Monday, December 30, 2019

New Year Resolutions for Those in the Trenches

Not in the physical trenches, but a shining example of making the best of it in war-time.

Some New Years are easy to celebrate with gutsy promises of better nutrition, exercise, and relationships, but other New Years . . .  not so much. Sometimes we are ending a difficult year, and the year ahead promises that the challenges aren't going to go away soon. Whether it's raising a pack of kids while nursing an infant or caring for a family member with a chronic illness or just having your back up against a wall while trying to recover from financial disaster (or a combination of all three circumstances), reality makes it difficult to pull the wool over one's eyes with glib optimism.

Positivity is good to a degree, but it can also be disastrous if it causes one to ignore what really must be faced. In these difficult seasons, a list on "How to be Fabulous in the New Year" can rub salt into wounds. When sitting on a pile of rubble that was your home, it's difficult to comprehend "fabulous."

"Fabulous? Why yes, I'd love to be fabulous, but right now, I'm in the middle of a war," she said, clinging to her cup of tea.

I have entered New Years before with a list of hopeful resolutions about organization and time management that brought changes for the better; so I'm not knocking practical steps to fabulous. There are seasons for such resolutions.

I have also entered New Years, weary and skeptical, short on time and money, needing more validation that it's okay not to be perfect than maxims on how to be the best person ever. If that's where you are, then I share with you what I've learned over the years:

Resolutions for Those in the Trenches

1. Trust that God loves you. Yes, you! When you're in the trenches, you're vulnerable to all kinds of doubt. You don't know how long the war is going to last, but you know it won't be over soon. It's easy to look at others who left the trenches and think that God loves them more.

Keep your focus on God and remember that He loves you, exactly where you are. You don't have to have a bunch of resolutions to make Him love you better. He couldn't love you more than He does in each moment, good or bad.  If there ever was a maxim that was true always, no matter what, it's that God loves you.

2. Trust that God loves others. This is a truth that sets us free from performance. Are we "little Christs," the salt and light of the world? Absolutely! Are we God? Absolutely not! Our finite selves can do all kinds of things that seem impossible, like surviving the trenches, but we cannot be all things to all people. Trusting that God loves others gives freedom to say "no" . . . and to receive a "no" from others.

People in the trenches are often in situations that require self-sacrifice. They know that life is full of necessities that are hard to do. But we also know that we have limits; we need boundaries. Boundaries are easier if you know that God loves everyone.

The people you find difficult to love, He absolutely adores, as much as He adores you. He is the one who will fulfill their needs, and He may or may not use you to help. In the fullness of His love for you and others, He may want you to say "no" to someone or something, even if others don't understand. Conversely, He may have others say "no" to you.

A part of abandoning ourselves to God's will is accepting the no's and yes's in our lives without casting judgments on God or others. This is most easily done when we trust God's love for all.

3. Trust God, not the journey. Although I kind of like the "trust the journey" memes on social media, it can lead to folly if not taken with a grain of salt. Stopping for a bit on our journey and making sure we're on the right path is vital for our well-being.

Change may not always be necessary, but taking stock is. We need to risk taking peeks over the trenches and assess if we should stay. Sometimes we can see that the battle stopped. If that's the case, we absolutely should step out, breathe the fresh air, and figure out next steps. Other times, we will see that the battle is still raging, but we need to consider different tactics. It is also possible that we'll see we're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing and shouldn't change a thing.

4. Don't do it alone. Let's face it, people are difficult, and sometimes being lonely seems easier than messing around with humanity and all the opinions that come with it. But don't isolate yourself.

Friends are not mind readers, and this means you will have to reach out and risk being vulnerable. Some friends will get it, but others will not. Forgive the friends who are dunderheads.

I have found that it's not only necessary to stay connected to friends, but it's also necessary to stay connected to community. There are times that being in the trenches meant I had drop everything and focus, but that intense focus didn't last long. Eventually, for my own sanity, I had to go back to some volunteering. There were people who criticized me for this, but other people (usually other survivors of the trenches) who encouraged me to keep reaching out.

Although being too busy can be a hindrance, not being busy enough can lead to being closed-off and self-focused, which will lead to depression.

