Can’t the Answer Just Be That We Mourn?

In the two days since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve seen plenty of expressions of sadness, sympathy, and solidarity for the people of that city on social media. But I’ve also seen a growing number of complaints about those expressions.

“Stop saying you’ll pray.”

“Don’t turn your profile picture red, white, and blue.”

“Where were they when we needed them?”

“Where were you when others were attacked?”

Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t see this coming – at least not so soon. Victims of those horrible attacks still wait to be identified, to be claimed, to be buried, and already we’re attacking each other. Why? Why can’t the answer just be that we mourn?

“I pray because I mourn.”

“I show these colors because I mourn.”

“It doesn’t matter where they were; I mourn.”

“Maybe I mourned then, unseen. Maybe I didn’t mourn and I should have. But still, today I mourn.”

I wish we would stop questioning others’ motivations. If there are ever motivations to question, they’re our own: If I say I’m praying, am I actually doing it? If I express solidarity, do I feel it? If I’m riveted by this situation today, will I be paying attention tomorrow? Will I pay attention to the next one? Do I feel that people in some parts of the world are more worthy of my grief than others?

Ask yourself these questions; don’t ask them of others.

If you didn’t read the lengthy Atlantic piece on ISIS months ago, take the time to read it now. It’s not an unquestioned account of the organization and its aims, but I think it makes an important overarching point: ISIS does not operate under the assumptions we’re accustomed to. It does not make the same calculations. It doesn’t seek the kinds of goals we’re used to confronting. It is an organization that is inherently difficult for the West to understand, let alone counter. (Also take the time to read Elizabeth Scalia’s post from a year ago: The West Lacks One Essential Tool to Defeat ISIS.)

All that said, I think we can be reasonably sure that ISIS aims to sow fear, discord, and anger. Why in the world should we help them along by questioning people who are struggling to adequately express their sorrow?

In my own piece on ISIS and evil a year ago, I said:

I’m just trying to call it like it is. When people do such terrible things to one another [i.e. the ISIS attacks against innocent civilians in Iraq], I can’t help but see evil’s mark. I can’t help but envision evil seeping like a deadly, insidious disease from the heart of one man to another. And then another, and another, and another…

Some situations seem ripe for spectacular displays of evil. Evil must find fertile soil, after all, in lands where oppression, poverty, and war have been present for generations. What terrific places to be planting seeds of anger, fear, and hopelessness. What good chances that they’ll grow in individuals’ hearts until they spill over, manifesting themselves in violence and injustice towards others. What likelihood that those fruits will begin the cycle anew.

That’s how I think of the ISIS fighters: as men whose circumstances and life experiences have made them angry and resentful… men who have sought sympathy and camaraderie amongst those who would encourage their indignation… men who feel more powerful and more right the more they work together toward a dramatic goal… men who have so convinced themselves of their righteousness that they view those who are unlike them as less than human… men who start by seeing violence as a necessary tool and end by relishing violence for its own sake. I trace evil’s influence throughout.

But that – that far-away place, in those foreign hearts – is not the only place where evil lurks. Evil would not be content to bear only a few thousand ISIS souls away from God. Evil works on the rest of us too…

Evil tells us that what we have is insufficient, that we will always need more. It encourages us to nourish our anger and resentment. It emphasizes our fears. It helps us divide people into “us” and “them.” It tempts us to seek fleeting satisfactions that harm our bodies and souls. It entices us to take pleasure in media that glamorize violence and disordered relationships. It convinces us that righteous indignation is indeed righteous. It leads us to think we’re alone and unloved.

Evil finds success in such “small” things all the time, all over the world. I can’t help but wonder whether, when evil has become sufficiently emboldened by its quiet successes, perhaps that’s when it taunts us, leers at us, with acts so glaringly evil that we’re stopped short.

We have a role here.  We are part of this story. And we have a say in how we play our part.

Will we respond to terrorism by despairing? By accusing? By stoking self-righteous anger? By questioning the sincerity of those who are supposedly our friends? I don’t think we should.

I think we ought to take people’s expressions of mourning at face value.

