Tuesday, October 25, 2011

servants of dignity

I do not like TV. I 've not owned a television set for over a decade and I could not name even five popular shows that air regularly on television - in either country. But I've discovered Downton Abbey. A DVD compilation of the entire first season was loaned to me last week and I've already watched the whole thing. I don't know what will happen in subsequent seasons, but in the seven episodes I have watched I've been astonished at the morality of the whole thing. Not just the absence of filthy words and suggestive scenes, but the beautiful emphasis on virtue and goodness. I do very occasionally see a show that is "totally clean". Slightly more often I see a movie that "has a really good message". Downton Abbey goes beyond that and approaches the moral caliber of a Jane Austen novel. There are characters of commanding virtue and goodness, characters who show impeccable integrity and heroic honor in myriad situations, large and small. There are also a few truly vile characters who do horribly vile things, but evil is clearly shown to be evil - even in moral areas where we are accustomed to evil being justified or even celebrated or made a bit fuzzy. I have only seen the first season so I do not vouch for anything beyond that. Naturally I hope that this moral excellence continues on throughout the series. From what I have seen so far, Downton Abbey is pro-life! Even Jane Austen's novels are not pro-life. Then again, Austen was not writing for a culture that needed to have the dignity of the unborn child clarified. Julian Fellowes is. Incidentally, the series is outselling any other television drama of all time. People like old fashioned morality and modest gowns better than they liked The Sopranos. What does that say?

In the last episode of the season, the most vile character speaks disparagingly about the unborn child of one of the female characters. The more virtuous characters demand that he show respect for the dignity of the child. He sneers,"at that stage they're no bigger than hamsters". It is quite clear that he also means that they are no better than hamsters and no more valuable. Seconds later, after a few more nasty comments, he gets punched in the face. You can't help but feel that it's long overdue.

Another scene earlier in the episode had me thinking along these lines as well. When the child's existence is discovered, his parents are both quite surprised. The husband is especially stunned and his wife feels compelled to ask him if he is happy about the baby. Her vulnerability as she asks is striking. Everything hangs in the balance for her. (She lives in the early 1900's, so by "everything" I do not mean that the child's life itself depends upon this man's preference.) If he said that he was not happy, a huge and heavy cloud waited to envelope her. Her natural inclination was to joy, but he could undermine that maternal joy by his emotional rejection of the child. Her heart instinctively bent to accept and embrace and celebrate this new life, but it was in his power to either support her maternal inclinations or to deeply damage them. That's not just a well-written or well-acted scenario. That is the history of women in every time and culture.

Within 24 hours, I saw this history playing out in real life. While visiting a friend today, I heard a neighbor screaming. My hostess's face clouded. She told me the painful story of the family next door. A solo mom of two little girls, aged 3 and 1. Different men drifting in and out of the house at all hours. Daily outbursts of venomous, hateful words shouted at the toddlers - "You little (insert vulgar cuss words)!" My friend ventured over one day to introduce herself. The neighbor did not tell the names of the little girls; she only waved in their direction with disgust and introduced them as "proof that IUDs don't work".  I feel sad for these little girls. One stood in her driveway staring at me as I left. I waved to her. I thought about her the whole drive home and for the rest of the day. But I also feel sad for her mom. I'm sure that when she asked the fathers of these two girls if they were happy about her pregnancies they were not. She probably didn't even have to ask. What she is doing now is very, very hard and she is doing it all alone. She's doing one of the hardest things in the world and she's doing it under extremely difficult circumstances. And there are thousands and thousands of other women just like her. Her children live a life that is becoming increasingly "normal".  I would guess that those two little girls do not experience a lot of consistent warmth, affection, stability or selfless love. I don't think they know much peace.

This is the face of the contraceptive culture. Contraception has made this kind of unhappiness so common in our modern world. It didn't invent a new problem, but it has multiplied a very very old problem to staggering proportions. Some would say it would be better had these little girls been aborted rather than live with the abuse and neglect that defines their days and shapes their young souls. I looked that beautiful little girl in the eyes today and I don't believe that. Others will say that the answer to these situations is more and better contraception. The mother of these little girls has already stated that contraception is a lie.

I'm not writing this evening in attempt to judge, just painfully wishing for an answer. What more can the pro-life movement do? This mother did not abort the babies that her boyfriends rejected. I don't know why or how but she found the strength to endure pregnancy, childbirth and active motherhood. But she's in way over her head now and she is killing the innocence and joy of the two little lives in her care. I bet she feels that somewhere too - and that it feels really bad. She hurts them out of her own hurt, and then has even more hurt to deal with. This woman needs the pro-life movement to embrace her and support her and help her. I can't stop feeling that after the baby is born, clothed and equipped for the first few months, we pro-lifers sort of feel that the job is done - when it's actually just begun.

