Motherhood and the sanctuary of the home

We’ve all been spending more time at home than usual, and, even as we’re all anxious to return to normal life, there have been blessings in our confinement. One of them is discovering the power of the domestic church. The word “church” means assembly or gathering, and the Catholic Church is the gathering that God intends for all people. Families are small groups of the faithful gathered in the home, expressing love in prayer, learning, food, and fun, in the middle of plenty of challenges.

One recent book captures the essence of the home as a sanctuary, Theology of the Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday (TAN, 2019), co-authored by Carrie Gress, Noelle Mering, and Megan Schrieber. It’s not a practical “how to” book, but a contemplative reflection on the beauty of home life. “Catholic daily living — with all its imperfections and struggles, its mercy and its joys, not to mention aesthetic and hospitable beauty, and nourishing food (and hopefully some good red wine) — can be an intoxicating inducement to the reality that is fuller, more secure, more exciting, and more fulfilling when lived in the context of the divine. To step inside this context is a foretaste of heaven, and sometimes, mysteriously, this experience can be even more profound for a stranger than being inside a church. For in the liturgy he may not know the ‘language,’ but the language of the home is universal” (4).

Theology of the Home explores themes such as the experience of entering within, the role of remembering, the importance of light, the nobility of building, the centrality of nourishment, engaging nature, the need for order, the place of comfort, the offer of hospitality, how to balance it all, and even the importance of leaving. It certainly requires hard work, but also creativity, shaped by prayer to make the home a place of Christian encounter: “Marsilio Ficino, a 15th century Florentine thinker, once said, ‘Poets and makers of beautiful things share in the same desire to achieve virtue through their creative powers. And through their love of beauty, they draw themselves closer to God.’ Ultimately, our creativity doesn’t depend solely upon everything around us going exactly as we would like — with floor swept, breakfast dishes done, and dinner in the slow cooker. Order is certainly important. But it depends much more upon our openness to God — the Creator, and beauty’s source” (118).

We know, however, that family life is not always peaceful and easy. It is an adventure! A local author and former youth minister, Allison Auth, describes her own adventure of discovering motherhood in Baby and Beyond: Overcoming Those Post-Childbearing Woes (Sophia, 2019). The heart of the home stems from relationship, and Auth plumbs the beauty and struggles that shape the contours of parenting. As a father of six, I resonated with many of her stories, as the experiences of childbirth (much different for a father, of course!) and the bumps of the postpartum life are full of surprises and unexpected challenges. Auth’s goal is to shed light on the postpartum experience, as she noticed that so many books skip over it, leaving many moms, struggling after birth, feeling “alone, overwhelmed, tired, and guilty.” In response, her book wants to tell those with these feelings that they are not alone: “Whether you have full-blown postpartum depression, or simply a roller coaster of other emotions, there is a place for those feelings here. The experiences in this book are mine, but my hope is that in sharing my story, I can offer you some hope and peace for your journey” (6).

Baby and Beyond addresses helpful details about postpartum depression, physical recovery, natural family planning, the spiritual life, and community. Having a lot of children in quick succession, I can attest, is challenging. Expressing this natural frustration at the challenges that come with it, Auth also points to God’s work in perfecting us through the self-sacrifice that it requires. “When God allows us to go through trials in our marriage, it is because, in His wisdom, He knows it can ultimately bring about good in us, provided we accept His grace” (69). The difficult moments subside, and, after being stretched to the limit, we begin to see interior growth and also fruits in the family. Auth offers much good advice, but, most of all, important encouragement in staying devoted to what is most important. “Postpartum motherhood requires getting back to basics and ordering priorities. I may not be as adventurous as I was before having children, but I am more courageous in other ways and a lot less selfish than I used to be. I am the most influential person in my children’s lives, not only by meeting their basic needs but also forming their characters and introducing them to God. I also know God’s love in a deeper way that I used to. I value community and strive to build authentic relationships. I’m more grateful to the little blessings in life that I was before” (123).

In the midst of our current difficulties, let’s be grateful for our blessings, invest in our family and friends, and trust in God even more.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.