Last November, we took Roo to church for the first time — a Saturday vigil Mass almost exactly one week after she’d been born. I was worn out from her baptism that morning and, you know, having a week-old smallish newborn, but somehow I received the grace to actually pay attention to the homily — not always a given at this season of life!Read More »
Murder mysteries are a strange place to go looking for stories that point out the sacred, but in reading The Last Policeman series I was reminded of the British period drama Foyle’s War we had watched and enjoyed several years ago. Although both stories center around a lone male detective, most similarities end there: one is the story of American Henry Palace in the world’s final days, the other the career of Englishman Christopher Foyle in the shadow of World War II.
Though both men cling to the mores of a dying world, challenged by those who find their allegiance to duty futile under the circumstances, neither detective is simply a bureaucratic ritualist adhering to mindless rules at the cost of his humanity. Instead, both Palace and Foyle highlight a strength of the murder mystery: its affirmation of the vital importance of morality even in the face of dire circumstances. Read More »
You might as well know now I don’t love Latin Mass. It falls somewhere between beer and Bruce Springsteen on the list of things I suspect I should enjoy and don’t especially.
So, last month I finished On Pilgrimage, the first book I’ve read by Dorothy Day. If you’ve read it, you know it’s a weird experience — like if I printed out a year’s worth of blog posts, interspersed them with my diary entries, stapled it together, and called it a book. But only if I was as insanely interesting as Day, even at her most scattered.
One page struck me especially. We have a new tradition of mother’s blessings here, where we gather to pray for and encourage a friend as her pregnancy comes to its end, and maybe that’s why this passage struck me particularly.
If Kristin Lavransdatter is any indication, in the history of Christendom, baptism was a Pretty Big Deal, and not for the heirloom gown or the pastel cupcakes. Instead, I was struck when reading it with how 14th century Norway Catholics took baptism really, deeply seriously. Like, don’t take your baby out of the house until he’s baptized seriously. Seriously.
Pippin’s baptism was not that way. It took awhile for us to decide for sure we’d baptize him Catholic (vs Anglican — we were a house divided at the time), and then to break the news to family who we thought might not be thrilled (they were, because they’re great). And then all the family wanted to be there, and our insanely generous former Anglican priest, which is wonderful, and suddenly, he was ten months old and too fat for the family baptism gown.
What would Kristin say?
Next up was Scout. She was born four weeks early, throwing our plans off and making us miss the mandatory baptism class, but we fared better: we managed to get her baptized when she was about seven weeks old. (And the party wasn’t too shabby, either.)
But we want to take baptism as the solemn gift it is, as Kristin and her contemporaries did. I love the lacy gowns and (honestly, all) cupcakes, and I will cheerfully attend your kid’s baptism at any age, but even as late as my father’s childhood in the 1960s, the Church was instructing young catechists on how to perform emergency baptisms just in case of roadside accidents. This made me wonder if there was maybe new post-Vatican II teachings that supported why our parish priests had felt so unrushed in baptizing Pippin, and why we kept encountering a lot of resistance to scheduling in our current church.
Spoiler: There isn’t.
Instead, I talked to people far smarter than I am, and this is the sort of thing we found.
From the Catechism:
250 Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.50 The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.
But maybe the Church has revised its teaching on the ultimate destination of the unbaptized? Maybe there’s a general shift toward greater reliance on God’s mercy? we wondered. And after all, infant mortality rates are way down from KL’s day. But elsewhere we’ve got this line:
1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” 64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
Canon Law reinforces this idea:
Can. 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it.
In talking to a wide range of American Catholics, I’ve found there’s a huge spectrum in how determined clergy and administration are to making that “first few weeks” thing happen — our church tries to schedule on only one Saturday a month and generally refuses to baptize Thanksgiving weekend, Advent or Lent. (Sometimes the argument is that these are penitential times, but baptism is, to my mind, penitential!) It seems like Tridentine churches often get on the ball sooner; big churches like ours seem to struggle most.
But it seems like a practice worth pushing back against. So we informed ourselves and got to politely advocating for a speedy baptism.
Roo’s big day came on her one week birthday. A scramble!