John Cardinal O'Connor had a vision of an order of nuns who would pray and minister to unborn babies and their mothers. His vision became a reality and the Sisters of Life are one of the most beautiful group of women imaginable. I have a vision of an order of nuns who would minister to these women and their babies after the births - for years and years and years. It's a bit ridiculous for a married woman with three children to yearn to start a new order of nuns, so I never told anyone about this embarrassing scheme. But there are others out there who are in circumstances where the Lord could use them to build this vision into reality. The Lord gave me the name Servants of Dignity. (Maybe another order already has this name. No, a quick Google search revealed nothing). The mission: to serve and protect the dignity of children and families in difficult circumstances. The Sisters of Life open their convents to pregnant women in difficult circumstances who need a supportive place to live. The Servants of Dignity would open their convents to children in difficult circumstances who need a nurturing place to be. Not exactly an orphanage (although there could be some short-term overnight accommodation if needed), this ministry would be more like providing an alternative to daycare. The charism would involve providing a loving and wholesome environment where the child's dignity and worth would be affirmed, where the child would experience stability, affection and loving discipline. I imagine a Montessori-like atmosphere of peace and order. I imagine the recently departed spirit of Sofia Cavalletti imbuing the daily rhythms. I imagine a soft, simple habit that allows ease of movement for active engagement with children. I imagine practical support being offered to parents and great efforts made in helping the parents come to realize their own dignity. And I imagine tons and tons and tons of prayer. I see the sisters spending hours in Adoration and prayer, interceding for families.

Obviously this post has nothing whatsoever to do with our mission in New Zealand. This will undoubtedly be one of the posts that I infinitely regret writing tomorrow. Blame it on Peter Kreeft. I read his How to Win the Culture War yesterday and perhaps caught a bit of his recklessness. Ah well, I could use a pinch of recklessness from time to time. Thirty-third birthdays do that to me.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

the (other) emerald isle

Katrina's cupcakes celebrating girl's group

It's exciting times here in New Zealand. School's out on a brief holiday. The Rugby World Cup finals are being played in Auckland as I type. The region is astir over the Rena fiasco & cleanup. The girls group went ice skating for the first time. And Richard and I are letting our imaginations run wild pondering the future. 

Christine and I took the girl's group up to Auckland on Monday. Joseph Pio and Maria accompanied us while Bernadette stayed home to keep an eye on Rich. Our ambitions for the trip were boundless: Auckland Cathedral, ice cream, ice skating, Missionaries of Charity, One Tree Hill (of U2 fame), art galleries, the Victoria Street market and an overnight at the Tyburn complete with Bananagrams. We had wet-weather plans and dry-weather plans. We had altogether too many plans. 

After a slow, rainy drive up to Auckland and a beautiful sunny visit to the Cathedral, we only managed to squeeze in 90 minutes of ice skating before racing off to arrive at the Tyburn for dinner. Most of the girls had never skated before, including Maria. The older girls gave it a cheerful try and delighted in their falls. Maria beamed as I laced up her ice skates - but simply walking in them was impossible for her and she refused to even attempt to skate in them. Thank you so much to the very kind man who refunded her entry fee. Then off to another Tyburn.
chapel at the Bombay Tyburn

The Tyburn convent in Bombay was situated in as breathtaking a setting as the one in Rotorua (from a few weeks ago). We enjoyed the prayerful rhythms of the nuns' life interspersed with our wildly joyful exploration of their magnificent grounds. And it was alone in their beautiful little chapel that evening that I experienced profound peace as I contemplated the "next step" for the Sealy family....Ireland. 

Galway, to be precise. It just keeps coming up. In the past week I have met several people from Galway or with Galway connections. Through various sources this week I have repeatedly heard of the need in Ireland for youth ministers and teachers. Often in my life, these kinds of "patterns" have been the Lord's way of getting my attention and introducing me to an invitation He'd like me to consider. But I had not been thinking at all about going directly from one mission to another. Quite frankly the idea made my heart sink. I thought there'd be a bit of a break between missions. So I sat alone in that chapel and started praying through it and found - to my great surprise - peace. Profound peace. 

Rich has loved our mission experience so much that I just knew he'd be thrilled to discern another one. So I'd barely walked through the door of our house the next day when the whole Ireland thing tumbled off my tongue to Rich. He stared at me like I was insane. He mumbled something about Italy. He'd just spoken to his cousin who had told him that the US military was hiring youth ministers for the families of soldiers stationed in Italy. But he looked sort of like he had been run over by a tank. He kept looking like that for the rest of the afternoon. He went off to workout with Fr. Michael and came home talking about doctoral programs. At American schools, not Italian ones. And definitely not Irish ones. 

