Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Unspoken Faith: When Couples Don't Share Beliefs

Today I have the real privilege of hosting a guest writer I think you guys will really enjoy.

During the month of October when I was running my 31 days series on Catholic teaching on sex and marriage, I got a ton of questions about mixed faith or faith/no faith couples, and what it might look like for marriages where one spouse doesn't practice the Faith, or maybe any faith at all.

Here's one answer to that question.

Sarah* has been generous and vulnerable enough to offer a reflection on what life looks like with 3 young kids and a husband who is supportive of - but not actively practicing - her Catholic faith.

I hope you enjoy.

A couple of months ago, my four-year-old son and I were having a conversation about the Mass. I was trying to explain the Eucharist to him when he cut in: “Oh, but dat’s just for girls.”

“No, Communion isn’t just for girls!” I protested. “Your daddy doesn’t take Communion, but lots of other daddies do. You’ll see – I’ll show you next time we go to church.”

I protested, I assured, I tried to tell myself that his was nothing but a silly little remark, but my heart sank. “Oh no,” I couldn’t help but think: “He’s already noticed.”

In my personal experience, believing is left to the women.

My father is not Catholic. Nor is he a religious person of any persuasion. I’ve only ever seen him go to church for the sake of someone he loves: He accompanies my mother to Mass on Christmas, Easter, and some random Sundays when it seems to matter to her; he attends family baptisms, first communions, and confirmations; he goes with my grandmother to her Methodist church on Mothers’ Day. He does it for our sake, not his own.

Of my mother’s large, Catholic family, few devoutly practice the faith. None of her (many) siblings are married to Catholics. Most have raised their children in the Church, but they’ve done so without the help of their husbands. My cousins (and many of my friends) attended Mass like I did – sitting in the pew every Sunday without our fathers.

As normal as this felt, it always bothered me.

It’s lonely to sit at Mass week in and week out with part of your family missing. It’s especially lonely on days when family blessings are given or on Father’s Day, when dads stand up for a blessing of their own. It’s hard to sit there, looking around at the men scattered throughout the congregation, biting your tongue to keep from shouting out, “I have a daddy too!”

So I resolved that when I grew up and had a family of my own, my children would have their father at Mass with them. I wanted to spare them that loneliness. And I wanted them (particularly any sons) to have the example of a father who attends church.

I did not, however, resolve to consider only devout Catholics for a husband – or indeed only Catholics at all. Because – my father. Ruling out non-Catholics felt too much like ruling out my own father. My wonderful, supportive, loving father – who is in almost every way, a beautiful example of what it means to be a husband.

Without a doubt, my parents have the best marriage I’ve ever witnessed. Growing up, I was just about the only child I knew who never, ever doubted that her parents loved each other and who never, ever feared that her parents might someday divorce.

My parents’ relationship just has that one, gaping hole: they don’t share a faith.

When I met my own husband after years of hoping and praying for “the one,” everything fell into place easily. So easily that I couldn’t help but see Providence’s hand in it. My husband is kind and gentle, hard-working, responsible, smart – all sorts of good things. Our values align. We work well together. We hold the same views on how to raise a family.

I was beyond relieved to learn that he was Catholic. But I was made a little nervous by how he said it: “I was raised Catholic.” Not I am Catholic. I was raised Catholic. Past tense.

Still, he harbored no ill will toward the Church (as too many, sadly, do) and he seemed to think it was valuable for children to be raised in a Faith. He attended Mass with me occasionally. He understood that I was serious about my Catholic Faith.

As our relationship progressed and we discussed marriage, he agreed that we would raise our children as Catholics and that he would attend Mass with us. He was happy to be married in the Church. He was fine with the prospect of not using contraception. And he never, ever pressured me to have pre-marital sex. (As far as ‘devout-Catholic-marrying-someone-who’s-not’ goes, I realize that my husband made it pretty easy on me. Many are not so fortunate.)

But though my husband was raised Catholic and though he (now) attends Mass regularly, I wouldn’t say that he and I share a Faith. That hole in our relationship may not gape as far as my parents’ does, but it’s still there.