Here’s how we made it happen:
- Introduce extended family to your plan early. We have loved having our whole families attend previous baptisms but including them when they live so far away has contributed to a lag. Explain your reasons for baptizing promptly well before your due date so no one feels snubbed.
- Get godparents on board. You’ll need flexibility in their schedule or a willingness on their part to let you use proxies (which we did for Scout’s semi-prompt baptism). Roo’s godparents let the priest know she was born the next day and started trying to schedule right away on our behalf.
- Meet all parish guidelines in advance.
- Gather family heirlooms. I realized at 32 weeks we didn’t have the family baptismal gown here — it was still with my mother-in-law. Since my last baby was a 36-weeker, I made sure to ask my MIL right away if she’d be willing to mail the gown.
- Don’t worry much about a reception or party. We got the official time for the baptism less than 24 hours in advance, and promptly sent out text invites to everyone who had fed us and cared for us during that long, long pregnancy. We decided to do pizza and my mom made brownies and salad — other friends offered to bring cake and bread and Prosecco. We didn’t even worry about a final head count until after the sacrament, at which point we counted and called in an order of pizza. And you know what? It was fine.
Worth the rush
Now, let me draw the distinction right now between:
- Feeling like you’re dying
- Wanting to die
- Literally dying
I’m not kidding here. 1 is something I think most of us experience, if not in first trimester than in unending third trimester, or in labor, or in the newborn phase. 2 is something common enough when you feel really, really poorly (depression is actually a symptom of HG), but you should see a midwife or doctor for help. And 3 means you should see a doctor, too. I’ve done the IV, and it is amazing.
I’m reminded of a chapter from one of my favorites, What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing. The author, Naomi Stadlen, spoke with many mothers over many years in new moms’ groups, and one of the most common refrains was, as the chapter title goes, “So tired I could die.”
These were mothers of newborns, but I feel this way often in pregnancy, especially in those unending early months. And I think what Stadlen argues of new motherhood in her book is true of pregnancy, too: you kind of are dying. Dying to your old life, your own expectations, your own definitions of success. It’s exhausting work, emotionally and physically.
In the same way that Haley Stewart argued that getting your life back may not be the point of Christian parenting, I would suggest that this death through pregnancy is maybe a difficult gift that prepares us for motherhood when the baby is here. It certainly makes me softer and less obsessed with doing for myself, less dedicated to my own ideas of how things should play out.
This pregnancy, I’ve gotten into the pretty metal Mary prayers they tuck at the end of the book. In the past, I’ve always found them almost comically intense (“this vale of tears” indeed!). Suddenly, though, I’m so grateful to have a prayer that acknowledges how “Sinking we strive and call to you for aid.” I’ve been sinking, that’s for sure. And if I’m buoyed now, it has everything to do with prayer and friendship and relenting hormones, and very little to do with epsom salts and Sea Bands and Zofran.
If you’re finding yourself on the same sinking ship of severe morning sickness, here are some of my favorite resources for processing those feelings. There seems to be a shortage of resources on managing the despair and anger that comes with feeling really, really bad while something really, really good happens to your body and your family — probably because desperately barfy women don’t tend to have great word output, and once you feel better, you rightly want to dwell on the baby and not how you felt like a trash fire in the early months. (I once threw the perfectly innocent but relentlessly cheerful Prayerfully Expecting: A Nine-Month Novena for Mothers to Be across the room when the author mentioned you might not feel up to mopping as often — at the time, all I could manage was scrubbing the toilet a bit as I lay beside it.) These writers understand the blessed awfulness of a trash fire pregnancy, and have helped me:
- Leila Marie Lawler: Plain Cooking: Surviving Morning Sickness and More (this is the most remedy-focused of the selections, but the tone is so great; the comments section is also super reassuring here)
- Haley Stewart again, my sister in arms: You Were Made for Greatness, Not Comfort
- Laura Kelly Fanucci: various
- April Hoss: For This Child, I Have Puked
- Sarah Jobe: Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy
I’m a native Floridian. I’m also a professional worrier, so my mind last week was on Irma a lot, praying for friends and family in its path.
And coming after Hurricane Harvey, which probably elicited a Hail Mary or two from me, or the fires out West, which pretty much flew under my radar, I’m feeling some guilt about my completely arbitrary distribution of compassion.
