Thursday, November 8, 2018

To Mom, Ten Years Later

Dear Mom,

For ten years, I have missed you. Although I believe that somehow you see me and my family and pray for us, there is a compulsion I cannot shake to write a letter to you. Perhaps it is because I miss your notes in the mail so much, and I regret that I did not write back to you more often. Or perhaps it is because one day I realized that so much of my writing stemmed from a need to reach you. 

My writing is like the crayon pictures my four year old daughter draws and holds up to my face: "Look, mommy! I made this for you!"

The keen awareness of your uniqueness as a person, as well as the irreplaceable relationship of mother and child, has at times made grief a crushing experience. It was just after midnight on November 9, 2008 that we lost you. Although I have been blessed with so many friends, no one can ever substitute you.

Whenever I think of you, whether in grief or joy, I am grateful that you are my mother.

When I went back home to help Dad go through your things, a year after your death, I found a draft of an acclamation and blessing you wrote for my graduation from high school. You submitted something else to the committee, and I had never seen before this unpolished version. 

You said you hoped I would be a writer and that I would sing. You wrote that you could see me studying in Europe and writing books in an apartment in Paris, a kind of Jane Austen for the 21st century. It made my heart so full, I cried as I read it, and I remembered my vow to you at your gravesite.

At the end of your funeral, I had looked at your coffin, and I remembered how you would encourage me to find the time to pursue passions outside the home. I thought it would be silly of me to add more things to my plate, especially things that seemed unnecessary and frivolous. But when I stared at your coffin, as the pastor said words I can’t remember, I swore to you that I would live more.

I begged God to somehow help me not be afraid to let go of trying to control and manage so much. Over time, it was clear that homeschooling wasn't working for our family. It was (and is) humbling to admit. 

The older I am, though, the more I see that humility is the gateway to happiness.

You knew this about humility, although you still tried to do more than you should. When your heart stopped, I told my husband that no matter what the coroner said, I knew it was because your heart had broken. When the official word was that your mitral valve had collapsed, I knew it was the physical merely giving evidence to what had happened in your spirit.

“Why didn’t you help her?!” I yelled at God, when the kids were out of the house. It was in February of 2012. “And how can I believe that You won’t let me and my family down?”

When my ranting was done, immediately I felt Him whisper to my soul, “I wanted her to fight, and I want you to fight, too.”

Mom, you know how much of my life I struggled with God's sovereignty, always questioning how His sovereignty intersects with our free will. One of my favorite memories of you is talking about it in the car after school and your trying so hard to explain to me the mystery of it. Discerning God's will, especially when to act and when to wait, was never easy for me. I think this is why Calvinism had so much appeal to me: it's a lot easier to believe that choosing isn't really a choice.

That day in 2012, though, I was emboldened that somehow I did have a free will, and it mattered how I used it. Later I would read a quote from C. S. Lewis that to take away our free will, takes away our dignity. My experience says this is true.

When we became Catholic in 2015, I had no doubts that your prayers had a hand in it. From the day you died, the Catholic Church seemed to call me to her comfort. 

A year before we entered the Church, a Protestant friend asked point blank if we were going to become Catholic. I said no, and I meant it. 

I had a kind of vision of Mary when our youngest son was in the hospital with pneumonia, just two months after you died. I had a dream about Mary after we moved to Boise. The kids and I belonged to the Catholic homeschool group, and we prayed the rosary in front of Planned Parenthood. I had even started praying the rosary on my own. I had read books and decided the Catholics were right about communion. But I couldn’t get over Confession. The theology behind it seemed so contrary to grace.

Then just at the right time, I met a priest, who gave me a book. While reading it, I overcame my misgivings of Confession, and a year later, our entire family became Catholic.

I know you would laugh at the irony of this: Confession, which was a stumbling block for so long, is a consistent source of overflowing grace for me. It still makes me nervous, but time and time again, it is in the confessional that I find the advice and clarity I need, along with absolution and healing.

