It amazes me how I keep having to learn the same lessons over and over and over again. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever grow into an interior space where harsh words spoken by a loved one don’t wreck my inner peace within the short span of a few insensitively muttered syllables. This not infrequent experience of my over-sensitivity, it is all so humbling.
After an attempt at a nice family dinner outing last night to a fabulously hip local restaurant that serves up delicious Mexican food, I left the table at the end of our meal feeling deeply wounded. In fact I woke up today feeling as if I am bleeding from my heart and I don’t know how to make it stop. Truth be told, I really hate suffering and I am stumbling about to discern where it is I can find a bandage to cover this gushing laceration.
While I position one hand on my heart to try and control the flow, with the other hand I am searching for a weapon I can use to inflict pain in return to my daughter. And then those true, but annoying and inconvenient words of one of my favorite wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr, pop into my head: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” AND “The natural movement of the small self or ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again.” AND “If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.” Ugh. I hate when my ego is confronted and backed into a corner. I drop both hands and cry out for help.
I know I’ve been here before. I know I’ve written about this before. I know, because every time I encounter a new trigger, it seems as if I am back to square one in the school of the spiritual life. I search my mind and ask myself, what is it I am supposed to remember? What have I learned when in this place before? My mind draws a blank; it’s still too busy seething with anger at my perceived state of victimization. Quickly I search my past blog posts to try to find the lessons imparted to me before when I was stuck in this exact kind of mess. I find many on this same topic, each with a slightly different presentation, but then I see this one from two years ago:
Mary reminded me of her heart; though pierced by a sword, it was able to burn bright with the fire of love. It could hold the pain and the love together without rejecting the other. Her heart, she reminded me, was broken over and over throughout her journey as a mother. Yet it was precisely in the breaking that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace grew with each new fissure. Recalling the traditional religious image of the Immaculate Heart, which before had no positive effect on me, it seemed as if she was extending it to me. For the first time, I saw its softness, its warmth, its healing grace overflowing to hold, comfort and heal me. I begged her to ask her Son to give me the strength in this moment to bear the pain and love together in the small space of my broken heart. Slowly, a peace came over me, the temptation to retaliate lost its power and I could breathe through the agony, just as I did when I was in labor with this same child.“
As I read it over again, it all starts coming back into my consciousness. The lessons: Bear the pain and love together, without rejecting the other; it is precisely in the breaking of the heart that its capacity to overflow with love and grace grows with each new fissure; in asking for divine help, I will be given the strength to breathe through the agony.
One of my plans for Lent was to show up with intentional Love and presence to the least of these I encounter. It has always seemed to me so much easier to be loving to the those I encounter who identify for me their exact need. If you tell me what you need I can respond accordingly. You are hungry? Can I buy you a sandwich and some chips for lunch? You are dying of cancer? When can I stop by and visit you? You had a rough day? Do you want to sit in my chair and vent about it? Being loving to my own flesh and blood who lashes out at me from the depths of some need that I don’t understand and may never even be informed about—that is tough as nails and I don’t like it.
We aren’t even a week in and what I imagined my Lent was going to look like is NOT LIKE THIS. Yet it is obvious to me that here, in this place of pain, resides yet another lesson I have to learn over and over and over again. Forget YOUR plans for Lent; God has re-imagined your plans and though they may not look like you want, they will be exactly what you need IF you but yield your will and ego to the One who knows best.
It is now clear to me this journey is not supposed to be about any neat and packaged responses to the least of these I encounter outside my home. Rather it must be about navigating difficult and rocky terrain that requires laborious inner work. It will be about choosing to hold love and pain together in the space of a small and broken heart. It will be about death to the ego in order that new life may be resurrected within me. It will be about offering a compassionate embrace to those who can be the most difficult disrupters of my ego and my ways and most likely at the most inconvenient and unexpected moments.
May I be given the grace to buckle in and embrace the glorious messiness prepared for me in these remaining days ahead so that I may arrive to my final destination of Easter not “perfected” by my plans, but made new by surrendering to His.
Okay, I admit the title I chose for this post may be a bit too dramatic. In the interest of full disclosure, (although I am currently overdue for my bi-annual mammogram) to the best of my knowledge I am not at this exact moment physically dying and truly I cannot speak as to whether or not I will find joy when that process in my life is ongoing or imminent. The dying in which I find joy today is the death of perfectionism, the death of my best laid plans, the death of my high standards for others, the death of my fierce and stubborn ego. This process is ongoing, obviously, because on many days, I am still a perfectionist, think my plans are the best, have impossibly high standards that no one can meet and let my fierce and stubborn ego try to lead the way. But every so often come moments or hours or even days when I encounter a surrender within myself to the One who created all things. In those times a sense of deep joy rises up within me and a sense of refreshing relief washes over me like a rushing stream of fresh cool water on a hot and oppressive summer day.
