Who Is This Mary?

When Brendan came home from college for Easter, one of the first things I noticed was a coarse metal chain around his wrist. It is a sign and reminder of Marian consecration, a total gift of self to God through Mary—a symbol of slavery, but of a good and holy kind—which says he is devoted to doing God’s will in the most perfect way he can, and that he is following his Blessed Mother’s lead in this.

Our local church has undertaken a parish-wide push for Marian consecration this month, using a 33-day self-guided mini-retreat published by Fr. Michael Gaitley as the book 33 Days to Morning Glory. Jodi, Gabe, Emma, Trevor, and I have undertaken this journey together, in hopes that we, too, will be chained to our Lady in mid-May.

The daily readings in this book are short, but thought-provoking, helping us to better understand why Catholics so venerate and so often turn to the Virgin Mary. What struck me this morning is this question: If Mary was sinless, married to a saintly carpenter, and raising a sinless Son, how is it that she was not known better in her day? I know how drawn I am to certain families in our community—families that strive for holiness even as they struggle with all the typical family dysfunction. How is it that Mary and the Holy Family didn’t have a constant throng of people at the door?

Several answers come to mind. First of all, perhaps people did flock to the house in Nazareth, but in the same way we do today. Perhaps they were exactly the sort of family that neighbors were drawn to: mothers confiding with Mary during play dates and nap time, men seeking Joseph’s advice as he worked in his wood shop, parents nudging their children to get to know Jesus because He seemed like a nice boy. Perhaps people realized they were an exceptional family, just not the Holy Family.

But how could they not have seen it?

Well, Mary’s perfect humility comes to mind. I tend to want recognition when I do good work or suffer in some way. Mary, I imagine, would have drawn no attention to herself, and even moreso than our other saints (who were, in fact, sinners), she would have downplayed any recognition she received as due to God and not herself.

And finally, we sinners have a tendency to project our weaknesses onto those around us. No doubt there were those around the Holy Family and Mary who thought they couldn’t possibly be as good as they appeared. The movie The Nativity Story does a great job of illustrating the effect of Mary’s unplanned pregnancy on people’s perception of her, culminating in people scowling from their doorways as Mary and Joseph begin their journey to Bethlehem. (They can feel the eyes upon them, and Joseph jokes to Mary: “They’re going to miss us!”)

Then it occurred to me that these three thoughts might characterize our response to Mary today, as well. We may turn to her as a friend and confidant, or even as a mother, without truly considering her virtue, her proximity to God, her influence as Queen of heaven and earth—without regard for her role as the model and mold of discipleship and humanity. We might not recognize her as powerful, the new Eve and the saint closest to her Son in all respects, because all of this results from a simple, humble yes: complete obedience and submission to God. And we may simply not think she’s “all that”—however good she may be, she’s not God, so why should we let her stand in between us and the Source of life, holiness, and joy?

My answer to this last question is simple: I know how often I’ve lost God, sought Him alone, and failed to find or reach Him. I know I need help. Who better to turn to than the creature like me who loved God best and followed Him perfectly?

Lenten Hits: Firelight Fridays

One of the most fruitful family sacrifices we undertook this Lent was to fast from electric lights after sunset on Fridays. We had already decided to abstain from television, movies, and video games for all of Lent, when I ran across an article by well-known atheist-to-Catholic convert Jennifer Fulwiler on the National Catholic Register website: “8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights During Lent.” I proposed to the family that we undertake this fast at least once a week, and we decided on “firelight Fridays”once the sun went down on Friday evening, we would use nothing but candles in our house.

My hope was that, as Fulwiler suggests, this would spark a massive downshift in activity and draw us closer together as a family, around the flickering flames. It did exactly that.

The fact that we had already committed to shutting off the televisions for forty days laid a good foundation for Firelight Fridays, since that caused our older kids to break out board and card games and begin playing together and with Lily in ways we hadn’t seen in years. Soon they were inviting Jodi and me to play. Parcheesi, Sorry, Cribbage, Garbage, and head-to-head Solitaire were the favorites, and as darkness gathered late Friday, we would clear the coffee table in the living room, light several candles on a tray, and sit in a tight circle to talk, laugh, and play together. I discovered that Jazz 88 plays the blues all night on Fridays, which offered a suitable soundtrack to our “penitential” family time.

Usually we played together until some of us grew sleepy, then we talked, sprawled across the furniture and floors, until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Often we went to bed earlier that usual for a Friday, and still felt as though we’d had a very full evening, because our time together had started at sundown and was concentrated on the here and now, with the people we love. In retrospect, it strikes as similar to a silent retreat: when we reduce the distractions that keep our eyes and brains flitting about from one thing to the next, time stretches out and we expand to fill it.

By the end of Lent, I was ready to go full Amish and invest in candles for every day of the week. Lily—who each week would begin a countdown to candles on Tuesday or Wednesday—was close behind in her enthusiasm for continuing the practice.

Jodi and the older kids missed family movies and other typical Friday practices, so we compromised: We agreed that, beginning this spring we will commit to at least one Firelight Friday a month: indoors with candles in bad weather; outdoors at the fire pit in good.

