True Confessions

Holy FamilyOn March 21 over at “Reconciled to You,” Allison Gingras is hosting a Lenten blog hop called “How do you really feel about confession?”

As I get ready for Easter, I think back to the first time I ever went to confession, back in 1995 just  before my confirmation at Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, California (pictured here). I was such a difficult candidate my first sponsor actually quit — and the DRE took me under her wing. I will always be grateful to Dawn Ponnet for welcoming me into the family, and to the silvery-haired, golden-tongued Irish priest and pastor emeritus Monsignor Clem Connelly, who invited me out for lunch and, over spring rolls, assured me, “Ah, Heidi, you are a gift to us.” I still tear up when I think about it.

Truth be told, I did not feel like such a gift. My decision to become Catholic had alienated friends and estranged my family. I was in a toxic relationship from which I could not readily extricate myself. And, having recently graduated from college and on my own, I was just this side of homelessness. For many reasons, I was at an all-time low point.

And so, as the Vigil neared and Dawn talked with us about making our first confession, I knew it was a good idea. I also had no idea where to begin when I found myself face-to-face with a youthful Filipino priest who had recently joined the parish. I found myself rambling about what a horrible person I was, and he stopped me.

“You are not a horrible person. You are a GOOD person. You are God’s beloved daughter.”

I argued. With the priest. In the confessional. “NO! I’m NOT good!” And I started again, listing all my many faults and failings.

He shook his head and held up his hand. “No. I tell you, you are full of goodness. That is how God sees you. He wants to take these things from you. Will you give them to him?”

Of course I was a blubbery mess by this time. Utterly defeated. If he knew the worst of it, and declared that God wanted me anyway … who was I to argue?

Exhausted, I left the priest’s office and made my way to the church, where I knelt down in my favorite spot in front of the mural of the death of St. Joseph. It was the Holy Family at their most human, most vulnerable, most exposed to the realities of human existence. I knew God was offering me a fresh start. Both then and now, I am eternally grateful.

Are you in need of a fresh start? If you are Catholic, why not begin your journey toward wholeness and freedom with the sacrament of reconciliation? Don’t worry about how long it’s been, or what to say. God is ready to welcome you home. For more information about reconciliation (making confession) here is a one-page pdf you can print out and bring with you. Go with God!


Christmas 2011: A Year in Review

Despite my best intentions, Christmas cards did NOT make it in the mail this year. For the record, I also did not manage to bake a single batch of Christmas cookies. Which is why it’s a good thing that there are TWELVE days of Christmas. But I digress.

This year has been a year unlike any other. It all started, appropriately enough, last Christmas, when in an unguarded moment, brought on by tremendous career and family upheaval, Craig turned to me and said, “If you find a job you like, we’ll move.”

I didn’t need to be told twice. (I’ll spare you the details, except to say that as far as I’m concerned, “family business” is an oxymoron.) In fact, I had already been looking locally, and had applied to a number of church jobs for which I was reasonably qualified. The highlight was showing up for one interview, only to be told, “We knew we weren’t going to hire you – but we just had to meet you after reading your resume.”

Have you ever been in a place where you were desperately seeking God’s will for your life, and nothing – nothing at all – was happening? I knew God had heard my prayers for deliverance; I also knew he had a plan for our lives, and that he understood the stress my husband was under.  I knew all these things . . . and yet, it grew harder and harder to trust as one job interview after another resulted in . . . nothing. After six months, including a few tenuous inquiries at a couple of publishing houses in the area, I was still jobless. “What does God WANT from me?” I asked my pastor, who had been praying for me as well. “I know exactly what you mean, Heidi,” he replied. “I often feel that way myself.”

