Faith and Our Families of Origin

I recently shared a witness about conversion with our bible study group, reflecting on God in skyhow my faith journey got off to such an inauspicious start.  In Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict encourages us, in studying the word of God as it relates to conversion, to examine a person’s upbringing, in order to understand his faith or lack thereof.

What about our social context?  The conditions of our birth and upbringing?  Many believe that, for most people, the die is cast by the age of three.  That how we relate to others as adults is determined early in our lives.  Those others, presumably, include Jesus Christ.

I grew up in the DC area, the only child of a vaguely Protestant mother and a father who was, technically, a Jew but who had adopted Presbyterianism because he enjoyed the homilies of a Scottish minister in northeast Washington in the 1950’s.  Dad’s mother was a Polish Jew, his father one of those guys who wore orange on St. Patrick’s Day.  Probably due to the tenor of the times, dad’s parents decided against raising him a Jew, or perhaps his mother did not observe her own faith. 

My mother felt I should have some religious training, much as she felt I should attend Cotillion, when I was 13.  One had no more impact on my life than the other, although I recall being more traumatized by having to touch girls at Cotillion than I was about having to attend weekly confirmation classes or church.  My best friend’s family was Lutheran, and Bobby would routinely pass out in church, being forced to sit in the front row, with its thin air and glowering ministers. 

I never had any such angst.  My parents were indifferent to religion, and therefore it was easy for me to blow it off.  I felt a certain disdain during my confirmation in 1965 in that I knew nothing about my faith, couldn’t recite two lines of the Creed, and yet was welcomed into the fold as a full member.  As soon as I was no longer forced to attend church, I stopped.  Unwittingly, I had adopted Groucho Marx’s quip that I wouldn’t join a club that would have ME as a member.  That club, for me, was the Presbyterian Church.

In a larger sense, that club was Christianity.  It took the Holy Spirit most of 30 years to put me on the path to becoming a functioning Christian.  It took 30 years of Nancy praying for me, as I was unwilling to pray for myself.Christine#1 image

If we are at a different place on our spiritual journey than is our spouse, the strategy is to reach for a place in which each partner is free to observe his or her beliefs with the full support of the other, if not participation.  For families with young children in which only one spouse attends church, it should be clear that the loving response of the spouse who chooses not to attend church is to take care of the children—all of the children if necessary—while the worshiping spouse prays for your soul and thanks God for the hour of peace, prayer and solitude that you gladly make possible.

But, as we’ve observed here before, we are called to help our spouses grow close to the Lord, not to grow perfect by ourselves.  

I entered into marriage as a spiritual savage, while Nancy entered into it as a closet Catholic.  We were products of our upbringing, but we did not think of these differences as issues that would threaten our marriage.  I didn’t, anyway.

Nancy’s growth along her own journey has had the effect of lifting me up, without my having felt lifted, feeling instead as if I’ve lifted myself.  Whether this was her intent, or whether she simply gave the entire mess up to The Holy Spirit, I don’t really know.  But the bottom line is that she has helped me grow closer to the Lord.

If differences like these are causing issues in your marriage, and you are the more spiritual one, it is up to you to pray for your spouse, to pray for your own unbelief, and to pray that God’s will, and The Holy Spirit’s design, is for the two of you to eventually travel on your spiritual path together.  In God’s time.

Stained GlassBe clear that you cannot make your spouse more religious.  The best you can do is to pray for him, and to help create space for The Holy Spirit to come into his or her life with an elbow or a shove.  Providing help in taking the first step toward reconciliation, with you and with God.

Exploring the faith beliefs you and your spouse brought into your marriage is kind of a fun way to spend an evening over a bottle of Cab Sav.  Understanding one another, at the most elemental level, is about understanding your spouse’s beliefs about God and Heaven and Hell and good works and tithing and raising kids Catholic and sacraments and religious freedom and right to life and about 100 other important subjects.

