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How to raise children like the saints:

Pray for their deaths, leave them in the care of others and join a monastery, leave THEM in a monastery..

and so on. 

Today (May 22) is the memorial of St. Rita, known for many things, among them, her clear-eyed view of her children’s lives, earthly and eternal:

Rita Lotti was born near Cascia in Italy in the fourteenth century, the only child of her parents, Antonio and Amata. Her parents were official peacemakers in a turbulent environment of feuding families.


At an early age Rita felt called to religious life; however, her parents arranged for her to be married to Paolo Mancini. Rita accepted this as God’s will for her, and the newlyweds were soon blessed with two sons.


One day while on his way home, Paolo was killed. Rita’s grief was compounded with the fear that her two sons would seek to avenge their father’s death, as was the custom of the time. She began praying and fasting that God would not allow this to happen. Both sons soon fell ill and died, which Rita saw as an answer to her prayers.

From The Church’s Most Powerful Novenas. 

Whether or not your faith can take you that far at the moment, it’s worth pondering, worth allowing your self-understanding as a parent  – or simply a person who is connected to others – to be jolted, challenged and questioned.

It’s worth pondering on what we really believe and what we really want and hope for others and what we really think would be the worst and best things that could ever happen to them.

Raising children to be fulfilled in this world, happy with who they are in this world, and helpful to others in this world is good of us, but it’s also very 21st century First World of us. Parental bonds naturally bring deep desires to protect our children from any kind of harm or suffering, and of course it makes sense to have our parental goal be that vision of thriving, successful adults. Who still call, of course.

But if we’re parenting like the saints, we’re nudged to consider different definitions and frameworks and paradigms. We’re sometimes even confronted with examples of what we’d today call bad – terrible – parenting.

That is not to say that we look to saints because all of their decisions were good ones. They weren’t and we don’t. It is also true that there is nothing much easier than using religion as a tool to manipulate others and escape responsibility. I’m really involved in church and God clearly has a mission for me that requires all my time there  can often be more simply translated as I’d rather not be around my family, thanks. 

But if we’re serious about the Catholic thing, we do look to patterns, and the pattern we see is that when the saints think about other people, they’re concerned, first and foremost, with the state of their souls.

Now, we’d argue that  – we are too! Because we can quickly direct our purported concern with “souls” into that “self-fulfillment” door that rules the present day. That is: your deepest desires, as you understand them at this moment, must come from God – because they’re so deep and you can’t imagine being yourself without them. So this is what God wants. What you want. And that’s: fulfillment, happiness and feeling okay about what you’re doing here and now. What more can we want for ourselves, for our children?

St. Rita offers….another paradigm.

And so does S. Marie de l’Incarnation – the great mystic and missionary to New France, died in 1672, canonized in 2014. 

Last year, I read From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin.  It seems appropriate to talk about this fascinating relationship on the memorial of St. Rita.

Marie was widowed at the age of twenty, left with a young son. She spent years – not only working in a family business and supporting her son – but discerning. It was a discernment that led to her, at the age of 32, when her son was 11 – into joining the Ursulines, and, a few years later, heading to Canada, where she would live, minister, and eventually die, never having seen her son with her physical eyes again.

(She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2014) 

So yes, she left her son with relatives so she could join a cloistered convent then sail across the sea.

The argument is made that viewed in historical context, this decision is not as strange as it seems to us today. Families tended to be more extended, parents died a lot, one-fourth of all marriages in France during this period were second marriages, children were sent off to school, sent to live in better circumstances with better-off relations and so on.

All of this is true, but we also know from Marie’s story that her son did not cheerfully accept either of her decisions – he ran away and turned up at the convent gate, and so on.