Then, as if on cue, God threw our lives into hyperdrive. One day a friend mentioned to me that Ascension Press was looking for an editorial director. And next thing I knew, I had a job offer. Ten days later, I packed my car and moved to West Chester, PA. Within weeks, the kids and dog had joined me (Craig, it was decided, needed to stay until Christmas to give his work adequate time to transition to the new IT guy). Also with us was Andrew, the kids’ favorite sitter, who at nineteen was ready for an adventure away from home. (The kids alternately refer to him as “our new brother” and “the manny.” Andrew is an aspiring chef who spends his days while the kids are at school riding the train and checking out local eating establishments, and his nights dreaming up new taste treats for us.) This job has been such a great fit for me; I tell people I won the “job lottery.” In reality, it was simply a matter of waiting patiently for God to orchestrate all the details in his perfect time.

Of course, a few pieces still need to fall into place. We are still in something of a holding pattern, thanks to Craig’s boss, who convinced Craig it was his duty to stay on until they were good and ready to let him go. As I’m sure you can imagine, this has been hard on the kids (hasn’t done great things for our marriage, either). But I’ve come to realize that sometimes love means taking a step back, finding one’s own center, and letting the other person work things out for himself. (Or herself.) I also understand, for the first time in my life, why some seemingly successful marriages appear to suddenly unravel at the seams.  Finally, I’ve come to understand that marriage can be a lot like a warm woolen security blanket: Sometimes all you can do is hold on, and pray for the storm to pass. As the skies grow darker and the wind blows stronger, you keep holding, knowing that if you grope with both hands, the wind may soon carry it way.

I am grateful beyond words for all the people who have extended themselves for us this year: my parents, who have made several visits from Georgia just to make sure we got packed and settled, as well as friends in Michigan (especially the Phelps, Hook, and Tucker families and good friends Denise and Lilian) and here in PA (especially my new coworkers) who have reached out to us again and again. On our last weekend in Michigan, we had a little barbecue at a local park, with close to 50 people in attendance. As I looked over all their faces, I was so thankful for the wonderful people God had brought into our lives over the past eighteen years. It was hard to think of starting over . . . especially for Christopher and Sarah, who were leaving behind not only good friends but a brother and sister as well. Even so, we knew God was leading us to a new adventure. And that one day, we would get to enjoy it together.

In the meantime, we have settled in for the long haul. Christopher, 11, is in middle school this year, and for the first time ever is on the honor roll. His science project this year will be to prove which brand of deodorant is most flammable. (His idea, not mine.) He will be confirmed at our new parish, St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, on March 1, 2012. His new passion this year is Beyblades. He misses his friends, but has picked up a couple of good friends here and was recently asked to his first dance (yikes).

Sarah, 9 going on 16, is in fourth grade. She and I went to see her friend Grace perform in the “Nutcracker 1776” at her friend’s school. I think we need to get Sarah back in a tutu. She continues to love to draw and change her clothes a dozen times a day. I suspect she has a future in fashion design.

This year Craig and the kids spent 10 days over Christmas break in West Palm Beach with Craig’s parents (I didn’t have vacation time, but I flew down for the weekend). Craig’s dad has stage-four lung cancer (he’s a non-smoker), so we wanted to make a few more memories with and for Craig’s parents. We then spent Christmas weekend with my parents in Georgia, who opened their home to three out of four daughters and their families for the holiday. We decorated gingerbread houses, tried to stay out of the way of the four dogs, and had a lovely time. Craig and I are home now, and he will be with us until January 7. My Christmas wish is that this time next year, the transition to our new life here will be complete.

Wishing you and yours the brightest and best of Christmas blessings this year.

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:  
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:

The Way of Contentment: Venerable Father Solanus Casey

Yesterday a group of us from the Bible study group of Christ the King Catholic Church visited the Father Solanus Casey Center. In the exhibit hall, I came across the following quote by the good father that stuck with me . . . and so I thought I’d share it here.

“We are never justified in being bitter toward anyone, except ourselves.  In every deed, if we were only one-tenth as appreciative as we have every reason to be, our gratitude for what God has done for us — directly and through his creation, most especiall through our immediate superiors–would be such that we would be perfectly content with what we are and what we have.”