Luckily, you need not agree on these issues.  It is in your interest, however, to understand your own values and those of your spouse.  Unlike on Capitol Hill, where compromise has become a four letter word, in marriage the art of leaning into one another to effect compromise is a grace from God.  In sales, the expression is “keeping score raises the score.”  In our faith lives, the simple act of asking for God’s forgiveness raises us nearer to Him and brings us closer together as husband and wife.holding_hands

Beatitudes for Young Mothers

Of the eight beatitudes from The Sermon on the Mount, several can be applied to our marriages and to each of us in our roles as parents.  When we fail to respond to Christ’s calls to these heavenly blessings, we not only tarnish our hopes of seeing heaven, but we can damage our relationships with our families.  When we turn some of our worries over to God, we are better able to handle those that remain. 

Busy-ParentsI am going to assume that, all other things being equal, in the early part of the 21st century, American women, young and not-so-young, do more parenting than their men.  That WAY more of the burdens of caring, planning, packing, arranging, scheduling, and doctoring, are borne by our wives, no matter how liberated we husbands claim to be.  (As for playing with our kids, that may be a draw.)  I infer, then, that way more of the pressures of parenthood end up on the moms.  This vestige of the days when we lived in caves seems almost universal.  Therefore, I suggest that two of the three Beatitudes discussed here are more relevant for mothers.  (Men are welcome to shoulder the other five, and will probably become better fathers in the process.)

As I see it, from the perspective of 38 years of marriage and three children, the most important of the Beatitudes for young parents tells us that the merciful will be shown mercy.  As the speed of life increases, as our families grow, and as the demands upon us from one another, our children, our parents and our siblings continue to build, we often reach a point at which we must release pressure.  How we release this pressure is important.

Although I routinely confess to having cursed A LOT when I go to reconciliation, I do everything I can to avoid cursing at Nancy.  In the worst of our arguments, over almost four decades we have used next to NO profanity.  If cursing one another is a regular feature of your lives, whether you’re fighting or not, you are chipping away at the foundation of trust, respect and intimacy at the core of your marriage.  And over long periods of time, a damaged foundation will be prone to collapse when under stress.  Agree not to curse at one another.  Ever.  It’s not that hard.

To me, it’s not surprising that so many working mothers are stressed out.  To me, the wonder is that not ALL working mothers are stressed out, followed in short order by mothers, period.  (Heck, maybe they are, and I’m just too old and out of touch to realize it.)  Raising children takes more out of people than almost anything else I can think of.  I applaud our readers who are doing everything they can to be good parents.  During Lent especially, I pray that mothers everywhere can find it in themselves to show their children, and their defective, fallen husbands, mercy.  Even when they don’t deserve it.  For the fathers, I pray that you fully grasp the mental and physical challenges involved in being a mother, and that you not only appreciate her efforts, but do all you can to lighten them.

Earlier, Christ tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.  Today, for many of us, the meek are, in fact, our own children.  They are the ones depending upon us for all of their needs–physical, emotional, intellectual.  When we release our pressure on them, we probably cause harm.  We may instill doubt in their hearts, doubt that we truly love them, and this can be a corrosive concern for a kid growing up.  Our children need have no doubts that they are loved by their parents, even on the worst of days.  Shielding them from our impatience is a grace from God, received through prayer.  Short, momentary bursts of prayer during the day, staying in touch with God, staying cool, staying in tune with the universe.  🙂

Most of us know people, women generally, who like the idea of being surrounded all day by five kids under the age of six.  At our bible study last fall, one of the young women at my table, working as a nanny to put herself through school, asked God for forgiveness for having had all three of her charges in tears that day at the same time.  This latter person is, I believe, far more common than the former, although most of us know women like this, and some of us have been blessed to have them look after our own kids at times.  But if this isn’t you, it doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective and loving mother. It just means you need to pray harder.  You’re already doing all you can.  So get help–invite the Holy Spirit to lend a hand when doing it all alone seems to be too much.