But, as it does, life went on, and in the end, Claude entered religious life himself as a Benedictine, and he and his mother exchanged letters for decades – and he eventually worked hard to collect her writings and present them to the world as the fruit of the mind of a saintly woman. From one of her letters to him:

You were abandoned by your mother and your relatives. Hasn’t this abandonment been useful to you? When I left you, you were not yet twelve years old and I did so only with strange agonies known to God alone. I had to obey his divine will, which wanted things to happen thus, making me hope that he would take care of you. I steeled my heart to prevail over what had delayed my entry into holy religion a whole ten years. Still, I had to be convinced of the necessity of delivering this blow by Reverend Father Dom Raymond and by ways I can’t set forth on this paper, though I would tell you in person. I foresaw the abandonment of our relatives, which gave me a thousand crosses, together with the human weakness that made me fear your ruin. 

When I passed through Paris, it would have been easy for me to place you. The Queen, Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon and Madame the Countesss Brienne, who did me the honor of looking upon me with favor and who have again honored me with their commands this year, by their letters, wouldn’t have refused me anything I desired for you. I thanked Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon for the good that she wanted to do for you, but the thought that came to me then was that if you were advanced in the world, your soul would be in danger of ruin.  What’s more, the thoughts that had formerly occupied my mind, in wanting only spiritual poverty for your inheritance and for mine, made me resolve to leave you a second time in the hands of the Mother of goodness, trusting that since I was going to give my life for the service of her beloved Son, she would take care of you….I have never loved you but in the poverty of Jesus Christ in which all treasures are found….

More thoughts here.

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In him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promised fulfillment. What the divine goodness had offered as a promise to them, he held in his arms.  – from a homily of St. Bernardine of Siena. 

Some images for you, first a vintage holy card from the Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal that interests me because it predates the construction of the large basilica:

From the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal.  

I just love the blues on the card above and the not-quite Art-Noveauishness of it.

At the shrine featured in the vintage holy cards.  Summer 2011. 

The sign says “Reserved for pilgrims climbing on their knees.”

 

SECOND DREAM of ST. JOSEPH

The wonderful Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui, whose depiction of St. Joseph dreaming is above, has  a blog. It is an absolute treasure trove of wisdom, whether you are an artist or not. Please go visit, bookmark, visit every day and support his work.  Easter’s coming. Surely there’s someone out there who’d appreciate the gift of one his prints?

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Last week, I pulled a book off my basement bookshelves: St. Denis: A French-Canadian Parish. 

It’s a rather well-known sociological study, published in 1936, with an postscript briefly describing changes that had occurred by 1949. The book was from my parents’ home and was one of the few I took with me after their deaths. My father was a political scientist, not a sociologist, but had a few works from that field that were popular or of general

amy-welborn2

My mother’s aunt, after whom she was named.

interest in the 50’s and 60’s. The other factor that I’m sure led to this book being on their shelves was my mother’s French-Canadian heritage. She was born in New Hampshire, but was first generation – everyone else in her family had been born in Quebec. In fact, since my mother was born in 1924, the emigration activity described in this book was her family’s story in a way – that very fluid border that existed between New England and Canada at the time through which young people who either had no work on family farms or simply wanted a different life passed constantly back and forth until probably the 1960’s. In 1973, we took a family vacation and visited some older  third cousins in Sayabec, Quebec, women who had lived in Lewiston (Maine) for over a decade in the 1950’s and 60’s and, of course had never had to speak a word of English during their time in the United States.

(My mother’s Catholic grammar school classes  in Maine were half in French and half in English. When she went to public school, everything was all English, all the time. The French-speaking children called their non-Quebecois classmates “Johnny Bulls.”)

So anyway, I did have a personal interest in this book, but more than that, a general interest in the subject matter, related to those persistent questions of religion and culture. What was the lived faith of these early 20th century Catholics like? How is it similar to mine? How is it different? How was faith enmeshed in culture? And can I find any clues at all as to why it has collapsed so completely in Quebec?

Well, it’s only one book centering on one tiny slice of life, but in terms of that last question, what came to me – not a very original thought – was that the intimate weaving of religion and culture gave faith its greatest strength – and was a factor in its collapse as well.