Each Lent I worry that we’ll fall back into old patterns as Easter rolls ’round, and we will lose what we’ve gained from fasting. Yesterday afternoon, I picked up Lily from daycare. We hadn’t left Jennie’s driveway when she asked if she could have a snack and watch a show when she got home.

“You can have a snack,” I said, “but we’ll have to wait and see about a show.”

When we got home, she got herself a snack while I put aside my work and started thinking about supper. Next thing I knew, Lily was setting up Clue Jr. to practice playing it by herself. She made no mention of watching a show for the rest of the evening.

If unplugging and lighting candles can work such a change in our biggest little screen junkie, that, to me, is a sacrifice worth sustaining.

Reliving My Childhood

Yeah, that’s the look!

I have a confession to make: I have spent the last few weeks with a goofy grin on my face, reliving my childhood. It began back in November when, for the first time in many year, I finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and decided against my original intentions to begin The Lord of the Rings trilogy immediately. These were my favorite books as a child and teen, and indeed, I still have the Special Silver Jubilee Edition paperbacks I grew up with — tattered, torn, and taped back together again. I have meant to turn back to them for some time now, considering that the the last time I read and loved them I was less than half the age I am now and neither Catholic nor even Christian in any meaningful way.

Consider this as well: for the past 14 years, the only substantive interaction I’ve had with the peoples and history of Middle Earth has been through the hit movies (and an occasional comment from my older two sons, who have read them in the interim). Truly I underestimated the impact of regular exposure to the films without reading the books. I had forgotten just how wonderful these stories really are!

Somewhat disturbing, but it was all I had!

You see, I had grown up with the Ralph Bakshi animated movies and had not loved them. I daydreamed about what the characters and places would look like in real life. In high school, I ran across a hardcover edition of The Complete Guide to Middle Earth with this image on the cover (the rest of the fellowship shows up on the back), and it fueled those daydreams for many more years.

Loved it, except for Aragorn as a musketeer? And Pippin’s hat…

So when the first of The Lord of the Rings movies was released, my love was deep, fueled by the imagery and fanned by a long absence from the text. As I re-read the stories in recent weeks, I was drawn back in: to the breadth and scope of Middle Earth; to the perils at every stage of the journey to Bree, Rivendell, and Mordor; to the practical concerns of traveling unseen across an unfriendly landscape; to the brutality of war and love of honor, fellowship, and song–and of course a pipe and a pint. I shook my head in disbelief, I grinned, I laughed out loud — I even choked up a time or two!

I also realized how utterly short the movies fall. Not simply because of what was left out or added — but in terms of the overall tone and message of the story.

Then on Tuesday I took the older four kids to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Wars has even deeper roots in my childhood psyche: these are the first movies I remember loving, and those stiff plastic action figures are the first toys I ever craved and collected. Even as a grade-schooler I think I recognized that Star Wars had all the elements of the stories I liked best: aliens and spaceships, swords and sorcery, a “lone ranger” and his native sidekick in a rough-and-tumble desert wasteland. Of course, The Empire Strikes Back was the best of three original movies, and of course, Han Solo was the best character — both for the same reason: I was beginning to realize that life wasn’t all sunshine and daisies, and people aren’t always perfect. From that standpoint, Empire seemed very real to me, and Han Solo gave me hope that even a scoundrel could find a way to rise above.

So imagine my delight the first time this image started circulating the Web:

“Who’s scruffy-looking?”

Much has been made about how the new Star Wars movie is a throwback to originals, with so many iconic images like this one that call to mind the movies I grew up with. But on top of that, I found a sense of wonder and chemistry that the three prequels abandoned in favor of spectacle and special effects. Again, I shook my head in disbelief, I grinned, I laughed out loud — I even choked up a time or two. I was a kid again.

Blogger’s Note: I will likely write a more thorough post on each of these experiences in the near future. In the meantime, let me say that, without a doubt, Han shot first. He always more Clint Eastwood than John Wayne, anyway — more of a Lone anti-Ranger than the Lone Ranger himself. Also, if I can’t be Sam Elliott in my elder years, I’ll be Harrison Ford.

Bren Turns 16

Our first child turns 16 today. My Facebook statement sums up my sentiments nicely: “Hard to believe my eldest son Brendan turns 16 today. He is smart, responsible, strong, gentle, persistent, respectful, and faithful — and I love him.” But don’t take my word for the type of young man he is (outstanding in many ways) or what motivates him (faith, food, personal goals, and a particular brand of ginger soda). Consider how he’s spending this special occasion:

