Sunday, January 24, 2010

Everyday Sacraments

"A sacrament is an outward sign of God's love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven. But, no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity." Andre Dubus, Making Sandwiches for My Daughters

One of my struggles involves my general disdain of all things domestic. Whether it's getting four loads of laundry cleaned, folded and put away, or preparing lunches in the morning, or figuring out meals for the week, or going grocery shopping and putting everything in some kind of order at home, or washing dishes after being at school for three hours.

It's not like I walk around with a huge sour puss all the time or something. I'm not swearing as I transfer the cool, wet and dark clothing from washer to dryer, or slamming pieces of bread together as I make my 10,000th peanut butter sandwich. But I usually don't see them as joyful things, either. I see them as to-do items to slog through so I can get to the better parts of my day.

I mentioned in an older post that I got the chance to read Becoming Who You Are over Christmas. It's really a stunning book, and because it's so slim (about 90 pages), it's the kind of text that's easy to return to again and again. There were several times while reading it that I had to stop and digest a particular page or paragraph, not because it was difficult to consume, but because it contained so much wisdom I had to pause and linger a bit.

One such page quoted the late author Andre Dubus. Dubus was paralyzed after he was hit by a car. He had stopped to help another driver who was having car trouble when another car struck him. James Martin, SJ, the author of Becoming Who You Are, quotes from an essay that Dubus wrote:

"In his essay, Dubus, a devout Catholic, describes the laborious process of making sandwiches for his young daughters to carry with them to school. As he maneuvers his large, bulky wheelchair around his cramped kitchen, he reaches for the utensils, as he tries to open cabinet doors from his awkward position, and as he cuts the sandwiches, he realizes what he is doing for his children:

Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments...if I remember, then I feel it, too."

A sacrament is defined as a ritual in which God is uniquely active, or as a visible form of grace. I know it's ridiculously hard for me to see the grace in the monotonous tasks that create the backdrop of a life. But, I can tell myself, because I can, because I have, it's a sacrament. If I give thanks, it's a sacrament. Thanks for the towels and the sheets; thanks for the place to wash them; thanks for the food and the money with which to buy it; thanks for children to prepare meals for, and the body that is able to do it all.

I think of Andre Dubus, whose short stories I have read many times in college, trying to do something that is so easy for me, and being so grateful to do it. He writes, "...I can do this all with one turn of the chair. This is a first-world problem; I ought only to be grateful." Sure, he had to remind himself from time to time, as he writes in the part Fr. Martin quoted. Because how can we not forget? When we're tired, frustrated, angry.

But I suppose it's our charge to remember. Or to at least attempt to remind ourselves every now and then. Fr. Martin says that such a realization "can imbue even the quietest moments of one's life with a special grace."

Amazing, right?

(I'm linking to Dubus's entire essay, which can be found in an anthology called God Is Love: Essays From Portland Magazine. It's a quick read. And a wonderfully beautiful one. And more complex and lovely than I could do justice describing.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I Have Some Reading To Do

Christmas was quite lovely. We were all in relatively good health (which was a huge departure from last year) and could celebrate without the depression that accompanies the flu combined with pink eye.

We even made it to 8am Mass Christmas morning. Next year, I think we'll brave the crowds and do a Christmas Eve Mass, as there is music and instruments and loud singing, and I kind of crave that this time of year. 8am Mass was understated and peaceful, though, and the girls were sweet in their dresses.

I was excited to receive many of the book I asked for this year: a paperback copy of Fr. James Martin's My Life With the Saints, Robert Ellsberg's All Saints, and Father Louie's The Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. (Thanks Mom and Dad!)

My Life With the Saints was one of the first books I read as my faith started growing, and I've leafed through my FIL's copy of All Saints, which is a daily mediation featuring 365 figures, from Dorothy Day to Gandhi to MLK Jr. to St. Ignatius of Loyola. Some of the figures are central to the Catholic Church and and some are not, though each has brought great things to the world through their philosophies, faith and vocations.

At my in-laws' this past vacation, I was able to read Fr. Martin's Becoming Who You Are, which, for a slim volume (it is just under 90 pages), I cannot speak more highly of. Imagine my surprise, when, at the end of the book, Fr. Martin proposes a hypothetical featuring a working mother who has two children, ages 4 and 6. That mother, he says, laments her busy schedule and how little time or energy she feels she can devote to prayer and contemplation. She wishes she could be a bit more like the saints she admires, like St. Teresa of Calcutta. But she is no more meant to be St. Teresa than St. Teresa was meant to be a busy mother. I needed that reality check.

The book is about discovering your true self, the person God created you to be, and it's really another I have to add to my bookshelf. With lengthy meditations on Jesus, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Henry Nouwen, the underlying theme was that the path to holiness rests in being ourselves. I hope that I am on the right path concerning school, and becoming a nurse. I hope that my desire to become one is equal to the competency I will hopefully have in that vocation. My self-confidence, as ever, ebbs and flows. Hopefully my spiritual guides and some prayer will make my path a bit more steady and a lot less wobbly.

Happy New Year!