One of the best gifts I ever gave my daughter is one that keeps on giving to her every day (bonus-it gives to both me and my husband too). Last October on her 18th birthday we signed up for the monthly subscription to Spotify and made it a family subscription, so our little trinity could enjoy our vastly different tastes in music and experience sweet family harmony. Randomly I will remember an artist or album I loved in my youth or young married days, (before the lost years when kid tunes suddenly dominated like 10 years worth of music time while driving in my car) and when I search for it, without fail I get my instant fix. The other day I was riding my bike along the river and just such a random artist popped into my head, Lauryn Hill. Remember her from Sister Act 2? Remember her singing Joyful, Joyful or the 30 second scene of her way-too-short rendition of His Eye is on the Sparrow? Anyway, I had a hankering to listen to her voice. I cued up the playlist Lauryn Hill-Miseducation and heard a song that days later, still will not leave me.
It amazes me how God makes His presence known to me most often in ordinary ways and through ordinary means-so ordinary that I probably miss Him a lot. But I decided to hop off the bike, sit on the edge of the river by the dam and listen to the words of a song I had never heard before. To Zionwhich is on her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a gospel inspired mom anthem (written about her firstborn son, Zion) featuring Carlos Santana on the guitar. It is powerful, filled with the naked and raw emotion of a mother’s experience of welcoming new life into her world.
Now the joy of my world is in Zion…
I’ve never been in love like this before…
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of his grace
For I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I’m reminded every time I see your face
That the joy of my world is in Zion”
This song and its words have been haunting me for days because God knew I needed to be reminded of the gift so great that is mine in my daughter Sadie. She is my firstborn, my only and the greatest catalyst for God to put to death in me the things that keep me from being who He made me to be.
Almost from her beginning it was clear that she was not going to fit into any of the boxes prescribed by the orderly, polite society to which I aspired to be a most perfect citizen. And eighteen years later, unabashedly she continues to refuse to be boxed. While I still wrestle with the chains of being pleasing and apologetic to all in my world—friend, foe or stranger—she lives unapologetically, fearlessly living her truth, free from the need to please others at all costs to the self.
Her high school graduation was at the end of May, but she didn’t walk with her class. Despite weeks of me begging, bribing and cajoling for her to just pass the class she needed so we could be done with this school thing, true to form, she did things her way. No box for her. A couple of weeks earlier, in a moment of connectedness, she shared with me her sadness over the impending consequence of another round of summer school, but then reframed the situation by naming her truth out loud. “Mom, I am so proud of myself. I never thought I would actually graduate this year. I assumed I would have dropped out of high school by now or that I’d end up being a Super Senior (fifth year senior). But the reality is I will graduate this year, just a little bit late.”
Sitting as the center of attention at her last IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting of her high school career, surrounded by her teachers, her case manager, the school psychologist and her parents, she listened as they pointed out all of the positives they see in her character—her creativity, her great personality, the ways she understands the material unlike other students, her educated and informed perspective shared freely in class, her high level of intelligence. Yet they also expressed that they were confounded by her grades, because she tests high, but her grades don’t reflect this because she doesn’t turn in much homework. In the midst of all of these adults encouraging her to change her ways so she can just graduate, once again she refused to be put into the box we all want to squeeze her into. Instead courageously she declared aloud “I will try my best, but the school system wasn’t made for people like me. It isn’t set up in a way that encourages people with brains like mine to succeed with ease. It’s made for people with brains that society deems “normal”. To be honest, society in general isn’t made for people like me.” NEVER would I have been so brave at 18. And thirty one years later, on the verge of 50, still I am not so sure I could be.
Our entire journey has kind of been like this—me trying to keep together a neat and clean and perfect life, struggling to stay in our lane and keeping up the status quo. Her life, as God so perfectly created her, challenges my efforts every step of the way. And THIS is exactly one of the reasons I have so much joy today. I wonder who would I be today without her beautiful life confronting the worst parts of myself? Who would I be if I didn’t have reason to find my voice to stand up for a child who wasn’t getting the support she needed to succeed in school? Who would I be if I hadn’t walked with her through the perils of an anxiety disorder and witness its ability to render her completely unable to function? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to be flexible when her overly sensitive sense of touch deemed it necessary to try on 10 different outfits before finding one she could tolerate for a day of school, making her late time and again? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to accept that the only way she could sit through an hour of church was to spend most of the time drawing intricate mehndi designs on her hands with a Sharpie? Who would I be if I didn’t aspire to unconditionally love the girl God created her to be–fearfully and wonderfully made–yet so different from me, so different from many? Insufferable, intolerant, unkind, judgmental–that is who I would mostly be if it weren’t for her.
Watching my child suffer all these years from the ever present effects of living in a square peg world as a person with inattentive type ADHD, an anxiety disorder and a sensory processing disorder has also changed me profoundly. It probably didn’t make it any easier for her that we live as a middle class family in a predominantly white and affluent suburban Chicago community and she attended a private elementary school focused on superb academic performance. And yet, somewhere deep in my heart, I do trust that God plants us where we are meant to be in order that we might grow into who we are created to be. Unfolding before me every year of her life are glimpses of the soul He created. These glimpses—they surprise me and catch me off guard; they are intertwined with the less inspiring angst and messiness of teenage development. Oh but when I take notice of them, they humble me and send me to my knees in thanks for what He is forming within her. They restore hope and remind me that I am not the one in control, but only a supportive companion on the way. The constant struggle to hold her head above the water has smoothed her hard edges and cracked open her big heart to the suffering of others. It has strengthened her character and made her a fierce advocate for the plight of the marginalized.