Later on, I heard the story of how the good father had thousands of people come to see him, especially during the Great Depression (he served as porter at the front door of the Capuchin monastery). To each he offered this advice: to ask God to provide the need, then begin to thank him for the answer even before it arrived. He encouraged each one to make an offering of thanksgiving to the mission.

This approach to intercession — thanking God even before the answer was in evidence — is revolutionary on two counts. First, it builds up the “trust muscles,” encouraging us to look with expectation and anticipation of God’s benevolence. Second, it changes our own outlook, from desperate helplessness to confident joy.

Top Ten Scariest Things I’ve Ever Done

My friend Sherry Antonetti invited me to participate in her “Top Ten Scariest Things I’ve Ever Done” Carnival, and I thought that this would be a good day to do it.  First days of school are always full of scary moments: new teacher, new classmates, new challenges.

New challenges for me, too. This afternoon I take my first (and hopefully last) tentative footsteps toward finishing my degree. Really. Finally. No kidding. Thus, I begin my list …

10.  Finish school, so I can be ready for whatever fresh surprise God has up His sleeve. (This is more of a “pending” item than a “done” item, but I put it on this list because I am in fact accepted in the program.) The prospect of failure has always had a paralyzing effect on me. It’s one of my greatest shortcomings, really. You’d think that the fact that I’ve been either in school or writing for most of my adult life would make the prospect of writing a fifty-page paper something of a cake walk. But for some reason, I kept putting it off. And now I’m determined to beat it!

9.  Became a parent. Again, this one that might not seem all that scary to some people. I look at women with ten or twelve children, all of whom are both home-schooled and perfectly behaved (could there be a connection?), and wonder how they do it. Honestly. This, too, has been a cosmic opportunity to overcome a myriad of personal flaws, from my short fuse to my tendency to cram too much into every day. Not that I’ve actually overcome either of these things — but then, that’s why we get ’em for eighteen years or so. Right?

8.  Got married.  The day we celebrated our ninth anniversary, we went out to Weber’s and celebrated the fact that we had managed to get through (counting the year of our dating and engagement) ten years together. Better yet, still enjoy being around each other. Proof positive that the niggling little voices in my head on my wedding day, all of whom were VERY sure I would drive him away in a year or less — were dead wrong. Hah!

7.  Bus ride through Mexico. The summer of 1990, I found myself at a cross-roads, needing to make a choice about where I would be spending the next few years — California, Singapore, or Minneapolis. To clear my head, I flew to Acapulco and boarded a north-bound Mexican bus, to spend time with some missionary friends in the central region of San Luis Portosi.  In retrospect, three days on a Mexican bus — knowing as little Spanish as I did — was a bit risky. Scary, even. If it had been my daughter (as no doubt one day it will be) I’m not sure I’d have encouraged her going alone. But that summer, I came to understand the liberating force of a spontaneous adventure.

6.  Bus ride across Poland.  This would be the summer of 1992. Another spontaneous adventure — but this time, I was leading a group fo 27 college students and musicians (half Polish, half Americans) across what turned out to be one of my very favorite European countries. The Polish students were charismatic Christians (Assemblies of God), the American students were a mix of Quaker, Baptist, and non-denominational. Several weeks into the trip, I found myself stranded with my group — no concert dates, little money, and no translator. Never in my life did I have less control over what was happening to me.  Frankly, it scared me to death, realizing how little I could control my own life. When I returned to the U.S., I started sneaking into Masses, discovering peace in the last place I ever expected to find it.

5.  Played in a band (“La Lumieres.”) October 1984 – May 1985, I was in Senegal, West Africa. The highlight of the trip was playing keyboards for “La Lumieres,” a church band comprised of African college students and our pastor. My French was pretty pitiful (still is), but somehow the group adopted me. The scary moment? The night I came out of practice and discovered a strange man in the back seat of my car — and one of my friends (who had been listening for my car to start) came out and rescued me. To this day, I look in the back seat of my car before getting in — and lock myself in afterward.