I wrote a witness for bible study this week in which I observed that I never really got along very well with my own mother.  She was something of a perfectionist, I was anything but perfect, and an only child, to boot, and her continuous disappointment with me colored our relationship until the day she died.  If you’re a young mother, and you’re struggling, you may want to pray about how your child will remember his or her childhood.  If, during times of stress, you remember that we are called by God to be gentle, that the meek shall inherit the earth, it may be easier to maintain your composure and allow the rough moments to pass, so that they easily recall good times growing up.

Finally, it is the peacemakers who shall be called children of GodThis, thankfully, applies to husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.  If our children grow up amidst chaos, they will seek it as adults, and will find themselves in tumultuous relationships.  Our home should be our refuge, and all of us crave the comfort and security that comes from a home that is one of warmth, love, understanding and acceptance.

Sure, things get wild, maybe every day, and hopefully on purpose; our homes are not meant to be tombs.  But they are, at some point, and on some level, where we rest our heads and our hearts.  Couples willing to spend half an hour together after the kids are in bed putting their homes back together for the next day’s festivities are, again, sharing God’s grace.

There will be more basketball games on TV.  There will be more IMs on Facebook.  But there will never again be a time when you can have this much positive influence over your kids and the adults they will one day become; their peers are gaining on you.  The world is filled with people who regret not having been more engaged parents.  There are relatively few people out there who, looking back over their lives, regret not having watched more basketball.

God in skySo, during this Lent, let us all promise to do more to promote peace, love and understanding in our own homes.  Husbands, fathers, let us support our wives in their roles as mothers, and let us all show mercy to our own families first, and the rest of the world in its turn.  While it’s not as good as having been there for The Sermon on the Mount, we will be integrating the word of God into our daily lives.  He will be pleased with us.

5 Reasons to Speak Positively about your Spouse at Work

This is a nice short piece explaining why it’s a good idea not to speak badly about your spouse at work, by Kevin Lowry at The Integrated Catholic  Like me, Kevin is a convert.  Unlike me, he is devoting his life to evangelization and bringing Protestants into the Catholic faith.  Here’s his post from earlier this week:

“Sorry, I can’t do it tonight. The old ball and chain gets ticked off if I’m out late.”

How many times have we heard derogatory comments like this about spouses in the workplace? Even worse, snide remarks can give way to all-out whining: “My husband is such a jerk sometimes” or “My wife completely lost interest in me after we began having kids.”

Sacramental marriage should be in a different league than this, but we all live in a culture that hasn’t done the greatest job honoring the institution. In reality, we also know that even the strongest sacramental marriages sometimes go through serious challenges.

So what’s a good Catholic spouse to do?

Well, brace yourself for some good news. There are things we can do to honor our spouses in the workplace, and not be swayed by the cultural winds that sometime blow all around us. How about this one: always speak positively about your spouse at work. Why? Here are five reasons – and they just scratch the surface.

  1. Complaining about your spouse lacks class. Oh, maybe it’s fashionable to gripe and assume an attitude of superiority over your spouse. But does that make it right, and does it really make you happy? Probably not. Besides, if your spouse is such an idiot, what does that say about you, the person who made sacred vows to him or her?
  2. How you speak can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Have you ever noticed how good spouses make each other winners, and bad spouses make each other losers? Words matter. Speaking with honor is part of acting with honor – even when your spouse isn’t around.
  3. It protects your marriage. Even when things are rough at home, airing your grievances at work is the wrong venue. Co-workers who complain about their spouses open up an avenue for support from other co-workers, including those of the opposite sex. This can progress to inappropriate emotional intimacy, and worse.
  4. It’s good for your career. Many of the virtues that make for a faithful spouse also make for a great employee or co-worker. Besides, getting in the habit of speaking positively about others (including your spouse) behind their backs helps build a better culture for everyone in your workplace.
  5. It’s good for your co-workers. We are affected, for better or worse, by the attitudes and behaviors of our co-workers. Demonstrating charity and understanding towards our spouse might just inspire others to do the same.

We can’t single-handedly change the state of marriage in the world, but we can do our best to honor our own marriage vows – and our spouse. Speaking positively about our spouse in the workplace is a great way to improve our marriage, our workplace, and our walk with Christ.

