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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

When I Considered Religious Life

My senior year of high school, I thought about becoming a nun.  I had just read a little book by now Saint Theresa of Kolkata (then and still today known to the world as Mother Theresa).  I was young and naive with romanticism about travel, experiencing other cultures, and spending my days in silent contemplation.  I had not real idea of what it meant to be a religious sister, much less a missionary abroad.  I was certainly confusing that and the life of a contemplative hermit-style nun.  Either way, it didn't take long for me to move on to other aspirations after I got discouraged from the idea by my family.

Their reasoning wasn't exactly based on the fact that I had no idea what I was talking about.  Rather, it was based on the fact that they didn't want me to live a life of poverty.  My grandmother, I remember, mentioned, that if I were a boy and expressed an interest in the priesthood, that'd be different.  There were clearly stereotypes about what the various religious lifestyles entail.

In the end, I wasn't being called to the religious life, but I can't really say that I actually discerned this.  Rather, in retrospect, after having actually learned more about what it takes to live out such a vocation, I see that God knew me better than I knew myself.

In a nutshell, if I'm being honest, what I wanted was to live free of charge on an eternal spiritual retreat.  I have since learned that a) you can't enter a religious order with debt, b) they put you to work, and it may not be what you want to be doing, c) the hours of prayer and contemplation come at the price of sleep and free time; they are not in lieu of the full time work that is expected, and finally, d) that entering a religious order is a calling, not a decision. 

This last one actually applies to married life as well, but sadly no one seems to discern if they are called to married life.  They just sort of assume that they are, unless something nudges them to the contrary.  And that's a shame.  Alex and I recently became mentors to engaged couples wishing to be married in the Catholic church.  Our first couple has been together for a decade, has lived together for most of that time, and have three kids together.  It's probably a bit late in their circumstances to be discerning if married life is what they're being called to.

So with that in mind, I want to raise my kids to keep their options truly open.  I don't want them to assume anything.  We don't know yet to which vocation God will call them.  We want them to stay open to all the possibilities, and this is reflected in our family standards regarding dating.  I know first hand how easy it is to "fall in love" as a teenager and then be unable to imagine a life without the significant other. By then it's too late to start considering if God is even calling you to married life or not.  I can't imagine having to break up with a steady boyfriend because "it's time to discern" a vocation.  Instead, we will discuss the different vocations (religious life, single life, married life) as they're growing up, and allow group dating but no serious steady relationships before age 18.

I got off easy.  I used to "blame" my family for discouraging me from pursuing a religious vocation, but now I realize that, had I actually discerned it seriously, I probably would have come to the same conclusion.  But you see, then the realization would've been my own, and I would've owned it.  I would have been able to know without a doubt that this is what God wants for my life.  Instead, I sort of cowered with my metaphorical tail between my legs, playing the victim to my family's lack of support.

Last year at a retreat I met a woman who spoke of the mixed blessing it was to have a daughter join a religious order.  Until that moment, I hadn't actually considered it from the parents' perspective.  But it didn't change my determination to be sure I give equal opportunity to all the vocations for my kids.  After all, married life - even single life - doesn't guarantee that my kids will live close by after they're grown.  My daughter, at 4.75 years old, may swear up and down that she always wants to live with me, and I always tell her she's welcome to it, but I can't hold her to it.  I may envision a happy multi-generational household like the one I grew up in in Poland, but it is not up to me.

I have grown a lot since considering religious life over twenty years ago.  Chief among the maturation process is the understanding of discernment.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Goal of Faith

"Although you have not seen Him you love him; even though you do not see Him now yet you believe in Him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9

"The goal of faith: the salvation of your souls." What would happen to my soul if I didn't have faith?  Well, what kind of life would I lead?  Where would I find the hope, peace, joy, and strength to overcome my tendencies to sabotage doing good?  Whom would I worship, follow, glorify?  I cannot deny my Maker.  And I no longer question WHO God is, and what He's done for me.

If God is just the god of eastern religions or neopagan religions or modern quasi-religions, then He is only one among many, or an abstract concept like gravity.  There is no hope in that.  I'm still on my own to find my way to a life of purpose and meaning. 

If God is like the God of the Qu'ran, He's more like a political leader than a loving Father.  We already saw this in the Old Testament, and Jesus clarified where this view is incomplete.  I've often wondered why Muhammad seems to have reinvented the wheel of Judaism. 

I mean no disrespect, but from an outsider, there are very few differences between the lifestyle and moral expectations of Jews and Muslims.  There are dietary restrictions.  There are dress considerations.  There is mandatory male circumcision.  There are clearly defined gender roles. There is a focus on marriage and family life for every individual.  There are expectations to fast, pray, tithe.  To an outsider, it seems like the advent of Islam was a cultural reaction to Judaism. 

I am the first to admit that I know next to nothing about the history of the region where Islam was born, but I do know that Judaism (and Christianity, for that matter) was known to the early Muslims.  If they took issue with polytheism, they could've become Jewish.  If they took issue with the incarnation and divinity of Jesus, they could've become Jewish.  But instead, they created what seems to me to be a parallel religion.  I don't deny that Muhammad probably felt nudged by God to do something, to improve the quality of life for the people of the time and region.  But I do not believe God wanted more of the same. 

(If you're wondering why I felt the need to get into a mini comparison between Judaism and Islam here, it's because I discerned conversion to both of these faiths at some point along my journey.  So I am not judging either from a disinterested philosophical point of view, but rather explaining my thought process as to why I did not ultimately end up Muslim nor Jewish.)