I don’t know that he believes.

I don’t know that he doesn’t, either. We don’t talk about it. 

Because to be honest, I’m afraid to hear his answer. Actually afraid: I’m afraid of the sadness it might bring me.

So, we go to Mass. We say Grace before meals. We give to the Church. We do a family prayer whenever I can make it seem as seasonally-required as possible (say, over an Advent wreath). We carry on with the motions of the Faith, me hoping that in the doing, my husband will one day come to believe.

I also pray for him. I’m afraid to say, however, that I don’t do an awfully good job of it. I don’t have an awfully good prayer life, period. I pray in fits and spurts through the day, tossing prayers heavenward as I drive or do dishes or lie in bed. It’s one of the many parts of my life that I continuously try, and fail, to improve upon.

It’s easy to blame any number of things for my failure to pray as I should, but the hardest to swallow is the thought that if I had a devout, prayerful husband, he might encourage me in that effort. I hear (or read) from Catholic friends and bloggers this idea that a husband and wife’s primary goal in life should be to help each other get to heaven. And I’m … left short.

What an idea.

I’m sad to admit how foreign it is to me. In my mind, I visualize this space – say, a square – which represents all that a marriage is supposed to contain: things like love, patience, kindness, hard work, compromise, consideration, generosity, appreciation, etc. And I think, “We’re doing pretty well. We check those boxes. We must have a pretty decent marriage.”

But then I read one of my favorite Catholic blogs, where I learn of spouses praying together as they work to come to an important decision, or a husband engaged in a ministry at church, or a father praying over his children – and I start to see a space beyond that square. I see that there can – and should – be so much more to a marriage, to a family.

I see freedom.

I see the freedom to own one of the most elemental parts of who I am – a believer. I see the freedom to be open about my beliefs, my questions, my doubts – and to know that my husband will reciprocate. I see the freedom to accept our weaknesses, to say them out loud and to – together – ask for God’s help in overcoming them. I see the freedom to lean on my husband, to trust him in this part of my life, just as I do in others.

I also see grace.

What grace must come to a husband and wife who pray together. What grace must come to their marriage, their family, even their friends and the community to which they belong.
I wish I had that.

But I don’t. At least for now, I don’t. So I’m left to work on this (very important) part of life by myself. And I wonder: How can I be more open about my faith, so as to expose my family to it and help them to see it as normal and important? How can I provide them with examples of men who believe? How can I encourage my boys to consider a priestly vocation? How can I attract my husband to the Faith without hitting him over the head with my evangelism?

How can I help to open my husband’s heart and mind to God?

A couple of weeks ago at Mass, I found myself standing in the vestibule, looking through the glass at my husband. He was sitting in a pew a few rows from the back, mostly by himself. The baby sat quietly on his lap; there were no squirming, climbing boys to distract him from the Liturgy of the Word. (Our older boys were attending the Children’s Liturgy of the Word – big mistake – and I was standing at the ready in case they caused a ruckus.)

As I watched my husband, I prayed for him. I prayed that those quiet moments, those sacred words, might have some effect on him. I prayed that he would – bit by bit, Sunday by Sunday – someday come to believe. And that he would someday express that belief to our boys.

While I stood there, our three-year-old ran up to me. “I haffa tell you somedin’!” he said with some urgency. “I find Jesus up dayer!” He was pointing at the large crucifix above the altar. My boy was breathless; his eyes were wide. He saw Jesus.

I knelt down next to him, followed his pointing finger to the crucifix, and expressed some of the excitement he was giving off. I smiled and hugged him and said a few words about Jesus.

But the short, sweet moment was soon tempered by worries I’m only now starting to recognize:

“How long will this last? How long do I have before he grows tired of church, of thinking on Jesus? 

How can I help this all sink into his little mind before he chooses others’ influence over my own?” And the most worrisome question of all: “When they’re grown, will my boys believe?”

I have to admit, when I think on the situation much, I’m left feeling quite anxious. But one thought soothes me no matter how grim things seem: 

“Every time I go to Mass, I love my husband more.”