It seems that every year she has invited me deeper into an entirely different relationship with those living on the periphery of life—and I have to admit that I haven’t always been a willing participant. Without any hesitation, she invites into our little home the souls who others might consider misfits, but she calls them friends. The outcasts, the traumatized, the bullied, the mentally unhealthy, the cutters, the motherless, the homeless, the rejected, the abandoned. She has brought them all home to shelter them and allow them to be welcomed, loved, accepted, fed and more than a couple of times, she has given up her bed so they could sleep in it for the night. One by one, these children she has brought to my door have become priceless gifts of life to me. Most look a lot like her—uniquely beautiful, but easily cast aside for not fitting into the confines of polite society. One by one their souls have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. One by one they have smoothed out my hard edges and cracked open my heart. They have strengthened my character and made me a fierce co-advocate for the plight of the marginalized alongside my daughter. They have halted my march in the lane of the status quo where I sought to find a sense of security and control. Together, she and her friends have propelled me into unknown terrain where I have encountered Christ more intimately than ever before.
Graduation Day found me beside her, up in the nosebleed section of the bleachers in her school gym. She asked me to go with her to watch her classmates walk, so that she could support them. I think it was way more difficult for her to be there than she had anticipated, but she stayed. One after one, students were called up to give speeches because they had achieved exemplary academic success. Their future plans and scholarships were announced. In his introductions, the principal speculated what incredible lives these students will most certainly lead. Through some tears, she continued to snap photos and cheer loudly for her fellow students. Without thought for herself, she showed up. Such a glimpse into this magnificence found in her young soul makes me way more proud of her than if she had passed that damn English class and walked across the stage to receive her diploma with the rest of the Class of 2019.
As I sit here at the kitchen table typing this post, I continue to grapple with this slow and painful process of dying. She is running a bit behind in her morning routine and summer school starts in 30 minutes. She is on week three of three with only four more days left. If she passes the class, she will receive her diploma in the mail come August. Waging war within me is the rising anxiety that she will be late today and the strict rules about attendance flash into my conscience and fuel my repeated reminders that I excitedly shout in the direction of her room. “Sadie—remember only one excused absence is allowed for the entire session and tardies add up to an absence. Come on! Hurry up!!” God knows I just want her to be done with this leg of the journey. I want the finish line to be behind us.
At this exact moment, the One who created her, He who is all patient and has a great sense of humor, He crashes through to get my attention. My computer dings to alert me to a new email—it is one to which I subscribe daily. The subject title briefly flashes in the corner of my screen “Conscious Parenting—Giving Ourselves”. Seriously God!? I click the link and read:
Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said once that “to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
That moment when we say, I accept you—even though being with you is awfully hard right now—that’s love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences—we don’t have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child. . .
Maybe, as our hearts overflow, we find that love can, naturally of its own accord, extend wider, until it encompasses caring for all things, and connection to everything—until our love becomes Love itself…”
Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM
Today’s take away…surrender; let go; trust; love freely; allow Me to continue to stretch you into an incarnation of My love in this messy, chaotic world that is in need of being embraced as it is. For it is in dying that you will be born to eternal life.
Sadie, thank you for choosing me to come through unto life to be. You are a beautiful reflection of His grace. For I know that a gift so great is only one that God could create. And I’m reminded every time I see your face that the joy of my world is in you.
Every so often we are offered a deliberate opportunity to stop and reflect upon the power of one person who uses their light to make a big ol’ positive difference in our lives. Just this week that opportunity was mine when I was asked to write a letter of support for my daughter’s IEP Case Manager and math teacher, Derek Sutor, who has been nominated for Educator of the Year in our school district. Since this world can be short on tales of loveliness, I want to turn the spotlight on one such story about this man who has changed our lives forever. He has spent four years rooting for our girl, so now it’s our turn to root for him.
For every family who feels alone in their journey to love and support a neuro-atypical child, for every parent who feels the burden to educate those who misunderstand, for every shy, people-pleaser who is forced to be fierce, for every kid who doubts they will ever overcome their challenges, we wish the gift of an encounter with an educator like Derek Sutor. He is someone who exemplifies the truth that a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life.”
Dear Educator of the Year Selection Committee,
Recently it came to my attention that Derek Sutor has been nominated by his colleagues at Geneva High School for the 2019 Educator of the Year. Not only did this news bring me great joy, because I can think of no other educator more deserving than he, but I also was thrilled to be asked to write a letter in support of his nomination. We address you today from the perspective as a mom and dad to one Geneva High School senior whose life trajectory became brighter and better the first day of her freshman year when she stepped into Algebra IA. It was her first team taught class and half of that dynamic teaching duo was Derek Sutor. We will forever be grateful for that moment because it is when she met this incredible man whose belief and whose championing of her cause has, without a doubt, had the single most positive impact on her life as a high school student.
As a mom, my journey as a neuro-typical person raising a child diagnosed very early on with Sensory Processing Disorder, inattentive type ADHD and an Anxiety Disorder has perhaps been the greatest challenge of my life. In the throes of the worst of days, it feels like riding on a roller coaster buckled in next to your child, but the ride remains on constant repeat. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t let you or your child get out of the car when you’ve both had enough. It can be thrilling and terrifying and dizzying and anxiety producing and sometimes even sickening. And so much of the time you feel alone—as if the responsibility to help your child survive and function on this crazy ride rests solely on you. Sadly on these days, you don’t even allow the hope of ever seeing your child thrive enter into your consciousness-you just want to get through the day or the next hour or maybe even just the next minute.