4. California Dreaming. After graduating from Azusa Pacific University, I spent two years working for William Mercer, Incorporated in their HR Consulting department. I was determined to live on my own, and the only place I could afford was a tiny one-bedroom with a mariachi band permanently set up in the garage behind me. I was the only gringa in the entire complex — but I quickly became “Tia Heidi” to the little girls who lived there. Late one night there was a knock on my door, and I found four large Mexican men squeezed together on my front stoop, carrying a large object. Talk about scary — until one of the men identified himself as the father of my little friends. “My kid, she say you have no furniture in your living room. We getting rid of this couch. You wan it?” It was bordello red crushed velvet … but I didn’t have the heart to make them drag it back down to the curb. I threw a sheet over it, and thanked God for my new friends.

3.  Crossed the Tiber.  Spring of 1994, I took a deep breath and (knees shaking) walked down the center aisle of Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, to receive the sacraments for the first time. I took the name “Amy,” after Amy Carmichael — the nineteen-century Scottish Presbyterian missionary whom I believe is the patroness of spiritual courage. None of my family was present, and it was thrilling and frightening at the same time.  In that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had found my home.

2.  My first job.  I was twelve when I got my first “professional” job as the organist for a local Lutheran church in New Jersey.  The previous organist, who hired me, was a middle-aged woman who (in retrospect) I now realize must have have great courage, inviting me to take her place on the bench. I had no idea what liturgy was about. I had never accompanied a choir, and had not the slightest clue about the liturgical seasons. Still, she let me get up there, open my hymnal, put my fingers on the keys and feet on the pedals — and let it rip. I made the most spectacular gaffes some weeks — but there were also times when I really thought I heard the angels sing.

1.  The high dive.  Every couple of years we got in the car and drove for a whole week to get to Grandma Dix’s house. There was a public pool with a high dive near her house, and I remember watching from the shallow end as one kid after the other would walk to the end of the board, raise their hands over their head, and dive in. The REALLY brave ones faced away from the pool and did a backwards dive. I was determined to do it.  And one summer, I actually did. Stood with my toes on the edge of the board, raised my arms over my head, held my breath, and leaned back.  Sometimes I made the most spectacular belly flops — but eventually I managed to actually hit the water palms first.

This last one is #1 for a couple of reasons. It happened earliest in my life (I think I was 10). But it is also the perfect metaphor for my philosophy of life: life on the edge, a little breathless and exposed, hitting the world with a splash.

I don’t like “tagging” people on these things … but if you decide to take up the challenge, let me know!  What are your top ten scary things?

Howler Monkies: Thanks, Kate! (You, too, Elizabeth!)

I was just reading this link over at Kate Wicker’s Momopoly called “Howler Monkies, Prayers About Poop, and Amazing Grace” and wanted to share it with you. Would that ALL parishes were so warm and welcoming!

It’s been quite some time since I last posted here — so sorry for the silence. My last article at CE has taken quite a bit of time, responding to comments (most of them kind) and questions (most of them sincere). And commenting on the sites of those rare individuals who seem determined to vilify anyone who doesn’t agree wholeheartely with them. Sad, really. Which made me doubly glad to find this article by Elizabeth Esther about the danger of “cult mentality,” which (though she doesn’t specifically say so) can be found even in Catholic circles.

One of the greatest dangers of jumping on someone else’s bandwagon is that it makes it difficult to keep your own feet planted firmly on the ground, and to tend one’s own garden. At the end of the day, God is going to be far more concerned with how consistently we rooted out the vice (including pride) in our own hearts than how often we were “right.” 

I think it’s because I experienced so much “spiritual infighting” in the first thirty years of my life, as a Protestant, that I tend to get very squeemish about brothers and sisters in Christ pitting themselves against one another. Save your fire power for the real enemy . . . learn what you can, give and take correction (privately, if possible) as needed, and guard against the insidious need to win every argument.

In the end, we will all discover that NONE of us got it all 100% right, 100% of the time.

I’m going to go take a nap now!