For as the study indicates, although St. Denis was, even in 1936, a very traditional rural culture, change was coming – economic pressure was prompting young people to seek amy-welbornwork in the cities and even in the US, and they were bringing back different values when they returned. Religious life was intimately tied to the rhythms of daily and seasonal life and was a largely uncontested worldview  – which we look at with nostalgia and yearning – but perhaps (perhaps) led to an experience of faith ill-equipped to cope with the spiritual questions raised in a more open culture (Not everyone believes as I do – and some of those people are good people – is it really necessary to do and believe all of this? I’m having experiences that I’ve been taught were sinful..and I still feel okay…was what they told me true at all? ) – simply because they weren’t raised.

I don’t know. Just guessing here.

Anyway, here are a few pages from St. Denis.  The first is just there to give you a taste in case you don’t want to click through. The second takes you to this link – a pdf I made of some pages related to the Mass. The first couple of pages relate to the role of the boys’ and mens’ choir – which have different liturgical functions. And then I’ve given you the entire chapter on the Mass, which I think you’ll find interesting. Note that, in this case, those laity who receive Communion don’t receive it during Mass. They go to Confession before Mass, and then Communion is distributed before Mass begins – my scant knowledge indicates that this is High Mass under discussion, and Communion was not distributed to the laity during High Mass. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong!

 

stdenis

 

Excerpt from St. Denis.

I often think about what I believe is the greatest difference in the contemporary landscape in which the Church evangelizes today and say, the most frequently-encountered conditions of a hundred, two hundred or a thousand years ago. To me, that great difference is all about human choice, mobility, awareness and relative prosperity. Some of that is reflected in St. Denis – although these people certainly had more choice and mobility than say, a medieval peasant – still. Lives were fairly circumscribed, most people followed life paths determined by their families and human health and flourishing was highly dependent on how the forces of nature treated you this year. A spirituality of Let’s make this your Best Lent Ever and God wants you to use your unique gifts and talents to set the world on fire and wow, isn’t it great to know that God made you beautiful and wants you to have an exciting life?! ….

…would be…irrelevant.

Which is why, when I’m sorting through spiritual messages and discerning what’s real and what’s fake and opportunistic, one of the criterion I’ve taken to consider is: Would this expression of the Gospel and these spiritual stylings be equally applicable to me – in my world of mobility and choice – and to a 9th century Italian peasant – or to a person in a refugee camp – or an elderly person in a nursing home – or a child? 

Yes, our different circumstances do call for varied specific applications and challenges. But fundamentally – one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. The basics of what we say should make sense to anyone, at any time, anywhere.

 

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If you don’t know about today’s saint – St. Andre Bessette (who died on 1/6, but whose memorial is today) – just take a quick look.

Born Alfred Bessette in Quebec in 1845, he was orphaned by the time he was 12. With little-to-no formal education, he became a Holy Cross brother and because of his sickly nature, was assigned as the doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, a post he held for nearly 40 years. It was in this role as a porter that St. André was able to minister to the sick.

He prayed with them to God and St. Joseph, as an intercessor. Hundreds credit their healing to St. André’s prayers. The walls of  St. Joseph’s Oratory are lined with crutches of those who were healed, but St. André always gave credit to God and St. Joseph’s intercession as Jesus’ earthly father.

As he became known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal,” St. André was later assigned full-time as the caretaker of the church that he built to honor St. Joseph. He spent his days seeing healing the sick. By the 1920s, the Oratory hosted more than a million pilgrims annually, and hundreds of cures were attributed to his prayers every year.

St. André Bessette died in Montreal on Jan. 6, 1937. It is estimated that more than a million people made the pilgrimage to the Oratory to say their good-byes to their beloved Brother André. He was beatified on May 23, 1982, and canonized in October 2010, becoming the Congregation of Holy Cross’ first saint. Worldwide the Congregation of Holy Cross community observes St. André’s Feast Day on Jan. 7, because the Vatican and many nations observe the feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6

Andre Bessette is one of the “doorkeeper saints” – who fascinate me. They provide a vital antidote to some of the distracting and even harmful trends in contemporary pop spirituality. Some more thoughts here, related to Solanus Casey. 