I realized this when we were first married and it’s held true ever since. Whether we go together or I’m alone, whether we’re happy or in the middle of a disagreement, I leave every single Mass loving my husband more than I did when I walked in. I can only attribute this to God and the graces he bestows on us through the sacraments.

 Though my husband may not believe (or if he believes, may not care much), he and I both received the sacrament of Marriage. Though he hasn’t received the Eucharist since our wedding day, I have received it countless times.

These sacraments matter. They matter, and I believe we continue to receive blessings because of them. 

So I hope. 

I hope that after witnessing the Consecration for the 942nd time, my husband will feel moved to receive the Eucharist himself. I hope that my boys will notice the good, believing men of our parish as they line up every Sunday to receive Communion. I hope that I will receive the graces I need to nurture my own belief and to be a convincing witness to my family. 

I hope that someday, we will all feel the freedom and experience the graces that come from sharing a Faith.

*Not her real name.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Talking sex (and marriage) with Fountains of Carrots

(I cannot WAIT to see the google search results for that title)

Hey, I got to do something really fun last month and chat it up with two of my favorite bloggers, Haley from Carrots for Michaelmas and Christy from Fountains of Home. They've recently launched a new weekly podcast, and I think it's going to be really good.

I really love finally hearing people's voices after I've "known" them by their writing voice alone, you know? It's almost always a huge surprise how they sound in real life. So, just to set your expectations nice and low, expect me to sound like a 15 year old girl from Southern California. (Except I'm double that age, and originally from the Bay Area.)

Anyway, enjoy my little brush with celebrity, and have a beautiful wine-drenched and pie-filled Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jesus doesn't care about your epidural

... At least not any more or any less than He cares about your harrowing trip to the dentist sans novocaine, your half marathon finished under 2 hours with a stress fracture in your tibia, or your heroic push through to bedtime while your better half is away on business and the natives are restless. And pooping in the bathtub.

I've observed an uncomfortable phenomenon in the Catholic blogosphere whereby some moms seem to be trying to out-suffer each other with gruesome labor tales, stories of timing contractions to correlate with each mystery of the full, 20-decade rosary and, my personal favorite, uniting the incredible pain of labor to the mystery of Christ's redemptive suffering on the Cross. Because holiness.

This is right and good. It is what we as Christians are called to do: unite temporal suffering to the salvific passion of Christ.

But, here's the thing. There are as many ways to suffer virtuously as there are human persons on this planet. And there is nothing uniquely efficacious about labor pains and the grueling achievement of birthing a fresh human being. Aside from the fact that in modern day 21st century America, it might be the closest many of us come to true physical anguish for the first time in our lives. And I totally get that. That is powerful.

But there is nothing about labor - particularly labor sans meds - which makes the suffering incurred more holy or more effective than any other cause of suffering. And there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to forgo or mitigate some of that incredible physical pain with modern medicine. It doesn't make you less of a Christian. It doesn't make you less of a hero. And it definitely doesn't make you less of a mother.

Look, I'm all for a good birth story. God knows I've penned a few in my day. But let's cut the crap and stop trying to one up each other in the delivery room (or in the birthing pool, as it were.) It's not a competition. And you are not more holy than what's-her-name if you did it all without a needle stuck in your back or an incision across your bikini line.

We live in a time where medicine is available to mitigate the pain of labor. And God did not say "though shalt not numb thy nether regions for to give birth is to remove the stain of original sin."

That's actually what baptism is for (the stain removal, not the numbed nether regions. But I digress.)

I love that some women are prepared to enter into the birth experience with a clear mind and veins absent of any controlled substances. My two best friends have birthed 7 children between them using nothing stronger than castor oil. Good for them!

And if that is your story too, then good for you! May your child know of the real sacrifice you made, for whatever reason, to bring them into this world au natural.

But may you never presume that the months of sleepless nights with a newborn, the horrors of mastitis, the hell of postpartum depression, or the pain of recovering from a c-section are somehow lesser sufferings. We each carry our own crosses. And no two look the same.

