
     Yet the journey of the Magi doesn’t strike us as surprising. Those of us who are idealistic and adventurous might even imagine that in their place, of course we’d do the same. But when one considers all that was involved versus the apparently minor motivation, it’s really quite astounding.
      We actually don’t know much about the Magi, other than that they came from the east. Wherever they were from, why would they care if a new king was born to the Jews—even the best king the Jews would ever have? They must have known that He was something special, otherwise their trip doesn’t seem worth all the trouble. Some think the magi were themselves Jews (for many lived outside the Holy Land), and that they realized that this was the Messiah.
      Even so, they must have had great generosity and devotion for such an undertaking: leaving home, family and friends, their work, for a round-trip at least four months long, if not a year, that was difficult, dangerous, and expensive.
      If we knew that Jesus was visitable, would we do the same? Would we make such a long and difficult journey?
      Most of us simply couldn't, even if we wanted to.

      The wonderful thing is that Jesus is visitable in both senses of the word. Jesus can be visited, and the visit is much more doable than going halfway around the world. He is still present in our world—in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. (No, his appearance is not that of the Godhead in glory, but then neither did He appear that way in Bethlehem. Either manifestation requires faith on our part.) And not only that, but He's not all that far off—but in numerous churches and chapels within easy reach.
      He’s also even more available than that, in a spiritual sense. He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” We may not be able to give Him gifts like the magi or a cup of water like the Samaritan woman, or a feast like Matthew, or wipe His bloody face like Veronica, but whenever we help or serve someone else, He will take it as service also to Himself.
      At Christmas, children sometimes give their parents “coupons” promising to do certain helpful tasks around the house. Also at this time of year, many people make New Year’s resolutions. Our family has a different tradition that involves something of both. Every Epiphany we play a game we call the “Quest of the Magi”, in which each of us presents Jesus a gift. We can’t place gold at his visible little feet, anymore than most children can buy a gift for their parents. So we spend a little time beforehand thinking of something we could do that would please Him. It could be a one-time thing or a new habit or goal for a longer period, even for the year. We write it down and lay it in the crèche.
If one were to try to imitate the Magi today, one could decide to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament once a week. A year of weekly half-hour visits would amount to a little over one day in the Magi’s journey. Surely we could do that much.
Maybe after a while, we’d get hooked and want to spend more time. (Sixty years of weekly hour-long visits would get us close, equaling a four months’ journey.)
If nothing else, let us pray that we can have even a portion of the fervor that drove those Magi to make such sacrifices in quest of a God that then they could have known so much less than we can now.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mother Most Perfect

I met Supermom once.
It was when my eldest first started preschool; Supermom was the mother of another student. I was already feeling pretty inadequate as a traditional mom. All the other moms would bring something nutritious or homemade for snack. When it was my turn, all I could usually manage was chips.
(Once I did manage to prepare something—peanut butter and crackers. Okay, I didn’t bake anything, but I did take the time to spread peanut butter on each cracker. Then I went upstairs for a couple minutes. When I came back, my preschooler was licking one of them. “Oh honey,” I said, “those are for snack at school today.” “Don’t worry, Mommy, “ she replied. “I just licked a little bit from each one.” I could have cried. I probably did. Then I went and bought some chips.)
At Halloween, the moms and siblings were invited to the preschool party. I was still applying my daughter’s make-up in the hall just before we went in. My younger daughter and I were just in regular clothes. During the party, I discovered I was sitting next to Supermom. I admired her son’s alien costume, only to discover she had made it herself. Then it gradually came out that she had also made the Little Bo Peep costume her toddler was wearing and the full-length, matching costume she herself was wearing.
I was in awe. I realized that though we were sitting in the same room, we were from different planets. I could not imagine having the time to make three costumes from scratch. Granted, our family was going through a particularly challenging time—we had just moved; my husband was injured; as a result, I’d just taken a part-time job teaching my first college course; and we had recently found out I was pregnant.
But even in the best of times I couldn’t do what she had done, since all I can sew are buttons and crooked hems.
If I had had any doubts about her true identity as Supermom (which I didn’t), they would have been obliterated by the postcard I received from her in early December. On the front was an invitation to a “Christmas Cookie Exchange Party”. On the back was an intro talking about how this was a fun and great idea that would save us all time during the hectic days leading up to Christmas. Then there was a list of steps involved. I never read past Step One, which said, “Simply bake nine dozen cookies….”
This was so incredible to me that I didn’t bother to cry, I just laughed. And for days, I would say to myself, “Step one: Simply bake nine dozen cookies…” It was so simple! And even with four more steps after that, this would somehow make my Advent easier.
(I think this must have struck even the other moms as not such a great time-saver, as the party never actually happened, due to lack of participants.)

Today we celebrate not only New Year’s Day, but also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. We celebrate and thank her for saying Yes to God and being the vessel through which the Savior was brought into our world.
But sometimes Mary can seem as, or even more, formidable than Supermom. After all, one of her titles is “Mother most perfect”. And the Church teaches that she was sinless: that Gabriel’s greeting to her, “Hail, full of grace,” indicates that unlike the rest of us, who could not inherit the gift of divine grace lost by Adam and Eve, God gave Mary that gift, foreseeing the salvation that Jesus would win for her and us.
The idea of a perfect mother can be off-putting. Why would we go to her for help? Wouldn’t she look down on us? How could she understand us or our lives?
But being sinless is not the same as never being tempted. Nor is it the same as being incapable of sinning. (If that were the case, she wouldn't have free will.) After all, Adam and Eve started out being full of grace, and sinless. And when you think about it, they had it easier than Mary. Everyone they knew (God and each other) until they met the serpent was also sinless, whereas everyone Mary knew, until Jesus came along, was a sinner.
C.S. Lewis maintained that though Jesus was sinless, He knew more about temptation than we do. We are tempted, and often struggle with temptation, but we have all fallen. Only someone who never gave in to temptation would really know what it’s like to struggle and keep on struggling and never give in.
Besides, if Mary were haughty and cold and disdained us fallen creatures, she wouldn’t be perfect. Such pride would itself be a sin. No, a good mother is understanding, and patient, and comforts her children. A perfect mother would be all that and advise, encourage, and help her children better than we can imagine.
In the Gospel of John, the author never refers to himself by name, but always as “the beloved disciple.” Theologians say this is not only to indicate his special relationship with Christ, but to give us an opportunity to put ourselves in the story. Every disciple was and is loved by Christ. Each of us is the beloved disciple.
So when, from the cross, Jesus said to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother”, He was also talking to you and to me. And like the beloved disciple, we should welcome her into our home, into our hearts. What a tremendous gift He’s given us—His own Mother, a perfect mother, who understands us, loves us, prays for us.
Today is a day to reflect on this great gift, and to thank Mary for all she’s done for mankind and for each of us. It’s also a day for us moms to think about how we can better imitate her. And for all of us to be thankful to those who have mothered us in this life.
I think I’ll go call my mom now.