5. Take time to lament. This is Biblical. This is not wallowing. This is freely going to God in honesty and saying, "This sucks."

Yes, God is all-knowing, but God still wants to hear you express your heart. I admit there is a mystery in our conversations with God; I have no doubt that prayer is a mystery. You must go to Him and tell Him about your sadness, frustrations, and anger. He is your best friend, ever and forever.

If you don't take time to be real with God in the trenches, to pour out your heart about how broken it is, then your heart will harden. Hard hearts in the trenches might survive the war, but they will take longer to recover.

Lament to Him, and then let your laments turn to faith-filled praise. If you don't know how to start, go to the Psalms.

6. Be grateful. I don't mean this to be trite. Some days are so bad, one can't see anything good. If you can't find things to be grateful for, pray for eyes to see your blessings.

When times are heavy and dark, I usually find it most necessary to go outside, no matter the weather, and look around at nature. Taking time to marvel at creation is a tried and true way of lifting our minds from our problems and seeing the good.

You were created for a purpose; God loves you; not a tear is wasted. It's hard to believe all this in the trenches, but thankfulness begets hope.

7. Laugh. Make a resolution to laugh! See the irony in your day and chuckle. Take a step back and see how funny it is that laundry and dishes are signs of a good life. Find a book with funny quotes that you can easily pick up and put down for a chuckle. Watch a silly movie.

Be sure to laugh at the negative voices in your head that tell you the war will never end or that God has abandoned you. The Father of Lies can't stand being laughed at; so laugh all the more.

If you absolutely can't laugh, do whatever necessary to get yourself some sleep or time away or both. If you still can't laugh, you are in serious trouble; reach out for help.

8. Remember perfect is the enemy of good. Nothing kills the human spirit faster than perfectionism. Nothing. Forget perfect; aim for good. A little good is better than giving up because you couldn't be perfect.

One day I will write a thesis that perfectionism is a fruit of unhealthy fear. Nothing good comes from fear. Perfect love, which only comes from God, casts out fear. Be courageous; embrace love; do good.

What NOT to do in the trenches:

1. Obsess about diet. Trying to eat only healthy foods is actually becoming an eating disorder. Google it, and you can find the study they did on it a few years ago. It's true that a healthy diet will help with depression and coping, but if you obsess over it, you will hamstring yourself.

Mothers are great at shaming other mothers for their choices in food, and you don't need that kind of negativity. I've found that most mothers who do that kind of shaming have never really been in the trenches themselves. They're usually control freaks who are so uptight, it's a miracle they can walk. Pray for them; they need help.

Just do your best and leave the rest to God. Seriously. People keep trying to go back to a time when diets and families were perfect. Over and over again, historians will tell you that time NEVER existed. Cocoa puffs are a lot better and more fun than starvation.

Sometimes in the trenches, one finds a diet that does help a lot! If that is you, then stick to your guns, no matter the criticisms from other mothers who found better diets or who hate diets . . . Again, just do your best, do what works, and don't worry about it.

2. Obsess about exercise. Exercise will make you feel better; it's true. Being a perfectionist about exercise, or beating yourself up about lack of exercise, will make you feel worse.

I am a fan of running. There are times, however, I could not run even though I wanted to. At those times, I would do jumping jacks and other exercises in spurts throughout the day. Dancing in the kitchen with the kids is a great way to laugh and be grateful and get exercise! Some seasons have had weeks go by when my only exercises were rocking fussy babies and going up and down stairs with pukey sheets and towels.

Seasons come and go. Take advantage of seasons when you can throw yourself into an exercise routine, and don't despair when you have seasons of bench pressing laundry.

3. Obsess about sleep. Yes. You need sleep. We all do. Sometimes, though, we face crises and the best we can get is broken sleep. You will look better and think better with sleep, but when you can't get a solid 6-8 hours of sleep at night because you have a nursing infant, sick kids, or some other trial demanding your energy, the worst thing you can do is obsess about your lack of sleep.

During these times, definitely aim for good rather than perfection: cat naps do wonders; caffeine is a gift; cucumbers on eyes reduce puffiness.