 

Anyway, quickly – I’ve been to the amazing St. Joseph’s Oratory twice. The last time, in 2011, I was amazed at the busloads of Latino pilgrims present. Start off the photos with some vintage holy cards:

"amy welborn"

This one interests me because it predates the large oratory’s construction.

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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In a fractured, secular culture, in a society that elevates the individual and then leaves her to her own devices and bootstraps, it’s not surprising that those seeking to emphasize stability and a sure grounding for values and culture – not to speak of faith – would emphasize the family as the center of society, life, culture and civilization.

It does. It makes sense. There’s  a lot of truth there.

But.

Consider this.

Family  – especially the modern nuclear family of parents and children – is not actually the highest value in traditional Christian spirituality.

In fact, when you plunge into the Christian narrative, as articulated in Scripture, post-apostolic history, the primary veins of Christian spirituality, the development of Christian institutions and the lives of the saints, it’s not family that is the focus – even on a secondary level – but God’s redemptive work in his creation as apprehended by the individual soul.

In other words – it’s about each of us, as part of the Body, redeemed and journeying to eternal life.

Family is the natural, divinely ordered (which are the same thing) source and structure for our lives. It’s where we come from, its shape is designed for our flourishing in God’s image, participation in family is an aspect of vocation for all of us in some way, and family – as children, parents, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, siblings – is the first and primary arena in which we are called to live out the Gospel, and to serve and love sacrificially.

But when you really do take an honest, clear-eyed look at the Christian spiritual tradition, you find that family is just not at its core. It might be because for most of history, “family” is simply assumed, or perhaps because so much of Christian spiritual writing has been produced by celibates. Perhaps.

But did you catch that Gospel today?

At that time Peter began to tell Jesus, ‘What about us? We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.

  ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’

As I do for many of these types of ills, I blame Protestants. Ditching vowed religious life, brushing aside a lifestyle expressive of a radical approach to the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience) acted as a wrecking ball, not only to women’s lives and spirituality, but to that balanced vision, evolved over the centuries, of an individual soul, created individually by God, destined for God, and making that journey in the context of creation, civilization and family.

In other words: If your family life is terrible, if your family is abusive or worse, if you don’t have much a family, if your parents are dead, you have no siblings, if you have no spouse or children, if you regret that or if you don’t and if you don’t fit that 21st century Western nuclear family mold – Jesus calls. You. 

Don’t make an idol out of family. 

So now, let’s talk about Marie de L’Incarnation

Marie de l’Incarnation was one of the notable early French settlers in Quebec, the founder of a school that still exists today, and a canonized saint.

She also left a child behind when she entered religious life:

You do, in fact have some reason to complain because I left you. I, too, would willingly complain if I could about he who came to bring a sword to earth, making such strange divisions. It is true that even though you were the only thing left in the world to which my heart was attached, he nevertheless wanted to separate us when you were still at the breast. I struggled to keep you for nearly twelve years, but I still had to share almost half of those years. Finally I had to yield to the force of divine love and suffer this blow of division which was more painful than I can tell you, but which didn’t prevent me from considering myself an infinity of times the cruelest of all mothers. I ask you to forgive me, my very dear son, for I am the cause of your having suffered much affliction. But let us console ourselves that life is short and that, by the mercy of he who thus separated us in this world, we will have an entire eternity to see each other and to celebrate each other in him. (Summer 1647)

Marie wrote thousands – thousands – of letters, which provide invaluable insight into life in New France. She ends one of her letters to her son by saying that she had to wrap it up because she had forty more letters to write before the ship back to Europe sailed.

The letters in this collection are just a sampling of those she wrote to her son, Claude Martin. Claude ended up joining religious life himself, and so the letters reflect Marie’s understanding of their shared vocation and God’s will at work through her counter-cultural choices.