Being a neuro-typical person raising a neuro-atypical child means your primary vocation as parent suddenly involves investing lots of time and money to provide occupational therapy and psychotherapy and testing and psychiatric services. It means educating yourself so that you might understand how to best love and support and motivate a child who experiences the world differently than you. And then in turn it means having to respectfully share your education with those who are like you were at one time-ignorant of the struggles faced by a child like yours. Sometimes it causes you to have to be fierce, even though you may be shy and people-pleasing by nature. It stretches you beyond your boundaries of comfort, but you go there because you love this child more than life itself and would do anything to relieve the suffering they experience being square in a world built for circles.
It was a scary decision to move our daughter from the small, private school in DuPage County where she attended K-8 to the large environment of Geneva High School. Though her experiences in elementary school included many ups and downs, by 8th grade we had developed a mostly positive rapport with the faculty and they were granting her some accommodations after years of negotiation. Moving to the public school system with the task ahead of working to establish an IEP was a bit overwhelming and we knew no one. However, we believed that she would have quickly drowned in a private high school environment and knew GHS was the best option.
You can imagine it was much to our surprise when we received a letter after the first month of freshman year informing us the Math Department had chosen our daughter as Student of the Month. We were delighted. At the recognition ceremony before school one morning we gathered, met Mr. Sutor and his co-teacher Mr. Showalter for the first time, and listened as they recounted the great qualities and efforts they observed in our daughter. This was one of the moments in which we found ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude that someone other than us was able to see the heart of our child and find the good within and to name it for her to hear.
Freshman year was full of testing and evaluations in the effort to establish an IEP. At the forefront of our efforts we found consistent support from Derek Sutor who had quickly become our daughter’s favorite teacher. He had a way of building up her confidence while also challenging her when she wasn’t performing to the best of her ability. To this day she still refers to him as her “Coach in the Classroom”. At the end of the year when it was concluded she would benefit from an IEP, Derek didn’t hesitate to express interest in becoming her case manager. This came as a complete relief because with Derek championing her cause, it felt as if we were no longer alone. We felt assured she had an advocate at school who not only possessed a keen understanding of how our daughter functioned, but who also had developed an effective way of motivating her to rise up to her potential.
As we continued our relationship with Derek in consecutive years, it became abundantly clear that for him, educating students and advocating for them isn’t merely a job, but his life’s mission. He has gone the extra mile time after time to do all that can be done to help our daughter not only survive high school, but to even have times in which she thrives. Derek has proven over and over his ability to see instinctively what many of us may never notice. During some particularly rough patches, our daughter could be observed in class sticking in her ear buds, pulling her hood up and over her face and tuning out. Most of us might experience this type of behavior as disrespectful and unacceptable. Instead, what Derek seemed to observe was a kid who was waging a great battle inside to fight off an encroaching panic attack. Not only did he recognize the truth of the situation, but together with her input, they figured out alternative ways in which she could cope in these moments. Behind the scenes, he confidentially communicated these methods to her other teachers, so they could all work as a team to help her. Because of Derek’s efforts, our daughter’s community at GHS has become bigger and she has found many teachers who have been enabled to understand her better and advocate for her in ways they are able. The environment she now encounters each day is one that is supportive, understanding and encouraging.
One of the things we find most inspiring about Derek is his ability to use the challenges he has faced in his life to model for his students how to become a successful and positive influence in the world, even when they encounter others who don’t understand them and may even mock them. He is honest with the hardships he has endured and uses his life as a shining example of one who has overcome through his choices and his hard work. This is also exemplified in the way he lives his life outside the classroom, juggling his role as a baseball coach, his roles as husband and father and even training and finishing the Chicago Marathon last fall. He is an incredible witness to his students and shows them who they can become, even with the incredible challenges they face.
As I reflect back on nearly four years at GHS, I realize that somewhere along the way, the crazy roller coaster ride began to slow down and one day it was as if it came to a complete stop. Offering us a hand to step off the ride was one very influential advocate who joined us in our efforts to help our child survive and function and he built a community of others to assist us in fulfilling our goals. There is an old proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness”. One thing we know for certain is Derek Sutor has been and continues to be a bright light in the life of our family. He has worked ceaselessly to create with our daughter many experiences of success and his belief in her has given her the freedom to dream of who she can become, despite her differences and obstacles. To us, her parents, he has given us the immeasurable gift to hope for a bright future for our girl.
For every family who feels alone in their journey to love and support a neuro-atypical child, for every parent who feels the burden to educate those who misunderstand, for every shy, people-pleaser who is forced to be fierce, for every kid who doubts they will ever overcome their challenges, we wish the gift of an encounter with an educator like Derek Sutor. He is someone who exemplifies the truth that a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life.
For these reasons and countless others, we wholeheartedly recommend Derek Sutor as 2019 Educator of the Year.