The point is, we still really have no idea what The Plan is. We keep getting asked about it, but we don't know what it is. We know who does, but He's not telling yet - and we're ok with that. There is really no rush; almost a third of our mission time still awaits us. Right now we're just trying to remain wide open and at peace. We're determined to enjoy the ride, to live in the present moment and fully experience the seven or eight months left without anticipating too much about what will come next. That might sound irresponsible, especially given the three little people who depend on us for meals. So I assure all that we are very much thinking, talking, praying, networking....but not fretting, worrying or living in the future. If we haven't learned by now that we can fully trust Divine Providence, I don't think we ever will. 

I don't know what that whole Ireland whirlwind was all about. Perhaps it was sheer craziness. Perhaps it's a seed the Lord is planting now, but not intending to reap until a later season of our lives. Perhaps it was Jesus asking me to surrender the whole of my plan to Him - and Him showing me a possibility that is wholly other than what I would have pursued - in order to impart a deeper peace and abandonment in my soul. If so...it worked.  Bail ó Dhia ort.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

the boat

I think it is safe to assume that international news has covered the container ship that is wrecked off the coast of New Zealand. What you may not know is that we can see it from the beaches that border our neighborhood. Rich and I walked over and took some photos this afternoon. Because it was hazy today, it was a bit hard to clearly capture the boat in the photos we took, so I placed a red line through the ship in the photo above and drew a red oval over the ship in the photo below. Earlier in the week we had hiked Papamoa Hill on a clear day and the ship was far more visible. 

It's an enormous deal here - obviously. Oil is washing up on the shores and the beaches of our town and neighboring towns are all closed. Military vehicles line the streets near the beach and volunteers cover the shores. A very loud helicopter flies back and forth over our house all day transporting materials from the stranded ship to the nearby harbor. Summer is fast approaching and if the situation worsens it will have an enormous impact on many facets of life here. Rich told me last night that there is even an emergency evacuation plan being formulated for our area, although I am not quite clear on why that might be necessary. There is a lot of anger - rightfully so - and also sadness and fear - and dismay and shock.... Please join us in praying that worse catastrophe can be avoided and that the Lord will draw some good out of this, as only He can. 

signs posted near every beach entry point

military vehicles parked along beach roads

army personnel man roads to the waterfront

volunteers working to clean up oil

Sunday, October 9, 2011

just trying to be steubenville...

Last week we put a FOP - a Festival of Praise - a praise music extravaganza. When I say that "we" put it on, I mean that I decided it should happen and Richard, Christine and the youth did all the work. Anyone who has ever heard my singing would agree this arrangement was really for the best. And it was pretty epic - the photos give a hint of how amazing it was.

the band

the crowd

the praise

the worship

the cuteness

the aftermath

The evening started out awesome! The band practiced all afternoon, ate pizza and practiced some more. My girls attended most of the practice and were pretty much as wildly over-excited as two little girls can possibly become. Four minutes before the event actually began, I was photographing the band when Maria materialized at my side with blood literally covering her face. She had had a high-speed collision with a handrail and split her lip wide open. More experienced mothers advised me that she was going to need at least one stitch. So.... we missed about half of the long-awaited event. We did not miss the premier screening of the first ever youth group music video, directed and produced by Christine Sealy.  Here it is:  

one week later, no major scar

Saturday, October 1, 2011

before the lambs go straying....

We hand-designed invitations. We gathered flowers into bouquets and lit candles. We baked. We purchased gifts of fine chocolate. And then we ambushed them, blindfolded them without explanation and trotted them about in disorienting paths until they had no idea where they were. 

"They" were our senior-most Tahu girls. This month they will be eligible to begin attending girls group and we are most anxious to have them join us. In the past, senior Tahu youth have not transitioned smoothly into Lighthouse. This has been one of the greatest weaknesses of our mission. Determined to help make the leap as graceful as possible, we surprised the newly eligible girls during a normal youth night while their peers looked on in awe and confusion. We took our blindfolded captives back to the rectory, ripped off the blindfolds and welcomed them warmly to Girls and God. They looked so relieved. I think had we frightened them more than we intended.