But the God of Jesus - the God: Jesus - He brings hope.  Only He brings hope.  The Gospel says that we are loved by our Maker.  We are not alone on our journey.  We are good enough just as we are.  All He asks of us is to repent and believe.  Ignore the naysayers.  Put our mistakes behind us.  Turn to Him.  Follow Him.  

It sounds too good to be true for many.  An approachable God sounds downright blasphemous to some.  The idea that we are not the center of the universe is too difficult for a lot of people to admit.  So they stay in denial, where it feels familiar, comfortable, even "safe".  But it's a perilous false sense of safety.  Denying the truth doesn't make it go away.  The first step of every recovery program is to step out of denial.  Take that risk to meet the unknown.  Make yourself vulnerable to God's will.  Trust God.  

It's the only way to life.  It's the only way to truth.  It's the only way.  That's' why Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but through me"  (John 14:6).  They may come close, but not quite into God's loving embrace.  They may think they've arrived when all they have is a distant wave from God.  He is beckoning you to come closer.  Only Jesus can take you there.

And this is the goal of our faith in Jesus: that we may be saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8).  Saved from a life of servitude.  Saved from a life of hopelessness.  Saved from our own mistakes.  For without the Spirit of God, we are slaves to this world, Satan, and the flesh.  Without the mercy of God, we are here on Earth until our time is up, and then it will have been all for naught. Without Christ living in us, we cannot overcome our frail tendencies of selfishness, self-centeredness, self-consciousness, self-importance.  We cannot remove ourselves from the center of our lives without placing Christ in the center instead.  

And that's what it takes - removing ourselves from the center of our lives, and living for others.  Imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived in service to their fellow sisters and brothers here on Earth.  Imagine the peace and cooperation that would bring!  Imagine the joy and celebration of our diversity!  Imagine ... paradise on Earth!  Because that is God's original design, for us to live in harmony with each other and with Him, forever.  No death, no sickness, no pain, no war, no confusion, no ugliness, no chaos, no fear, no disappointment, no anger, no power struggles, no lies.  But it takes a critical mass of people to make lasting change.  Until we get there, while we are in the minority, we must put on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11) and resign ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God. 

And to anyone who would quote statistics here, alluding to the fact that there is already a critical mass of Christ-followers in the world, and it is still in shambles, I say look again.  The statistics will tell you religious affiliation and church attendance.  They will not show you the heart of the believer.  Because sadly (and I was one of them for a long time), many accept the label of Christ without welcoming Him into their lives.

We must not look to the left nor to the right lest we lose focus or begin to doubt (see Proverbs 4:27).  I have already experienced life without hope, and I am not tempted to rejoin the empty promises of Satan.  I still struggle.  Daily.  I still doubt.  But I know what I stand for now; I know Whom I serve. I have been gifted the grace of faith.  And I so wish you would join me on the journey!  There's so much truth, goodness, and beauty here!

Monday, May 14, 2018

The M Word

Is modest a new dirty word?  It's one thing to note that a majority of people in our society seem to not care about being modest, but I've noticed lately that it's antithesis is being paraded around as some sort of women's right.  And as a woman, I'm both confused and discouraged by it.  I have no choice but to cling to my faith for the only sound, timeless, guidelines to a life of integrity, because secular society offers nothing of value.

Take this article, for instance. A college student in a performing and media arts class was given feedback from her professor regarding her outfit. The professor apparently noted that the student's shorts were "too short" (granted, a subjective opinion), and that "she was making a 'statement' with the clothes she was wearing" (is this not a given?) 

Aside from common sense telling us that people perceive us the way we present ourselves, I also learned this in the context of a feminist class in college.  That for women in particular, no matter what we do regarding our looks, it will be perceived as a statement.  Our clothes, hairstyle, and makeup or lack thereof.  There is no way for a woman to leave her home and not be judged based on what she's wearing.  This isn't fair, of course, but it is a fact of life.  This professor was pointing out to the student that there was nonverbal communication taking place via her clothing, so that she could take that into consideration when making her final presentation.  The professor wasn't being sexist; she was being honest. 

The student chose not to find gratitude for this reminder.  In fact, she took it as an affront and ended up - I kid you not - stripping to her underwear instead.  In the end, after reading the article, I have no idea what her thesis topic was, but I did inadvertently imagine her standing at the front of the class with nothing but a bra and panties.  Not sure this in any way helped her deliver her message.  Instead, her message seems to be quite different, and quite popular among more recent generations.

The message seems to go something like this: "I can wear whatever I want, with no regard to the fact that it makes a difference in how I am portraying myself, and no one has a right to mention anything about it.  I deserve respect regardless if I am dressed completely inappropriately for the circumstances.  I have rights, you know?"

What's missing in the message is this: "I also have a responsibility to present myself in a way that shows that I respect myself, and that I have done my due diligence not to portray a persona that doesn't command respect from others.  I cannot control how others view me, but at least my conscience tells me that I have done my part to dress appropriately."

Here's another example of students, this time in high school, taking offense at their elders (school administrators) making a judgment call technically outside the official school dress code about visible bra straps not being appropriate.  The dress code also doesn't specify the need to wear pants, but I'm confident any bottom-less student would be promptly sent home as well.  Rather than making a note of it and choosing more appropriate tops in the future, the student complains the she "keep[s] getting pulled out of [her] education" for repeatedly wearing tops that reveal her bra straps. What about the education of her fellow students, who may be distracted by seeing her underclothing or excess skin? Essentially, the message here is that it's not her problem.

