Posted in musings

gardening our hearts

When my husband and I started our backyard garden a few years ago, we overestimated the quality of our soil (well, I overestimated it) and made our garden soil mix with 50% native soil, 30% compost, 10% peat moss, and 10% vermiculite. I had actually found this percent mix recommended for particularly poor native soil and so thought it would work for our adobe clay.

I wasn’t entirely wrong, but quite a few seasons of plants have now struggled to grow deep roots through the hard earth, and been small and stunted as a result. I have only to compare the growth of the plants in my garden to those in my mom’s garden to realize the significant impact made by the poor soil.

my oregano – a decent plant, but spindly compared to the massive bush in my mom’s garden, that has to be sheared back dramatically every few weeks to keep it from taking over

Each growing season, as we add more compost to the soil, it improves a little bit more, and eventually it may be as rich and soft and fertile as the soil in my mom’s garden was to begin with – but that process is going to take time, patience, and effort.

I think it is the same way with my heart – with all of our hearts, probably. We all start out in different places; some of us are more naturally inclined to virtue than others, some of us more easily bear the fruit of our beliefs, and some of us just need a lot more work before our actions take on the robust and fruitful nature of a plant in abundant health. We can all have the same seeds planted in us through books, experiences, relationships, and so on; we can all water those seeds in appropriate amounts through continued learning and the building of spiritual habits; but some of us will bear fruit in certain areas far more quickly and beautifully than others. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are trying harder – just that we had better starting material in that area.

For example, when it comes to sex, I started out with really good soil. I have no natural inclination toward sexual sins, and significant appreciation of the spiritual and physical mysteries of the marital act. It has always been an area that leads me to meditate on the incredible love of Christ for His Church, instead of an area of struggle and temptation. On the other hand, I have extremely poor soil when it comes to emotional regulation. My moods swing like a pendulum, and the negative emotions (anger, jealousy, suspicion, resentment, depression, and so on) linger and build up within me like a storm of darkness ready to break upon those closest to me. It damages my relationships, preventing me from becoming truly close to anyone, and wounds the people I love the most. So I can put in hours of prayer and concerted effort towards managing my emotional reactions and redirecting my thoughts and attitudes toward Christ, and still appear to have weak and scraggly plants in that part of my garden – but I can put almost no effort in to resisting sexual temptation and still enjoy healthy and thriving plants in that area. And these areas of strength and weakness are different for every person.

We can and ought to put in the time and effort to improve the soil in those struggling areas, and not just focus on improving the short-term health of the plants therein. How do we do this? By making everything we do be about Christ, centered on Christ, living in Christ, knowing Christ, loving Christ; by immersing ourselves in His word, by constantly coming to Him in prayer, by unifying ourselves to Him and to His people. If He is first, if He is all, everything else will find meaning and beauty in Him. If He is in us, He will be transforming us, mixing the rich compost of His life into the hard clay soil of our hearts, making us more like Him.

Posted in musings

family breakdown, social isolation, and increasing suicide rates

This article on the national suicide rate, and its steep increase over the past 15 years, was quite interesting, if perhaps a bit morbid and depressing…

I strongly agree with one of the sources quoted in the article that this increase in the suicide rate is at least partially due to the social isolation caused by the breakdown of the family. Our culture is undermining the most intimate and permanent connections we have as people, and we are naturally suffering the side effects of loneliness and discouragement. We have chosen short-term self-fulfillment over mutual commitment and sacrifice, and while the victims of another person’s selfishness obviously pay the highest price, even those who appear successful in their quest for personal happiness may be eaten away inside by insecurity and pain if they have spent their life burning bridges and breaking connections.

And it is not surprising to me at all that the age group that has seen the highest rate of increase is middle-aged men and women, from 45-64 years old. These are the members of my parents’ generation, one of the first to grow up with rampant acceptable divorce, now reaching what should be some of the fullest and richest years of life, with children and grandchildren adding to their joy, and finding that the choices that seemed so independent, romantic, modern, and free have left them empty, alone, and unvalued as the final years of life approach. Having chosen pleasure or esteem or career success over family and unconditional love, they are discovering an ache in their hearts for the sustained and quiet love they have so long neglected. I expect that as each new cohort enters this age group, the suicide rate for it will continue to increase, at least for the next two or three, as the bitterness and dysfunction we have bred in our society bears the fruit of isolation and hopelessness; I hope that as my generation and my children’s generation witnesses the destruction of these social choices, we will be given the strength, courage, and grace to overcome them, and reduce this cultural burden of despair and death.

