Please note: This page and its resources are not substitutes for formal NFP instruction, nor are they intended to be. This page is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Boston or any of the methods of NFP which are detailed below.
What is NFP?
Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a large umbrella term for any method of regulating births that uses natural, fertility markers to determine when a woman is capable of getting pregnant. All NFP methods follow the same general pattern:
The differences among methods lie in which fertility cues they employ, how detailed the observations of those cues are, and which rules are used to determine the start and end of fertility each month (the couple’s “Fertile Window”). Methods can also vary based on the expected relationship between client and teacher, so when you are looking for a method, be sure to choose one that suits YOUR lifestyle and needs.
How you use NFP may change over time and will vary from couple to couple. For a couple looking to postpone pregnancy, they follow rules to avoid intercourse during their fertile window. For a couple looking to achieve pregnancy, rules are applied to target their fertile window. The degrees to which you accurately observe, chart, interpret signs -and- follow rules for your method will help determine the efficacy of that method.
What’s your method?
I am a certified teacher of the Boston Cross-Check method, which teaches couples ways to use the fertility markers listed below separately, or in various combinations, to suit their desired efficacy and planning needs. We use:
– Basal Body Temperature
– Hormone monitoring using the Clear Blue Fertility Monitor
– Cervical Fluid (with optional cervical checks)
– Personal chart history
– Basic cycle formulas
With the BCC method, you will work closely with your instructor to learn all of these fertility signs and figure out which combination works best for your body, your lifestyle, and your fertility goals; however, this is not the only method available! By comparison, you can also check out:
“The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity.” CCC #1666
Is your parish or school looking for ways to encourage and empower parents to live out the vocation to nurture their domestic church? Invite families to participate in a workshop! Together, parents and children will experience the symbols, prayers, and habits of our Catholic faith and be equipped to live these cultural expressions authentically in their home.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!: Advent Music and Craft Time
Immerse your family in the beautiful prayers and symbols of Advent! Through prayer time around the Advent wreath, music and crafts, we prepare our hearts for the twofold coming of Jesus at Christmas: both as the infant Christ, and in His second coming as Christ the King.
+Pray for us!+: Saints as Intercessors
Families are invited to nurture the practice of calling on our brothers and sisters in heaven through story and craft time. Learn about the lives of 6 beloved saints (including the patron of your church or school!), how to recognize them and their symbols in religious art, and create your own prayer cards to take home.
MORE WORKSHOPS ARE IN DEVELOPMENT! Contact me if you’d like to create something special for your community!
Every month our chapter gathers for a community meeting, where our Religious Assistant (a Dominican sister) usually gives a Gospel reflection. Today, Sister was not able to attend the meeting, so I offered this reflection for our chapter. I share it with you all tonight: may we all strive to be athletes of God!
I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory…
…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD. – Is 66:18, 20
When I sat with the readings this week, I immediately started to picture these few verses from Isaiah, where we hear of the gathering of every nation and every language on earth in one large parade towards Jerusalem as none other than the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Over the past few weeks we who have been following the Games have seen Michael Phelps swim for his 23rd Gold Medal. Usain Bolt from Jamaica boasts a perfect 9 gold medals over three Olympic Games. Kenyans, Ethiopians, Japanese, Chinese, North Korean, South Korean, Brazilian, brown, black, white and every color in between—all of the best athletes from every nation, speaking every language, gathered in one place to challenge one another, test their skill and hopefully come out victorious. I love these fraternal gatherings because imperfect as they are, they give us a small glimpse of what Isaiah’s vision of that parade of nations could look like.
And this is the same imagery that carries over to the Gospel today, where Jesus says: “And people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13:29)
These are beautiful images, which call us to remember that God does not want to exclude a single person from this invitation to Heaven. Through Christ, He opens the path to eternal life with Him not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world. Yet the big question remains: If everyone receives this invitation, how are so many barred from entry at the door? It’s one thing to be invited: but how do you actually get in to the Master’s house? If it’s not enough to know the master, let alone eat and drink with him and listen to his teaching in the streets, what more must we do?