Ten years, six months, and one day after Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council, I was born into this world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, simply speaking, a council is called in the Roman Catholic Church to gather religious leaders so they might settle doctrinal issues. In 1959, there had not been such an assembly in nearly 100 years. However, Pope John XXIII believed it was right to convene a council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air to the Church.
As a result of the Vatican II, which concluded in 1965, there was a big shift in the day-to-day spiritual experience of your average Catholic. Maybe one of the most significant results of the council was henceforth, Mass was to be celebrated in the primary language spoken in one’s country. And instead of having his back to the congregation, the priest now faced them during the celebration of Eucharist. The regular people in the pew were now being included in the celebration in more ways, communicating their participation as a vital component of the Mass, and of the Church as a whole.
Being born to two cradle Catholics just 4 years after the implementation of Vatican II, my Catholicism was certainly formed by the changes it brought and my parents’ complete and welcome acceptance of them. There are many theologians and faithful Catholics who argue the years after the implementation of the Council were disastrous and led to problems experienced later in the Church. Yet in my memories, it was quite exciting to witness my parents embrace their faith in a whole new way, so different from their upbringing in the Church of the 1930’s and 1940’s. They became involved in ministries of the Church and their participation filled them with a joy I found quite captivating. From an early age, I wanted what they had in terms of the love and fulfillment they found in their Roman Catholic faith, post-Vatican II. As understood by the pendulum effect, surely some of the richness of the pre-Vatican II Church was lost to me being born in the time I was. Yet on the other side of the coin, as I grew older, there was a realization I was given the gift of an entirely different kind of richness exactly because I was born in the time I was.
My beloved grandmother, nicknamed “Mamoo”, had a deep love for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There was a story told in our family about a time when post-surgery her heart stopped and she had a near death experience. She saw her own body lying beneath her with the doctors working to revive her and from a distance she witnessed the Blessed Mother, emanating bright light, warmth, and love, nearing closer to her. Before they could meet, she was back in her own body and alive. I was only eight years old when she died, but I never forgot the story. I didn’t really feel close to the Blessed Mother but wished one day I might know her like Mamoo did. In the swing of the pendulum, there wasn’t a significant emphasis placed on Mary and the prayer of the Rosary in my childhood faith development. I don’t think this was a conscious decision by my parents, but a result of the excitement of embracing other aspects of their faith dormant until unleashed by Vatican II.
One of the most exciting and inspirational aspects of faith my parents embraced during those years was developing their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Upon their return from a marriage retreat, I witnessed firsthand what is described in the Bible in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 12: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” Clearly my father was a new man. As he described it, he encountered Jesus in a deeply vulnerable way and felt unconditionally loved by God, instead of just intellectually knowing he was. The old dad had passed away and he began living in a way that filled our home with love, acceptance, and encouragement. I sensed the Holy Spirit was hanging around our house now and I liked it. I liked it a lot. They joined with others in our local parish who had encountered God in this personal way and they gathered weekly to pray and support one another. These people became extended family and in their presence, I always sensed the closeness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. To be around them felt as if I was basking in the warm sunshine of the early days of summer, but the rays consisted of unconditional acceptance and love which I allowed to penetrate my being. This was the richness given to me by the Church of Vatican II. It was the gift which led me to a small Catholic university in Ohio where I could study Theology in the hopes of using my life in service to God and continuing the renewal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Upon arriving on campus in 1989, I was surrounded by peers who like me, had encountered the Holy Spirit in their lives and were on fire for their faith. Yet there were others who seemed very alien to me. The center of their faith in Jesus Christ was very much intertwined with their love for his Mother, Mary. In recent years there had been apparitions of the Blessed Mother happening in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. As a result, a great renewal in praying the Rosary and increased devotion to Mary was occurring, probably the biggest surge since the onset of Vatican II, and I found it difficult to embrace. This really bothered me. I wanted a relationship with the mother of Jesus. It seemed to me that it should be natural to love the woman who loved Jesus into being and throughout his life, until the end. Who else knew him better? If I got to know her, I could know him better. And so I tried. After getting reacquainted with the prayer of the Rosary, I joined in its recitation weekly with a group of woman. It is a prayer which invites one to contemplate several important moments in the life of Jesus while reciting the Hail Mary. Faithfully, I did this; week after week, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, but still she felt strangely distant to me. One semester I was required to complete a course in Mariology, taught by one of the world’s most highly regarded Mariologists. I should have finished that course inspired ever more by Mary’s role in the life of Jesus, and fully cured of my lukewarm feeling, but I didn’t. To me, she seemed too perfect to be relatable.
For many years I hid this secret as I was ashamed to admit that I really didn’t have a devotion to Mary, and preferred almost any other type of prayer over the Rosary. Convinced that to share this struggle would certainly draw judgment from fellow students, I remained silent. Of course, I continued to revere her externally, such as placing flowers at her statue on my wedding day, and saying the right prayers and singing the right songs on the feast days which celebrate her. Internally, however, she seemed so far away from my heart. To mentally obsess about what was wrong with me, the Catholic from birth, the Theology major, and later the Church worker who didn’t have a relationship or even a warm affinity for the Mother of Jesus served only to worsen the divide. Eventually, I decided to shift my focus off what I was not, and instead tried to appreciate who God had made me be, imperfections and all. I simply let go of my fixation upon my non-relationship with the Blessed Mother.