I think we ought to pray — for the victims of terrorism in Paris and elsewhere, for those in harm’s way, for those who are tempted to do harm, for each other.

I think we ought to pay attention to events across the world and extend our sympathy to victims of violence wherever they’re found.

I think we ought to act against terrorism and fear and hate and evil however we’re able.

I think we should all feel free, when the situation calls for it, to simply… mourn.

Can't the Answer Just Be That We Mourn

Lord, Be With Them

This morning, I saw the following text begin to trickle onto my Facebook newsfeed:

From Sister Monique, via Filles de la Charite, PARIS

FROM : Sister Monique

Late Sunday afternoon on 1 March 2015, I received a message from M. Francoise, a delegate of the International Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and I managed to reach her by telephone.

She was leaving for Paris, and collapsed at the news she had just received: members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Syria were kidnapped, along with their wives and children. The children were isolated and put into cages. Adults who do not deny their faith will be decapitated, and their children burned alive in the cages. M. Francoise had been in regular contact with several of them before all this occurred. She asked me to transmit the news and make a fervent appeal for prayers for these people, and all who are held hostage.

Let us remain fervently united in prayer, and have as our intention the welfare of all brothers and sisters in our Christian faith who are being held hostage

Now, I have no way of knowing whether this information is true (I haven’t found any mention of it in the media), but it is posted on the website of the Eastern Province (USA) of the Vincentians, a Catholic order of priests and brothers. I would hope that they confirm such accounts before sharing them.

(Please note that there was a publicity stunt in February, in which Syrian protestors dressed children as ISIS hostages and placed them in a cage to protest the Assad regime. So if you see any pictures purported to be the children referenced by the Vincentians, please know that you might actually be seeing images of children who are alive and well – other, of course, than the fact that they live under a brutal, oppressive, even murderous regime.)

But in any event, thinking of the Christian hostages held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq (and we know that there are indeed many of them), I pray, over and over:

Lord, be with them.

Lord, protect them. Comfort them. Strengthen them. Give them Your peace.

Lord, touch the hearts of their captors. Kindle in them the virtues of prudence, justice, and charity. Guide them to feel sympathy, to have mercy, to love.

Lord, help the hostages to know that they are loved and prayed for by their brothers and sisters in Christ the world over. Move us to offer them whatever help and solidarity we can.

Lord, shield them. Cover them. Hold them.

Lord, be with them.

This morning, shortly after I read the disturbing news above, I heard my own child cry. He was fine – just frustrated with his clothing. But his cries were like daggers to my sense of wellness, of stability, of the way the world should be. All I could think of were those parents, having to wrestle with the most horrible decision one could possibly face.

Their children’s cries… surely their children would be crying.

I have no idea what I would do in that situation. No idea. I am cowed just by the suggestion of such a choice. Though half a world away, I feel injured by the kidnappings, the rapes, the mutilations, the beheadings of my fellow Christians in Africa and the Middle East. I am wowed by the grace with which some of those who are actually close to the victims have borne their losses. I feel pain, too, for the Muslims and other non-Christians who have suffered at the hands of ISIS and Boko Haram.

Over and over, I recognize Evil in the work of those extremists. Over and over, I mourn and I pray:

Lord, be with them.

I hope you’re praying too. I hope that you and I and the elderly lady at my church choir practice who lead us in prayer for the Jordanian fighter pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, on the day we learned of his immolation – I hope that we (whatever Faith we call our own) will always far outnumber those who claim to do God’s will, but instead do the work of the one who opposes Him.

Lord, be with them.

14 From ‘14

Merry Christmas to you! And a happy New Year too!

As we wrap up 2014, I thought I’d do a little recap o’ the blog to highlight some of my favorite posts from the year. (I’ll admit – it was pretty fun to scroll through them all.) And since I want to do you the favor of making it obvious as to why I chose these particular posts, I thought I’d include each in its own category. So… without further ado (since there’s plenty of it below)… here are 14 From ’14:

1. The most viewed post (and the closest to “viral” that I’ve ever gotten):

When Breast Isn’t Best

Wow. I knew this post in opposition (so to say) to Breastfeeding Awareness Week might attract a bit more attention than usual, but it went and blew “a bit more” out of the water. In the post’s first day, I received nearly ten times as many views as I usually do on post-publishing days and I more than doubled my best day ever. All told, the post has gotten more than a dozen times the views of my average post.

