About hsaxton

Heidi Hess Saxton is an adoptive parent of two children, and converted to Catholicism in 1994. She is adoptive parent columnist at CatholicMom.com and CatholicExchange.com. She also writes for the Parenting Channel at AnnArbor.com. In her spare time, she is finishing up her Master's thesis at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Thoughts on Fathers

My Dad with his five girls

My own Dad has never been one to waste words, very likely the direct result of living with five women for at least two decades.  His closed-mouth ways worked in his favor: whatever did come out of his mouth tended to get our attention. 

We loved Dad fiercely not for what he said, but for who he had demonstrated himself to be time and time again. “Salt of the earth.”  Someone who could be counted on when it really counted.  Supremely loyal and unassuming — always a little surprised to discover just how much he is loved. (The same is true of Craig, come to think of it.)

Now, some children aren’t that fortunate. Some fathers (including both the physical and spiritual variety) are so flawed and broken, they overburden those around them with demands of unquestioning trust and endless admiration.  They never quite let down the image, which only reinforces the feelings of isolation and self-doubt.

This kind of devotion isn’t love. It’s idolatry.

Now, some fathers possess such amazing abilities, it’s hard not to be a little star-struck. God bestows all manner of gifts on people with breathtaking generosity, and not always in proportion to their faithfulness.  As an Evangelical Christian, I witnessed horrifying examples of individuals in public ministry who used their God-given gifts to manipulate and control others for their own benefit. (Frankly, these experiences made me a tad skittish about getting too close to charismatic Catholics.)

Over time, however, I came to understand the difference between authentic charisms and the sham variety. In particular through reading Msgr. Raniero Cantalamessa’s Sober Intoxication of the Spirit, I came to understand how the virtues of humility and detachment liberate a person to put himself fully in the service of God, and how the twin virtues of submission and obedience provide a necessary hedge of protection around the one who has been entrusted with extraordinary gifts.

Padre Pio. Catherine of Siena. Teresa of Avila. Faustina Kowalska. All of them were criticized and censured during their lifetimes. All submitted fully and freely, allowing themselves to be silenced and hidden away without counting the cost to themselves. And in time, all were not only exonorated but elevated to sainthood because of their wisdom and holiness.

Some of the most important lessons we will ever learn, can only be grasped while hidden away in the dark, humbled and stilled (whether by our own doing or through outside forces).  Only then can the Father strip away the mask, and begin the process of pruning and healing.

For those who are in the public eye, this stripping process must be doubly painful and humiliating . . . and yet, there is really no getting around it, not if we truly want to grow in perfect love.  “If you are going to be used by God,” wrote 19th century Scotch-Presbyterian minister Oswald Chambers, “He is going to take you through a myriad of experiences that are not meant for you at all. They are meant to make you useful in His hands.”

And so, in the words of another great Christian contemplative, Amy Carmichael (to the tune “Faith of Our Fathers”) in her classic hymn “From Prayer That Asks”:

“From prayer that asks that I may be sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fainting when I should aspire, from faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free Thy soldier who would follow Thee.

From subtle love of softening things, from easy choices, weakenings,
Not thus are spirits fortified, not this way went Thy Crucified.
From all that dims Thy Calvary, O Lamb of God, deliver me!

Give me the love that leads the way, the faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire, the passion that would burn like fire!
Let me not sink to be a clod; make me Thy fuel, O Flame of God!”

Copyright (c) 2011 Heidi Hess Saxton


“Children’s Liturgy” During Mass?