Becoming a mother at the age of 31 instantly proved to be the biggest source of both joy and suffering in my life. And the same reality continues to this day, 16 years later. No amount of advance preparation could ever have readied me sufficiently for its plethora of challenges; good and bad. Its daily scenarios bring me to my knees and humble me more than I ever imagined I would be or could be. And it has been on those exact days, the ones when I find myself so very close to the dirt of the earth, bowed low, crying out for guidance and wisdom and strength, I sense the distance between her and I narrowing.
One of the great paradoxes I didn’t understand as a younger person is the experience of suffering and brokenness is the great leveler of humanity. And all mothers suffer. This suffering looks and feels different at all the stages of our child’s growth and development, but it never ends; not ever. Therefore, there is a capacity for women to deeply bond with one another, especially when we are vulnerable enough to admit we don’t have it figured out and it is as hard as rocks and some days we don’t even know how we are going to make it through with our sanity intact. It was through this lens I began reading the stories of Mary in the Scriptures anew. No longer seeing her as perfect and unrelatable, instead, I began to see in account after account how time after time she suffered in her role as mother.
In the scriptural account of the Annunciation, when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, it describes her as being greatly troubled. In response to the news of conception, she was terrified. She was young and unmarried and no amount of advance preparation could have ever readied her for the plethora of challenges ahead. She was a source of scandal in her community and it took the intervention of another angel to convince her betrothed to marry her. In the impending moments before the birth of her child, she again found herself in challenging circumstances. Travel via donkey while 9 months pregnant is arguably less than ideal. Giving birth in a stable seems downright cruel. Days later, upon presenting Jesus in the temple, an old man took her baby into his arms and said that this child was destined for the fall and rise of many and she, a sword would pierce. Shortly thereafter, she had to flee the country of her birth and become an immigrant in a strange land to escape the plot to kill her newborn.
When he was just a child, she lost him for days in the city. When found, with seeming unconcern for his mother’s suffering, he explained he was about doing his Father’s business. Tradition tells us that while he was still young, she became a widow. The responsibility of raising a son was now hers alone. At the wedding of Cana, when out of concern for her friends who were hosting the celebration, she asks him for help his first response is almost a rebuke: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
As she sees him fulfilling his life’s mission during the years of his public ministry and positive news about him is spreading, her nearest relatives and neighbors still doubt the validity of the good news and question how it could be so. The carpenter is doing these things? How could this be the same Jesus they knew? Later stories are communicated to Mary of many who are rejecting her son, including the leaders of their very own Jewish faith. Frightening accounts are shared with her of some who want to throw him off a cliff. Then she hears the tragedy of her cousin Elizabeth’s son John, who was jailed and beheaded for supporting Jesus. As his ministry culminates, she witnesses Jesus be unjustly judged and sentenced to death. At the very end, still, by his side, she walks with him the way of the cross to his crucifixion. At his feet she stays, watching the flesh of her flesh, bloody and bruised and suffocating until he breathed his last breath. I am struck by how much sadness, heartbreak, and suffering she had to endure; more than any one woman should ever have to bear. Yet in the history of salvation, it is she who is identified as one full of grace; first by the angel Gabriel and later by generations upon generations of people. Even those who are not of a Catholic or Christian tradition honor her as such.
The advent of adolescence in our household came swiftly and without much warning. It seems as if overnight the winds shifted, turned bitterly cold and took much of the sweetness and warmth away from our parent-child relationship. Its intermittent moments of unexpected intensity are only exasperated by the fact that we haven’t done this before and our daughter is our only child. There are days when the foundation we worked so long to build feels as if it is going to crumble right beneath our feet and others when the walls might fall down and crush us. One such moment happened in recent days. I had read the signs and knew a perfect storm was brewing. I gave my daughter warnings so as to avert the potential tempest. She was given ample time to correct and make amends for some poor choices, but none were made. Time was up. Out of love and concern, I allowed her to experience the consequences of choices she made. In that moment, everything blew up.
The sheer force of her response rendered me feeling breathless, utterly rejected, unloved and mocked, by the flesh of my flesh, the one for whom I would die without hesitation because it is in my nature because I am her mother. False accusations and angry words were hurled at me, both to my face and behind my back on her social media accounts. And for whatever reason, this time it hurt more deeply than ever before. It was raw and very difficult to hold. I wanted to lash back; I wanted to make the pain stop, but to do so would only perpetuate the cycle and make everything worse. In desperation, I cried out to God. And in that moment, she who is full of grace drew nearer than ever before.
Mary reminded me of her heart; though pierced by a sword, it was able to burn bright with the fire of love. It could hold the pain and the love together without rejecting the other. Her heart, she reminded me, was broken over and over throughout her journey as a mother. Yet it was precisely in the breaking that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace grew with each new fissure. Recalling the traditional religious image of the Immaculate Heart, which before had no positive effect on me, it seemed as if she was extending it to me. For the first time, I saw its softness, its warmth, its healing grace overflowing to hold, comfort and heal me. I begged her to ask her Son to give me the strength in this moment to bear the pain and love together in the small space of my broken heart. Slowly, a peace came over me, the temptation to retaliate lost its power and I could breathe through the agony, just as I did when I was in labor with this same child.