So let’s see… what element of the mommy wars should I tackle next?

(No, no – I’m kidding. Stoking fires just for the fun of it isn’t my thing – there are plenty of others you can go to for that.)

Doubly selfish: using formula and counting on the four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

Doubly selfish: using formula and counting on the four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

2. The post that was hardest to write:

It Is The Same Evil

This thing was a bear to get through. (ISIS? Evil? Hmm… I wonder why?) I worked on it for weeks – weeks in which I felt like I was trudging through mud every time I sat down at the computer. It definitely felt like there was some Resistance at play. When I finished writing the post, I could barely look at the thing, I was so unhappy with it. But with a little more distance, I’ve come to think I did a decent job of it.

3. The post with the best discussion in the combox:

Yes, I Worry About Religious Freedom

This post makes me so happy. Not because I think the piece itself was any work of art, but because it generated such a great discussion in the comments section. This (despite all my mommy ramblings about exhaustion and vomit) is why I started the blog – to encourage discourse on touchy, divisive, important matters of politics and society. Polite discourse, open-minded discourse, respectful discourse. I know this one little post was just the tiniest of drops in the bucket, but it’s my drop and I’m glad to have let it fall.

4. The post with the strangest subject matter:

The Best Possible Mugging

I had a mugging story. I had to tell it!

Yet another incongruous photo. It's not even Washington, it's Germany. But it was taken around the same time as the events in this post.

Yet another incongruous photo. It’s not even Washington, it’s Germany. But it was taken around the same time as the events in this post.

5. The post that would make the best sitcom episode:

Epilogue (Please) To The Day Of The Snake And The Water

Snake slithering out of a basket of my sons’ toys? Jumping toilets? Brown water shooting out of a toilet’s tank and at my face? It’s my own brand of slapstick!

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6. The post that most pulls on my heartstrings:

Single Lady Gets A Family

During my single twenties, I began to think I might never have a family of my own. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am that I was wrong.

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7. The funniest (in a desperate sort of way) post:

Think Of Your Closets

“If I had to choose one piece of advice to offer young people at this very moment, it would be: Don’t be a pack-rat. And if you absolutely can’t resist the urge to be a pack-rat, make sure to be an organized one.”

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8. The bossiest post:

Why You Should Vote – Even When It Feels Like It Doesn’t Make A Difference

In which I use guilt and just a little bit of elections expertise to strong-arm you into becoming a regular voter.

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9. The post with the most (and maybe the best?) pictures:

Taking A Weekend For Us

Brennan and I went away for a weekend before the baby was born – without our boys. It was heavenly. I took lots of pictures.

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10. The post that best showcases my boys’ narcoleptic tendencies:

Greetings From The Land Of Nod… Nod… Nodding Off

New here? My boys fall asleep all. the. time. At the table, in the car, on the sofa, in the highchair, on the floor, in the shopping cart… And when I’m pregnant, I’m almost as bad as they are.

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11. The post that seems most pertinent to the events of this week:

Courtney’s Love

Courtney Lenaburg, the beloved daughter of Mary from Passionate Perseverance, passed away this past Saturday morning. Courtney’s wake will be held tonight and her funeral tomorrow. Please keep the entire Lenaburg family in prayer during this very difficult time.

12: The post written with most love for my oldest:

What Matters To Him

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13: The post written with most love for my middle:

This Child

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14: The most consequential post:

Announcing…

I had a baby this year! Few things are of greater consequence than that!

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I’m linking this up with Dwija’s 12 Photos in 2012 link-up at House Unseen, Life Unscripted. (12? 14? Photos? Posts? Close enough, right?) Be sure to stop there for more 2014 recaps — and much more beautifully-shot photos than my own.

I hope 2014 was kind to you. The year brought me some great challenges, but even greater blessings. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

It Is The Same Evil

I know I haven’t been alone among bloggers in finding it difficult to write over the past couple of months. Such sad, disturbing news we’ve had. It’s seemed to me like waves upon the shore: one powerful, jarring story crashes into us, then recedes into the background of our lives, only to have another follow before we’ve quite gained our footing.