The faith you passed onto me makes more sense in the Catholic Church. All the things you taught me find consistency and depth in the Church's teachings. Someone said that you were thinking about becoming Catholic before you died because you were so tired of meandering through Protestant churches. You would have had so much fun as a Catholic; it would have suited you beautifully. 

My priest said that whatever a person is while on earth, when they get to heaven, they are Catholic. (His sense of humor often reminds me of yours.)

When I see my nineteen year old Irish dancing, or watch my four year old buzz from here to there insisting on helping everyone, or notice my toddler running up to people in pews to say "hi," I see that the trait of being busy has been handed down through the generations. From your mother to you to me to my daughters, the worst thing to do would be to tell us to do nothing— to tell us that we cannot help, that we should not be involved. 

There is comfort in seeing this common trait, but with it comes a caution against wearing oneself out. If we don't take care of ourselves, we become too tired, and we die too soon. 

Earlier this year, while I was folding laundry, the four year old stopped her playing, looked up at me, and said, “Your mom loves you.” She said it with such conviction, that it felt like you had reached out and hugged me. It’s not the only instance when heaven broke the barrier of dimensions to let me know you still care, and I’m so thankful.

I am now near the age you were when I got married. It is not beyond possibility that in the next ten years, one or more of my children may marry and grandchildren might be born. There are untold adventures ahead.

But I know that in another 10 years, I will still miss you. I will still have mornings when I don’t know what to do, and I will think of calling you for advice, only to realize seconds later that I can’t. I will look at old pictures and miss your hugs and laughter. I will see something beautiful and hope that you are somehow with me and see it, too. I will light candles for you and say prayers, and find comfort in knowing that you are praying for me and my family.

When you died, I lost my mother and one of my best friends.

I love you, Mom.

With more love and prayers,


©2018 Emily Woodham

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In Praise of the Superfluous, or Another Reason We're Catholic

Our priest swirls chrism onto our infant daughter's freshly baptized head. His tenderness makes the angels sigh. She looks into his eyes. She does not know that throughout her nine months' sojourn in the womb, this priest blessed her tiny, hidden frame each time I went up for communion. He scoops her into his arms and then lifts her for all to see. Applause welcomes her into the Christian family. For days after, women and men of the parish come to bury their faces in her scented hair, filling their senses with the promise of new life.

Midnight Mass begins at midnight, not a second sooner. It is not for the faint of heart. Snow covers the roads and is still falling. Inside, the church is warm and bedecked with greenery and gold. There is no guessing that this is a high holy day. The violin and organ, candles and incense, everyone in their very best, all such extravagances declare the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

We are tired and hungry. The altar is bare; the tabernacle, empty. It is Friday, and Sunday seems far away. It is a stark day, a deep contrast to the night before and the Saturday night to come. But it holds its own beauty. Kneeling at the rough-hewn cross, people adore with meek kisses. Music stops. Silence waits.

They run up to my car, my two younger sons. There is a lingering fragrance of incense in their clothes and hair as they climb in and buckle up. The older boy shows me a new blister on his thumb from the censer. It's not a complaint, but rather a showing off. They regret that Father had to remind them about a few details during Mass. But Father is a kind man. There is no sense of failure, only a will to remember better next time, because details in funerals are holy, no matter who is being buried.

My oldest daughter is flushed after hours of work in minutiae. Her patience in learning the art from women in our church rewards her with accomplishment. She holds up the string of beads crafted by her nimble hands. It hangs in perfect symmetry, a sign of excellence. Each bead is from careful selection. The crucifix and medal are treasures found on different days, months apart, but they are an elegant match. The rosary is ready for prayer.

My oldest son is the second lector at the Mass. He is not gregarious, but he is not shy. His weeks are full of little things that few notice. He likes praying in the Adoration chapel. He defends the Sacrament of Reconciliation to someone and explains the Eucharist to another. He stays up late listening to a grieving friend. He goes with me to take comfort food to a distressed family. As he reads from a letter of St. Paul, the words are not meaningless to him.