Posted in art, musings, quotes

{fine art friday} -Japanese Madonna and Child

One of the beautiful things about the Church is her universality – her appeal to people from all cultures and eras, and her significance and importance to them. The stories of the Church – the stories of Christ – and above all the stories central to the Gospel – fulfill the echos whispered in different ways in human traditions and legends, and fulfill the longing questions of our hearts. So while each culture is able to remain fully Christian and hold true to the meaning and teaching of each story, they are also able to take those stories and imagine them in culturally significant ways. Most notably, we appropriate the people and events of those stories to our own cultures by making them “look like us.” We envision Jesus and His family and disciples to fit our own ethnic background, and we layer the Church’s stories into the rhythms of our own cultural sense of time and emotion.

So in the parts of the Church heavily influenced by Europe, we see Jesus depicted as a white man, and we see the fasts and feasts of the Church, the focal stories, aligned with the seasonal changes of the Northern Hemisphere. The birth of Jesus, for example – the beginning of a new hope for humanity – comes at the Winter Solstice, as if by His birth He reverses the plunge into darkness and heralds the dawning light. Many of even our most traditional and spiritual Christmas songs focus on this aspect of the birth, something that makes singing them in the paradisaical Arizona winter somewhat odd… Likewise, His resurrection is celebrated in the height of spring, surrounded by all the natural reminders of new life.

Likewise, in other areas of the world, one can see different cultural influences on the artwork and life of the Church. This set of four paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, by an unknown artist from Japan, illustrates that in several ways.

Clockwise from top left: Madonna of the Cherry Blossoms, Madonna of the Bamboo Grove, Madonna of the Moon, Madonna of the Snow

Obviously a significant difference between these and Western Madonnas in that both Mary and Jesus are Japanese. It makes the motherhood of Mary, the humanity of the Word made flesh, more immediately and emotionally palpable to the people painting and praying with theses images; it allows them to feel close and connected to these people who, after all, are not just historical people but living members of the body of Christ.

Something else I learned about these paintings, and Japanese art in general, that I also found very fascinating was that the four seasons of the year are central to Japanese art and poetry. Back in the tenth and eleventh centuries, nature was seen as a powerful, frightening, and unpredictable force, and aristocratic poets began to simultaneously tame it and use it as a lens to understand human emotion (which was probably also a powerful and unpredictable force that they wished to tame and control more completely!). As one author put it, Japanese culture focused mainly not on nature itself, but on a “secondary nature” –

…not a direct apprehension or participation in the natural world but a culturally constructed view of the non-human realm as representative of inner feelings experienced through profound associations made with outer phenomena connected with the rotation of the seasons and cycles of the year that are meaningful for their symbolic and aesthetically oriented value. – Steven Heine, in a review of Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Art by Haruo Shirane

By placing Mary and Jesus within each of those four seasons, the artist not only signifies their presence with us at all times of the year, he or she also meditates on the presence of Jesus, the importance of the incarnation, the loving motherhood of Mary, through all the various emotions we undergo as humans. He is with us in the springtime when the cherry blossoms give us hope for renewal and revival; He is with us in the autumn when we watch the lonely moon in our own melancholy and withdrawal. The cultural patterns of the year are drawn up into the eternal promises of Christ; they are not obliterated by His presence, but glorified.

Posted in musings

thoughts on college and depression

Comparing my college experiences with those of some of my closest friends, and pondering the nature of my depressive episodes versus theirs, I think there were a couple key things that made college easier/better for me and that also helped me fight through my depression to my current stage of remission.

First, I was highly skeptical of the college environment, and really of any larger environment outside of my family. I knew it would be run by people who believed things I believed to be false, and I didn’t want to be taken in by it. My goal was to get as much possible out of the system without becoming part of it; in a sense, I saw myself as an undercover agent infiltrating enemy territory. In retrospect this was a rather ridiculous and exaggerated mindset, born of reading too many fundamentalist Christian books bordering on conspiracy theory no doubt 🙂 But it had the silver lining of not setting me up with unrealistically high expectations for how awesome college would be! Because every positive experience came as a surprise, and every challenging experience as an expected part of my “mission”, I ended up loving my time as a student.