In a rare lectionary feat, it seems the second reading can shed some light on how to get into that house—and if you’ll continue to humor me, I’d like to approach it again through the lens of the Olympics. How does one get to the Olympics? Training. You discipline your body and sacrifice in many ways so that not only are you good enough to compete, you are good enough to win. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it a slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27) At the end of his letters to Timothy he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) He uses the imagery of the athlete to describe the training he puts his body and his soul through in order to keep the faith and win the crown of heaven. This is actually picked up in various ways first by the Church Fathers, then the desert fathers: the type of athletic training an Olympian, a gladiator or a warrior would undergo was called “askesis” in the Greek, and it is where we get the term: asceticism. We hear of that training directly in the Letter to the Hebrews today as Paul talks about the Father who disciplines us—
“At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12:11)
I am sure the Olympic athletes would agree.
And like a good coach, like a great Father, God doesn’t just train or discipline everyone in the same way. The marathoner requires very different discipline than the sprinter; though their activities look much alike—they are very different. Our Christian lives, our lives as children of God, may look very similar on the outside, but we know that they are very different. God calls to us and challenges us in unique ways, wanting us to be the very best version of ourselves—and therefore he trains us all in different ways.
He doesn’t want any repeat saints.
There’s already a St. Catherine of Siena. What God really wants next is a St. Catherine of Boston.
Yet in this singularity and uniqueness, God has also decided to put together some “teams.” Our families, our parish community, our friends. Sometimes we are called to train together; and certainly as Lay Dominicans we share some common training ground: prayer, study, community, apostolate- these are the ways in which God, through Dominic, has put together a good training regimen for our little team—our family. At times we may be very sympathetic to Paul in this reading today: some times our four pillars may seem a cause not for joy but for pain—we are rightly challenged by this way of life. If it were easy, there wouldn’t really be a point, would there?
So today I’d like to take a few minutes for us to reflect in the quiet of our hearts on the ways in which God disciplines us. Take to heart this image of you as God’s athlete—God’s champion—like the martyrs of Rome whom Eusebius called the “athletes of religion”, we are part of that great parade of nations called to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Set your goal on that narrow gate, which is, in fact, the person of Jesus Christ and with that single goal in mind, think about:
What training regimen has God uniquely set before me in order to achieve that goal?
What challenges has He thrown my way, in big ways and in small ways?
Where are my victories?
Where are my failures?
What little acts of discipline does God ask of me in order to strengthen me?
To make me more myself? And will I accept them?
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, to which Paul coaches us: “strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet!” (Heb 12:12-13)
+LORD, as we continue along this path of training, make us strong. Do not let us grow weary in the face of hardship or challenge—show us the narrow gate and give us the fortitude to strive for it, no matter what. Make us your champions, make us your athletes, so that we may join your children from every corner of the world in the great parade of saints. Amen.+
If your church follows the Catholic (or Revised Common) Lectionary, last week you heard a parable from Luke about the servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding. Then at the tail end of that parable, a funny little saying:
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come. — Lk 12:39-40
Our Youth Group gathered last Sunday for pizza and fellowship and we talked about this Gospel passage. The kids (mostly middle school age) were able to identify that the master in the first parable (who stood for God/Jesus) is NOT the same master in the second saying. Rather, the master in this proverb is every one of us– those who are waiting for the Son of Man to come. The gist of the whole reading is simply this: STAY ALERT. Because you never know when Christ is coming back. Got it.
But this little phrase has always struck me as a bit odd. Why can’t the master just lock his house all the time? He doesn’t need to know when a thief is coming, just that there is a possibility of a thief coming. So he can prepare, install a good alarm system, and sleep soundly. That’s what we do isn’t it?
And it’s not like ancient civilizations didn’t use locks. The Romans used them. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians had them. It has even been proposed that Mesopotamia was the birthplace of locks. So why not just lock the darn door?
Well the answer is: the master probably did. He probably had adequate locks on any windows and doors to take care of his estate; but even a well-to-do master cannot prevent a stealthy thief from digging into the sun-dried brick homes that most people had back then. A patient thief could literally dig his way into your house without much noise at all, then sneak off quietly through the same entry-point before anyone awoke. No locks or bar systems could detect that. So the only way to be 100% sure that your house wasn’t robbed was… to stay awake. That’s a sad truth for the poor master, who needs his sleep and isn’t omniscient.
But far from being a cool factoid, this image of the silently digging thief has stuck with me this week. It strikes me that this proverb is not only an exhortation to be alert for the End Times; it is a perfect visual description of how sin ever-so-quietly enters our lives.
