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Archive for the ‘Spiritual Life’ Category

Zeal and Fervor

I’ve been thinking more about “fervor” since finishing my reading on St. Dominic last week.  My husband and I are always trying to sort out our life.  It seems, at times, to be one long series of transitions without time to ever settle into a boring, predictable routine.  This is, in part, objectively true.  The schedule of an academic is always changing.  Two different semesters each year with long breaks at Christmas and over the summer.  Throw in lots of moves and a baby every couple years and we are in a state of constant transition.

But that’s not a great place to live and we are continually frustrated by the fact that we have a lot of things we’d like to be doing but aren’t.  It’s very difficult for us to prioritize the various competing goods in our life.  So it is that we are often searching for a motivating idea of some kind.  I know that our faith tradition gives us plenty to work with already and I’m not discounting any of that.  In fact, I think we often get ourselves in trouble when we try to strike out too forcefully on our own path.  But the fact remains that we have discerned through years of prayer and conversation and living life together that there are various things, large and small, that we feel called to do in our family, our parish, our community.  But despite feeling that “call” we are still sorely lacking in motivation when it comes to putting all the pieces in order.

We have some years adopted a practice of having a “word” for the year.  The last two years (no surprise!) I’ve had trouble settling on an idea to guide my prayer and reading and meditation through the year.  Both times my husband has suggested the word “zeal” but it never did it for me.  Though it’s already most of the way through February, I think I’ve decided to adopt for this year the word “fervor”.  Aren’t they the same?  The dictionary lists them as synonyms and the official definitions are very similar.  But there is a subtle difference, at least in the way I hear the two words.  Zeal to me connotes activity, and enthusiastic promotion of an idea without regard to audience or situation.  Fervor, on the other hand, connotes contemplation.  Rather than indiscriminately enthusiastic action it is intense feeling.

(Now, I don’t mean to start co-opting words and putting my own spin on them just to make them say what I want.  I may be splitting hairs here–the Bible often seems to equate the two–but let’s just agree to be okay with the fact that I’ve finally become comfortable with integrating a good idea into my life.)

I’m going to one even further and say that, when interacting with the world, the goal, for the zealot, is to be right and to convince the other person of it.   Whereas the fervent person is motivated by charity.  The fervent person wants to love as God loves.  The fervent person has, as Guy Bedouelle says, “a dynamism that begets joy.”  And this joy-begetting fervor seasons and leavens all one does.  And all fueled by charity.

So, my word for the year:  fervor.  Past words of the year have been academic (Mary, Eucharist, and Incarnation) or practical (Homemaking) so this is quite a different idea.  But I’m confident I won’t grow bored trying to cultivate charity, beget joy, and live fervently.

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I posted awhile back about some of the persecution our family has faced taking our kids to Mass.  I wanted to add an addendum about one of my pet peeves:  cry rooms.

Most new churches have them–a small, soundproof room towards the back of the church.  Usually it is separated from the rest of the church by a large glass window so that the celebration of Mass can be seen and the celebrant is miked and piped in over speakers.  Many wonderful pastors and church architects believe they are making Mass more “family-friendly” by incorporating cry rooms.  They are sometimes stocked with children’s toys or books and sometimes the bathroom is even located there.

I hate cry rooms because the implicit message is that you should use it.  After all, why would you not want to take your squirmy two-year-old to a comfortable room where she can be entertained and make as much noise as she wants while you (the parent) can actually concentrate on praying at Mass.  There are at least three reasons I would not want to do this.

First, because a cry room concentrates all the squirmy, noisy kids in one spot.  The last thing a slightly noisy child needs is another slightly noisy child.  They start to play off each other and each gets noisier.  Once you have more than one child in the cry room your attention is completely off Mass and on supervising the impromptu playgroup:  making sure your child is taking turns with the Jesus puppet and so forth.