This morning I received a note from a woman who belongs to a parish in which the parents would like to form a “children’s liturgy” for young children who have trouble paying attention at Mass.  I recently came across this informative article explaining the basis for such a practice, in particular affirming the legitimacy of such a practice: http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=1999  
Not all parents will want to participate in this.  Some believe their children’s place is in the pew with them, learning reverent behavior by witnessing the participation of adults. And because parents are to be the first and most important educators of their children, this is absolutely their right and should not be discouraged.
At the other end of the spectrum are parents who will want to send their children as much for their own sake than for their children’s — who will not want to participate on the children’s liturgy teams.  Depending on their situation, they may need a little encouragement . . . or a bit of forebearance. There was a time when the demands of parenting were so unrelenting, I desperately needed a few moments’ peace. At that time, children’s liturgy was a Godsend.  Those who serve on the children’s liturgy teams, then, are ministering to both children and their parents.
Having said that, it is crucial that there are sufficient volunteers, so that the responsibilities can be shared. No one should be in a position of absenting himself/herself regularly from participating in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. (Children’s Liturgy volunteers may choose to attend a second Mass to fulfill their Sunday obligation.)
Children’s Liturgy should not be an extended coloring session. It should follow a form similar to that of the adults, listening to the readings and responding to them appropriately, using visual aids and other resources to help the children understand what they are hearing. The point of children’s liturgy is not to entertain children, but to educate and inform them until they are ready to participate alongside the adults in the prayers and service of the Church.
If your pastor agrees that your parish should begin this kind of ministry, here are a couple of resources that may help you to get started:

Going up . . . the gift of spiritual authority

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, when the Lord returned to heaven in his glorified body.  “All authority on heaven and earth has been given unto Me . . .  now go unto the whole world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt 28:16-20).

The gift of spiritual authority, passed from Jesus to his apostles and on to their successors, and the corresponding teaching/obeying dynamic that characterizes the spiritual relationship between pastors and their flock, can be a rare and wonderful thing.

Unfortunately, the idea of owing obedience to anyone is an increasingly foreign concept to most of us. Our parents obeyed their parents without question; as adults they deferred to authority figures such as pastors, teachers, and community leaders simply because of their position in society.

How that cultural paradigm has shifted!

Children regard authority figures with skepticism, even suspicion as their parents believe themselves to be their own final authority on everything from political sensibilities to personal ethics to moral values. “That might be right for you, but I don’t see it that way . . .” is irrefutable proof.   

The problem, of course, is that so long as we are our own plumbline, we can never know for sure when we are the ones who need to adjust our perspective. “Be ye not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” We hear it in church or read it in quiet time, and never stop to consider the possibility of just how, precisely, we are to know what parts of us are still in need of personal transformation.

It’s easy to see the flaws and frailties of those around us, and know instinctively how much better off they would be if they would only change, how much better off we all would be if they would just have a “come to Jesus” moment and turn their lives over to God.  And so we pray, and ask for divine intervention.

And all the while it is our own hearts that are most in need of transformation. That person has been placed in our lives precisely because  God wanted to show us just how far from perfection we can be. Today in his homily the priest told a story about a father whose son was severely developmentally disabled, who somehow got a place on the school baseball team. At one game the team was losing so badly that the coach told the father he would put his son up to bat at the end of the inning.

When it was time for the boy to face the pitcher, the team was down three runs. They needed a homerun to win the game. The kid swung, and missed. Then a teammate came up behind him, and helped him hit. For some unfathomable reason, the other team purposely let him get on first base, then the next and the next. This small, spastic kid won the game. “Sometimes I get mad, and I ask God how he can be ‘perfect,’ and still create someone like my son,” admitted the father. “But in that moment, I realize that with his life, he was creating that perfection in other people — because of how they responded to him, they were given a chance to be more perfect than they otherwise would be.”

Who is that person in your life? That emotionally stunted, morally obtuse, intellectually clueless individual whose very existence causes your innards to twist?  Someone . . . whom God has entrusted the responsibility to be the thorn in your side, forcing you to grow in loving perfection not because of their example, but despite it?

Heavenly Father, take the blinders from my eyes. Let me see the beauty beneath the brokenness.

Guide me, step by step, towards the moment when at last I see you, and understand it all.   

HR 3827: “Every Child Deserves a Family Act”

Last month Rep. Fortney Stark (D-CA) proposed HR 3827, “Every Child Deserves a Family Act,” which prohibits discrimination in foster or adoptive placements based on the “sexual orientation, gender identification, or marital status.” If it passes, faith-based agencies would be forced to place children in “non-traditional families,” even if it is contrary to their religious beliefs.