What we seem to be dealing with now, and I don't know if it's a generational thing or what, but basically, "let's not take people's rights away by mentioning responsibilities which are supposed to go along with those rights. That's so last century.  Rights and responsibilities are completely unrelated to each other.  They do not overlap."

I will say that this issue most definitely ought to apply to both sexes, and the examples here seem to focus only on females.  While bra straps may not be relevant to men, pants are.  And there is definitely a problem with the whole pants-around-the-knees-with-entire-behind-out phenomenon. I'm sorry, but I don't care where it originated, the point is twofold: 1) if you can't actually walk properly without holding up your pants, you may want to reconsider how you're wearing them; and 2) it's called underwear for a reason - it goes under the clothes you show to the world.

But let's be honest.  Other than the falling-off-pants, men just aren't socially expected to expose their skin.  Quite the opposite tends to be the case.  Men's swim shorts are more like skirts in a lot of cases. Tight pants are discouraged. But when I start seeing armpit hair, I have to say something.  Where are my rights to go out in public and not have to worry about seeing too much of anyone?  Where are my rights to free speech when someone does something I find offensive?  Where are my rights to expecting people to take responsibility for themselves, instead of walking around with the assumption that entitlement is a civil right?

Modesty - there's that forbidden M word - is merely this: not exaggerating how one view's oneself in terms of skills or looks; it's being in the world without looking to draw unnecessary attention to one's person.  It's the opposite of arrogance.

But in a society that sees nothing wrong with arrogance and, as a society, runs from vulnerability at all costs, I guess I can't really expect modesty to be valued on any level. And just like that I'm reminded of why following Christ is countercultural.  It's things like this that remind me that virtues are not accepted universally, and that people value radically different things.  I leave you with this thought from Scripture: "if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit" (Matthew 15:14).



Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My New Identity

I don't have to identify as Polish.  I can be Polish-American, or I can just be an American born in Poland.  Polishness is a part of my past, but it is no longer a priority for me.  I appreciate the culture and the fact that the language has an emotional affect on me, but it is now secondary at best to who I really am.  I'm an American Catholic, a woman made in the image of God.  I am a wife and mother by vocation.  I am a child of God; a daughter of the King of kings.  I am called to be another Christ.

Being Polish is something that has been an integral part of my identity all of my life, but why?  Because this is the identity that was given to me. This is what I was told that I was, without any consideration of my life's circumstances making it virtually impossible to actually maintain this identity long-term.  My mother left Poland at the age of 31.  Her identity as a Pole was already cemented.  It is unrealistic to expect that I would internalize the same identity as her, just because I am her daughter and I was also born in Poland.  I was raised in both countries, and I came of age here, in the United States, outside of a Polish community.  I was not allowed to question my identity because it never crossed anyone's mind that there was anything to question.  It wasn't done out of spite or maliciousness.  My relatives just didn't know any better.  Their experience was that of an adult immigrant (my parents) or a non-immigrant (my grandmother and maternal aunt).  Whereas my experience was that of a child-immigrant.  I had no role models with this experience, so it has taken me 30 years to figure out that the identity that was handed to me simply doesn't fit.  I have no reason to feel guilty about it.  It is what it is.

I don't love Poland any less if I merely say I was born there.  I am no less proud of having this other culture in my background.  However, I must be careful here.  Being proud of my Polish heritage does not negate being proud of my adopted nationality - American.  My loyalty lies with my current nation now.  My "home country" is now the United States.  In Polish, the term is slightly different and carries a different nuance: "ojczyzna", roughly translated "land of my father".  This is still very true.  I can still say, in Polish, that Poland is my ojczyzna.  But not my homeland.  My home is here now.  My heart is here now.  I am grateful for my past, but it no longer defines me.  My past no longer has a hold on me.  It no longer demands loyalty nor guilt.  It simply is my past.  

My future, on the other hand, is where I am now, where my children will grow up.  My future is the United States, and I must put aside the petty judgments and comparisons that I grew up with that were attempts on the part of my relatives to heighten my Polish pride.  There is nothing better about being Polish, or European, or American, or any other nationality or ethnicity, for that matter.  There are pros and cons to every culture under the sun.  I am well aware of the dark side of American history.  Colonization of indigenous lands and importation of human slave labor being two particularly evil aspects of the US.  But those, too, are in the past.  It may make my Polish relatives feel better to focus on our differences, but they don't impress me anymore.  Ultimately, we are all children of God, and ultimately we all return to the Father.  The sooner we realize this and start living it out, the sooner we can establish God's kingdom here on Earth. 

So next time someone asks where I'm from, I won't answer the question with a question, as has been my habit: "Originally?"  I'll simply say I'm from Virginia, which is where I spent the majority of my time until recently. 

I won't brag anymore about our multilingual children, either.  Because both of us now speak mostly English to our daughter, and only supplement with our native languages.  I actually wonder if, instead of "native" I should use a different term here as well.  "First" languages seems to fit much better.  There's no denying that my first language was Polish, and my husband's first language was Spanish.  But we are no longer "100% fluent" in them, and that's the connotation I have with the term "native".

We're not any better than other Americans for being a multilingual family, which we still are, even if our kids end up only receptive multilinguals (meaning they understand but don't express themselves in other languages).  We're not any "less than" either, less than those who are more fluent, more dedicated, more plugged into their communities of origin.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  I'll take our current linguistic situation as it is and rejoice that it no longer defines me.