The four-year-old runs to the altar of Our Lady and prays loudly, even though we told her heaven doesn't need her to shout. She dances around the baby, who has crawled up to St. Michael's altar, her favorite place to practice standing. When we leave the sanctuary, the four-year-old runs to another altar and bows her head for seconds. Then lifts her beaming face and blows kisses.

The white-haired priest in the little chapel raises the Host at the consecration, and the baby claps. She raises her hands and coos. Then claps again. For several Masses in a row, each time the priest raises the Host, the baby repeats her gleeful routine. Anyone who notices is delighted. They say babies see angels and laugh; maybe babies also see the miracle of the epiclesis and cheer.

My husband's musing from years ago comes to mind: Catholicism is for Christians who need a lot of hand holding. I think we became Catholic because we realized we are not exempt from needing our hands to be held. We need what Protestants see as extraneous.

Intermingled with all the sacred is the messiness of our lives. We suffer from a dark sense of humor, staying up too late reading (or watching movies), and losing patience. We get busy and neglect chores. Try as we might to be timely, procrastination is still a blooming work of art in our family. Kids misbehave during Mass; not everyone wakes up on the sunny side; debating seems to be a favorite pastime.

We are imperfect, but in our Catholic faith, we find solace and strength.

If the Sacraments are crutches, then the more we partake of them, the better. If we are weak because we need beauty to draw our minds to God, then let us be frail. If we are scrupulous because we find glory in the details, then let us be pedantic. If we are simpleminded because we feel closer to Jesus in our fasting, then let us be stupid. If we are too sensual because we revel in smells and bells, then let us celebrate that Jesus' senses were filled when He prayed in the Temple. If we are gluttons because feast days bolster our faith, then let us exult that they called Jesus a glutton, too.

If Catholicism is superfluous Christianity, then let us be overwhelmed. Each symbol and gesture is Gospel. Every sacrament is grace. Let us be poor and needy that we may be filled evermore.

©2018 Emily Woodham
(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

Monday, July 30, 2018

That Singing Thing with Feathers

It is enough, my mother would say, that we have salvation. She would then add that everything else we get from God is superfluous.

She struggled with the American lens of Christianity, especially over what constituted the definition of being “blessed.” Being blessed, to her, was not having fame, fortune, or power. Being blessed simply meant that Jesus loves us.

It’s not that she believed God was cold and distant. In fact, she railed against any form of Deism as much as she did against the American Gospel of health and wealth. She believed God was intimately loving, and she cherished a painting my father gave her that illustrated the scripture, "Are my tears not stored in your flask, recorded in your book?" (Psalm 56:9 NABRE). (How intimately loving is God that he never forgets our frailty and tears?)

But my mother did not dismiss the reality that us blessed ones suffer, including the ones in America. Including herself and her family.

I struggled with my mother’s view when I was a teenager, but after a house fire, I realized it had some merit. I still didn't like it as an adult because I really wanted God's blessings to mean having lots of money to do fun and adventurous things. Then in January 2003, I had an early miscarriage.

As I entered the vast club of mothers who have lost tiny babies, with all the guilt and shame that we must have done something wrong, I began to grasp at my mother’s definition of blessed: If my Savior says I’m blessed even in the pain of miscarriage, then my blessedness must be something more than my circumstances.

My mother’s view is not  new. Many could recognize it among the more stoic branches of
Christianity, along with its problematic use as an excuse to save souls while neglecting physical needs. When Christianity is divorced from the sacraments, its people forget that the physical and spiritual are in communion.