With so many children in the United States in need of temporary or permanent homes — over 115,000 of these permanent wards of the state — it seems only fair to ask, “Why not place these kids in the homes of GLBT adults? Isn’t any family better than no family?”

In a word, no.

I do not say this glibly. There is no denying that there is a real shortage of good foster homes, and that more needs to be done to recruit and train licensed foster families. My own kids have an older brother who waited almost three years before he found his “forever family.” Each time we visited, it hurt to hear him cry out for us to take him, too. We couldn’t . . . but we prayed until someone did.

There are times when a single parent may be a child’s best option.  The wholehearted commitment of mature singles who choose to adopt and raise a child alone takes my breath away.  Even so, the absence of a second parent often takes a toll on the whole family.  Nature dictates that the human family by design is based on the love of a man and woman.

To suggest that the best way to find good homes for foster children is to license gay or trans-gendered adults is like saying the best way to solve the priest shortage is to allow priests to marry: It disregards the original purpose of the restriction, as well as the intrinsic good that the requirement represents. In the case of priests, celibacy allows them to channel their energies into a wholehearted service of God; in the case of foster parents, married couples are best able to give children the opportunity to experience family as God intended it — wrapped in the loving embrace of a man and woman sacramentally bound to one another for life.

And so, the issue is not whether someone in the GLBT community can be a good parent, but whether any adult’s “right” to parent should take preeminence over the “right” of a faith-based organization to adhere to sincerely held religious convictions when assessing the “best interests of the child,” the golden standard of social work.

Ironically, the “old-fashioned” choices of those with strong religious convictions can actually count against them as foster parents. For example, Michigan families with eight or more children may not take in foster children. Homeschooling families are also ineligibal (unless the foster children are sent to public school). Corporal punishment is prohibited; permission must be obtained to take a foster child to church. Each state has additional requirements.

Believe it or not, most states already permit GLBT adults to become foster parents, and in many cases to adopt. Some public agencies actively recruit members of the gay community, believing them to be an underutilized source of foster families. However, study after study has shown that children need both a mother and a father. This is not “prejudice,” but common sense.

Children who wind up in the foster care system have to overcome so many sad circumstances, and deserve not to be used as pawns by those who seek to exercise their “rights” to the detriment of those children who really do deserve special protection.

Please write your Representative, and ask him or her not to support this bill.


When (a Child’s) Love Comes Slowly

Tonight on Army Wives, Joan and Roland bring home the child they decided to adopt from the state system. The boy is HIV+, yet the couple fell in love with the little boy (about 8 years old) that they threw caution to the wind, and brought him home as their own.

The little boy, David, appeared to be a loving, engaging child at the agency, and seemed to get along well with the baby. But as soon as they got him home, the boy resisted Joan’s efforts to tend to him, pointedly asking Roland to read to him and turning away from her good-night kiss. Roland later finds his wife in tears in the bedroom. “Don’t take it personally,” he urges. “He just lost his mother and grandmother, but he’s never had a dad. It’s easier for him to let me in.”

I was glad to see them portray this aspect of adopting an older child, the long and sometimes painful process of connecting with him (or her). The reasons for this difficulty can vary — perhaps the child is already grieving the loss of one set of parents. Or maybe he is having a hard time adjusting to your home from the institution who had been keeping him.

Sometimes the problem is the letdown that hits some women after months and months of exhuberant waiting, when the honeymoon ends and you are left wiping down walls and day after day of little-to-no sleep. Nerves can wear a bit thin when the reality horns in on the dream.

It is at this point that an Extraordinary Mom is born when she chooses not to give up, but to love a little harder (or a little softer), and take all the time her child needs to settle in.  Love may come slowly, with a lot of effort and perhaps even some outside help. The child may never realize the number of hours his parents have spent on their knees, interceding for him. And yet this, too, is an opportunity: Because of this little one, we can begin to grasp the depts of the love of our Heavenly Father, who made us his children  . . . by adoption.

God in heaven, you can hear the cries.
You see the need, and alone can heal the pain.
Send your angels to surround and protect our family,
And give me strength enough, just for today.

