What does it mean to be a woman?

What does it mean to be a woman?

What does it mean to be a woman? Certainly there are a lot of conflicting responses to that question. Catholic women in particular have a rich history and wealth of tradition in the theology of femininity. A lot of what we talk about, though, has to do with motherhood – both physical motherhood and spiritual motherhood. But for women dealing with infertility, this can be a painful thing to think about.

Shortly after my diagnosis (in my late-teens) I went through a gender identity crisis. If I was born without a uterus – actually created by God, but without a womb – could I truly call myself a woman? I bought a copy of Alice von Hildebrand’s “The Privilege of Being a Woman”, hoping that it would give me some answers. When I got to the part near the end (maybe the 7th chapter?) where she begins, “Every woman has a womb…” my eyes welled up with tears and I threw the book in a rage. I cried and cried, and told my mom, “I just wish someone would write a book to tell me what it means to live and be a woman with this condition.” My mom is no theologian. She didn’t know how to answer. But she did say, “Maybe you’re the one who’s supposed to write the book.”

Maybe. Does this blog count?

It’s been over 13 years since I started this journey, and I’m finally at a place now where I can enthusiastically answer this question:

What does it mean to be a WOMAN who is a follower of Jesus Christ, a Catholic, a daughter of the Most High?

Let’s take a look at some real-life examples (who also, coincidentally, were not physically mothers).

St. Mary Magdalene

Contrary to Dan Brown novels, Mary Magdalene didn’t become the secret matriarch of a centuries-old bloodline. But she did have a unique relationship with Jesus.

Mary Magdalene was a woman who, in her desire to be loved, fell into sin and became broken. Jesus saw her in the midst of this, and had compassion on her. He lifted her from her life of sin, freeing her from seven demons and accepting her beautiful act of contrition and repentance saying, “Her sins are forgiven her, for she has loved much.” She understood what it meant to be loved and rescued by Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to sit at his feet and listen as he taught her. She was the first one whom he appeared to after his Resurrection.

Having finally known true love, she gave her whole heart to Jesus. She teaches us that to be a woman means to love deeply, to run and jump into our Savior’s arms, and never look back. She shows us that, as women, we have the privilege of having a special, deep love relationship with our Rescuer. A woman’s relationship with Jesus is a very different thing than a man’s relationship Jesus, something that is worth reflecting on further.

St. Joan of Arc

Jumping 13 centuries into the future, we find the most adventurous example of Catholic womanhood the world has ever seen. This peasant farmer’s daughter bravely gave her “yes” to God when she was asked to leave her home and lead the French army during the Hundred Year’s War.

What is perhaps most impressive about Joan is her profound courage and trust in the Lord. She went where he led her, even though it was unheard of for a woman (let alone a teenage peasant) to go before the future King of France and be given leadership of his army. She trusted in her Voices (Sts. Michael, Margaret, and Catherine) and not in herself. When she realized that she had been trusting too much in herself, she confessed the sin of pride. After that, she gave everything she had over to the Lord, even though it led to her death by burning at the stake. In her last moments, she asked that a crucifix be held level with her eyes, and as the flames roared around her, witnesses say she called out the name of Jesus.

Joan of Arc teaches us that to be a woman means to be brave. It take courage to give our full trust and reliance on Jesus, no matter the circumstances. Courage and bravery are things we typically associate with men, but Joan of Arc shows us that they belong just as much to women, and perhaps more so. Her unyielding loyalty and trust in the Lord are uniquely feminine as well.

St. Therese of Lisieux

Being a woman means being the Lord’s daughter, and no one understood that better that St. Therese. Jesus was her first and only love. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is full of sweet, simple thoughts about how a “little” soul like hers can reach the heights of sanctity simply by giving every little thought, word, and action over to the Lord. She writes that Jesus never showed himself to her in a vision, never even in a dream. But “weak” and “little” as she was, she knew that Jesus loved her, and would always carry her in his arms.

Therese shows us a uniquely feminine combination of gentleness, humility, and trust.  She fully embraces the Lord’s words, “Unless you become as little children…” No matter what happens, no matter what you do or do not achieve in this life, you are Jesus’ little girl, and nothing will ever change that.

 

 

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St. Josemaria on Marriage and Infertility

St. Josemaria on Marriage and Infertility

Of all the saints who have ever helped me along my journey, I have yet to find one who writes as beautifully on the topic of infertility as St. Josemaria Escriva.