Although my mother died while being a part of a Baptist church, to their frustration, she never became Baptist. She missed the Eucharist in her sojourn of the evangelical realm, as if it were a lover lost at sea. She clung to her infant baptism in the Episcopal Church with a fervent embrace until her last breath. No one could convince her to be immersed. No one could convince her that communion once a month with little square crackers and grape juice was what Jesus intended. The sacraments were in her blood, and so with all her constant support of missionary work, was her constant effort to make life better for others in tangible reality.

When I miscarried, I felt like I had an invisible brand of disgrace across my heart. When I thought of my mother's words, that I was blessed because Jesus loves me, the disgrace disappeared. The struggle to prove myself dissolved, and I mourned more freely. I loved my husband and my children better because the feelings of not being good enough evaporated. The despair that I may not be able to have another child was destroyed, and I could finally hear hope, that feathered thing of Emily Dickinson's, sing its wordless tune in my soul.

I wish I could say that from 2003 on, I never doubted God's love again, that I never doubted I was blessed. But life's journey has a way of making us revisit different lessons, different tests of the same truths. If repetition is a sign of an important message, then God wants this lesson deeply ingrained in me, and I believe He wants to etch this indelibly in all of us.

Blessedness and suffering go hand in hand. No matter what you are going through, you are blessed simply because Jesus loves you and is with you. This does not mean that God is going to end your suffering with tons of money and instant health. This does not mean that you are to catatonically repeat to yourself, "Jesus loves me; I am blessed," when you clearly can take action to remedy a situation. This does mean that you are not a scourge. This means that you, O Child of God, have innate value and that your life, no matter how broken or buried under trials, is sacred.

I write this less than two weeks before the third anniversary of our family becoming Catholic. A beauty of Catholicism is the full acknowledgement of the suffering-yet-blessed state of humanity. Suffering is not a stigma among Catholics as it is among Protestants. I believe this brings an openness to Catholics, an ability to accept people where they are in their journey and as the individuals they are, rather than forcing them into a presupposed vision of the super-Christian. I believe this also contributes to Catholics passionately defending the sanctity of human life— if suffering is not a degradation of the value of a person, then all people, born and unborn, are fully valuable and priceless.

Since becoming Catholic, I can hear hope's song more easily. It's been more difficult to drown out, though it seems sometimes the demons of hell take turns trying to stifle its melody.

Hope sings in your soul, too. Hope sings because you are blessed, because you are loved, even if you don't believe it. Hope always sings, no matter the storm, and it truly asks nothing of you.

If you can't hear the strains of that sweet feathered thing, I pray all heaven stills the noise around you, and in you, until hope is so loud, you have to sing along.

©2018 Emily Woodham

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Faith of a Child

Dancing in the Light on Pentecost at the African Refugee Mass in Boise

She's on a mission. My nearly four year old daughter urges me to follow her, "Come on, Mom!" She runs to a picture of Jesus and points. I catch up to her, lugging the baby in her car seat along with our coats. Daily Mass is done, and I have emails to answer and phone calls to make. But her excitement bids me to set aside the cares of my day and follow her.

"What's He doing?" she asks without looking at me. Her eyes never leave Him.

"He's carrying His cross," I answer simply. I am tempted to say more, but her steady gaze on the scene above keeps me silent. She's doing what most adults can't do. Though she's unaware of any methods or rules, she's meditating on Him.

Her motives are not to gain peace or insight. She has no goals to become holy or for spiritual wisdom. She only knows He loves her, and she cannot help but love Him back.

Without warning, she breaks into a run across the back of the church to the first picture. She waves at me to come quickly to where she's standing. She silently points to Jesus being condemned and jumps up and down. I hurry over, worried she'll start yelling. But she only whispers, "Tell me, tell me!"

My daughter is waiting as I mentally go through my list of tasks to be done. There is one email that hangs over my head. I have to say no to someone. I have to say that my plate is full and the direction of my life is leading me to other things. I must tell this person that my energy needs to be focused elsewhere. But I don't want to. I want to hold onto this opportunity as a safety net. I want to say yes, because I'm afraid that I won't have enough work down the road if I say no.