Now there's one more aspect of my drilled-in Polish identity that is on my mind.  My surname.  I made a big deal out of legally changing my name to my mother's much more Polish-sounding (not to mention therefore feminist!) name.  Both my siblings followed suite.  My husband and I compromised by hyphenating each other's names, and our children have both our names.  I've now had this name for 15 years.  And yet it didn't make me any more Polish than when I had my dad's surname.  It didn't empower me as a woman, either.  Because my worth comes from being made in the image of God!  Not from what my name is.  Finally, I regret having caused my father sorrow by abandoning his name.  Even though tradition would've had me abandon it anyway and change it to my husband's, the fact is that I replaced his with my mom's, and that I set an example for my siblings, and now he has a grandson that rightfully should've had his last name but doesn't.

This last one I may or may not be able to get resolved.  But I feel freedom in being able to decide for myself what is most important, and while my past is something I value and am proud of, it does not define me.  It's hard to admit this as it sort of feels like striking out on my own, but I'm turning 40 years old this year - it's high time to strike out on my own, isn't it!?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Embracing my Inner Homemaker

Who am I?  My codependent upbringing handed me an identity that I never questioned.  Until now.  I'm an American Catholic wife and mother. But what does that mean to me on a daily basis?  This is what I will attempt to uncover.

To me, "American" means the sky's the limit.  Yes, there are cultural traditions, but I do not feel compelled to be bound by them.  Since the United States is not a monolithic society, there are at least four types (if you will) of cultures that are part and parcel of the history of US culture.  First of all, that of the various Native American tribes, which sadly remains mostly in the names of various places, both natural and man-made, and very little else.  Second, that of the African American slaves, which have had a significant impact on modern-day American culture, starting with music and food, and more recently (relatively speaking), media and sports.  Third, that of the original European settlers, which brought with it the language and religious traditions, as well as various socio-political norms that our country is based on.  Fourth, that of the vast diversity of more recent immigrants from literally around the world.  I cannot possibly fit into a single paragraph the myriad of ways that cultures vastly different from each other have mixed and mingled to form the modern day norms of the United States.  Essentially, though, what resulted is a wide range of "normal", with a strong emphasis on the choices of the individual to pick and choose what resonates with them and run with it. 

"Catholic" literally means "universal", which is actually a lovely segway from national to religious identity.  It's a way of being a Christ-follower, which is what being Catholic means to me; that I aspire to center my life on Christ.  I believe the Catholic Church has the closest interpretation of Jesus's message available to us, and I love many things about it: the authority with which it teaches on matters of faith and morals; the traditions of beautiful art and music; the social outreach it is known for (hospitals and schools in particular).  I also love the way the Church allows me to approach my Lord in a way I was never able to do in any other worship environment (and over the years I've tried plenty).  First and foremost, I am reminded on at least a weekly basis that God loves me so much, that He has come down first in the Incarnation and person of Jesus, and now in the Holy Eucharist.  I can not only "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8) when I receive Him in Holy Communion, but I can also "keep watch with [Him]" (Matthew 26:40) in Adoration.

I am a wife.  I am not just "a wife", but "the wife of Oscar".  Being a wife is something that by definition ties a person to another, hence we are "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 6:16).  We are of one mind.  We make plans together, we share our joys and sorrows together, we raise our children together, we offer each other unconditional friendship and companionship.  My #1 go-to person is my husband, and vice-versa.  There is no one I feel closer to than him.  Without a doubt, he is one of the best gifts God has bestowed on me.  So for me to be a wife means to be a life partner to Oscar, with all that this entails.

I am also a mother.  This role, too, is by necessity tied to the specific children God has allowed us to raise for His glory.  And that precisely is my job as a mother - to raise little saints.  To be a saint means to be happy with God forever - who wouldn't want that for one's children, or oneself for that matter?  It's quite the undertaking, motherhood.  I believe it is my job - our job - to educate our children, to protect them, to prepare them for life, to share the gospel with them, to help them reach their potential in any way I can.  I do not buy into the modern-day secular belief that pretty much all of these tasks can be delegated to others. In my mind, doing so leaves the parent with the role of "supervisor", supervising the job that others are doing in regard to their children.  Some situations necessitate such an arrangement, and I certainly don't judge those who opt for it.  But it is not what I am called to.  To me, being a mother *entails* staying home with them and homeschooling them.  I wouldn't feel like a mother without these factors in place. 

But how do I incorporate these four roles into my daily identity?  I believe that God has arranged the circumstances of my life so that I may best attain my potential through homemaking, at least in this current phase of my life.  Previously, He had tasked me with teaching English to immigrants and international visa students (I'm not aware of any of my students having had refugee or asylee status).  And I can never be certain where He will lead me in the future.  But right now - and that's all we can ever truly know and embrace - I am a homemaker.  I am tasked with making a home for my family.  I am painfully aware of the lack of homes being made, well, homes, in many American households.  Rather, the home is taken for granted as merely a place to hang one's hat.  With adages such as "home is where your heart is", it is easy to think that "home" simply means "comfort".  And while I agree that one's home should most definitely be the place members of the household feel most comfortable, it is so much more than that.  It is a place of togetherness, of ongoing learning, of building the smallest segment of society.  It is where proper adult roles are learned, and where daily tasks are taught to the next generation.  It is where a family becomes more than simply a group of people bound together by blood or by law, but rather a place where a family develops its own family culture and becomes a unit unto itself.  None of this happens by happenstance.  Someone must be charged with orchestrating the smooth running of the household, ensuring that these various goals are being actively pursued.