Building off of that, I was able to keep a small picture of myself (in contrast to a large picture of the world around me). Everything could then appear to me more wonderful, more majestic, more beautiful. Sometimes this meant that everything looked more overwhelming, especially in the midst of my depression, but it has also helped me to realize that I don’t need to control or understand everything – everything is big, and glorious, and chaotic, and I can find contentment in being a small part (but of course my own unique and specially personal part) of that everything. My husband helped me work through this in a practical way during my depression, and G. K. Chesterton helped me a lot in coming to an understanding of it on a conceptual level:

“[Man] was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.” – Orthodoxy

Finally, I never lost the community that supported me through my childhood and adolescence, and I never lost my gratitude to them for their love and encouragement. I cannot imagine how much harder the transition to college would have been without my family, my church, and my high school friends. Their presence enabled me to adjust socially to college at a slower pace without enduring the loneliness and isolation that many of friends felt in their first year or two. As time went by, then, I could develop friendships in the natural organic way such things tend to happen – by doing things outside of class together, outside of the whole college environment together, and so on. But the relationships I made before college and continued through college were essential. One of the triggers for my post-college depression was, I believe, the stress of finding a new church with my husband and losing a lot of the community that I had been a part of since childhood. I felt alone in a way that most people deal with as freshmen, I think.

Looking back now, at the things that supported me through difficult transitions and the things that let me down at other moments, I can prepare myself for the future. I can remember how low expectations (or, more precisely, expectations of challenge and adventure, as opposed to fulfillment and pleasure) set me up for pleasant surprises. I can remember how looking at the world with wonder at its towering beauties, keeping in mind my own smallness in it, gave me liberty and room to breathe. I can remember how crucial community was to me – the tight bonds of long-held relationships, the support of people from all generations around me – even as an introvert, and put in the uncomfortable work of building a new community around me when the inevitable transitions of life threaten to leave me alone.

And above all, I can pray.

I can pray to the Father for His guidance, to the Son for His peace, to the Spirit for His comfort. In the arms of the Trinity, I can find meaning in even the worst of my suffering, and the hope of redemption and healing. It would be incredibly narcissistic of me to claim that I had a great college experience and came out of my depression in my own power, by some sort of strength or wisdom I possess that another person with worse experiences didn’t have. It was all grace. And the same grace that protected and healed me then gives me the ability to learn from the past now so that I can avoid those same traps in the future – and so that, maybe, I can help someone else avoid them the first time around.

Posted in musings

love, fear, and inauthenticity (brief thoughts on a huge topic)

It seems to me, from casual observation, that many (perhaps most!) people feel intensely pressured to think, act, feel, and be a certain way, to fit a certain role or social expectation. We’re scared to truly be themselves because we’re afraid of what people might think or how people might respond, so we limit ourselves to the parts of ourselves that we think will be approved, and try to force the other parts down into hiding. And the pressures can come from all sides, making it even worse. For instance:

…a relatively reserved and morally conservative young adult may feel unable to admit his homosexual feelings for fear of disappointing his parents, whom he loves deeply, but after acknowledging them may find it equally hard to express his desire to stay celibate when the gay community that has given him encouragement and relief from his feeling of being isolated pushes promiscuity and sexual experimentation.

…a young mother, torn between wanting to maintain her career and to stay at home with her babies, may feel so overwhelmed by the “should’s” thrown at her (e.g., you should stay at work and contribute to the economy, to show your children that women don’t need to be tied to family and home! or on the other hand, you should stay at home because your children need your attention and time to develop to their fullest potential and why would you have kids anyways if you’re just going to pay someone else to raise them?) that she can’t even reach down to identify what choice would be most true to herself and her own unique personality and desires.

…a newlywed struggling with her marriage might feel social pressure to make everything look ok, while inwardly she’s drowning in confusion and sorrow, and try to bury the “inappropriate” feelings deep inside her so that no one will know and think less of her or be disappointed in her.