She who once was distant has now drawn near. In the depth of our new bond and in the warmth of her presence I sense it is precisely in the breaking of my heart that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace is growing with each new fissure.
United with you, we will be one with God.
United with you, we will be open to the will of God.
United with you, we too will feel the mystery of Christ, alive within us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
-excerpt from Prayer to the Mother of God, Mary by Reverend Edward Hays
The day I got married, October 20, 1995, began very much like today. It was an unseasonably warm, 75 degree, bright autumn day. As the sunshine poured through the trees, illuminating the gorgeous shades of gold, bronze and red that enliven the Midwestern landscape at this time of year, I was filled with feelings of joy, hope and excitement for the 5:00 p.m. date I had with my husband-to-be at the church. Flash forward to 3:30 p.m. on that same day. I am in the back of my parents’ car being driven to said date. It is now 45 degrees and the temperature continues to drop by the hour. A deluge of bone-chilling rain is making it difficult to see, even with the wipers on full speed. “It’s good luck to have rain on your wedding day”, I heard from the front seat of the car and then over and over again from my bridesmaids, once inside the Bride’s Room, safely tucked away from my groom. But to tell you the truth, the rain didn’t dampen my spirits. Inside my naive 26 year old mind, I was convinced that no matter what the world dished out, together we were going to change it for the better and I was ready to get started.
Fresh out of college by just five months, he and I met at a wedding in Fall of 1993. My graduation gift from my parents had been a trip to Ireland in May of that same year. At every church my mom and I visited in the homeland of our ancestors, I prayed that I would meet him. My specific request to God was for an Irishman with a deep faith life and of the Roman Catholic tradition. Many years dating someone with a deep faith life, but without the same background as I convinced me that married life would be easier with someone who shared my tradition. Remarkably, he also was looking for a person with a deep faith life of the Roman Catholic tradition. I met his criteria, but wait, there was even more I thought I brought to the table. As a recent graduate of a traditional Catholic university, with Theology degree in hand and a conviction that if we followed what I thought was God’s plan for our marriage and family, we would sanctify the world together, how could he refuse? Despite my overconfidence (a.k.a., my huge ego), he didn’t refuse the opportunity, but willingly entered into a covenant of marriage with me two years later. God bless him.
The month of October, in my faith tradition, is kicked off by the feast days of some really great saints. We start by celebrating St. Therese of Lisieux, followed by the Guardian Angels and then we get to St. Francis. He is the one often spotted as a statuary in many a beautiful garden, portrayed with a host of animals surrounding him. The Prayer of St. Francis is renowned all over the world and often times at church, we sing a song based on its words entitled, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. Outward images might lead some to imagine Francis was a soft kind of guy, singing Kumbaya while walking through nature, communing with God’s creatures. But on further examination, he is quite the opposite. Not only is his life story entirely compelling, but merely the words of his prayer are deeply challenging and not for the soft or the weak.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”
Back in those days of young, married love, I truly didn’t understand these words. And that last line about dying? In my mind it only pertained to the End Game, nothing more, nothing less. It was with a sense of certainty that when I heard the phrase, “And it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life”, I thought to myself, I’m good to go! Eternal life after death? Check! Hey, it was smooth sailing on the road to sanctity and along with me I was bringing my husband, my hopefully soon-to-be big brood of children, and heck, even some other random strangers, simply by sharing with them my plans for how I thought God wanted them to live. Yikes. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans”.
Parenthood began for us just nine days before our fifth year wedding anniversary. Our “celebration” didn’t feel so celebratory. We went out to an Italian restaurant to mark the day, but I couldn’t even stay awake at the dinner table. Our daughter was in the full-time care of family because I was unfit to be a mother to her. Adjusting to new medication in the hopes of becoming well enough to get her back, deep down inside, I felt incapable of ever being her mom. This scenario was furthest from the plans I thought were meant for my life. How could I be on the road to sanctity when I had already failed as a parent with the first child of what I thought was going to be five or so more? It was only then that I began to understand that there was another kind of death apart from the end game. And so began the process I affectionately refer to now as “Death by Motherhood”. There was a death to my hopes and dreams of how life should look and death from how chaotic and unmanageable it really was. There was a death to the image I had of myself and death from the reality of who I actually was. Co-mingling with the grief was a new and big and profound love I had never quite known before that drove my fight to get healthy for her.
As our beautiful daughter grew, we discovered that she was magnificent and sweet, loving and kind. She was captivated by books and coloring and singing and puppies and her Grandmas and Papas, cousins and friends. We also learned that her will was as strong as steel. Getting her dressed in the morning was a gargantuan task, as she would rip her clothes off as soon as I could get them on her. Many mornings I left for work in tears. I was exhausted from the fight with her and the day had barely even started. I thought she was being defiant and would lose patience with her. Sometimes I would even punish her for being disobedient. It wasn’t until the ripe age of five when we realized we were approaching this behavior in entirely the wrong way. She was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder with Tactile Defensiveness. The clothes I was trying to put on her felt torturous to her hypersensitive skin. How could I have missed this? How could I have caused her additional suffering by insisting she was behaving so badly when in actuality, she was trying to communicate to me that she needed help, but she didn’t have the right vocabulary to do so? Those early days, post-diagnosis, I was once again in touch with the ending of life as I knew it. There was a death to the image I had of how my child was supposed to be and death from the discovery that she was suffering and I had only made it worse. There was a death to wanting to keep up appearances of being a perfect little family and death from the unpredictability and chaos that life with Sensory Processing Disorder brought to us each day. Our tenth anniversary found us taking a weekend away, to breathe deeply and regroup so that we could return to deal with the learning curve of life with SPD. It also had us realizing that perhaps, there would be no second or third or fourth or fifth child. God knew we were struggling to be enough for our one, whom we loved more than life itself.