The first few times I heard "creative" job descriptions for stay-at-home moms (such as "domestic engineer" or "household CEO"), I chuckled.  But it wasn't because I thought it was funny; it was because I felt shamed for not getting a paycheck for what I do.  I in no way believed that these creative phrases were meant to value the role of at-home parents.  Rather, I felt it was meant as a way to juxtapose terminology one associates with the "working world" with the domestic sphere, as if to prove the utter silliness of there being any true worth in the work done by homemakers.  And even though I never doubted that raising one's children full-time was, well, a full-time job, I did reserve some of the same aversion to stay-at-home wives without children at home.  Actually, if I'm being honest, I even held a dislike towards stay-at-home moms of older kids who attended school.  What do they do all day? - I would ask. 

And this is the crux of the situation.  I had no concept of what went into "making a home".  I mean, I knew there was childcare for those with kids, and some general cooking and cleaning that goes into keeping house.  But I viewed it from the perspective of a child.  I was given chores as a child.  So I didn't see these same tasks, when done by an adult in charge, as anything more.  Not only that, but I didn't consider the various chores that simply weren't being done altogether, or at least not nearly as frequently as they ought to be in order to keep a truly welcoming and cozy home for the family. 

Now I see so many opportunities in this new role as homemaker.  I already mentioned that my husband and I opted to educate our children at home, so "childcare" remains permanently something that we do on a daily basis. And instead of having to manage the feedback of teachers and coaches from afar, trying to inc

There's cooking, too, but as someone who has struggled with a lack of talent for cooking, I can tell you there's a world of difference between, say, ordering food or buying microwaveable meals, and cooking from scratch or even making one's own [hummus, guacamole, jam, bread...] and harvesting ingredients from one's own garden!  While both extremes feed the family, there is certainly more time, work, effort, and planning that goes into the latter, and generally more money going into the former.  In addition, I'm discovering that meal-planning not only helps to keep a steady variety of food, but it allows for the application of nutritional knowledge to maximize health and vitality, not just satiety. 

And as far as cleaning goes... I now have a vision of what I want my family's surroundings to look like.  Organized, not cluttered.  Bright and airy.  Clean.  So the chores that go into cleaning the house serve a higher purpose now.  I aim for a certain end result.  I haven't yet attained it, but at least I have a vision I'm aiming for.  And there are so many chores that I don't remember doing, which doesn't mean they weren't being done... plus there are maintenance issues that also escaped my notice as a child.  When I first became a mom, I timed myself one week to see just how long it took me to do all the chores I was doing at the time.  My efforts amounted to roughly 8 hours - for the week.  So based on what I was doing in maintaining a two bedroom apartment, I seemed to have confirmed that being a "housewife" with no kids to keep you occupied was not a full-time endeavor.  But now I see that I was simply doing the bare minimum.  To truly embrace the role of homemaker, there is always something that can be improved upon, that will keep one busy all week long. 

I admit it - in a sense, I am trying to harness my own version of a June Cleaver.  I want the feel of something of eras gone by in my home.  Of course, I know better than to apply a blanket statement to the effect of "good old days", because I know for everything I wish was still the same as "back then" (and when exactly, that varies), there are things I'm grateful we have moved past.  But the American in me gives me the freedom to pick and choose what resonates with me from various eras, and those are the things I'm hoping to embrace in my home.

I am learning to make our house a home.  I am learning to be a homemaker.  For the sake of my children and husband, but also for my own sake of feeling like my own home is a microcosm of society, I am embracing the role of homemaker.  Not some lofty-sounding domestic engineer or CEO of my family - these roles imply professionalism that seems too distant and cold for my taste.  But simply - home-maker, maker-of-a-home.  What can be more important than making a home for my family, so that they have a literal home base to which they can return from their adventures into the world, a home base where they learn how to treat other people, a home base that serves as a domestic church.  This last one is a new concept for me as well, but I'll save that for another time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Recovering from Codependency

Over the past year, I have focused on self-improvement.  The way this has manifested itself is through spiritual direction as well as counseling.  I remember sitting in the Confessional about this time last year, hearing myself say to the priest that I'm not sure my recurring issues need a spiritual director or a counselor.  The Lord heard me and gave me the answer: I need both!

Through my spiritual direction, I have slowly begun to turn over more and more of my life to the Lord.  I am learning to trust Him and to include Him in all aspects of my life.  I remember when I first started meeting with my spiritual director, Jennifer, how I argued with every suggestion she made as far as making a dedicated daily time for prayer.  I was full of excuses.  I had a new baby and a preschooler at home.  I couldn't be expected to find any time to myself.  And what little time I did have, I wanted to use it to relax.  "Couldn't you look at prayer as this unwinding time for yourself?"  Jennifer asked.  Nope, my go-to response.  When I thought of alone time, I literally meant alone, not even with God.  I wanted to pursue my hobbies, which were reading, watching YouTube videos, or otherwise researching homeschooling, sometimes among other things. I couldn't share this precious time with my Maker.  But I dutifully went through the prepared questions Jennifer would give me at each of our meetings, trying to spend about an hour on them once or twice a week.  I still don't spend daily time in this sort of long, dedicated prayer.  But I have since reframed how I view prayer.  Turns out I can and I do pray throughout the day in a variety of ways, and being conscious of this slowly opened up a bit more time here and there.  My baby growing into a toddler also has helped, and I expect it to only get better!