I was talking about this with a friend recently, who at the time was fretting about what Hurricane Irma might do to her Outer Banks vacation, and of course feeling guilty about that, when so much greater suffering is occurring as a result. After all, while a hurricane might obligingly spin out to sea and leave everyone untouched, generally, if you’re praying for the safety of one set of people, you’re sort of sacrificing other sets who will end up in the storm’s path instead.
While we were talking, though, over breakfast in our church’s basement, she pointed to a poster with the photos of current seminarians in our diocese. She admitted that each year, as she comforted unruly babies during Mass, she’d pick, at random, one of the seminarians and pray for him over the course of the year. (I love this idea, don’t you?)
And suddenly, the arbitrary allotment of prayer didn’t seem so selfish. We are human; we are finite. (News fatigue is a thing, after all.) We form a connection, as deep as the third-generation Florida blood that runs in my veins or as serendipitous as a face chosen at random off a poster, and we devote our efforts deeply, if not broadly.
It’s the same reason, after all, that since returning from Uganda in 2009, J and I have devoted much of our (admittedly often limited) philanthropy and prayers to Uganda. We only spent six months there, almost ten years ago, but I have a bit of a better context to focus my prayers and guide my financial giving: I know the towns where the people we fund through Kiva live; I know bits of the Lhukonzo our Compassion International child speaks.
I can’t care as deeply for everyone affected by natural disaster as those living in the landscapes in which I’m mostly deeply rooted; I cannot grieve the losses of every child the way I pray for my Compassion child in the loss of his father. That’s not to say I can’t care more, pray more, give more — I have a very long way to go! It’s only to say that you have causes, and I have causes, and if each of us in the world take up a few causes of our own, dear to our hearts, and nourish them well, that might be a good starting place. Breaking the world into small, meaningful chunks and loving those around us as best we can — that seems like a plan we can just about manage.
This year I found myself in an overstuffed car on Epiphany, brimful with Christmas gifts and children and a dog and spilled Apple Jacks. I had worn second-day tights to the early Mass in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that morning, and we’d stepped delicately over ice to load up into the car, and finally, after three weeks of travel, we were on our way home.
I’m not sure I ever noticed Epiphany before I became a mother, but when he was a baby, Pippin’s godmother thrifted him a copy of The Third Gift, which at first mostly caught his attention because the protagonist looked to him like Aunt Beca. (At the time she was sporting a pretty great pixie.)
The plot is merely a footnote or preamble to Epiphany: the life of a boy who apprentices his father in the collection of myrrh, and how some of that myrrh is sold to strangers from far away. It’s simple and lovely, and brought to life Epiphany for me in a new way, especially Bagram Ibatoulline’s concluding illustration: a little cave-like barn, on the horizon, the glow of the city; and in the barn, clustered haphazardly, mysteriously, those central figures we’ve seen all Advent, all of it looking like chance.
The story of the three kings has a sort of quiet fairytale beauty after the high drama and tinsel of Christmas, doesn’t it? That frisson of fear with big, bad King Herod looming. The mysterious star, the moonlight. Strangers on a strange landscape. An improbable meeting. Everything pointing to a future no one yet understands.
And maybe it was thinking about the little myrrh-gatherer that made the thought occur to me, but what became of those gifts? If Jesus is truly the child of the poor, a soon-to-be refugee, are the gifts hocked on the run to Egypt? Or do they later fund his ministry? Are they given to adorn the Temple? Or do they endure in secret long past Jesus’s death, tucked away in a basket, pored over by she who pondered these things in her heart?
In this little episode, we get all the otherworldliness and everydayness that is Christ among us. And we get Epiphany on the tail of our own gift avalanche, with its enduring tokens of far away people who love us, crammed inelegantly into our humble, aging car, pointing to the magic and beauty that lingers in the chaotic Christmas aftermath.
“It doesn’t have to be running,” the midwife reminded me cheerfully. “It can be any kind of exercise you like.”
But that’s the point. There is no kind of exercise I like. It turned out my resting pulse was a little high, and anyway, I’d been fighting the conviction for awhile. And so running it is.
Running, at least, has the nontrivial advantages of frugality and efficiency. I don’t have to drive anywhere or buy a membership. I just barrel out the back door, wheeze a ways, and wheeze back.