There are the Central American children jostling to get into the United States… fire after return fire in Israel and Gaza… fighting and its unintended fallout in Ukraine… depression and suicide… Ebola in Western Africa… racial tensions re-emerging at home…

And Iraq. Oh, Iraq.

There, religious minorities have been systematically executed. Genocide is sought. Survivors flee. Whole dioceses have been emptied of their faithful. Women are raped and sold into slavery. People are ripped in two, cut in half, decapitated – even children suffer such atrocities.

How does one begin to process such horrors? How can I, tucked away in my comfortable home half a world away from those events, answer them with anything like an appropriate response?

For most of August, I didn’t want to ask myself that last question. While ISIS/ISIL/the group calling itself The Islamic State increasingly made itself known to the world, I lingered on the periphery of awareness. I learned enough to know that I didn’t want to learn more. And I reacted to the little I did learn with nothing more than a dull, heavy feeling in my chest and the desire to escape before I felt the horror of the situation more acutely.

But gradually (mostly through the admirable persistence of Elizabeth Scalia and her fellow Patheos writers), I was pulled out of my comfortable discomfort with events in Iraq. I shifted from the dull, uneasy urge to escape from the news to a sharper, more pressing realization that I’m obliged to pay attention. That I’m obliged to feel and pray and do whatever I can, however humble, to combat the evil that is spreading in that far-away land.

Because that’s what’s driving this: evil.

And I don’t mean “evil” in that secular way that reserves the term for only the most obviously bad, bad guys like Hitler. I mean it in the way that makes secularists most uncomfortable: evil as the work of the devil. “The evil we confront is not just an abstract idea, but an evil, fallen angel who wants to prevent our salvation.”*

I’m not suggesting that the devil has gone and animated a bunch of limp, unwilling (and therefore unaccountable) bodies to use as mere puppets. Nor am I suggesting that the members of ISIS are inherently evil, wholly incapable of doing good. No person is born so lost.

I’m just trying to call it like it is. When people do such terrible things to one another, I can’t help but see evil’s mark. I can’t help but envision evil seeping like a deadly, insidious disease from the heart of one man to another. And then another, and another, and another…

Some situations seem ripe for spectacular displays of evil. Evil must find fertile soil, after all, in lands where oppression, poverty, and war have been present for generations. What terrific places to be planting seeds of anger, fear, and hopelessness. What good chances that they’ll grow in individuals’ hearts until they spill over, manifesting themselves in violence and injustice towards others. What likelihood that those fruits will begin the cycle anew.

That’s how I think of the ISIS fighters: as men whose circumstances and life experiences have made them angry and resentful… men who have sought sympathy and camaraderie amongst those who would encourage their indignation… men who feel more powerful and more right the more they work together toward a dramatic goal… men who have so convinced themselves of their righteousness that they view those who are unlike them as less than human… men who start by seeing violence as a necessary tool and end by relishing violence for its own sake. I trace evil’s influence throughout.

But that – that far-away place, in those foreign hearts – is not the only place where evil lurks. Evil would not be content to bear only a few thousand ISIS souls away from God. Evil works on the rest of us too.

A few weeks ago at mass, a visiting priest spoke to us on evil. (It’s funny, isn’t it, when a topic that you’ve already been chewing on, even distracted by, comes back to you via someone else’s mouth?) He told us that evil works in four ways: Deception (making us think that evil is good), Division, Diversion (drawing our attention away from those things that are critical to our salvation), and Discouragement (making us think that God is not there).

We are all vulnerable to those tactics.

Evil tells us that what we have is insufficient, that we will always need more. It encourages us to nourish our anger and resentment. It emphasizes our fears. It helps us divide people into “us” and “them.” It tempts us to seek fleeting satisfactions that harm our bodies and souls. It entices us to take pleasure in media that glamorize violence and disordered relationships. It convinces us that righteous indignation is indeed righteous. It leads us to think we’re alone and unloved.