Second, the cry room inhibits teaching children how to behave at Mass.  If every noisy toddler gets shuttled off to a playroom there is a strong disincentive to behave in the pew.

Third, the existence of the cry room decreases the tolerance other parishoners have for the noises of children.  Those who are on the fence about having kids at Mass are that much more likely to shoot a disapproving look at the parents.  This only increases the number of children in the cry room, thereby adding to the first problem.

Now, I am not saying that children should always remain in the church no matter how much noise they might be making.  Parents should do their best to keep their children from being unduly distracting at Mass.  But it is a daily judgment call on the part of the parent as to when that line has been crossed.  During our daughter’s second year of life she was very difficult at Mass.  We were making a concerted effort to get her to behave at Mass so her behavior was being judged relative to herself.  There were months-long stretches where a good day was one where she did not have a full-out, on the floor, kicking and screaming tantrum.  If she was only making chattery toddler noises we tried to look on the bright side and keep her in the pew.  She now behaves beautifully at Mass about 95% of the time.

So, what do we do with our noisy children if it becomes necessary to exit the church?  We first take them to back and hold them the entire time.  Our children are taught that they have more freedom of movement if they stay in the pew.  I have found that simply standing in the back and moving around slightly is enough to settle a noisy baby.  If it becomes necessary to leave after that I use a side door to duck out into the narthex.  The narthex is usually cold in the winter which is good for two reason:  first, it encourages me to duck back into the church  at opportune moments if my baby is settled and second, it engages the sympathies of the congregation.  No one at our parish thinks I should spend more time than necessary in our cold narthex where there is no place to sit.  I reserve this area for really screaming babies but otherwise try to stay in the church, or in the pew.

What can priests do to make their churches more family-friendly?  First, being vocally welcoming, from the pulpit, towards families is very important.  It is embarrassing (for me) when I have the only children at Mass and the priest makes a generic statement about children being welcome after mine has screamed for twenty minutes straight.  But I’d rather have the support and take the embarrassment than not have the support.   This sort of thing is easy to work into homilies on a regular basis.

Second, a very small family room can be useful.  At our last parish the only bathrooms with a changing area were very, very far away.  There was no cry room because it was a very old cathedral.  The pastor re-purposed a large closet directly off the main church.  It already contained a window and sink.  He added a comfortable rocking chair, nursing stool, changing table, and privacy screen.  There was a speaker so Mass could be followed but the room was so small that there was no idea that parents should hang out in there.  You changed your baby, calmed a screaming baby briefly, or could nurse privately if that were important to you.  But no one lingered.  There were never two kids in there at once.

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Kids at Mass

It happens almost every morning.  We walk as a family to our beautiful old church for the morning Mass.  My almost five-year old races around back in his wheelchair to use the ramp and Eric accompanies him.  Maragaret (I’m three and everything in my life must be ritualized) insists on entering by the front door and we each have our own section of the front steps to use.  She shows me how strong she is by heaving open the heavy front door and then the door separating the narthex from the church.  We enter the silent, prayerful church and as Margaret sweetly begins her trot up to the very front pew an ear-piercing shriek of delight shatters the silence.  The shriek comes from my baby.

Most days I walk Margaret up to the front pew where she rejoins her father and brother, drop off the back carrier and return to the back of the church where I will quietly pace behind the last pew or, more usually, retreat to the narthex and listen to Mass through the speaker system.  On a really good day I remain in our front pew but by the time I’m heading up for Communion my shirt is covered in drool and spit-up, the collar is stretched out, my sodden scapular is hanging outside my shirt and my little boy’s bald head is covered in lipstick marks.

When this routine began a month or so ago I was tempted to despair.  But I’ve been through this before.  Twice before.  This time is a little different.  For one thing, I’m grateful for the seven or so months when I was able to remain in the pew most of the time.  William’s laid-back temperament has been a blessing.  With Margaret we went almost two straight years without ever sitting through an entire Mass.  On the other hand, the two older kids do better if Dad remains in the pew and Mom takes the baby so this time around it’s always me who is hightailing it out the back.