I had done this all once, maybe twice, before: once during a busy semester in college when the doctor listened to my pulse, sent me to the cardiologist, and put me on a stationery bike; once when I was working part-time before kids and trying to keep the crazy at bay. (I’m not counting the three weeks I ran in preparation for the Dales Way, newly pregnant with Pippin, until the time I threw up in my hair and gave up on exercise for the duration.)
A turning point this time was coming to grips with the idea that for me, running is not ever probably going to be “me time.” I get up while it’s still dark, when I don’t have to, and I put on clothes that are hard to put on with sleep-clumsy hands, and maybe sometimes the sun rises beautifully over reddening trees, and maybe sometimes I see a deer, and maybe sometimes I enjoy my audiobook, but mostly, I grit my teeth and do my 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back.
I was slipping into the vocal registers that are not OK, especially with my most threesome three-year-old, and I had done all the self-care measures I actually like, the carving out time for reading and getting extra sleep. I know running helps me to be less anxious, and anxiety and impatience were ruling my day, at least at high-friction times of the day like getting out the door, and the lead-up to nap time. I had apologized to my son enough, and it was time to try something else.
And so I run, and I don’t think of it as me time, or self-care, or all the other things exercise is supposed to be for women like me. I think of it as medicine. I think of it as penance. It is what I am doing to be a better mother, a better wife, a happier human. On those mornings, I am letting go of all the times I’ve failed to be those things, forgiving myself, having already asked forgiveness of those I’ve hurt. And I’m running toward a kinder, gentler future, one grudging run at a time.
At confession, recently, I shared my theory of running as penance with my confessor, who to my surprised relief didn’t immediately dismiss it. “Well, I mean, historically penance has been physical. It’s been bodily. It’s only lately that it’s all prayers.”
Huh. Fair enough. Maybe my Nikes are my hair shirt, my morning jogs a modern-day pilgrimage. A prayer with my body, for calm, for peace.
In my adult life, I’ve passed through six translations of the liturgy: the old American Roman Catholic, England’s Roman Catholic liturgy, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Uganda’s simplified English liturgy, the formal Anglican liturgy favored by our church in Massachusetts (the 1928 BCP, maybe?) and the new Roman Catholic — not to mention all the masses I’ve participated in, however feebly, in French and Italian, Latin and Lhukonzo.
The result being, I stumble over the Nicene Creed, struggle with the clunky response, “And with your spirit.” I feel like an outsider, clutching my laminated card of responses, sneaking furtive glances to remind myself if it’s “For our good and the good of all the church,” or if that’s some other fragment I am remembering. It’s hard to enter in to worship and lose myself when I’m forever bumbling.
But what’s that idea from literary theory? Defamiliarization? The idea that there is value in language getting shaken up, in looking at the same thing in a new light. I get that from all the credal and geographic peregrinations of my twenties.
The legacy of these church shakeups is all the little bits and pieces that have struck me anew because in some sense they were new, to me at least. I’ve got the Song of Simeon memorized from the long soft twilights of my two newlywed summers doing Evensong each Thursday with Anglican friends in Tallahassee. I know the Agnes Dei in Latin from the beautiful immigrant-built church I attended in college, because, though a cradle Catholic who met my husband in high school Latin class, I’d never worshiped in Latin till I moved to Macon.
“It’s the Creed! It’s not SAT prep!” Stephen Colbert complained when the Church rolled out its new translation of the Mass, and while I hope time smoothes the awkward edges of our still-new English Roman Catholic liturgy, I still love falling into the rhythm of communal speech, of being pulled up short by my own stumbles, echoes that draw me back to holy places throughout my life. A friend who has church-hopped nearly as extensively suggested that in our many mistakes, in lunging for the cheat sheet, maybe we make ourselves just a little more approachable to newcomers, and that’s valuable, too.
I’m not here to argue that they’re all equally right or even all equally beautiful. (The beautiful, cobwebby lyricism of the BCP will always win that for me.) But I feel deeply the romance of the universality that remains —behind impassioned scholarly debates between “born of” and “incarnate,” through the awkwardness of the word “consubstantial,” in the earnestness of imperfect words — in the beauty of the same supper celebrated by communities I’ve come to love the world over.