4. Obsess about Me-Time or anything else. For me, different seasons in the trenches meant different definitions of "me-time." It is necessary to care for yourself, but in some seasons a simple 15-minute shower seems like a glorious gift, while in others it feels like bare minimum. So take care of yourself, but again, avoid being a perfectionist about it.

BONUS from the Saints: The Sacraments are key.

No other branch of Christianity has suffering down like the Catholics. Since becoming Catholic, it has become clearer how beautiful the Church is, especially in times of suffering.

Based on my writing about the saints for the last three years, I can tell you that the saints would all agree that key to doing well in trenches is embracing the Sacraments, especially Confession and Holy Communion.

There is a practical side to the sacraments, which enriches your relationship with God and people, but there is also a mysterious transcendent side — real grace.

If you're wondering if it's worth the effort to go to confession, even if you have no mortal sins, I can tell you it is worth every inconvenience you have to overcome to get there. If you're wondering if daily Mass is worth the extra time out of your day, I can tell you that it will change your day for the better like nothing else. And the saints would back me up.

God never leaves your side! But the saints would say to take every advantage of the sacraments that you can. It is a worthy resolution, and one that will be more rewarded than all the others.

You, beloved, will get out of the trenches. One New Year's Eve, you will grasp in your fist a tidy list for exercise, diet, and time management goals. You may notice someone at the party, though, standing in a corner looking bewildered and tired, feeling a bit guilty that her resolution is only to survive. Because you did survive, you can give her a genuine hug and tell her that her resolution is enough, that surviving is a noble feat, and one day she will get out of the trenches, too.

©2019 Emily Woodham

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Spiritual Warfare and the Courage of the Little Flower

So much of the emphasis for spiritual warfare in Protestant circles revolves around memorizing scripture, declaring it, and using it in prayer. Then comes walking in it: You forgive when it seems impossible, do the right thing despite your feelings, persevere in prayer when the world tells you to stop hoping . . . be kind to your enemy even though that first act may feel like a wound to your heart.

These things hold true in Catholic circles, too, and I find it funny that what so many Protestants say is innovative to their beliefs can be found unbroken in the lives of the saints.

Last month, I researched and wrote about St. Thérèse de Lisieux for the Idaho Catholic Register. I had been encountering tidbits of the saint since our family first started hanging out with Catholic homeschoolers in Austin, almost 9 years ago. 

At first, I thought she was not a saint for me. She seemed so docile, and I preferred brave St. Joan of Arc or the feisty St. Nicholas (who would become my confirmation saint). The longer I hung out with Catholics, though, there seemed to be more to their beloved Little Flower with her Showers of Roses than I first was told. After becoming Catholic, I encountered her more frequently. Then this year, I became determined to really get to know her. I almost immediately regretted it.

Praying to her seemed to invite new trials that assaulted my pride, and I hated it. But there was that unstoppable feeling that I couldn’t quit asking for her help. Then at last in September I began reading The Story of a Soul, and everything clicked.

I think if I had read it years ago, it wouldn’t have packed the powerful punch that greeted me almost immediately when I began to read her words. Her lesson of the “Little Flower" impacted me the most.

The idea of the Little Flower came from a French prayer card in the 19th century which had a picture of Jesus in prison, awaiting his trial with Pilate. Just outside his prison cell, a little flower bloomed to console His hurting heart.This scene from the imagination of the artist made a profound impression on St. Thérèse. It became key to her having true humility, free from the false humility of self-loathing or the self-aggrandizing of an inflated self-image.

In The Story of a Soul, she said: “It seems to me that if a little flower could speak, it would tell simply what God has done for it without trying to hide its blessings. It would not say, under the pretext of a false humility, it is not beautiful or without perfume, that the sun has taken away its splendor and the storm has broken its stem when it knows that all this is untrue. The flower about to tell her story rejoices at having to publish the totally gratuitous gifts of Jesus. She knows that nothing in herself was capable of attracting the divine glances, and His mercy alone brought about everything that is good in her.”

Knowing that God loves each of His little flowers in His great garden gave Thérèse courage, and it gives me courage, too.