"Mom?" she asks, again.

I bring my attention back to her and Jesus, back to the First Station of the Cross. I finally answer her, "This is when they say that Jesus has to die."

"Why?" she asks as she turns her head towards me. Her eyes are puzzled. Jesus is good. Jesus loves everyone. Who would say He must die?

"Because they don't understand that He's God's Son." I keep it simple, just as my mother kept it for me. I wonder briefly if I'm not failing, if I should try to explain more, but I decide to follow my mother's path.

My daughter steps over to the next picture of Jesus and looks on without a sound. Then she moves onto the next. No more questions. She only pauses and looks. I look, too, and I remember the novena I prayed at the end of Advent — the Surrender to Jesus Novena.

I began the novena when the words of de Caussade's Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence still lingered in recent memory. The novena calmed my swelling fears of what God would want of me if I completely surrendered to Him. It beckoned me to simply rest in Him, without any worries. Now I was standing before the Stations of the Cross, not wanting to leave something behind, even though I knew to my core that it was time to let go.

My daughter broke her pattern of silence in front of Veronica with her veil. "What is she doing?" she asks.

"She's wiping His face," I answer, just above a whisper.


"She wants to make Him feel better." I look at Veronica holding up the veil. The pragmatist finds it futile that she wipes blood and sweat from His face while He's trudging to His death. There are no accolades for helping a condemned man, and helping could incur the wrath of Roman soldiers. However, Veronica is overcome with love. Her reckless act of abandonment is set in eternity as a thing of beauty. The world's foolishness is God's wisdom.

My daughter continues on her journey through the Stations of the Cross. She loves these pictures of Jesus. She wonders at wounds and blood. When she sees the Blessed Mother holding her Son's dead body, she reaches out for Mary's face. "That's Mama Mary," she says with a reverence I haven't heard from her before. "What's she doing?" she asks.

"She's holding Him because He died. He's her Son, and she's sad," I say as gently as I can.  I think of how during all of Advent the lessons of Mary's Fiat! were proclaimed in Mass after Mass. Without her complete surrender, Jesus could not come to save us. I look at Mary and think of how obstinate my will is in comparison to hers. I want to cling to all the work I can get, but my family is suffering from my being too busy. I know after praying for months that it's time to let go, but still my mind toys with alternative solutions.

Then my daughter goes to where He is laid in the tomb. She asks what happened. I tell her Jesus had to be buried, but on the third day He rose again. "He's all better?" she almost yells.

"Yes, he is all healed!" I get caught up in her joy that He is not hurting anymore, that He's happy and alive.

I think her pilgrimage around the church is done, but I am wrong. My daughter spots prayer cards to the Holy Family. She is excited that Mother Mary holds baby Jesus on the card, and she barely notices poor Joseph. I point him out, but she gushes over Mary holding her baby. I show her the side with the prayer. Without another word, she marches to the altar steps and kneels. She can't read, but she prays in her own way in solemn tones.

I wait and pray, too.

She jumps to her feet and exclaims that she must give the card to Mama Mary. I try to direct her to the little altar to Mary in an alcove along the church wall, but my daughter is stubborn. She is adamant that the card be given to Mama Mary who is holding Baby Jesus behind the altar. I convince her to leave the card by the steps. She hums and smiles as she lays the card down. She is done.

"Mama Mary will come and get it, right?"

I hesitate to answer, but then I remember.

I remember my own childhood with its simple beliefs. I remember that span of time when God was everywhere and was my friend, and I couldn't imagine how anyone could not believe in Him. Belief at that time took no volition because I had no reason to question His existence. I remember looking for angels in the empty sanctuary and sneaking up altar steps to ask God to hold me on His lap. I remember longing for communion, because I wanted so badly to have more of Him. I remember thinking adults were funny for talking about mysteries, and I couldn't understand why they thought the Trinity and Christmas and Easter were complicated. I remember naming my guardian angel Rose and asking her each night to hold me while I slept.