Evil finds success in such “small” things all the time, all over the world. I can’t help but wonder whether, when evil has become sufficiently emboldened by its quiet successes, perhaps that’s when it taunts us, leers at us, with acts so glaringly evil that we’re stopped short.

We don’t know what to make of beheadings and systematic executions. We don’t know what to make of atrocities committed against children or efforts to snuff out entire peoples. We learn of the horrors perpetrated by ISIS and we don’t know how to process them. Because even though we recall the evils of slavery and murder and abuse, of Hitler and Stalin and Rwanda, we’re sufficiently unused to thinking about evil that it makes no sense to us.

So we find ourselves today.

For weeks, I think most of the world – or at least those in the world who have been paying any attention to events in Iraq (and Syria; I shouldn’t neglect to note that ISIS is there too) – have been standing around, stunned. We’ve been allowing ourselves to be immobilized by the very evil we encounter all the time. It is more obviously demonstrated by ISIS, yes – but it is the same evil.

More recently, the gears seem to be slowly cranking to life. Many are still coping by looking away or minimizing the situation or proclaiming our inability to make a difference. But others are calling for action. Some are beginning to take it.

I won’t claim to know exactly how the United States can defeat ISIS. But I think doing so should be our goal. And I think it’s unreasonable to expect that we can do so entirely from a distance. An enemy that functions in cities and villages thick with innocent civilians can’t be eradicated by airstrike. And one that utilizes medieval methods of warfare can’t be fully defeated by 21st century technology. The sword will never be located as easily as the tank.

(By the way, I find it more than a little ironic that Vice-President Biden vowed that the United States will follow ISIS “to the gates of hell” while Secretary Kerry and President Obama have made it painfully clear that they do not intend to send American ground forces to Iraq or Syria. I suppose the message to ISIS should be that the United States intends to follow ISIS to the gates of hell, unless of course Iraq and Syria lie just before those gates. In which case the United States will wait patiently at their borders and simply wave ISIS on.)

At any rate, where does the situation leave those of us who are not policymakers? What role can we play in combatting the evil perpetrated by ISIS?

I can only tell you what I’m doing.

I’ve stopped hiding from the situation: I’m reading and listening and watching reports on what is happening. I’m paying attention. I’m writing about it.

I’m guarding against evil’s influence in my own life: I’m examining my motivations. I’m trying to be careful (and charitable) about what I think and say and do. I’m being watchful of the darkness that makes its way into my heart when I pursue certain topics or dwell on certain old hurts. I’m trying to do my small part to stop cycles of fear, anger, resentment, and injustice where I find them.

I’m praying: It’s been three years (that is, since the birth of my second child) since I regularly made time for daily prayer. It’s so hard with several littles underfoot to pick up that old (very healthy) habit, but I’m trying. I do my usual, random prayers cast up to God whenever I think of them, but I’m also working on carving out regular blocks of quiet time to devote to nothing but prayer. When I’m successful, I dedicate my blocks to the people of Iraq and Syria.

I know these small, quiet things are nothing like the magnitude of what it will take to defeat ISIS. However, I can’t help but hope that evil might back off the leering a bit if it finds that the leering generates an increase in prayer and charity throughout the world. So I try.

There are also more tangible contributions we can make. We can contact our Senators and Representatives to tell them we’re concerned about ISIS and that we think the United States should play a significant role in defeating it. (Click here for links to the Senate and House of Representatives.) We can donate to charities that provide aid to the peoples affected by fighting in the region. (Click here to reach Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.) We can write blog posts, letters to the editor, Facebook comments, make calls to radio shows… We can all find small ways to contribute.

In his speech last night, President Obama said, “We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world.” That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that we’re incapable of achieving triumphs over evil. Indeed, we all have roles to play in thwarting it. But we must begin, I think, by acknowledging that evil is real and that it is here. We need to be watchful. We need to be deliberate. We need to be brave.

 

* United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006, page 489

Fifty Years From Birmingham

This morning as I drove to mass, I heard this segment on NPR. I hadn’t realized beforehand, but today is the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Which killed four little girls. In a church. Sunday, September 15, 1963: The event has always stuck out to me as exceptionally horrible. Layer upon layer of horrible.