Through my counseling sessions, I've discovered that my issues have a name: codependency.  Even though I am not an addict in the typical fashion, nor am I married to one, nor were my parents, I nonetheless exhibit classical codependency thought processes and behaviors.  My "drug" of choice?  As it turns out - my mother's approval.  Both she and my dad are adult children of alcoholics, which apparently means that they grew up with a dysfunctional view of the world and then passed it on to me.  They tried so hard to make up for the issues in their families of origin, yet they were unable to realize how overcompensating for one problem led to another.  I'm sure my personality has a lot to do with how I internalized my upbringing.  After all, my siblings have very different attitudes towards life than I do.  My counselor, Dr. Brian, noted right off the bat that since I mentioned my faith, we could incorporate my Christianity into our discussions, which has been a great blessing.  In the last month or so, I finally realized how being able to include God in my counseling has led me to see His hand in my life, all of it, not just the compartment I labeled as "spirituality". 

I have been able to shed some of the guilt I carried for wanting that alone time.  I no longer think of it as either-or between my "research for fun" and my "prayer time".  I have different types of prayer that I engage in throughout the day, and only one of them requires an extended period of silence and light.  I say light, because over the summer I started praying the Rosary every night right before bed.  It is quiet, but I can pray in the dark.  I don't need to reference anything anymore, since all I need to pray the Rosary I've committed to memory now.  Praying consistently every day for five months will do that.  I try at least once a week to spend time with my Ignatian Daily Retreat book and prayer journal, reading Scripture, pondering the questions and comments, and praying from the heart without the constraints of the clock ticking.  I wish I could do this more frequently, but I don't worry about it right now.  As my youngest gets older, I will have more time.  For now, I give the Lord what I have.

And what I have is a new understanding of what my issues are, where they originated, and how to proceed.  I have started attending Celebrate Recovery meetings that just so happened to have started at my church about a month before I joined.  I am bringing to the altar my history, my confusion, my pain, my trials and errors, my hopes and disappointments, my guilt, my efforts gone awry, and I'm turning them over the Lord.  I am looking to the future.  I am trying to reinvent myself for the first time.  Apparently, growing up with codependency has robbed me of the ability to be authentic with myself.  I assumed I knew who I was based on what I was told I was.  No one ever asked me who I was or who I wanted to be.  Now I am making these decisions and it is freeing.  Scary, but freeing.

One of my hangups is that I have an internal voice that is constantly asking me what my mom would think about any given decision I'm making.  It's like it's playing on auto-replay, whether I want it there or not.  I assume that a decision not in perfect agreement with my mother is automatically the wrong decision.  I have allowed myself to be handicapped in my decision-making abilities.  I freeze when pressed for time and having to make a decision, especially a big one, but even small ones like where we should go to eat give me trouble at times. 

Another hangup of mine is that I engage in wishful thinking.  If only my mom could see things from my point of view, then she'd be able to relate better to me and we'd have a better relationship.  If only she would love me unconditionally rather than imply that I am only worthy to be her daughter if I do as she would do.  If only my mom didn't get offended at my attempts to assert myself, then I could assert myself more and live a life of freedom.  Bullocks.  Dr. Brian has helped me to understand that my mother's happiness is not my responsibility.  I actually still get an uneasy feeling typing this.  It feels as though I'm saying that I don't care if she's happy or not.  But that isn't the point at all.  The point is that every one of us chooses to be happy or not, regardless of the circumstances.  Codependents like me and my mom often choose to be happy only as a reaction to something in our environment.  This is not healthy.  I can be happy even if my mom doesn't approve of my choices.  I can be happy even if she gets upset that I disregarded her advice.  I am not obligated to take her advice.  I wish (there's that wishful thinking again), I wish I could ask for her advice, hear her out, and then make my own decision and have her be happy either way.  Instead, what ends up happening if I don't take her advice is that she stops giving it.  As in, she refuses to give further advice in the future because she thinks the point of giving advice is that it ought to be followed. 

Finally, a hangup of mine that was probably the crux of the situation that allowed me to seek out both spiritual direction and counseling is this: I struggle with the first commandment.  I don't make golden calves to worship, but I do worry much more about what my mom thinks than what God thinks.  In this way, I have long idolized my mother, thinking that I was honoring her per the fourth commandment.  I am currently trying to iron out the details of what it means for an adult daughter to honor her parents.  As it turns out, it does not mean obedience anymore.  It does not mean taking all of my parents' advice.  It does not mean doing whatever they want, whether I want to do it or not.  It does not mean trying to make them happy.  This last one is going to be difficult to overcome.  I can't make my mother happy, and yet I still need/want to try.  I think that's called loving her. 

It's sad that I don't really know what it means to love my parents.  Or siblings.  I don't struggle with loving my husband or children.  I don't have any anxiety in those relationships.  I am able to be authentic and vulnerable there.  But when it comes to my family of origin, I get all confused.  Dr. Brian introduced me to a fantastic phrase that pretty much sums up the story of my upbringing:  the undifferentiated family ego-mass.  He got the phrase from a wonderful book I recently read per his recommendation. Another term comes to mind that I've long known but never applied to my family before: groupthink

One of the reasons I struggled with my identity as an adult is because the identity I was spoon-fed growing up didn't match what I felt on the inside.  I was told that I was a Scorpio, Polish, "smart, pretty, and polite".  These were treated as givens.  Now that my faith tells me astrology is not where my trust must lie, I'm having to rethink "my astrological sign's characteristics" and just think about what makes me unique.  Being smart, pretty, and polite were handed to me without explaining what I did or could do to maintain or lose them.  When times and cultures shifted, the old paradigms didn't fit and I couldn't understand what happened.  How come I wasn't considered these things by everyone, if they were a given?