Over and over, the saints say that we must know ourselves, our strengths and our weakness, and we must be ourselves by taking courage in God's love for us. It seems antithetical to what one would think of as humility. However, it calls to my mind St. Paul's polemic on the foolishness of Christ versus the wisdom of the world.  

C. S. Lewis said that courage is the testing point of all the virtues. We can't follow God's commands to be unafraid and to not worry without having faith in His love and goodness. We can't obey His mandates to love our enemies, to forgive, to keep our mind on things above, without trusting Him. This faith and trust requires courage.

Prayer and scripture are necessary for spiritual warfare. This is why the Liturgy of the Hours is so powerful in shaping hearts. But we know that faith without works is dead. We have to live this Christian life. We need to lead lives of virtue, as defined by Him. 

Each person has to find their inspiration for this courage, and I have found mine in the Little Flower. Perhaps because, like St. Thérèse, I struggle so much with my pride swinging from self-loathing to self-aggrandizing. But when I remember that I am His little flower, it helps me not to worry if I feel passed over, nor overwhelmed when I am called to act. 

You can equip a soldier with the best gear and weaponry, but if that soldier lacks courage, he or she will be useless. Knowing that I'm His little flower has made me brave. Of the roses that St. Thérèse showers on us, bravery may be the least lovely but the most necessary.

©2019 Emily Woodham

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Review: After This Life by Father Groeschel

Last month, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I got to talk about Father Benedict Groeschel's book, After This Life: What Catholics Believe About What Happens Next.

It's a small book with a lot to say. We really only went over some of the highlights; each topic has so much depth.

My segment starts around marker 13:45.

I'm grateful Morning Light lets me on to talk about books I love!

©2019 Emily Woodham

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Holy Archangels

It was the end of July in 2014, and a cold front had blown in, making the morning delightfully crisp. I had been reading a book that a priest loaned to me on the sacraments, and I found myself with fewer and fewer arguments against our family going over to Rome. I decided that morning to mull over my thoughts and pray while taking the baby for a walk.

Not long after we moved to Boise in 2012, I bought The Catholic Home by Meredith Gould, a PhD who converted to Catholicism from Judaism. My hopes had been to adapt ideas from the book to make our Anglican home more liturgical, but my plan backfired, albeit in a slow, steady burn.

The kids and I had been praying in front of Planned Parenthood with our Catholic friends, which is where we learned to pray the rosary. Our peaceful pro-life group also prayed the Prayer of St. Michael. I used Gould's book to help me pray the rosary at home on my own, but I had trouble justifying praying to St. Michael by myself.

This is not because I didn't think St. Michael was important! One of my favorite feast days was Michaelmas (September 29, which also celebrates all three Archangels); I celebrated it with the kids from the time they were toddlers. It just seemed strange to me to ask an angel to defend me when Jesus could defend me Himself. But the more I thought of the saints and angels as friends, the easier it was to ask for their help, as I would any friend on earth.

Although the book from the priest was on the sacraments, it encouraged me in my love of the communion of saints . . . and the angels. So that morning, I brought The Catholic Home with me on my walk, deciding that I would go to a park bench and pray.

As I walked to our neighborhood park, which is acres of rolling hills and soccer fields, I told the Lord that if He didn't want me to pray to St. Michael, to please stop me or show me how I was wrong. My baby fell asleep on the way, and I settled on a bench atop a hill under a shade tree.

I prayed the Prayer of St. Michael, and no lightning bolts descended to show God's displeasure. I then prayed the rosary. Then I sat in blissful peace, until my baby woke up.

As we walked down the hill to the path through the park, I felt such a joy looking out across the empty fields. Then I spotted what looked like a small deer coming over a distant hill. My excitement over the deer turned to fear, because as it came closer it was obviously some sort of large dog. It was still far away, but it was aiming for us! Then I realized it was a coyote.

Coyotes had been found in our neighborhood a few weeks before, but I was told they would leave people alone. I kept thinking that this coyote would change course as I walked forward on the path, but he kept coming toward us. I prayed so hard, as I tried not to panic and keep a steady pace on the path. I looked around for help, but still, no one was in sight.