I can only barely, a little bit, understand how people could have fought so hard to maintain a system of segregation that is (to my eyes) so obviously unjust. I assume that fear played a role – fear of change, fear of losing power. I think those fears have motivated an awful lot of horrible over the course of human history.

I understand less how people could escalate their resistance to change to the point of undertaking violence. How does one make that leap from using speeches and meetings and rules and laws (however unjust) to causing physical damage to a person or his property? I can only assume that the original seed of fear must have been long overtaken by anger. And I think anger poisons people.

But I don’t understand at all, not in the least, how people could bring violence to a church. How could any person, who has ever possessed even a morsel of faith or morality, bomb a church? On a Sunday morning? On the church’s youth Sunday, when a bunch of little girls were in the bathroom, excitedly preparing themselves to take visible roles in that morning’s church service? No purely human emotion helps me understand that one. Even anger isn’t sufficient.

I can only see evil. I can only surmise that people let evil in when they decided to nuture their fear. That the evil grew with their anger, each feeding the other. And that evil finally made itself obvious in that horrible act. A church. Four innocent children. Preparing to worship God. Evil must have rejoiced.

I cried as I drove to mass this morning, re-learning the story of the four little girls. I cried because I knew it was unjust; I knew it was wrong; I knew how unfair it was to those girls; I knew it must have torn apart their mothers’ hearts; I knew it had impacted so many more people than the victims themselves; and I knew that evil had had a say.

It’s a sobering thought on which to end my Sunday. As I drove to mass this morning, I hoped that my pastor would acknowledge this horrible anniversary. I wanted to feel uplifted. I wanted us to make some effort to remember what happened to those girls, to make a statement that their lives mattered. It didn’t happen. In my little corner of the world, no one seemed to remember.

But I hadn’t remembered either, not before that NPR segment. Which is why I write this post. With it, I’m issuing my own little remembrance. In these last few minutes of Sunday, September 15, 2003, let’s remember what happened exactly fifty years ago in Birmingham. Let’s say a prayer for those who lost their lives. Let’s say another for the family and friends who suffered their loss. And let’s say one more for the many who lost something less tangible that day. Because when evil scored with that horrible act, so much was lost.

On Authority

I have always known (or at least, my brother has always told me) that I’m a bit of a dork. Growing up, I never quite felt like I fit in with people my own age. With babies and old folks, I was golden. But from the ages of, say, 8 to 25 (dare I admit it lasted that long?), I felt a general sense of unease with my peers. It’s a good thing I’m not the least bit shy and I have a pretty healthy sense of my own worth, because if I’d been a timid, insecure little thing, I imagine that unease would have made for a miserable childhood.

As it was, I had a very happy childhood: I had a loving family and lots of close friends who were kind, funny, smart – all sorts of good things. When I did encounter classmates who saw through to my unease with the middle school sense of humor or the teenage sense of fun and gave me a hard time about it, I was usually able to stand up to them.

My adolescent social standing, though, was not helped by the fact that I was born with an innate distaste for anyone and anything “popular.” You know all those images of screaming, crazy-out-of-their-mind teenage girls waiting to greet the Beatles? And subsequent crowds of girls swooning over New Kids On The Block, Justin Bieber, etc? Umm… yeah… that wasn’t my thing. Not only did that obsessed-fan behavior kind of baffle me, but I had a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacked of a fad. Torn jeans? Six-inch-high bangs? My response was almost desperate: “No! It’s a fad! Get awaaayyy from it!”

I also didn’t have the teenage rebellion thing going for me. When my classmates were sneaking out to go to parties or driving around with forbidden friends, I was… exactly where my parents thought I was. Behaving nicely.

I know – I probably sound very boring to you. (And yes, my brother would assure you that I was/am.) But I promise that I do indeed know how to have fun, if perhaps a tamer version of fun than you prefer. In high school my friends generally congregated at my house, playing volleyball in the summer, board games in the winter. In college my house was also the gathering place, full of friends and good food. It still is.

Reflecting on all of this afterward, in my late twenties or so, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Why did I have no rebellious impulse at all when it came to my parents, but a strong aversion to being influenced by my peers?