For those of us concerned about such things, we may be aware of temptations and vices that would rob us “by the front door,” as it were. These are things that are obvious, things in our life that we know we are doing, things we know are wrong, and yet we get frustrated because we do them anyway. So in order to change, we “cut it off and throw it away” (as in Matthew 5:30). If we are struggling with addiction, we don’t even let ourselves go near alcohol or cigarettes. If we struggle with lust, we don’t hang out with those friends who are constantly watching porn. We lock the door.
But the more pernicious and deadly sins are those that we don’t even realize we’re committing, those sins which sneak in little by little as we sleep securely, thinking that we’ve got it all under control. It may start out as a harsh word said to someone out of anger and before you know it, your soul is so mired by anger that you say: “How could this happen?”
We must remain vigilant. We must remain awake. It’s very important to lock those doors. It’s crucial to the safety of our soul that we do not allow thieves to enter the easy way. But it’s also important that we don’t rest on our laurels, congratulating ourselves for that fancy new security system we just bought to protect ourselves from the thief with the giant sword, only to wake and find that we’d been completely robbed by the thief with a tiny spoon.
It’s graduation time again! I don’t know about you, but every year my Facebook feed fills up from mid-May to early-June with congratulations, celebrations and lots of pictures of mortar boards, commencement speakers and –of course– glorious shots of the meticulously-kept grounds of my Alma mater. A few years ago, I found myself in the final round of competition for the coveted spot of “Graduate English Speaker” at Harvard’s commencement. Alas, I lost to a former member of Parliament, so I can’t be too bitter– his speech was fabulous. Yet as I reflect on my husband’s upcoming doctoral graduation, I felt the need to dust off this old speech and offer it up not just for all of the graduates, but as a reflection for us all: from where do you speak?
Nobody Speaks from Nowhere
“Nobody speaks from nowhere…”
I can still picture my Nigerian professor, sitting on the stool at the front of the classroom, wagging his finger at us and saying: “Nobody speaks from nowhere.” When I first heard him say this, my reaction was: “Well that’s obvious. He’s on a stool. I’m in a chair. Thoreau had Walden Pond– we all speak from somewhere.”
That’s not even close to what he meant. When my professor said, “Nobody speaks from nowhere,” he was issuing a challenge. He was telling us that what we were about to read was crafted by a person with a past full of experiences, hopes, dreams and fears. This professor helped me learn to simultaneously think critically and engage the person behind the idea, which is not only a different way to look at literature, but…
Most importantly, it is a different way to look at yourself.
One can’t embrace the idea that “nobody speaks from nowhere” without eventually coming up against the question: From where do I speak? This question becomes especially poignant when a person finds herself facing a life-changing transition, for example: a commencement.
As I started to ponder these things for myself, I began to form an image of the ‘where’ from which I spoke. That image was a path: a road leading towards my goals, which were often depicted as mountains… challenging, majestic and a little bit scary. Some times people would join me for a while: a roommate, a professor, a friend. Some people were with me the whole time: my parents, my siblings, my husband, my daughter. Setbacks were bound to happen, but no matter what I kept facing that mountain head on.
I had been speaking from this path my whole life. When I was eight, people would ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Then, the mountain looked like a glamorous acting career. When I was eighteen, they asked: “What do you want to do when you graduate?” The mountain was a lucrative career in radiology. When I was nineteen, it had become a lucrative career as a lawyer. When I was twenty, that mountain was a career in ministry that would never pay me enough to cover my undergrad tuition. I came to Harvard Divinity School and people started asking, “What are you going to do when you’re done with school? …You will eventually be done with school, right?”
All of these future-oriented questions are helpful: they let us plan so we can pursue what we desire in life. But eventually I began to realize that the image of the path isn’t quite accurate– I thought about those times when the mountain changed drastically… and eventually, I realized that these were the times in my life when who I thought I wanted to be didn’t match with who I already was.
This is the problem with the path and the mountain: I was planning my route based on a path that didn’t account for all of the places I had been. The mountain path, as attractive as it may be, can only take shape in a future that does not yet exist. It is, for right now, a ‘nowhere.’
Before you get that diploma today, before you say goodbye to Harvard and the many joys, friendships and struggles that you’ve encountered here, I humbly ask you to humor me in a visual exercise. I want you to see the path you think you’re heading on and see that mountain ahead, no matter what it is: a job, grad school, service, maybe unemployment.
Now, get rid of it.