Josemaria

If you’re a St. Josemaria lover or an infertility junkie, you may have already seen his most well known quote on the subject:

“God in his providence has two ways of blessing marriages: one by giving them children; and the other, sometimes, because he loves them so much, by not giving them children. I don’t know which is the better blessing.”

It’s a beautiful quote. I’ve seen it before. And I love it, I really do. You could meditate for hours on it and still not really reach the end of it. But this isn’t the only thing he’s ever said on the subject.

Recently, I was looking for this quote, and the magic of Google brought me to a larger passage of St. Josemaria’s. Someone had asked the question:

“The frustration caused by not being able to have children, leads, at times, to discord and misunderstanding. In your opinion, what meaning should Christian couples who are childless give to their married life?”

The Saint’s answer was brilliant. Here’s what I considered to be the highlights:

“Often God does not give children because He is asking them for something more. ….

There is, then, no reason for feeling they are failures …..

If the married couple have interior life, they will understand that God is urging them to make their lives a generous Christian service, a different apostolate from the one they would have fulfilled with their children, but an equally marvelous one…

God, who always rewards, will fill with a deep joy those souls who have had the generous humility of not thinking of themselves.”

I read this, and I was stunned. Thrilled. Overjoyed. Finally, there was someone (a Saint even!) boldly proclaiming the truth:

Marriage is holy, in and of itself. Even if God doesn’t give you children.

(If you want, you can read the whole thing here. Scroll down to number 8.)

As Catholics, we often think that we are failures if our families don’t include many children, running around and singing in matching outfits on an Austrian hillside. That not having several children means that we are less loved by God. That our marriage is worthless. But that’s a lie.

God has a plan for marriage—and he even has a plan for YOUR marriage, in particular. And the particular number of children he gives you (even if it is zero) is not what’s important.

What matters is your daily living of your marriage vows— your daily “I do” to your spouse and to God. 

Marriage is a vocation, a call from God, and “the vocation to love is in fact a vocation to the gift of self, and this is a possibility that no physical condition can prevent.” (That’s Pope B-16 for the win, by the way).

“…a different apostolate… but an equally marvelous one.”

Marriage is a path to holiness. And guess what? Everyone’s path is going to be unique.

This is the message that I’ve felt in my heart for a while now (ever since we felt God asking us to set aside our adoption plans), but finally they come out of the mouth of a Saint.

If I had read these words two years ago, I would have hated them. I would have felt my chest and shoulders tightening up and my eyes getting blurry. I would have thrown my computer. I’ve done that before.

I was so wounded and full of grief that I couldn’t have recognized the Lord even if he stood in front of me.

21 Since my heart was embittered
    and my soul deeply wounded,
22 I was stupid and could not understand;
    I was like a brute beast in your presence

Psalm 73: 21-22

I’m still wounded. I still have grief. But it’s different now.

I have hope.

I’ve learned that I’m not bound to procure children at any cost. If God’s plan means I’m not going to be a mother, it’s ok, because it’s not about here – it’s about heaven.

 

But what if you’re not there yet?

I shared the passage from St. Josemaria with a secret Facebook group of Catholic women dealing with infertility, and while many were just as excited as I was, some of the members had a less favorable take:

“This quote would only be helpful if I knew for certain that I would never have a baby. Then I could pick up and move on.”

This really summarizes our initial gut reaction for most crosses, doesn’t it? “If I knew for sure what the outcome would be, then I could get on with my life.”

Have you ever found yourself saying something like that? I sure have. It’s understandable, for sure. After all, we’re all human. We crave stability and certainty. But here’s the thing about the cross:

There is no human certainty in it. There never is.

Jesus isn’t asking you or me to reach a point where we feel safe and sure, and THEN pick up our cross. It can’t work that way – it doesn’t make sense. Instead, Jesus is saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He wants us to trust him.

He’s not going to give us the details in advance. Maybe because it would make things too easy. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe if he let us see all of the pain up ahead before we’ve built up the soul-muscles to handle it, we’d quit before we even tried.

At the end of the day maybe faith is about learning to embrace the cross in the midst of all the uncertainty and instability and specters of hope. Maybe it’s about learning what “hope” truly means, and discovering that as much as we desperately want “x”, there is a wound in our souls even deeper, that requires something even more, that Jesus alone can satisfy.

And that’s where our certainty comes from, isn’t it?