The coyote kept charging after us, and I began to wonder if it was time to stop and throw myself over my baby to protect her. I asked St. Michael to protect us, in a last desperate prayer, and the coyote suddenly jerked to an angle away from us. I wanted to break down in tears from relief, but I kept walking, not knowing if the coyote would try and come back for us. As we were leaving, groundskeepers finally came over the hill.

So with that, my friendship with St. Michael deepened. I began praying not only the St. Michael Prayer, but also the prayers to St. Gabriel and St. Raphael, each night over my family. One day, I decided to pray the prayers over my brother and his wife. The next day, when I told my brother, he asked me to keep doing that because they had had the most amazing day! Then I started praying the prayers nightly over others who were laid on my heart. Now, I pray the prayers over groups of family, friends, our bishop, priests, deacons, seminarians, and my co-workers.

I loved the angels when I was a child; so praying to them as an adult has been like finding old friends after a long time of being apart.

I ask St. Gabriel to help me when I need some extra strength for all kinds of things, from opening jars to lifting heavy boxes. I ask St. Raphael for healing and when extra comfort or direction is needed. I ask St. Michael's help for protection and also for healing--which is what his intercessions were known for in the ancient Church.

My copy of The Catholic Home became well-worn and eventually fell apart. These are the prayers as I pray them for memory. I'm sure you can look them up somewhere to get a more official translation of the Latin. When I pray them over a person or group of people, I substitute "us" for their names, and switch out the pronouns accordingly:

Prayer to St. Michael

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle,
be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil,
may God rebuke him, we humbly pray.
And do thou, O prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
cast into Hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Prayer to St. Gabriel

Blessed St. Gabriel the Archangel
we ask that you intercede for us
at the throne of Divine Mercy.
As you announced the mystery of the Incarnation to Mary,
so through your prayers,
may we receive faith and courage, find favor with God,
and redemption through Christ our Lord.
May we sing the praises of God, our Savior,
with all angels and saints in heaven
forever and ever.

Prayer to St. Raphael

Blessed St. Raphael the Archangel
we ask that you help us
in all our needs and through life's trials.
As you through the power of God,
restored sight and gave guidance to Tobit,
we humbly seek your help and intercessions for us,
that our souls may be healed,
our bodies protected from all sickness,
and that through divine grace,
we may become fit to dwell
in the eternal glory of God in Heaven.

©2019 Emily Woodham

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What I Learned In Ten Years of Blogging

Ready for tea, courtesy one of my daughters.

On January 16, 2009, I started my first blog, Rivendellchick. The sketchy details of which I put on my About Moi page.

I was never a strong blogger with tons of link-ups and give-aways. I tried to get into those circles once, but I found it too time consuming to keep up.

So did I learn anything in 10 years of blogging? I most certainly did:

Writing takes moxie. With each post, I am aware that anyone at any time could read my writing. Anyone. And not everyone likes my style or my ideas. Despite the potential for criticism, I write anyway, and I write what I want. I often feel like the storm trooper above who went to my daughter's tea party: a little ridiculous yet bold and ready for anything.

Don't forget your family. If you wouldn't want your family to read your post, don't write it. If you're writing to punish your spouse or kids because it's been a rotten day, don't post it. This may dampen the realism of your writing, but be creative and figure out a workaround for what you want to say. Apologizing for a spoken word is a lot easier than apologizing for a written one. Saying something in private is completely different from telling the internet.

Don't be afraid of feedback. My husband used to read everything I wrote before I posted, making suggestions for edits and giving me general feedback. His input was a tremendous help! He rarely has time to do this now, but my oldest two kids will sometimes help me out with their proofreading. Although my confidence has grown as a writer, I find that I haven't outgrown my need for advice.

Life experience is golden. Although oversharing is off the table, the best writing comes from the heart. You don't need to write directly about your experience to use it. My experiences have helped me beyond the blog in researching certain topics for articles, and they have provided insights into interviews. Writing is healing. Allow the wounds of your life to enrich your writing.

Take care of yourself. Writers, like other artists, usually don't live by conventions. We tend to be night owls on a schedule determined by deadlines. So "taking care of yourself" is something you have to define as the individual you are. But whatever you need to do, do it. My worst writing happens when I let my tank run empty. I need to pray; I need to read; I need family and friends. Through it all, I need tea.