Instead, picture yourself in a row boat. Your past is in front of you, your future behind. You’re still traveling in the same direction, but now you navigate by a concrete vision. You can glance over your shoulder to get a glimpse of that mountain– of where you want to go– but your eyes are fixed firmly on where you’ve been. Now ask yourself: does where I am going fit with where I have been? See how your life’s journey has shaped you (in good times and in bad), embrace how it has given you a voice and has moulded you into your self. That is the ‘where’ from which you speak.
You graduates have a lot of people out there who are happy for you and proud of you today. They should be and you should be, too. My wish, however, is that no one comes up and asks you: “What are your plans after graduation?” My wish for you is that someone asks, “How has Harvard shaped your life?”
I speak to you now not just from this podium, but from my past and my own experiences. As a former undergraduate I say to you what Martin Sheen said to my class: “Go out and change the world. “ As a mother of an eleven-month-old I say, “Be careful. Don’t get into too much trouble.” As a fellow graduate I say, “Congratulations! We did it!” And as a perpetual theology student I say, “May God bless you on your journey.”
May is traditionally dedicated to devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary. Some other Christian groups are in the habit of pointing to our so-called “Mary Worship” as proof that Catholics are not “real” Christians, citing our devotion to Our Lady as an un-Biblical, medieval invention. While it is true that devotion to Mary deepened and became even more popular in the 12th and 13th centuries (the rise of the Rosary as a pious practice for lay-people is a prime example of this) Marian devotion was certainly not unknown in the ancient Church– the time which many of my “Bible Christian” interlocutors claim for their own origin. For example, we read in Origen (c. AD 228):
“No one can understand the meaning of [the Gospel of John] unless he has lain on Jesus’ breast and from Jesus has received Mary to be his mother, too.”
Likewise, many of the Church Fathers wrote extensively about the perpetual virginity of Mary and her revered status (see: Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose), but perhaps the third/fourth century is not quite early enough for some. What if we went back to examine Christian attitudes towards Mary in the second century?
I set aside the obvious Biblical attestations to her piety and her centrality to the early Christian Church because my hypothetical interlocutor knows and dismisses them already. Instead, let’s look at popular piety, which comes through in a very interesting text known as the “Protoevangelium of James,” written some time around AD 140.
We know this story of Mary’s life leading up to the birth of Christ was quite popular, partly because so many extant ancient manuscripts have been found. Origen regards it as a late text and so he seems to exclude it from the accepted canon of scripture (Jerome later does, as well), yet he also indicates that its contents are not without popular support and that the text reflects existing notions about the early life of Mary and the beginnings of the Holy Family (see Origen’s commentary on the Brethren of Jesus). Perhaps even more striking is the fact that the Protoevangelium presents a no-holds-barred approach to squashing any doubts about Mary’s perpetual virginity. So, what is in this text? And why does it matter?
The “Protoevanglium of James” begins with an elderly barren couple: Joachim and Anna. Eager to have a child, Joachim and Anna ask God to bless them as He did Abraham and Sarah. Anna conceives and brings forth a daughter, whom she names Mary. Like Hannah (1 Samuel 1:11), Anna has promised to offer this child up to the service of God at the Temple, so at the age of three, Mary is presented at the Temple, where despite the fact that for three years Anna has made sure Mary’s feet don’t become tainted by touching ground other than the Temple, she dances on the steps as her parents leave. Mary grows up in the Temple and when she is twelve years old, Zacharias (the high priest) summons all of the widowers so that he may choose a suitable husband for the girl. Through the guidance of a dove, Joseph is selected from the group and the two are betrothed. Still a virgin, Mary is chosen to weave the purple and scarlet pieces for the new veil of the Temple. Then one day, as she is filling her water pitcher, Gabriel appears and gives her the world-altering message, which elicits the Visitation. What follows is a detailed account of how Joseph finds his pregnant fiancee as he likens himself to Adam, who through his negligence of Eve allows the serpent to deceive her. The two of them are subjected to a ritual cleansing in the desert, whence both arrive home unharmed– a testimony to their sinlessness in the ordeal. Then a message arrives about the census, so the family heads down to Bethlehem. But since they are not married and Mary is great with child, they elect to stay outside the city in a cave (stable). Joseph finds a Hebrew midwife named Salome, who doesn’t even have to deliver the baby because he just leaps forth from Mary’s womb– yet she will not tend to Mary until she verifies that this woman is, indeed a virgin.* Next we have the magi and their gifts, Herod’s blood-thirsty rage, and finally the episode ends with Zacaharias, murdered because he would not give up the location of his infant son, John. So blind Simeon is elected as the new high priest and James ends his tale.