I knew God because my mother lived out her faith in everyday life. It wasn't so much that she taught me about God, but rather that she included me, and my siblings, in her relationship with Him. My faith grew because she let me believe in Him as children do. If she had forced my childhood faith to fit adult-size criteria, it would have become overstretched and thin. It would have snapped.

Children need to be children. They need freedom to experience wonder and awe through their fanciful and adorable faith.

I know that the phase that my young daughter is in, is relatively brief. Friends and I sometimes lament over the change that comes to our children's faith over time. It goes from a natural flow from their hearts to something they have to choose from their will. But children must ask questions and grow. Life brings paradoxes and exceptions and disappointments. Platitudes ring hollow, and Truth demands exploration. Mysteries stop being idiosyncracies of adults and become deep necessities. Our world is not just. There are times our omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God seems silent and absent. If faith does not have growing pains, it dies.

Fiat! Abandonment. Surrender. When you're a child, there is no doubt that God will catch you when you leap. When you're an adult, you can struggle over leaving even small fears in His hands.

My daughter will not leave the sanctuary until I answer her. "Will Mama Mary come down and get my card?"

"Yes, she will," I say as I look into her face. My daughter lights up with joy. She hums songs as we bless ourselves with holy water. I know I cannot delay any longer. I do not know for certain what the consequences will be after I send my email, but how could I not trust Him when He has never failed me?


Friday, November 3, 2017

God's Laughter

Our newest addition, on her first day. From Baby Bella Photography, Permission Granted

Earlier in the week, First Things had a live video on Facebook of a talk given by Bishop Robert Barron. In it, he flushed out a bit the misconception that God is in competition with us, that to live for Him means that we can't truly be happy.

While cuddling my sixth infant and trying to form sentences in a sleep-deprived state, I admit I often think of the proverb, "Man plans; God laughs." Even though I know better, I sometimes think God is laughing at my plans to mock me: "I'll show her!" He scowls. "None of her plans will work today. . . or any day all week!"

But that's not Him. That's not our God who loves us so deeply. One doesn't empty oneself of all the riches of heaven to rescue miserable sinners because one wants to beat them up!

He rescued us and adopted us because His love is immeasurable. Believing in God doesn't truncate us. Dear and holy Irenaeus got it right over 1800 years ago: "The glory of God is man fully alive."

If He really laughs at our plans (and I think sometimes He actually mourns with us when our plans fail because He knows our frailty), then His laughter must be brimming with kindness. His laughter must be the kind that pulls our attention from what we've lost to what we've gained.

In Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, Caussade says that God lets our plans fail because He wants to teach us to depend on Him alone. This has encouraged me all the more to look for His goodness in a failed plan. More than a silver lining, I want to find His joy.

It takes a faith-filled perseverance to make plans every day, knowing full well that St. James wasn't messing around when he said that anything we accomplish is only because God willed it. Sometimes I think this is the middle of the pie that is spiritual detachment: We care; we plan; we do our best. But in the end we have to let go and say, "I want such and such to happen, but only God willing . . ."

I think it's in the freedom of detachment that we can better hear God, especially the beautiful tones of His heart-filled laughter. Perhaps this also gives us the freedom to join in and laugh, too.

Click to see the First Things video of Bishop Robert Barron's talk.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Radio Interview Coming Up!

Me, about 10 years old, and already bugging my parents about becoming Catholic.

Our local Catholic radio station, Salt and Light Radio, is kicking off its pledge drive this Wednesday, April 26. During the drive which will last through Friday, different parishes will be highlighted, and my parish will be on the air from 4-6 p.m. on Wednesday.

I will be interviewed about my journey to becoming Catholic from 4:30 - 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday. You can tune in from anywhere in the world through the internet: .

I wouldn't mind a few prayers as it's a little different on the other side of the interview process, besides being live on the air!