She took the Nutella from the pantry while I was writing.

Keep perspective. My views have changed over the last ten years. My core beliefs and my top priorities have remained the same, but there are things that used to bother me (like all the sugar in Nutella) when I was younger that I now consider inane. There are also things that I thought were unimportant that I now see as crucial (Nutella sandwiches to the rescue!). These changes used to hold me back from expressing my opinion, fearing that I might change my mind again. Older friends and family, though, have shown me that it's okay to change. It's healthy to take stock, to reassess. Now my goal is to write with a little more humility than when I started out, leaving room for differences of opinion, remembering that we're all human and we all need one another.

Just  . . . write. Do it. Write and don't look at your stats. Let your imagination give you as big or as little an audience you need to keep going. Write about the spider web outside your window or the dying rose bush you had to prune to a nub. Write about a magical world you created. Write about the political changes you want to see in the world. Write about the things your soul tells you to write. And then write some more. In writing, especially blogging, the only way to fail is to quit.

©2019 Emily Woodham

Friday, June 28, 2019

His Friend

Since February, but especially over the last two months, a friend has had me thinking a lot about what it means to be Jesus' friend (John 15:15). Our conversations began on the Feast Day of St. Claude de la Colombiere, the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. (We can thank both saints for the beautiful devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.)

Being Jesus' friend is something I have thought of before, and it makes me think of the old hymn that I still love, "What A Friend We Have in Jesus." But my friend's thoughts have gone beyond the superficial niceties of friendship. Our conversations have often challenged me and led me to pray, "Lord, show me how to be your friend!"

During these months while turning over in my mind the aspects of friendship with Jesus, the Sacred Heart kept popping up in things I read. As a Protestant, the idea of the Sacred Heart was difficult to embrace. Until one day while driving around, I heard someone on Catholic radio explain that Catholic devotions help bring to light the different facets of the Incarnation: They are not necessary for salvation, and they are meant to deepen, not detract from, our relationship with God.

The devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus came at a time when France was reeling under the legalistic, oppressive religion of the Jansenists in the 17th century. Jansenists were scrupulous and viewed helping the sick and the poor as being beneath them. They denied the sacraments, including Confession and the Anointing of the Sick, except to the few Catholics they viewed as being worthy. People rarely heard about the love and mercy of Christ and became disheartened. Believing that there was no hope for them to be holy enough for a relationship with God and condemned to sin, many people abandoned the faith for lives of debauchery. The fiery love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus helped turn the tide.

A part of the devotion of the Sacred Heart is to console the heart of Jesus with our love. This is a strange idea to Protestants because they see Jesus as not needing our love, especially our comfort. But the Sacred Heart relates Christ's humanity to us humans, allowing us to give to Christ concrete gifts of love, just as we give to our family and friends.

Someone once warned me that if we focus too much on friendship with God, then we risk forgetting that Christ is King and is our Master. My friend, however, pointed out that because we are His friends, unlike merely dutiful servants, we know Him. This knowledge of Him changes our attitudes about obedience.

Obeying Him flows from loving Him which flows from knowing Him, much like the old St. Joseph Catechism states.

When I mentioned friendship with Christ to my seventeen year old son, he said it made him think of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship may have started out following Aragorn's leadership because he was the rightful King of Gondor, but they followed him to the gates of Mordor, the gates of Hell, because he was their friend.

Focusing on my friendship with Jesus hasn't made life easy peasy, but it has made it easier to trust Him when life resembles scenes out of Mordor.

Friends choose to love one another, and there is a great comfort in meditating on Christ's choice to love us, rather than loving us out of some kind of spiritual contract or obligation. Unlike the rest of us though, His unconditional love is perfectly faithful and true. This is the perfect love that casts out fear.

So there is no fear that He will change His mind and choose not to love us for any reason. He called the disciples His friends, even though they screwed up and weren't perfect. He calls us friends, even though we also fall short. This friendship invites honesty, intimacy, and depth. This friendship gives peace, joy, and courage.

This is the perfect love, the perfect friendship, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

And how do we return this love? By being His friend.

©2019 Emily Woodham