The whole episode is far too rich to analyze in a single blog post, but here are a few relevant items you shouldn’t miss:
If Anna and Joachim are like Sarah and Abraham, Mary is like Isaac, who himself is a type of Christ. Though she never undergoes an experience similar to Isaac’s aqedah, the themes of sacrifice, obedience, and faith saturate her whole life. More to the point, the scene of the aqedah (perhaps the most memorable and important in the whole Isaac story) is identified as Moriah, which is also the site of the Temple mount in Jerusalem. This foreshadows the crucial event in Mary’s life as mother and disciple: not the near-death of her beloved Son, but His actual crucifixion and identification as unblemished Sacrificial Lamb.
Anna, like Hannah, promises Mary to Temple service. Thus, Mary is likened to Samuel, the great prophet, who as a young boy hears the voice of God and responds: “Speak, your servant is listening.” (1 Sam 3:10)
Mary dances on the Temple steps, as King David “danced before the Lord” (2 Sam 6:14). It is no mere coincidence that the first words of Matthew’s Gospel identify Jesus as “the son of David” (Mt 1:1); the messiah’s kingly identity was a point of contention for Jesus’ would-be followers (and accusers!) who expected an earthly Kingship. Yet this display on the part of Mary shows not only that David is in Jesus’ patrimonial family line (as in Mt), but that His mother was “like” that same king even without an earthly title.
Mary weaves the purple and scarlet for the Temple veil: to a Roman audience, purple and scarlet symbolize royalty and religious feasts, respectively– which point towards her soon-to-be-conceived Son. Even more importantly, these colors would be part of the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world. The Holy of Holies was the innermost chamber of the Temple, where God Himself was said to dwell. No one was allowed to enter, save the high priest on the Day of Atonement, when he was permitted to offer blood sacrifice for the purification of the people. It was this same veil which was torn in two (Mt 27:51) at the crucifixion, symbolizing the end of Temple sacrifice and the “unleashing” of God upon the world. Though we typically associate Mary with the color blue, there is plenty of attestation to Mary wearing red in religious art, leading to the association also of Mary’s garments serving as the “veil” of the Temple of her womb.
In this Annunciation scene, Mary is drawing water for her pitcher. In the Old Testament, wells were the place of betrothal for the patriarchs (see: Gen 24:15, Gen 29:9-11, Ex 2:15-19 and even the Samaritan Woman at the well symbolizing Jesus’ ‘betrothal’ to the Gentiles in John 4). In this type scene, Mary is betrothed to God Himself.
Joseph’s self-imposed chastisement leads him to associate Mary with Eve. Though he draws this comparison assuming the girl fell to temptation, he couldn’t be more right: Mary is the New Eve as her Son, Christ, is the New Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-18)
Salome’s insistence to put Mary’s virginity to the test echoes Thomas’ demand (Jn 20:24-29) for a physical sign of the Resurrection: “Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.”
The “Magnificat” (Mary’s canticle in Lk 1:46-55, which is itself an echo of Hannah’s canticle in 1 Sam 2:1-10) resounds throughout as Anna and Salome both find their own souls “magnified” through Mary and twice is it said that God has “magnified [Mary’s] name” long before the Annunciation.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
As I’ve said, this text– though popular– was not considered canonical. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain Truth, but that it was not considered Divinely Inspired. Rather than seeing the Protoevangelium as a foundational text which established reverence for Mary (particularly in her perpetual virginity), it makes much more sense to see this text as a reflection of well-established sentiments and stories surrounding the Mother of God. For centuries this text was translated and circulated in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and ancient Irish– just to name a few languages! And though Jerome effectively suppressed its popularity in Latin-speaking circles, our Tradition stills owes much of our Marian imagery to this text (or perhaps, to the tradition this text represents). Besides what we’ve already discussed, here are just a few of those gems:
This is the earliest mention we have of Mary’s parents’ names: Anna and Joachim.
Ever seen a depiction of Joseph as an old man? It’s in this text that we have Joseph identified as a widower (and hence learn the origin of Jesus’ “brothers”!)
Was Jesus born in a stable? Or a cave? The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (and many icons!) indicates these are one and the same.
Mary and Anna are both the patronesses of seamstresses, thanks to Mary’s role weaving the Temple veil.