You have therefore won much in losing me, and my abandonment has been useful to you. And similarly with me, having left in you what was dearest and most precious to me in all the world and in a word, having voluntarily lost you I found myself together with you in the bosom of this totally lovable God, by means of the holy vocation you and I have followed, and for which, according to the promises our Lord, we are rewarded on hundred-fold in this life – not to mention the eternal reward for which we hope in heaven. (1654)

Ah! My very dear son, who would ever have imagined — or even believed — that, you and I remaining alone after the death of your father, the Divine Majesty would have favored you from that point on, granting you the great and inestimable happiness of the religious profession? And even that he brought you into being for such honorable charges and such dazzling occupations? It is assuredly because I abandoned you out of love for him, and because I asked of him neither gold nor riches for you or for me but only the poverty of his son for us both…(1665)

Self-justification? Who knows. It’s a theme Marie returns to again and again over the decades. The fact that even late in life, she takes a great deal of time and space to work through the whole history again shows, I think, if not a conflict or regret (although that might be there), at the very least the centrality of this element of her life, expressive of the mystery of God’s ways. Although the course of her and her son’s life was the consequence of a choice, it is still an expression of the mysterious ways in which we respond to the lives we’ve been given, lives in which chance, accidents and tragedy all shape our perceptions of God’s call to us.  Things happen to us and we make choices. We accept them and we may even positively embrace and celebrate them, but that doesn’t stop us from returning to them in our minds and souls, pondering them, turning things over and contemplating how strange it all is.

So Marie left her son. As I noted elsewhere, even though in this era, children were often placed in the care of people other than parents (think wet-nurses, even), extended families were the norm, and children of certain classes were certainly far less intensely and directly parented than our contemporary ideals would have it, her decision to enter the Ursulines when Claude was eleven did not go uncriticized in her circle, and she knew and admitted it. But over and over, she justified the decision, and told Claude that she was confident he was grateful, because without the abandonment, he wouldn’t have entered religious life himself.

And of course, Christian history is full of similar stories – of husbands and wives separating, of other parents entering religious life, of parents leaving their children in monasteries and convents. Christian history is also full of examples of people using spirituality and religion  to  rationalize abandonment of family responsibilities or manipulation of other family members. It’s full of examples of abuse and exploitation justified by God’s will for you and for our family.

All the more reason to emphasize to our children that they’re here to serve the Lord who created and calls them, not us.

Did Marie make this clear in a particularly vivid way to her son? In a way that brought him pain? She’d probably say yes, but it was also the way she was absolutely certain was God’s will.

Not probably a path most of us would follow, and it might even horrify us, even if we know that mother and son lived out this way with a sense of peace. But even if we can’t see it as a path to emulate, it still might be worth thinking over in discerning that tension-filled tapestry woven out of our relationships to God and each other.

For here’s the thing: a tight-knit family can nourish and promote flourishing. A tight-knit, even mostly healthy family can be experienced as restrictive and confining. A ridiculous family can generate broken and tragic stories, but ridiculous family situations can also produce adults who have emerged mental and spiritual health intact and perhaps even carrying an expanded sense of empathy for the broken and messy.

Family is a component of the spiritual life. It plays a part in who we are, and we are called – and obliged – to serve family members out of love and duty. Simple Christian charity and agape love calls for us to love whoever is in front of us at that moment, in the best way we can, empowered by grace. That is all true. But as important as that is, natural family ties are always subordinate to the individual’s relationship with God.

That’s the Gospel. 

The trick is – and I think this is true, not just with this, but with so many other areas of life – to be deeply, always aware of and honest about that rationalization temptation. We rationalize oppressive, controlling, domineering behavior in families because we claim it’s God’s will for everyone to come along the ride we’ve discerned is right and true. Translation: Narcissism.  On the other hand, we turn around and rationalize withdrawal and neglect as a spiritual necessity. Translation: Narcissism. 

The fact is, most of the time what I’m being called to do is not so complicated. Most of the time it’s about sacrificing something I think I want to do because someone needs me, and that’s far more important than my desires. Marie’s case is complicated because of how she perceives and defines and understands all of these: need, desire, call….

It’s fascinating, really. Agree or disagree, Marie de l’Incarnation’s journey is thought-provoking, isn’t it? And talk about counter-cultural. Maybe next time you need some privacy, stick this quote on your bedroom door:

….the proximity of one’s relatives often causes difficulties and sometimes turns one away from God…

(1664)

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