There's no one way to have a baby. Thank God for that.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The cult of busy (and the tyranny of options)

I have been thinking of the last thing I wrote about, that rare unspoiled hour of childlessness that all too often evaporates during a panic-stricken foray through the aisles of Target, fruitlessly searching for - and failing to come up with - real satisfaction.

At least that's a big part of what I was thinking when I wrote that.

I want real peace in my life. And I want real peace for my family.

What we have now, truthfully, is often very close to military efficiency. Cleanliness, sometimes. Very often my laundry is caught up and our closets are well-stocked with clean options. But we don't have a lot of restorative, fulfilling down time.

I thrive on efficiency. And that is a gift. But I'm really good at abusing the gift. And at confusing the gift for the purpose, if that makes any sense?

So efficiency is a gift. But I have the sense that it was given to me to accomplish great things for my family, and for other people...not in spite of them.

All too often I rush past the people in my life to get to the goal, whether it's the finished laundry, the crossed off to-do list, or the final frenetic burst of productivity that accompanies those blessed 5 minutes when the kids are buckled safely into their car seats in the garage and I'm running back inside, flinging forgotten items into my purse, scooping up returns and library books and pieces of trash and turning off lights and stashing mittens and and and...

I hardly ever really rest. I hardly ever only do one thing. And then when I have the time to do more, I often spend it one of two ways:

Option 1. Utterly paralyzed by the specter of what could be. Thinking of all the myriad options of amazing I could accomplish in the 45/90/120 minutes I've been given, I drive aimlessly from retail outlet to parking lot to school building, accomplishing nothing of real substance and feeling increasingly more frantic with each 15 minute increment that passes.

Option 2. Full on relaxation mode. Suck the marrow from the moments. Drink all the lattes. Paint all the toe nails. Make sure that every.blessed.minute. is tallied and spent according to the gospel of WHAT WILL RELAX ME THE MOST, DAMMIT, BECAUSE I AM SO STRESSED AND I MUST SQUEEZE THE JOY FROM THESE PRECIOUS MOMENTS.

That option never ends well, either. Because I never feel full enough. I never feel relaxed enough.

And I'm realizing more and more, it was never meant to be about how I was feeling, anyway.

What if, instead of falling prey to the lie that downtime can restore me on a soul deep level, I just accepted whatever came to me as a gift from the hand of a good God who knows what I need - and when I need it?

What if I didn't have to suck the friggin marrow out of my red Starbucks Christmas cup like that latte was the closest damn thing I was going to get to a "break" or "me time" in a week?

What if I could just relax and lean in, wherever I happened to be, whether it be a time of leisure or of toil, and accept that if this was what God had on my agenda for the day, it must be just what I needed?

That would be so relaxing.

If I could fold a basket of laundry without simultaneously racing through a mental checklist of what was happening next, while barking out a rosary under my breath for the kids to hear and calling it catechesis?

If I could slip away for a precious 45 minutes on the treadmill and just, I don't know, walk. (Or run. Maybe sort of a moderate run.) What if I didn't also have my earbuds in listening to the news while scrolling through my inbox on my phone. And what if I was fine with that?

What if there was no mental or physical list of feats accomplished and tasks checked at the day's end...but just a sense of fullness, just the satisfaction and gratitude of another day of life drawing to a close. And maybe the house was not so clean, but maybe the kids were happy. Maybe I didn't feel like falling face first into a giant wine glass and escaping ala the internet at the stroke of 7pm.

I'd like to live that way.

I'm really, really trying to open my mind and my heart to the possibility that busyness is not next to godliness, and that trying to accomplish as much as possible, be it leisure or work related, is no way to spend an hour. Let alone 24 hours.

Carpe diem. But gently, and selectively. More like carpe minute. And then the minute after that. And the minute after that.

I can't make any more decisions in a day than I'm already making. But I can choose to make fewer. And I can rest in the knowledge that in letting certain things go, I'm opening up to the possibility of greater peace, greater rest, and greater contentment.