That this text and its Marian content were shared and adored by Christians in the East and West for many centuries should prove lie to the charge that Roman Catholics invented and continue to engage in “Mary Worship.” If the first generations of Christians, indeed a large swath of the nascent one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, produced and circulated a document so rich in its devotion and symbolism of Mary, how could we read the Biblical attestations to her in anything but a positive light? Furthermore, while the Bible indeed has very little to say about Mary, we need not infer that the Christian community spoke little of her or downplayed her role in God’s plan of salvation. There are many other sources which provide us a window into the rich devotion the Early Church had for Mary– but The Protoevangelium of James, in particular, shows that even from its infancy, the Church has rightly looked to Mary as her Mother.
*This may be too graphic for some more delicate readers, but the midwife verifies this by manually inserting her fingers and examining Mary’s hymen. If found intact, this is taken as a sign of virginity, as the hymen is generally torn during intercourse. The fact that Jesus is delivered from Mary’s womb without ripping this membrane is nothing short of miraculous. The point of this verification is to signify that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived, but remained a virgin even after birth.
When I held my first daughter in my arms, I experienced the flood of emotion that every parent feels in that moment: I was blissfully happy, worried about whether I was ready to take on such a grand responsibility, and totally in love. Though I had never seen her face or heard her cry before that moment, it was as if I had known her for my entire life. She was totally new, yet totally familiar.
The nurse ran across the room in a panic. “WHY ARE YOU CRYING? Are you OKAY? Do I need to clear the room?”
I have never been more puzzled in my entire life than I was at that moment. “Umm, no…” I stammered. “I’m just happy.” She relaxed. The cuddling resumed. My perfectly chubby baby contentedly sucked her hand as she tried to look about the room. It was bliss.
Fast-forward not quite two years later, and I found myself cuddling an even chubbier baby, who looked almost identical to her sister. I felt the rush of hormones and emotions, but there was one new emotion I wasn’t ready to contend with: distance. Rather than feeling totally familiar, this new baby’s blank newborn stare seemed… well, blank.
As I held my new little one in that hospital room, I loved her as mothers do, and I attributed this feeling of distance to the tension I felt about adding another child to our care. I struggled knowing that this baby would mean that my relationship with my other daughter would have to change. “But change isn’t always bad,” I told my husband (and reassured myself) that night. “I cannot wait for S to meet her little sister. She’s going to be so delighted. She’s going to be such a big sister.” And she was. She is.
But the strange feeling of disconnect lingered. As the hormone high faded and the reality of exhaustion set in, I began to find myself getting frustrated and angry at the fact that I wasn’t bonding with my new little girl the way I had with my first. I knew in my head and in my heart that I would grow to love her as I did S, but I didn’t remember it being this difficult the first time around. Why was there a delay? What was holding me back?
To be honest, there was an element of post-partum depression at the time. It wasn’t severe–just a case of the Baby Blues, but it was still there and I wish I had the courage and the self-awareness to admit it at the time. I hope you’ve inferred that I did, in fact, come to cherish and love my second daughter as much as my first. As any parent can attest, these two children are wildly different and they equally have my heart. As I looked back in retrospect, I mentally explained away my bonding difficulties as just the emotional stress of adjusting to life with Two.
Enter: The Third.
When Little Man was born that Christmas morning, I knew that his sisters would be ecstatic to come meet him. “He’s the best Christmas present EVER!” dear S exclaimed. The girls hugged and loved on him in all his squishy roundness and I thought, “I’m in heaven. This is wonderful.”
But when LM came home from the hospital, here I was again– I loved him, really truly! But why weren’t we “bonding”? I searched for answers in my Baby Blues repertoire, but I couldn’t find anything there. I was so delighted to have a little boy and the girls were wonderful and my family was wonderful and helpful: what was holding me back…. again???
Then one day I came to a realization. Little Man was about ten days old and had just finished a champion nursing session. All was quiet in the apartment and I had the strange sensation of looking into that little face– one that was almost identical to that of his sisters– and I realized that he may look exactly like my other kids, but he was a total stranger. I didn’t know anything about him yet: I wasn’t sure if he preferred being bounced or rocked (bounced), if he was going to be a serious or a goofy kid (goofy), whether he would like the color orange (he prefers red) or the taste of carrots (not really) or if he could throw a tantrum (decidedly yes). In my post-partum fog I suddenly realized that what was holding me back was the simple fact that this new kid who was taking up so much of my time, demanding so much of my energy and undivided attention, was a stranger. I surmised that I didn’t feel this with my first one because back then, everything was totally new and I didn’t know what I didn’t know; but now I was aware of this huge gap that existed between me and my son– a gap that did not exist with my daughters, whom I knew so well. And yet I was supposed to love him all the same.