  • The movie Cinderella Man and pie last night, and the actual Braddock-Baer fight from 1935 on YouTube this morning.
  • Breakfast burritos this morning, football this afternoon, stuffed pasta shells this evening, chocolate bundt cake for dessert — all here at home, with family.
  • No driver’s license until later this winter or early this spring — he’s got school, wrestling, Confirmation classes, and taxidermy work to earn money for a pilgrimage to Rome next summer.
  • On his birthday list: several Catholic books; the movies Big JakeCaptain America and Here Comes the Boom; the book Cinderella Man, and a “Vires et Honestas” (Strength and Honor) t-shirt from the Art of Manliness website.
  • Theology class tonight with his friends.
He opened his gifts this morning: a secondhand army dufflebag containing the following:
  • two 12-packs of Vernors, plus a book called The Vernor’s Story and a vintage Vernors recipe guide from the 1960s;
  • a handful of 100 Grand candy bars;
  • a jar each of smoked black pepper and hot dill pickles;
  • Fr. Richard Heilman’s books Church Militant Field Manual: Special Forces Training for the Life in Christ, Fortes in Fide: Church Militant Prayer Book, and Strength and Alliance: Church Militant Field Journal;
  • The Naval Academy Candidate Book: How to Prepare, How to Get In, How to Survive;
  • Three movies: Here Comes the Boom and the two recent Sherlock Holmes flicks;
  • and a set of keys to all three vehicles and the house on a Captain America key ring.
Some of it he asked for, all of it he’ll enjoy — and sweet 16 in this case is a relaxing day at home. He’s growing into a fine young man, and we’re proud of him. Much love to you on your birthday, son!

She’s Actual Size

(Blogger’s Note: This post is written with the express permission of my wife, who is 8-1/2 months pregnant and as lovely as the winter is long. Her one caveat is that if we’re still talking about this in June, then she’s gonna be upset!)

Somewhere (or rather, somewhen) around March of 2004, when Jodi was about six months’ pregnant with Trevor and still chilled to the bone by the retreating winter, we stopped at the store to pick up a few things. Jodi walked in because the list was in her head; I stayed in the car and entertained the kids by demanding silence in a menacing voice, then napping. Due to my closed eyes and lethargic state, I did not realize that behind me, Gabe was getting nervous. Someone was approaching the van — closer and closer. A figure shuffled past his window and reached for the door on the van. The door opened.

Gabe exhaled his relief. “Whew,” he said. “I thought a great big fat man in a green coat was coming toward us, but it was just you, Mom!”

Nearly a decade later, Jodi has again dug out the coat, a thick, roomy, pale green affair that isn’t the prettiest, but remains to this day both warm and functional. This fall, a friend of ours offered her a barely worn black maternity coat, which Jodi eagerly accepted. Unfortunately, by the time winter rolled around, the coat could no longer be made to meet in the middle.

We found ourselves in the same pew as our friend last Sunday, and Jodi was self-conscious about not wearing the coat. She hoped to explain after church, but never had the chance. We joked that she should message our friend on Facebook: “Sorry I can’t wear the coat you gave me. Thank you for being the David Spade to my Chris Farley.”

We laughed — hard — together, but the truth is, this pregnancy has been difficult. Jodi’s feet swell painfully every day; she calls them monster feet, and the kids have a daily discussion about whether they look more goblinesque or trollish. (I helpfully observed they look like Chipotle burritos with toes, but no one else found that comparison appetizing.) Her hands swell, too, and she had to have her wedding ring cut off a couple weeks ago. The other day, when a friend of ours who will shoot our newborn photos told Jodi to be prepared to have her hands in the shots, my bride asked me, “Should I see if she can Photoshop them back to normal and add my ring in?”

I tell her she’s beautiful, and judging from the Facebook comments on the photo above, many of you agree — but she doesn’t feel beautiful. This morning, I greeted her with, “‘Morning, glory!” — and she immediately recalled that the kids watched Madagascar last night and assumed I had said, “‘Morning, Gloria!”

“Yes,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I called you a hippo.”

We do our best to keep things as light as possible, knowing we’re almost to the end. Three more weeks until the blessed bundle arrives…and although people gasp at the size of our previous children (9-9, 11-11, 9-5, and 12-2), I think Jodi hopes this one is a 30-pounder. After all, she says, beyond a certain size, it’s all just pain.

By the way, we’ve been humming this song all day. It’s a strange sort of love song, I think…

“She’s Actual Size” by They Might Be Giants
I’m not talking about the lady’s actual size
I’m talking about the lady who is actual size
Words fail
Buildings tumble
The ground opens wide
Light beams down from heaven
She stands before my eyes
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me
Squares may look distant in her rear view mirror but they’re actual size
As she drives away
Big men
Often tremble
As they step aside
I thought I was big once
She changed my mind
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me.
I’ve never known anybody like her, she’s actual size
Nationwide, believe
She’s got
All the money
Money couldn’t buy
She’s got something special
That someone left behind
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me
Squares may look distant in her rear view mirror but they’re actual size
Actual size to her
Her face
Hangs in portrait
On the post office wall
She’s stuck in my heart now
Where my blood belongs
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me
I’ve never known anybody like her, she’s actual size
Actual size, believe
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me
Words fail
Buildings tumble
The ground opens wide
Light beams down from heaven
She stands before my eyes
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me
Squares may look distant in her rear view mirror but they’re actual size
As she drives away
Big men
Often tremble
As they step aside
I thought I was big once
She changed my mind
She’s actual size, but she seems much bigger to me
I’ve never known anybody like her, she’s actual size
Nationwide, believe
You think she’s big, you think she’s larger than life
But if you open up your eyes you’ll see she’s actual size
Etc.