That’s where our assurance lies: in Christ, who loves us deeply, knows us intimately, and is always at our side.

“Do not focus so much on the path, but on the One who guides you, and to the heavenly home to which he is guiding you” – St. Padre Pio

St. Gabriel – Not to be confused with the archangel.

St. Gabriel – Not to be confused with the archangel.

Today (February 27) is the feast of St. Gabriel Possenti, also know as St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. I actually have a fun personal story about this particular saint.

stgabriel

St. Gabriel Possenti was a Passionist, living in Abruzzo (the Italian region where my family is from) during the 19th century. He’s the patron of students, young people, and the Abruzzo region.

My great-grandmother had a special devotion to him, as she grew up right next door to the church that housed his incorrupt body. I always heard growing up that my she and her family used to take care of this body, and that our family was blessed because of this.

In my crazy, imaginative Catholic child brain (the same one that thought magical things would happen if you’d only apply a little holy water), I heard this story about “St. Gabriel’s body” and was perplexed. “How does an archangel have a body?”

Different Gabriel, kid.

But still, this question bothered me for years until the advent of Google and just goes to show how truly ridiculous my mind is.

A few years back, I started doing a little more research on this saint, and stumbled upon a link to a website about St. Gemma Galgani, who lived after Gabriel’s death, but had visions of him throughout her life. I was immediately taken with Gemma. Her diary is beautiful and has been a true help to me in the last few years. I really believe God sent Gemma to me right when I needed her, and used Gabriel to introduce us.

This is what is really amazing about the communion of saints. As Catholics we believe that when we pass from this world, we are not dead, but alive in Christ. We are all part of His body. And just as we ask our friends on earth to pray for us, we have friends in heaven that will also give us their love and their prayers. We have a family that loves us, and nothing can separate us from each other, not even death.

The story of St. Gabriel and his friendship with St. Gemma is a real testament to this. And in particular for me, it’s a reminder that saints aren’t always ancient people from distant, far-off lands.

They’re family.

 

Being a Good Catholic Woman

Being a Good Catholic Woman

What a week in the world of Catholic women’s blogging.

On the one hand, we have this awesome article from Haley Stewart at Carrots for Michaelmas, Things You Don’t Have to Do to Be a Holy Catholic Woman.

Brilliant piece, and remarkably, one that an infertile female like myself doesn’t feel excluded by. I’m very happy that someone took the “wear skirts and homeschool your 10 kids or else you’re going to hell” people to task.

And then there was this garbage– and article that takes a narrow view of womanhood, and says that working outside the home means you’re “indulging in disordered emotional appetites.”

I expected better from Catholic Answers.

 

Being a stay at home mom is a beautiful vocation, and there are many good articles about that. This was not one of them.

Denying that women can find fulfillment in work, denying that many women are called to other or additional vocations beyond motherhood is not Catholic, not true, and not very nice.

Defending your vocation by putting down others is NOT acceptable.

Here’s a direct quote from this article:
“Even if I disliked most of the duties involved in homemaking, I would still do it. Once again, it’s about accepting God’s will and fulfilling the role he appointed—even if one is not titillated by every aspect of that role. Ironically, my working friends will often use this same rationale in defense of their boring jobs, though they will try to stop me from using it.”

Excuse me? “Boring jobs”- God called me to a wonderful vocation of being a wife–and a writer. And a singer. And a composer. And other things yet to be discovered.

 

Almost every female saint contradicts what this author says.

St. Zelie had kids AND her own business- and one of her kids is St. Therese!! St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had children, and she founded a school.St. Theresa of Avila was a brilliant scholar. St. Catherine of Siena was a powerhouse of thought. St. Mother Theresa, enough said. Sts. Agnes, Cecilia, Gemma, Therese, Mary Magdalene– none of these women were stay at home moms, and yet all of them faithfully followed a vocation given to them by God.

 

Really, I have three words for this author:

Joan of Arc.

Rant over.

 

 

 

I’m a Wretch, You’re a Wretch

I’m a Wretch, You’re a Wretch

What is the virtue humility, and what does it mean to be humble?

I did a little Googling on this last week and found these awesome videos from Gabriel Castillo. This guy is definitely intense, but WOW, what a teacher. Each of his videos are like a 30 minute retreat.

I found his two part series on humility, and this is what I got from it. Humility means knowing 2 things:

  1. The truth about who you are.
  2. The truth about who God is.

That’s it, that’s what it is.