I also feel confident knowing that the very small, very aged daily Mass crowd at our new parish think our kids are little angels sent from heaven to bless their days.  They are kissed and caressed every day (I’m not kidding) and have lots of prayers and rosaries coming their way.  The two priests at this church are also very supportive of our Mass attendance.  This hasn’t always been the case.  We’ve been glared at by fellow Mass-goers in the past.  My husband (three years ago today, actually, on the day of Margaret’s birth) was threatened with bodily harm if he continued to bring Joseph to Mass.  The pastor there–our pastor–didn’t want to “take sides.”  That same pastor many months later published a bulletin announcement–two weeks in a row–asking parents of small children to please participate in Mass from the (unheated) narthex.  At another church I was once asked to leave the foyer with my noisy daughter and we were once asked from the pulpit, during a homily, to leave Mass.   When we didn’t leave that priest angrily confronted my husband after Mass asking, “Why do you bother coming?”

Why, indeed?  I confess I’ve asked myself that more than once.  During the season when I would typically be the one in back holding my daughter who on one occasion was screaming so loudly that a police officer left Mass to see if I needed medical help and look in at my husband only to see that he had to keep up an almost constant sotto voce chatter with my son to keep him from going berserk with boredom it was very hard to keep at it.  And then I would find that I was too-narrowly defining prayer.  There is some ideal, I suppose, in kneeling at Mass, head bowed, rapt in silence and meditation.  But how much more powerful is the prayer of the mother or father standing as a witness to the culture of life, enduring sometimes outright persecution, straining to create some interior silence in which to embrace the cross–all the while quite literally embracing his or her vocation–hoping for a few crumbs of grace from the table of the Lord.

Fortunately the Lord offers us more than crumbs and Eric and I know that without that regular infusion of grace we would never make it anywhere–never mind daily Mass.  And at Mass, as in all things, it is so hard to gauge when a child has turned the corner.  One day I expect I will realize that I haven’t had to take William out of the church for some time.  And it is hard to believe now that the same girl who blesses herself with holy water, runs up the aisle, genuflects and sits more or less attentively for thirty minutes every day is the same one who subjected us to daily tantrums for months on end.  And that introspective boy sitting in his chair on the aisle?  The one who sometimes acts a bit spastic at the most reverent points of the liturgy?  Who knows what grace is entering his young heart and forming his character.  I expect the Lord will bless Eric and I with many all-too-silent years of prayer.  For now we bring our children in hope.

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One nice thing about Lent being so long is that it’s almost never too late to begin again. I usually find myself needing to do this five or six times over the course of the forty days no matter what I give up. This year I was so hopeful about my schedule plan because it seemed doable. And what good is penance if you can’t do it? I wrote out a rough copy in my notebook and decided to try it out for the first half-week of Lent before typing it neatly and placing it in my planning notebook. I told myself I would follow this schedule to the letter unless my husband or the children needed me or I was too sick to get out of bed.

Ha. Never say unless. I don’t really get sick all that often and the annual cold that comes around sometime late winter is enough to whine about but it certainly doesn’t keep me in bed. My most recent ailment didn’t keep me in bed, either, but it would have if I hadn’t had children. I was sick like this once before and I spent a couple of weeks in bed that time. I won’t give you all the gory details but I will tell you that mold makes me very, very sick. If I’m completely stressed out it exacerbates the effects of the mold. We’ve cleaned up more mold than I care to think about in the last week or so and I’ve been working on reducing stress in my life. I’m feeling well enough to blog, so I figure I’m well enough to give another go at my Lenten schedule. It’s providential, I think, that I chose this particular discipline for Lent because I think the schedule will really aid in my recovery. It’s balanced and generous but covers all the necessary chores and points of responsibility in my life. Just over a month until Easter. Plenty of time to grow in holiness.

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