In fifth grade, mortification came with the ten words that formed a simple question posed by her young, but acutely observant teacher. “Have you ever thought of having her tested for ADHD?” Just when we finally had gotten a handle on how to navigate her sensory issues and help her to understand them, it seemed almost too much to consider that there was something else to confront. Yet it was apparent that she was struggling to keep her head above the water with the academic challenges brought on by each successive year, as well as with the anxiety attacks that began to plague her when it all became too much. After weeks of evaluation with a psychiatrist, it came time to hear the results. With a sense of humor and of hopeful optimism, the doctor looked at my husband and announced, “Well it seems as if she inherited ADHD from you…” His friendly gaze turned to me as he continued, “…and as if she inherited an Anxiety Disorder from you.” I felt like I was dying right there and then. Yet another death; this one to the hope of passing on only our best of qualities to our child and death from realizing I had no control over it. There was a death to the desire to save my daughter from such hardship and death from watching her experience all sorts of wicked side effects as she went through the “guinea pig” phase of finding the right medication. On our fifteenth anniversary we exchanged cards and gave one another the kind that refers to experiencing the highs and lows of life together and gratitude for the other’s support in and through it all.
Even as I write this reflection, I continue to perish. I encounter the intermingling of death and rebirth almost every day. She is now a high school student and to observe her thrive in this large environment where her uniqueness is encouraged and celebrated is breath-taking. On good days or in the good moments of average days, there is a sense of freedom and peace and joy glimpsed in her presence. She is finding her own sense of style after being confined by a school uniform for the past nine years. There are blue streaks in her hair and she is wearing jeans almost every day, which was at one time made impossible by SPD. There are new friends and amazing academic accomplishments. Life is good. And yet the reality of adolescence is increasingly present with its angst and testing of boundaries and pushing back at parents, even when we are only making simple requests. It is being told we are embarrassing and we could never understand and we do things the wrong way and we say things that are stupid and don’t make sense. And so it goes, day after day. In the worst of moments, I feel driven to the Flight or Fight Response within my being. I have to talk myself off the ledge and realize that ultimately, in my role as mom, neither extreme reaction will lead to good. But the pain is so much deeper because my heart is open wide to her and her soul is forever intertwined with mine. There is a death to the realization that her love is not going to look exactly like it did in the past and death from the feelings of distant love, since right now hugging and snuggling with her mom aren’t on her top-ten-list of things-to-do. There is a death to the feeling of being needed and appreciated by her and a death from being treated as unneeded and unappreciated, even if it be unintentional on her part. The burden is momentarily lightened when I read, The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You and hold on to hope that what is says really is true –OR– when I catch a glimpse of the sweet girl who loves me deeply, such as tonight. When I left my writing for a few minutes, I came back to this note on my screen:
This is beautiful. I know you’re not finished because you haven’t gotten to your 20th yet but I truly love it. I have decided that in my free time, I will start reading your blog.
On this occasion of our twentieth anniversary we reminisce about the past and where the present finds us and how it is we got here. Now a 46 year old woman, my life resembles very little of what I was convinced God wanted it to be as I stood on the altar that cold, rainy night in October 1995 and said “I do”. What has become clearer to me now is that this vocation was never meant to be about me changing the world and sanctifying the people around me according to the plans I thought we should live. Rather, I was the one who needed saving and it was my world that needed change, according to the perfect plan that God had all along. That plan kicked into high gear with her birth and her amazing life. As Richard Rohr so beautifully expresses it,
We come to God not by doing it right (which teaches you very little), but invariably by doing it wrong and responding to our failures and suffering with openness and awareness. Forevermore the very worst things have the power to become the very best things. Henceforth, nothing can be a permanent dead end; everything is capable of new shape and meaning.”
These little “deaths”, brought to me courtesy of motherhood, they have led me to rebirth. Without them, I couldn’t have learned to find truth in the midst of error, faith in the midst of doubt. I wouldn’t have had the need to find the light in the midst of the darkness or joy in the midst of sadness. If I had never experienced despair, I wouldn’t have known the relief of finding hope in the midst of it. As I face the depth of sacrifice that will be demanded of me as a mom in these days and weeks and years ahead, I know that there will be many more opportunities for death to come. And come, it must, because my needs aren’t meant to be fulfilled by her, but she was born with the innate need to encounter God’s unconditional love through me.
Master, grant that I may seek to sow love, even when I feel hated; seek to pardon even when I feel injured; seek to console even I want to be consoled; seek to understand even when I feel misunderstood and seek to love even when I feel unloved. For it is in giving that I will receive; it is in pardoning that I will be pardoned; and it is in dying that I will be reborn to eternal life. Amen.”