“Heidi,” Revisited

This weekend we watched the 1993 version of Heidi, starring winsome little Noley Thornton, Jason Robards (as Grandfather, known by the villagers as the “Alm Uncle”) and Jane Seymour (in an atypically severe role for the actress, the tight-lipped Frauline Rottenmeier).

I didn’t enjoy this movie nearly as much as I enjoyed the classic novel when I was a girl (my mother named me after the title character, the orphan girl who is sent to live with her curmudgeonly old grandfather). This version of the movie takes considerable liberties with the book (including the opening sequence, in which the grandfather witnesses the deaths of Heidi’s parents).

As I watched the  movie, I couldn’t help but wonder how the story would have changed, had little Heidi come under the watchful eye of social services. On the face of it, the grandfather is not exactly a “desirable” adoptive parent for Heidi, though he is related to her. The old recluse has a foul temper, and leaves Heidi to her own devices for most of her waking hours in the company of an older child. Neither of them attend school (despite the remonstrations of the village pastor), and the Alm Uncle’s cabin lacks the most basic conveniences, including refrigeration and indoor plumbing.

Heidi’s cousin, Dete, forcibly removes the little girl from her grandfather and takes her to Frankfort, where Heidi is to become the companion of a wealthy young girl in a wheelchair. (Dete is paid for the referral, casting her motives into question.) Heidi has every possible material and educational advantage, including the affection of her friend’s family.  Even so, Heidi pines for her grandfather’s home. Once again Dete is called upon to take the child back up the Alp to visit with her grandfather (again, she is paid to do so), with the understanding that Heidi would be reclaimed by the Sesemanns in a month’s time. At first reluctant to welcome Heidi back on these terms because of the emotional fallout involved, the Uncle ultimately relents. The remainder of the story is set on the alp, where the Sesemans journey to visit Heidi and regain Clara’s health.

For a long time after the credits rolled, the underlying themes of the story stayed with me. Each life she touches, Heidi transforms. A bitter old man becomes a nurturing caregiver. A sick little girl grows strong and hale. Even Fraulein Rottenmeier (the incomparable Jane Seymour) softens a bit in the mountain air. The only person who remains immune to Heidi’s charms is the person responsible for her, the cousin Dete, who consistently chooses the expedient solution over the compassionate one.

In retrospect, I should have known how the kids would respond to Heidi’s story.  “Why are they taking her away from the grandfather? Why does he say he doesn’t want her back? That’s not FAIR!” Clearly, they identified with the plucky little orphan.

Of course, “fairness” has little to do with it. It wasn’t fair that Heidi’s parents died. It wasn’t fair that Dete put her own interests ahead of the little girl’s. It wasn’t fair for the old man to be forced to take in his granddaughter — and it wasn’t fair to Heidi to leave her in the hands of someone who so clearly didn’t want her there at the beginning. It wasn’t fair to uproot the little girl … or to place her with strangers not because it is in her best interest, but because it was in theirs. 

Johanna Spyri’s classic novel (even more than this movie) explores the question of “What is family?” and celebrates the healing power of love. For adoptive and foster parents, it also provides an opportunity to explore with your children their own feelings about family.

Happy Mother’s Day!

“Becoming a mother makes you the mother of all children. From now on each wounded, abandoned, frightened child is yours. You live in the suffering mothers of every race and creed and weep with them. You long to comfort all who are desolate.”

— Charlotte Gray

“Giving kids clothes and food is one of thing, but it’s much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important and that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people.” — Dolores Huerta

“Everybody knows that a good mother gives her children a feeling of trust and stability. She is their earth. She is the one they can count on for the things that matter most of all. She is their food and their bed and the extra blanket when it grows cold in the night; she is their warmth and their health and their shelter; she is the one they want to be near when they cry. She is the only person in the whole world in a whole lifetime who can be these things to her children. There is no substitute for her. Somehow even her clothes feel different to her children’s hands from anybody else’s clothes. Only to touch her skirt or her sleeve makes a troubled child feel better.”  -Katharine Butler Hathaway

“Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see.”

-Pope Paul VI