We see it in each other, adults all grown up in our inauthenticity, hiding the “unpleasant” and “uncomfortable” parts of ourselves in the deepest and farthest reaches of our hearts – which may be good for casual relationships and acquaintances, but isn’t sustainable in our closest, most intimate friendships. Our inauthenticity will smother our joy, wither our hope, and weaken our faith; it will poison our own hearts and sabotage our relationships with the people we love the most. It’s ironic and tragic, isn’t it? Our efforts to protect ourselves and the people we love from the “bad” things inside us just end up causing more pain and more isolation, and our fear – fear of rejection, fear of hurting the people we love, fear of letting down everyone who’s expecting something great from us – speaks its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

And what I’ve noticed is that it is typically the people we love the most, who mean the most to us, who create in us the strongest feelings of unworthiness and give rise to our wildest inauthenticities. We’re willing to sacrifice our very selves, who we are in the fullest sense of being, to keep them happy, because we love them so much – and most of the time (barring cases of abusive or psychopathic relationships here) it would devastate them to know that we were doing that. These people whose rejection and disappointment we fear (our parents, our friends, our spouses) typically love us just as much or more than we love them, and they want to see us live in fullness and joy. If only they knew – if only we could tell them! – that sometimes joy comes through suffering… that the sun can only rise after the night has spent its full course… that our “dark” and “bad” feelings need to be spoken before they can be healed.

Posted in musings

joy in the giving

Exhausted and overwhelmed, my baby falls toward me, too tired to reach out and ask with his hands, nuzzling into me with the desperate eagerness born of a bedtime car ride. His wails shudder into little whimpers as he nurses, finally finding the comfort and security he was craving. I feel his soft baby skin up against mine, his little hand reaching around to pat my side in a little gesture of contentment. Gratitude is too grown-up of a word for his emotion, an adult interpretation of the simple wordless feelings that swell up within him. He had felt need; now he feels joy. And the gentle sleepy happiness pulsing through him seeps into me through those little fingers hugging me, that slight pressure of his body resting on mine, and I know with utter certainty that this love-giving brings me some of the fiercest joy and deepest satisfaction that I have ever known.

contemplating the rainIt’s remarkable how this little person – who has worn me out, brought me to the end of my patience, and demanded every ounce of energy in my being – can also give me such incredible fulfillment, in the very act of meeting his needs. It’s a biological necessity, of course: our species wouldn’t last very long with such dependent and needy offspring without a compensating hormonal surge in the parents! The snuggling they need to feel comforted and secure triggers the production of oxytocin in us, helping us to feel bonded and loving towards them. I think, though, that it also speaks to a spiritual truth: that in giving ourselves in love, we find a deeper peace and joy than we would have found in simply pursuing our own ends. It makes sense to me that God would have designed the physical truth to reflect the spiritual truth, in one of the myriad of ways that our bodies transmit His image into the visible, physical world. But the spiritual truth is greater and wider than its physical counterpart, for we can love others in this self-giving way besides just our own children, and though the biological reaction will be lacking, the spiritual fulfillment and joy will still be present. The lesson is most easily learned in the crucible of the family; my prayer is that I would also apply it in the wider spheres around me.

Posted in musings, quotes


“Happiness is being rooted in Love. Original happiness speaks to us about the ‘beginning’ of man, who emerged from love and initiated love. And this happened irrevocably, despite the subsequent sin and death.” – Saint Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body

That word “irrevocably” jumps out at me from the page. The gift of love from God to us in our creation and in the creation of the world is given, once and for all, despite our sin that hides us from Him and the death that mars His perfect creation. We are still creatures meant for love, meant to be loved, meant to know love, and eminently loved by the One who is Love. And it is in that love – in the giving of love to the created world, to other people, and to God, and in the receiving of love from others and from God – that our happiness springs forth. Living in the constant sway of giving and receiving love, letting it move back and forth through the conduits of our bodies and our souls, we find happiness and abundant life – the fullness promised in the Psalms and in Christ’s last words to His disciples, in the restoration of creation to the original glory and reciprocity of love. No matter how far we run, the love that is our true home and purpose is calling for us to return, irrevocably written into the core of our being.

Posted in family life, musings, quotes

our world

we are a little family in a big world.

ours is a little home in a big city.

but if our family and our home can be a little drop of peace in the ocean of chaos

or a little oasis of grace and renewal in the parched and barren desert

or a little open window into the great wide expanse of beauty and wonder

then we will have done well.

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realized that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wild flowers to make the meadows gay… Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be.” – St. Therese of Lisieux