After a while, it came to me: It’s all down to authority.

Because really, I know how it feels to have that rebellious, “Don’t you tell me what to do!” attitude. I experience it frequently. I experience it when I feel like all the lovely ladies are obsessed over some new trend in fashion, when everybody’s talking up a new diet or exercise regimen, when all the mommies seem to be jumping on some new parenting method bandwagon, when my Facebook feed is alight with the latest “it” political cause. I get this stubborn urge to do just the opposite of whatever it is everybody is so excited about.

I know – it’s pretty ridiculous. You don’t have to tell me that it’s just as silly to dislike something because it’s popular as it is to like something because it’s popular. I know that. And I recognize that sometimes (many times?) I reject something that I might otherwise enjoy, just because everyone else seems to be enjoying it. Silly.

When it comes to rules handed down by institutions, however, I’m usually onboard. Parking signs, using your blinker every single time you turn, underage alcohol laws, college rules regarding who is allowed on which floor after which hour, Church precepts on sex or marriage or mass obligations… I’m fine. I have zero rebellious impulse when it comes to people/institutions I perceive as having authority over me. (That is not to say I never struggle with following their rules. I simply feel no urge to rebel against them.)

The lack of a rebellious impulse in that respect is part of my nature. It’s just how I’m built. But I also have a rationale for my obedience to authority.

Let me pause here and draw attention to that word for a moment: Obedience. We don’t seem to like it much these days, do we? I certainly don’t like its relatives – follow, conform, imitate – when they pertain to people in whom I do not recognize authority. We are each the protagonist of our own story, are we not? I am the central character in my own life. I determine how I view the stage; I decide the direction I take. So shouldn’t I also be the authority? Why should I be obedient to someone or something else?

Back to my rationale… As an example, let me sketch out my line of thinking insofar as it relates to the Church: Do I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and little ol’ me to boot? Yes. Do I believe that God’s son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to live among us and that he suffered a horrible, painful death to redeem humanity – including me – from sin? Yes. Do I believe that Christ established the Catholic Church and that it continues to hold the authority He gave it? Yes.

If I really believe those things, what choice do I have? What is more important to me – to view myself as the ultimate authority, or to submit to the authority of the Church? I choose the latter.

I recognize that to a lot of people – especially young people, and perhaps especially Americans – the idea of submitting oneself to the authority of a church is… shocking, maybe? Horrifying, even? Inconsistent with our society’s secular ideals and sense of personal independence?

Okay, then – call me a rebel. (If one can be both rebel and dork, that is.)

I would wager that very few people lead lives completely independent of outside influence. Few are genuinely self-determined, free spirits. Most people submit to something – perhaps to parental or institutional authority, perhaps to the advice given by experts in the sciences, perhaps to the trends handed down from celebrities. We may not think about it much, but we follow, we conform, we obey. It’s just a matter of to what.

Certainly, my personality (my “Don’t you tell me what to do, popular person!” personality) predisposes me to favor obedience to parents/church/state over peers/culture. But I still make choices. I think. I assess. I keep my eyes and mind open, aware that parents and institutions make mistakes. That sometimes they act unjustly. That evil exists and each one of us is vulnerable to it.

So I walk the line, I suppose. Perhaps it’s not a very neat philosophical ending. When I recognize authority in a person or an institution, I obey. I trust. I do not rebel, but I do watch. Trust and watch: I can do both.

When I do not recognize authority, however, I run. So if you ever want to get me to do something, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me it’s popular.

A Love That Changes You

I have always loved children. I was one of those girls people call a “Little Mother.” The kind who sit in the shade under a tree with all the strollers, “helping” the babies and their mommies, despite all the fun-looking older kids running around playing tag.

Later I was a prolific babysitter, my weekends full of watching cousins and neighbors and my mom’s friends’ children. I loved all those little kids: the angels and the troublemakers, the lively ones and the meek. (Or rather, I loved almost all of them – we won’t talk about the spoiled 12-year-old who locked me out of her house.)