Perhaps that unintended fright was a bit symbolic. The best I can gather is that it is mostly due to fear that the Tahu youth are not transitioning to Lighthouse. It's not terribly dorky or demanding to attend youth group when you're twelve. Over the next few years, however, that all changes. Dramatically. Suddenly there are many new fears to contend with. They find themselves drifting off for many different reasons, but I think the common denominator in most cases is fear. They've become afraid of God. Many are afraid He is going to ruin all their fun. Others are afraid of who they might become in God...someone weird, someone dorky, someone uptight, someone boring, a fanatic, a misfit, a cold prig, a judgmental self-satisfied jerk. Others are afraid because, like Adam, they have set foot on the path of disobedience and it's not so comfy to be naked in front of the Lord anymore. They're hiding from Him now. 

the girls group members leading their bewildered captives 

They're not so different from many of us. It often starts in the pre-teen years, but we certainly don't grow out of it at some set age. Many adults are living in a similar state of fear - only much, much more hardened. I went to Confession last Saturday, as is my habit. I confessed the same old rotten stuff that I do almost every week. But Fr. Michael always says something new. On that Saturday he told me to go back out in the church and to sit quietly and pray. He told me to picture in my mind that I was entering Jesus' throne room. He told me to vividly imagine the expression on Jesus' Face and in His Eyes. Fr. Michael instructed me to just receive His love, and added, "He won't ask anything of you". The minute he said those words, I felt the awful stinging of tears prickling my eyes. They were those unique kind of tears that spring up when something sounds so good - and you want so painfully to believe it. He had spoken right into my lifelong struggle to understand with the heart what I believe with the mind. Love and mercy. Not just "love"  - but love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love. Times infinity. It's so easy to pinpoint that all I want for my own children is for them to know they are so loved - to deeply feel that and to experience intense comfort and security and freedom and joy in it. So why is it such a struggle to be the beloved child of the One who invites me to call Him "Abba" - DaDa - as if I could love my (exasperating) child more than He could love His. I mean, we're talking about a God who was willing to compare His Majestic Self with a CHICKEN, for goodness sake. Jesus wept real human tears over us and spoke of His painful desire to gather us under His wings like a mother hen does to her chicks, "But you would not". How much more desperate can Love get? 

So there are those of us who just can't fully wrap our minds around His humility and gentleness and compassion. We try to serve Him but we do so a bit fearfully, seeing Him as a hard master more than a desperate chicken. Even though we may know all the proper theology in our minds, our hearts still have moments of pure cowardice. Will He throw our failures in our face? Will He say we weren't worth it after all He did for us? What if He is the kind who would point out all He gave and all He sacrificed and then point out that we didn't even show proper gratitude by ... praying more, forgiving others, being kinder, tithing more, living more simply, becoming a nun.... 

If that image of the "hard master" goes uncorrected, the fear turns to rebellion. Who wants to be a slave to someone like that? I've seen this play out with the youth, with former students, with peers. God is rejected out of fear of what He might demand. People begin to believe that God really is all about you can't and thou shalt not and no more and give up this. There are kids who won't come to youth group because they are afraid of what God will take from them. What will I lose? I won't be able to enjoy life. God will wreck my happiness. This seems to be the most common misperception that is holding teens back from youth group (and is probably not uncommonly holding adults back from church as well). 

There are those who are afraid that God is an affectionate Father only to those who "deserve" it - and that they do not. They are not one of those "holy types", those good children whom the Father naturally loves. They are outright sinful. They have done bad things. They may have heard that the greater our sin, the greater our claim on God's mercy but it's beyond human comprehension. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or maybe the Prodigal Son was much more repentant than they are. Either way, they have trouble seeing themselves as beloved children. They "get" that the more serious a child's illness or injury, the more tender, concerned and recklessly extravagant the human parent's love. They definitely can understand that the economy of mercy works in that fashion with mortal currency, but they cannot grasp that the greater their sin - the more they have been injured and sickened by sin - the more that compassion and help flow forth from the Father in heaven. 

The above is not a comprehensive list of why kids stop coming to youth group and adults stop going to church. Some blithely assume that God will accept whatever He gets and they need not bother with Him too much. There are those who simply don't believe or don't care. There are those who have vaguely decided to procrastinate on all things spiritual until some unspecified "later" date. There are those whose families do not wish them to come. There are budding athletes and musicians who prioritize developing the gifts over developing a relationship with the Giver. There are those who are angry with God because they rubbed the lamp but the All-Powerful Genie didn't obey. And on and on and on. 

It is our hope that each of the girls that we ambushed last week makes the decision to continue attending youth group after she "graduates" Tahu in December. It is an essential part of our task to try to understand why she probably won't. And it is a vital part of our mission to then venture up to the brambles and cliffs and see if any of the lost sheep are willing to be found. If necessary, we bring chocolate.