A still, small voice rose up within me:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Mt 25:35)
This little baby may be flesh of my flesh, but he starts out a total stranger. For reasons only He knows, God chose this infant for me and my husband, as He chose me for my parents, and them for their parents. It is a great responsibility and it is also humbling, because this realization puts me in my proper place. This experience of welcoming the stranger reminds me that these new little people are not “mine” as mothers and fathers may be tempted to claim– they are their own unique people and they belong totally to God.
In a world that seems so confused about motherhood and fatherhood, so that even the sacred issue of life is treated as a commodity to be bought, sold, manufactured, solicited, or tossed aside as waste, I think we would all be wise to meditate on what it could mean for parenting to be one long exercise in welcoming, loving and guiding The Stranger home.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
…You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
My elder daughter will be turning six soon and she has decided that this is The Year of the American Girl Doll. I remember hitting this phase as a young girl, along with my two sisters. We would wait on pins and needles for the latest catalog to arrive, then all take turns reverently perusing through the pages, carefully examining the contents old and new and judiciously (or… not so judiciously) marking each item on our “wish list” with the appropriate initial. Even with all of the unabashed commercialization that has happened to AG over the years, I still love what it has to offer my girls by way of imaginative play throughout different periods of our country’s history.
My younger daughter (who is 4) inherited my old American Girl doll, along with a handful of outfits and a doll bed. So when Big Sis started asking for her own doll and supplies, I knew it was time to Clean Out The Room. I explained that if the girls wanted to “graduate” to AG dolls, they would need to get rid of some older toys that they no longer played with. I saw the gleam in their eyes as they imagined piles and piles of new doll clothes and accessories. I, in turn, had stars in my eyes as I imagined by girls peacefully playing together in their room, discussing the various troubles faced by colonists and immigrants and aspiring to be as spunky, courageous and resourceful as the likes of Felicity, Addy and Kirsten.
But the task of getting rid of old toys completely shattered my starry-eyed dreams. The girls have so many cute, wonderful toys that they have outgrown: things they never play with anymore and had even forgotten existed until I fished them out of the bottom of the toy bin. I held up each item and asked: “Okay, girls: keep or give away?” “KEEP!” shouted my younger. I could at least see the hesitation in my elder daughter’s eyes, but inevitably she came to the very “rational” conclusion that she did, in fact, play with that particular toy and it would only make sense to hang on to it.
Momma was getting frustrated. How can I make my kids see that I’m only asking them to do this so that I can give them gifts they will enjoy more???
I am not sure what clicked all of a sudden, but at some point halfway through I decided to change my language. “Okay, girls,” I said as I held up another toy.
“Shall we keep this, or make room for something else?”
The phrasing of the question struck them differently than before. All of a sudden, the focus was shifted from “getting rid” of something or “giving it away;” now, they were asked to focus on a goal: to make room for the coveted American Girl Stuff. I switched the vocabulary and the thought process from something negative, to something positive.
My almost-six-year-old caught on at once. “Oh! I don’t use it that much. Maybe I should make room for something else.” Her sister jumped on board. “Yeah! Make room!”
It took about an hour, but we went through two catch-all bins, a stuffed animal hammock and a full toy chest and came away with two large shopping bags full of items so that we could “make room.” I felt like an awesome mom. Mission accomplished with no tears and no fights and for the most part, I concurred with their choices. Plus, now the girls are excited at the prospect of having a place for new dolls, outfits and accessories.
But I’m not writing this to brag about my ability to get my kids to clean out old toys. I’m writing this because as soon as I set about tidying up the rest of their room, I was struck with the realization that I am a lot like my kids when it comes to making room for God in my life. Like my kids, I am growing and changing in my relationship with Christ and perhaps it would be wise for me to stop once in a while, take stock and realize that I need to re-evaluate the “things” which may be cluttering up my life.
Now is one of those times.