Being Polish gave me the most trouble because I cannot deny being born in Poland to two Polish parents.  I even speak Polish, for crying out loud, so of course I'm Polish, right?  Except that I now live in the United States.  I married a non-Pole.  And while I speak Polish, it's certainly not at an educated adult level, so I am uncomfortable in Polish settings.  I lack a lot of cultural knowledge because I wasn't exposed to Polish culture outside the home, and I didn't have Polish peers growing up.  I'm Polish mostly in name.  My experience is not the same as my mom's, who didn't migrate to the US until she was 30.  And it's certainly not the same as my relatives who still live in Poland.  I'm "Polish, but..."  In other words, I'm Polish-American.  But I grew up looking down on this phrase because my family associated it with Americans of Polish heritage, people who didn't know the language and probably never set foot on Polish soil.  They weren't "Polish enough" to be called Polish.  How could I associate myself with them?  I clung to my Polishness so hard, that I changed my last name to my mom's because it was more Polish-sounding than my dad's.  I refused to check "White" on forms and would write in "Polish".  (White, to me, meant Protestant Anglo-Saxon.) With great pride I announced that we were raising our children multilingual, fully expecting to pass on our native languages (my husband's is Spanish) to our kids without much effort.  I panicked when this last bit started to become a challenge.  At three years old, our daughter already prefers English, and after some reflection, we had to admit that it's because... so do we!  We also prefer English!  I think in English.  I do math in English.  I speak to God in English usually.  I prefer to read in English.  I prefer to watch videos in English. I only find the Bible meaningful in English.

There is a very limited segment of the world that I like in Polish.  Namely, those things that I associate with my childhood in Poland.  I love Polish Christmas carols and other religious (and patriotic) songs.  But there are also plenty of English songs that move me.  I am moved to tears by a select few Polish poems, but again, English poetry also has that affect on me.  There are a handful of Polish prayers that I learned as a child that I easily recite (I pray my Rosary bilingually), but I don't have anything against the English versions.  I clung to these few things and finally realized they weren't enough to build a life around.  I felt like I was betraying my family by admitting - even to myself - that I was actually American, not Polish.  Ok, Polish-American, but that's the best I could do.  Even though I was born in Poland and started school there and even though I speak and read Polish, I am still more appropriately grouped in the category of "Polish-American" than "Polish" (or Polonia na emigracji).  I'm not merely living abroad.  I have made my home here.  For better or for worse, this is who I am.  I felt like I couldn't be both, American and a member of my family, but with my siblings, who were born here and don't have these same qualms about who they are, I was able to realize that 1) I am still in the family, and 2) their approval is not what makes or breaks me.

So yes, I have been addicted - to approval by my mom.  It has been paralyzing at times.  And you know what?  It's not her fault!  I have blamed her in the past - in classically codependent fashion - but it is not her fault.  She raised me based on what she knew.  And she instilled a lot of good in me.  The rest is now up to me.  I can choose to keep letting her micromanage me, because it's what she knows and is comfortable with, or I can choose to set boundaries and assert myself and forge a new beginning in our relationship.  No more conditionals.  No more, if only.  No more.  I am who I am, and she is who she is, and that's all I can ask from God, who created both of us.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Why be Catholic if even atheists can go to heaven?

As eye-opening as my spiritual journey has been over the years, spending time immersed in other traditions, either merely intellectually or even religiously, one drawback has been that it's been difficult to shed some non-Catholic notions that have become ingrained in me over the years.  One of the influences that I'm having to regularly put aside is that of evangelical Protestant Christianity.

As a Catholic Christian, I do not share evangelical Christians' understanding of salvation.  I'm not just talking about the fact that Catholics often get scolded for including works along with faith as necessary for salvation.  (James 2:14-17: "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.") 

Both our current Pope Francis, and his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict, have gone on record as stating that not only do we as Catholics believe that one does not need to be a Catholic to be saved, but that even theists of other religious traditions and atheists can be saved... if they do good works.  So it seems that works even without faith can save?!  This doesn't seem to be found in the Bible, but luckily I am Catholic, so I don't need to be my own Pope and interpret Scriptures for myself.  Instead, I have the magisterium of the Church, with highly learned Scripture scholars who enlighten me. What this means that the authority for my faith comes from both the Bible and the Tradition (note the capital "t") of the Church. 

At any rate, the questions that is begging to be asked if we accept that 1) Catholic Christianity does hold the fullness of truth as much as that is possible this side of heaven, yet 2) one does not need to be Catholic or even Christian or even a theist in order to be saved and go to heaven after death, then.... what is the point of adhering to Catholicism/Christianity/faith of any kind?

This question is already found in the New Testament, where it is worded like this: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope." (1 Peter 3:15).  What's different about me as a Christian than when I was not a believer? Why am I choosing to follow Jesus, if I believe that I could still get into heaven without following Him?

Well, for starters, following Jesus doesn't mean belonging to a specific organized religion.  I agree with what Mahatma Ghandi once said, "I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  Ouch.  I had read that he considered converting to Christianity but ultimately decided against it because of what he says in the above quote.  Following Christ is about a lifestyle, virtues, morals, ethics, standards of holiness, not about a label or membership in a place of worship.  Therefore, there are lots of people who truly follow the example of Jesus - knowingly or not - and therefore fulfill the works part of salvation.  As for the faith... we believe God Almighty is beyond the limits of time and space, right?  So in the moment of death, something we think of as a split-second event, God actually has plenty of "time" to confront the dying soul and offer - for the first time or yet again - the grace of faith.  