Last weekend's surprise complimentary facial at Macy's. I was 100% freaking the freak out the entire 40 minutes about whatever else I might be accomplishing with every second that elapsed.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Yesterday I went to Macy's in search of, well, nevermind what I was searching for. What I ended up finding was a frigid little corner in the back of cosmetics populated exclusively by Origin's products, repped by a very enthusiastic elderly woman named Janice.

Janice had a flowing, blonde mane and deep rings of sea green eyeliner, which perhaps should have scared me off, but which somehow lured me into a false sense of security and wellbeing. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself reclining in a spring loaded beach chair, subject to a complimentary mini facial involving rice, tea tree oil, and numerous iterations of ginger.

Ginger is so hot right now.

As Janice worked powdered rice and eucalyptus oil into my dull, lifeless pores, she regaled me with stories of Japanese women washing their tired faces in dirty, standing water after hours of toil in the rice paddies. Wouldn't you know it though, the starchy rice water ended up being miraculously regenerative and had a stunning effect on the complexions of these poor field laborers. I'm sorry to say, I left that department store with a $30 tube of concentrated rice facial scrubbing paste in my clutches.

Janice was aaaaaaalso kind of into the occult, and she had a fairly distinctive facial and vocal tic which may or may not have been supernatural in origin, so I felt well within my rights praying a silent litany of Hail Mary's as she peppered me with stories about Native American healing energy and reiki treatments, all while spontaneously cackling and throwing her head back at a jarring 90 degree angle.

I'm not gonna lie, my face feels amazing, but it was not the most peaceful 45 minutes I've ever spent.

It was, however, fairly pleasant. And aside from the $80 I accidentally spent on products, it was free!

I was thinking of how lucky I'd been to stumble upon a bored aspiring cosmotologist with a "spiritual" side whilst wandering through racks of overpriced, middle-aged clothing when it occurred to me that even this small coincidence, this badly-needed moment of being "off duty" was a complete and utter gift to me.

It might not seem like God could - or would - work through a New Age aficionado of a beautician in a department store to fill a tired mom's cup, but that's precisely what He did for me yesterday afternoon, as the snow fell and the temperature dropped and my darling husband sat at home watching a losing football game and all three kids.

He's good like that.

I often find that when I'm searching and plotting and planning to pamper myself, when I'm actively seeking escape, those are the times when relief and relaxation are most inaccessible.

Do you ever have that feeling, when you've been given an unexpected childless hour to do ... whatever, and instead you fritter away precious minutes agonizing over what to do, how to spend it, where to do, how to squeeze the very most out of it that you can because dammit, you will never be alone again?

I feel that way all the time.

Almost every time my mother's helper comes. Those evenings when Dave graciously pushes me out the door for a solo trip to the gym. The stolen, infrequent hours when all three kids miraculously fall asleep at the same time.

I usually sit there frozen, paralyzed by my own fear of choosing wrongly how to spend this coveted and precious time. And I end up at Target or doing laundry or...something. Something so utterly banal and unfulfilling that even if I accomplish massive sections of my mental To Do list, I still come back home empty, restless, and unfulfilled.

I sound completely selfish and a little bit crazy, but I'm telling you, it's not easy to be "off." It's one of the hardest things about motherhood, for me, that even when I'm technically not on duty, my heart and my head and God knows, the anxiety levels, are still fully engaged in the business of mothering.

I'm trying to do better.

I'm trying to seek out pockets of calm, moments of grace that God wants to give me. Not stolen moments, or experiences carved out of long days with gritted teeth and a heart full of resentment, but gifts given. I'm really trying to see the opportunities He presents for peace, relaxation, and renewal, and to accept them with gratitude and with the expectation that He wants this. And it's okay if I turn my ringer off and just ... close my eyes and settle in. Whether it's for a few silent minutes in Adoration or for a hot peppermint mocha. Just breathe. Accept His invitation to surrender the reins and abandon post.

Even if Janice is rubbing rice powder into my eyes and asking about my chakras.