In a very tangible way I am definitely thinking of “things” as in “possessions”: do I own or am I hanging on to anything that is prohibiting me from growing closer to God? Do I own any movies, books, memorabilia, clothing, etc. that distract me or even worse– pull me away from God? I’m not saying that having possessions, even a lot of possessions, is inherently distracting or sinful (although, Mk 10:25 and all). I’m not saying we shouldn’t take delight in some of our possessions, but I’m just saying that it is good to remember that “Everything belongs to God, and all things were created by His power” (Heb 2:10a) so we shouldn’t be attached to our possessions for their own sake. Thus, everything I own and use should somehow bring me closer to God, whether through contemplation of Beauty, or by strengthening my relationship with my kids and my spouse. I recently got rid of a few books, movies and CDs that were “leftovers” from high school and college. I needed to realize that there is a big difference between material that requires a mature audience (thus, fine to keep around) and material that is just plain hyper-sexualized and violent for its own sake. Maybe this material didn’t register as being offensive or hindering my path to holiness even a few years ago, but they sure do now. Why keep them around? MAKE ROOM!
Taking it a step further, I think it would serve me well to think about “things” that clutter my life in terms of “activities”. Do I have any bad habits that distract me from God? The biggest and perhaps most common issue I have is with that blasted smart phone. I may pick it up with the best intentions (call my mom, send a happy note to a friend), but inevitably I end up getting pulled in to Facebook or some other time-wasting site. Ten minutes may pass before I think, “What am I doing?” I’ve been working very hard at limiting this time when I’m around my kids or my husband, but even if I have time to spare, do I really find it edifying and life-giving to spend my time finding posts to “Like?” I’m not saying smart phones can’t draw one closer to God– you can do Liturgy of the Hours, communicate with loved ones, read Sacred Scripture, or engage in evangelization efforts. These are all good things. But that’s not always how I use my phone. So one thing I’ve decided to do is lock my phone and use a swipe pattern to unlock it. My pattern is the cross. And as I swipe that cross on my phone I say, “Lord, help me to use this time wisely.” That’s it. I may not be ready to “give up” or “get rid of” Facebook or my favorite blogs, but I am willing (at least in theory) to make room in my life for God in those things.
The hardest part of this examination process is also thinking about “things” in terms of “people.” I am so blessed to have beautiful, sincere and uplifting people in my life. My family and friends are wonderful– and it’s not because they are all Catholic. It’s because they are all kind and virtuous. I won’t pretend to conflate the two. But reading this article in Verily Magazine a while ago got me thinking about so-called “toxic” relationships in the past, and whether I had been emotionally hanging on to people that needed to be let go. And I was. I mean, I am. I need to learn to let go of exes, failed friendships, nay-sayers and everyone else who has injured me– because stubbornly hanging on to these hurts poisons my relationships today, especially my relationship with God. To put it differently, I realize that God is asking me to forgive. And make room.
It’s a work in progress. And part of it is rather painful and some times I’m tempted to think it’s all just silly. Does God really care about my choice in TV shows at the end of a long day? Don’t I deserve to veg out and just enjoy myself, relaxing with my husband? I think He definitely cares about bad habits or attitudes that I may subconsciously develop from watching certain things, and the simple fact that I have to face each day is that I don’t deserve anything. All of these good things in my life are gifts from the Father and as much as I may like to hang on to something, I also need to be open to the fact the God is always trying to give me something better– namely, Himself. In order to receive those things, I may need to get rid of some stuff… or at least rethink how I’m using it.
So I’m embarking on a mission of “Spiritual Spring Cleaning,” trying to identify those things in my life that I should “keep” and those things I can let go of in order to Make Room.
Who wants to join me??
By way of meditation, I offer you a passage from St. Augustine’s “De doctrina Christiana”:
Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used. Those things which are enjoyed make us blessed. Those things which are to be used help and, as it were, sustain us as we move toward blessedness in order that we may gain and cling to those things which make us blessed. If we…wish to enjoy those things which should be used, our course will be impeded and sometimes deflected, so that we are retarded in obtaining those things which are to be enjoyed, or even prevented altogether, shackled by an inferior love. To enjoy something isto cling to it with love for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love…Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed, we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God “being understood by the things that are made” (Rom 1:20) may be seen. (De doctrina Christiana, Book One: III-IV, trans. Robertson, 1997)
Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of Lay Dominicans! Since this manifestation of the blog is rather new, I thought I’d bring some old Catherine posts back to the surface for a little sunlight on this blessed occasion. Enjoy! And please remember to pray for your local Dominicans!