That's another reason that the recent popes' statements resonate with me.  After my daughter was born, extended postpartum anxiety and depression lead to my loss of faith.  For over two years I actively tried to regain my faith.  I continued to attend church, read, and pray.  I finally attended a spiritual retreat as a last ditch effort to get my faith back.  This slowly started me back towards God again, but I could not yet say that I believed.  And then, one day, right before I found out I was pregnant with my son, I suddenly believed again.  I felt it.  I felt at home at church again.  I could again sense God's presence.  It was not through anything that I did.  The return of my faith was God's gift to me - grace.  So if I couldn't force myself to believe, how can God who made me, hold it against me?  Faith is a gift from God, not something you can just decide to have.  Therefore, it does not make sense to say that faith in Jesus Christ is our ticket to heaven, because this presumes that we can simply make up our minds to believe something, when in fact we cannot.

The other point is that following Jesus is not merely about "getting into heaven" but about preparing ourselves - and by extension others who may see our lives and be inspired by them - to be acceptable to stand in God's presence.  Heaven is not some exclusive country club that only the select few can "get into".  Heaven is God's abode, it's the merging of our selves with Godself, it's standing face to face with our Creator.  Indeed, none of us are holy enough to merit such an encounter, much less an eternity in the afterlife with God.  For this reason I believe that Jesus's sacrifice on the cross was "the key" to our salvation.  

Figuratively, I explain to my preschooler that Jesus came into the world to find the key to unlock heaven, so that after His resurrection, He was able to do just that, and now, precisely thanks to Him, we are eligible to even dream of going to heaven after we die.  Before Jesus, heaven was simply off-limits.

I mentioned that faith is a grace from God.  Faith is a virtue, so all of the virtues are gifts from God.  Therefore, none of our works are our own, and therefore we have no reason to boast.  Indeed, any good deed we do is made possibly by God first putting that ability, opportunity, and inspiration into us in the first place.  So we do not "earn" our way to heaven because we do nothing outside of God's grace.  This is why doing good works is not at all contrary to the fact that Jesus died for my sins.  My good works are further graces from God that help me lead a happy life and prepare me for eternity with God.

One final note on good works.  I recently read an excellent book, "Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus" by Nabeel Quereshi. In it, I learned that the Muslim understanding of what leads souls to heaven is a balancing scale of sorts that compares one's good deeds with one's bad deeds, and that so long as the good deeds outweigh the bad, the person is granted access to heaven.  I disagree wholeheartedly with this, because this would mean heaven is simply a place where mediocre people mingle.  I do not see how Almighty God would allow into His holy presence people who just barely did more good than bad.  So that is not the view of good works that I am talking about here.  Again, our good works are merely us putting ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us.  They are not evidence of our own intrinsic goodness.

Now, to finally answer the question posed at the start of this reflection.  What is the reason for my hope?  Why am I a practicing Catholic/believing Christian?  Because I have experienced life without faith, and it was dreary.  I have lived without hope and it was literally depressing.  There was no meaning in my life when I couldn't get a firm grasp on God's love for me.  With faith - and by that I mean, with the belief that God loves me unconditionally, to the point of incarnating and dying on the cross so that my sins could be removed from my soul and my seat at the "supper of the lamb" could be secured - my life has meaning.  

So I believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ because it gives my life meaning.  Furthermore, Catholic understanding and practice of Christianity gives me great joy.  It is difficult at times, to be sure.  But to know that I am living for something greater than myself is incredibly fulfilling.  There is no greater peace than to know I am working towards the best version of myself thanks to the instructions available to me through Christ's holy church.  

In other words, I am Catholic not because I believe it will guarantee me entry into heaven.  I am Catholic because it makes this life better, and because it is preparing me for that eventuality of spending eternity with my Lord.

Perhaps this is why Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matthew 3:2).  God's kingdom isn't in some far-off land in the distant future!  God is ever-present, and I can begin to partake in it here and now!  My Catholic faith is what helps me to learn how to do that.  How to love God, how to follow Jesus, how to do God's will.  Getting into heaven is only a small fraction of what it means to be saved.  To be saved from our sins is to start living for God right away.  To die to self, to detach from superficial trappings of the material world, and to see beyond the mundane.  

Being a Catholic Christian gives me great joy and peace!  I'm thrilled that God smiled upon me and brought me back to His fold - not once but twice!  Now, what I do with this grace is indeed not to keep it bottled up for myself, but it also doesn't mean trying to make others follow the path that's been paved for me.  God is present everywhere, including in religions that don't have the gospel.  There is that of God in all of His creation - it's His world and universe, after all!  To think that a person cannot come to know and love God because she belongs to the wrong religion is small-minded and not what Jesus taught.  We read in 2 Corinthians 5:15 that Jesus "indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."  

And it is possible to live for Jesus without even realizing that's what you're doing.  If we believe Jesus is God, and God is the source of everything, then living for Jesus means dying to self and constantly seeking God's face.  That ongoing search and struggle, whether it is rewarded with the grace of Christian faith or not, is what I believe it is all about.  

But I'm no Scripture scholar ;)  That's why I'm thrilled to know that those who are, those who have been tasked by God to lead His flock here on Earth (Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict) agree.  

My hope for others, for those who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus, is that they also find peace and joy in this life, meaning and means of preparing for the next life, and may their good works be evidence of their desire to know and love God.  God will reward each one of us uniquely. I think if more Christians spent more time on themselves, working out their own holiness, they'd be better prepared to enter heaven than focusing on trying to get others to "catch up" with them.  There's plenty to do with my own life.  

Thank you Jesus for this peace.  Amen.