So, who are we? We’re dust. We’re miserable. We continually fall into sin and can’t do crap on our own. My favorite line there: “I’m a wretch. You’re a wretch. We’re all wretches.”

Yes, we’re all wretches. But the good news is that God,  who is infinite power and goodness and love, loves us and even became one of us to save us from our wretchedness. And in his infinite mercy, he fills us with his grace. And then,

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”

Jesus-The-Good-Shepherd

If you want to know more, you’ll have to see this video. Part 1 is about humility, and part 2 is about listening and following God’s will in your life.

Once you see this, there’s no turning back.

Ready for your life to change? Check out the video.

Paul, meet Connie. Connie, meet Paul.

Paul, meet Connie. Connie, meet Paul.

So, I recently started talking to St. Paul.

In case you’re not familiar to praying to saints, this is where God grants his buddy Paul a special grace to be able to hear me, and I ask Paul to put in a word for me to the big man. Much like asking a friend on earth to pray for you, I’ve asked Paul of Tarsus to give our friend JC a little nudge to “wake him up”, if you will. After all, Jesus was known to fall asleep at inconvenient times. (Mark 4:38, anyone?)

Well, St. Paul woke him up.

On the 3rd day of our St. Paul novena, I got to speak with the Creative Director at the ad agency I work for. I told him I want to write, and he wants to help me! He said he would start throwing me some things to play with, and, “You never know,” he said. “I’ve met people who started at the front desk like you and ended up as Creative Director eventually.”

God bless that man.

On day 6 there was another mention from the Creative Director about hoping to hook me up with some writing in the near future, and an apology that he’s been overly busy lately. Clearly, it is on his mind.

Now I’m waiting. Still praying, still hoping, still waiting. But there is hope, and that is a wonderful thing.

Honestly, I don’t even know if a writing position at this company is the answer. Maybe this nod from the creative director is just meant to give me a little encouragement as I continue to seek meaningful work as a writer. The path is still foggy up ahead. All I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep praying that the fog clears soon.

To keep the hope going, I’m looking for prayer stories. When has God given you a clear answer to your prayer? How did you hear his voice? Where did it lead? Do you have a favorite go-to prayer when you really need guidance?

My Patron Saint

My Patron Saint

“Which Saint are you going to choose for your Confirmation?” It’s a question I heard about as frequently as “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The dreaming, the imagining and the pressure was pretty much the same for both questions.

I always thought I would choose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Elizabeth is a pretty name, I thought. And living in Maryland, I remember the time my parents took me to Emmitsburg to see her shrine.

elizabeth

St. Agnes was a favorite of mine as well. Patron saint of girls? I’m a girl, so that’s cool. She was always a favorite. The martyrs are all inspiring.

agnes

Finally, push came to shove and 7th grade came around. I had to make a decision. “No, you can’t just pick a pretty name,” my teacher said. “You have to pick a saint whose example means something to you. Which saint lived a life that you would like to imitate?”

Well, now things changed. St. Elizabeth became a nun. I did not want to be a nun, at least not yet in my life. In fact, I decided right then and there to rule out every female saint that was a nun, which seemed like 90% of them. The mothering ones didn’t quite appeal to me either. That narrowed it down to the early martyrs and a handful of others, including:

St. Joan of Arc.

joan

That’s it! That’s the one! There’s an adventure story if you ever heard one. God told her to put on men’s clothes and lead the French army to victory, which ultimately led to a martyr’s death by burning, all the while fixing her eyes on the crucifix and calling out the name of Jesus.

I always had a sense that someday there would be some sort of revolution or underground movement, or that Christianity would go underground (like the early days), and I would be heavily involved as a leader. More childish nonsense, perhaps. But it lasted the whole of my childhood, and St. Joan of Arc fit that narrative.

Did I imitate this saint’s path to holiness, like my religion teacher said I should? Looking back at the last few decades, I might not be much of an underground leader, but I’ve definitely gone against the grain. I still love that I chose St. Joan of Arc because her attitude of “who cares what society thinks” has been a big inspiration for me. Maybe the Holy Spirit was guiding me there, knowing that I would soon face a lot of things that would set me apart. As much as I love her, I’m ashamed to say I don’t ask her intercession nearly as often as I should. I’m trying to get better at that so she’ll know me when we meet in heaven.

Who did you pick for your Confirmation saint, and why? Are you still happy with your choice? Do you talk to them much?