I especially loved my cousins, and later my nieces: The children whom I loved not because they were cute or sweet (though of course they all were), but truly for their own sake. They were born and with us and part of our family and I loved them. It’s as simple as that.

J holding K, 1992

So it’s not like I entered motherhood as a complete novice in the baby department. I felt prepared for the work involved in caring for a child and I was aware that there would be a tremendous emotional strain to deal with. I also knew that I would feel a love for my own child that would be different from any I had yet experienced.

But I wasn’t prepared for my infant son to teach me something about the whole of humanity. Or for him to give me a humbling, awe-filled glimpse into the heart of God.

B as newborn

So many nights, I sat in the rocker and nursed my baby boy. I studied his perfection: smooth, clear skin; long eyelashes; soft, round cheeks; creases at his wrists and thighs; dimples on his hands; wispy, fair hair; chest moving gently as he breathed his sweet breath; heart thump- thump- thumping in that reassuring way… I could go (and I have gone) on. At any rate, I can provide the images, but I can’t express the depth of the love I felt in those moments.

B Thanksgiving 2010

B outside 2011

The love which, of course, I continue to feel. We just celebrated my son’s third birthday. These days when I kiss my boy’s forehead, I think more on the funny and imaginative things he says; on his hugs for his brother; on his flushed, sweaty face and bright blue eyes when he runs around the playground; on the way he likes to kiss both of my cheeks, like the little French boy he isn’t. And the feeling is the same. Stronger, perhaps.

B summer 2012

A couple of years ago I sat in a different rocking chair, listening to a C-SPAN Booknotes interview with Iris Chang on her book The Rape of Nanking. I won’t describe the horror of the event on which the book is centered; I will only say that I was horrified. More than horrified: I felt a pain that seemed to go straight to my soul.

I sat there rocking my baby as I listened and I had this powerful image in my mind of all those other women who had rocked their babies – the babies who grew to become the victims and perpetrators of this most terrible of crimes. I thought of how I stroked my own son’s skin as I held him, how I smoothed his hair and absorbed the feeling of his weight against me. I treasured my son. I saw him for the precious, important being that he was – a human life and a child of God. Surely, those mothers must have felt the same about their babies. They must have known exactly how precious those lives were.

And yet some of those lives were treated with contempt. They were brushed aside, abused, degraded. I felt like screaming, “Didn’t you know how important those people were?!” Others were degraded by their own actions. Their mothers rocked innocent babies who grew to do grave evil. I can’t imagine that any mother would want such a future for her child.

So it goes on. I hear about atrocities and I think of mothers rocking their babies: The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the rampage in Afghanistan, the murders in Newtown. I think of the victims, but I think of the perpetrators too. I can’t hate them. I mourn for them and the damage they did to their souls. I mourn for their mothers’ sakes. I mourn even for Kermit Gosnell, who took those most unfortunate of babies: the ones whose mothers did not protect them, did not rock them, did not realize how very precious they were.

But I firmly believe that someone else knew exactly how precious those babies were. I believe that God valued and loved those babies from the moment they were conceived. All of them: those of Nanking, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Newtown, Gosnell, and so many other tragedies. And us too. We may think that we live normal, unremarkable, run-of-the-mill lives, but I believe that God views each and every one of us as unique and infinitely precious.

When I remember rocking my babies and I ponder the intense, indescribable love I feel for them, I think to myself, “If I love my boys this much, how much more must God love me?” When the answer sinks in, when I get that small glimpse into the heart of God, it just about takes my breath away. I am full of awe and gratitude and a keen awareness of how little I deserve that love. But I also know that I don’t have to deserve it. My boys don’t have to do a thing to earn my love. And there’s nothing they could do to stop me loving them.

I think most mothers would say the same. Through all of history and across all the world, mothers love their babies. They hold them tight and rock them. They treasure them. In them they see individuality and worth and promise. And all the while, God looks over their shoulders. He gazes at each and every one of us with a parent’s love, but greater. He loves and values us when our own parents fail to, when other people make victims of us, and even when we damage our souls with acts of evil.

Feeling that love, letting it all sink in and settle around you as you rock your child on a quiet afternoon, that’s a love that changes you.

Ring Bearer