Why Did Paul Write about Love?

The second reading from last Sunday (Feb 3, 2013) was from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about love.  This is the common reading we often hear at weddings, including mine and Sarah’s.  I decided to dig a bit deeper into this reading and visited various websites to do my research.  I was truly intrigued by what I learned and just how powerful love truly is.

Why did Paul even write to the Corinthians? 

Corinth Greece 1024Corinth was a bustling port city in ancient Greece where Paul established an early Christian church.  Corinth was a tough community for Paul to convert.  The Corinthians seemed to have been stubborn and set in their own ways; after 18 months of evangelizing and establishing a Christian community, Paul felt it was time to leave.  But many issues quickly arose, and people in Corinth were not living up to the Christian values about which Paul preached.  With so many travelers in the area came sexual immorality; the citizens of Corinth were fighting and suing each other, people were drunk, and ultimately everyone was treating each other poorly.  The Church in Corinth was in trouble.

In that era, congregations did not gather in assemblies or halls but, rather, in homes.  Chloe was a Christian woman, the head of one of these homes. Chloe wrote a letter to Paul informing him about the corruption in Corinth and the fledgling Christian Church there, and asked him for advice and direction.

Paul’s response was detailed in his first letter to the Corinthians that we find in the New Testament. One of the first teachings that Paul brings up is that our body is sacred and a temple of the Holy Spirit.  He reminded the Corinthians about the importance of marriage and being loyal and faithful to your spouse. If someone was unmarried, he taught that they were to remain celibate and to refrain from sexual permissiveness.

Paul began to encourage the Corinthians to live as new persons in Christ.  To treat people with kindness, help the poor, and respect others – to live a life of metanoia, which is the conscientious turning away from an old life (of paganism) to new life in Jesus Christ.

And so here we are today.

As one reads the First Letter to the Corinthians, we as Christians need to bring the same message to our present day world. Between the conflicts across the globe, sexual immorality, hatred and other sins, we must still heed Paul’s message and apply it to our own situations.  But it’s Paul’s big finish that sums it up for all of us – the gift of love.  Paul emphasizes that what people want is love, and that love is the greatest gift God has given to us.  He wanted the Corinthians to love one other and to make love the reason for everything they did and said.  As Jesus taught.

all you need is loveLike most of us, each time I hear the reading about faith, hope and love–“and the greatest of these is love”–I immediately think about weddings and marriage.  But after studying more about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians I am convinced that love is everything.  And that The Beatles, though perhaps not great examples of how to live one’s life, had it right when they sang, “All you need is love.”

The Four Major Hurdles to Marital Happiness, Part Two

Our previous post explored the challenges that children bring to a marriage, and some of the financial implications of living together as husband and wife.  This second piece focuses on two other subjects that married couples need to resolve lovingly, those being sex and the equitable sharing of household tasks.

About Sex

The Church’s teachings on sex and intimacy in marriage have evolved greatly over the past 25 years.  Historically, it was one of those things Catholics just didn’t talk about, as you could even get in trouble talking about it in some places, such as parochial schools.

Since the publication of Theology of the Body and the books that discuss it—The Good News About Sex and Marriage being first and foremost—there are many Catholic resources out there for couples seeking both physical and emotional intimacy in the marital bed. 

The Love’s Sacred Embrace retreats at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel are centered on Theology of the Body, on connecting the physical and spiritual aspects of our marriages with Christ’s marriage to His Church.  If we ignore the spiritual side of our marriage, it’s easy to get caught up in the secular elements—the ones that come at you in the hundreds—that put a serious strain on relationships.

There will be plenty more posts on the topic of sex within sacramental marriage.  For now, let us simply acknowledge that our physical relationship with our spouse is a gift from God, an integral part of sacramental marriage.  As Catholics, we are called to celebrate our marriages—to our spouse, and as part of the Body of Christ—fully in both their spiritual and human aspects.

Last word on this subject—it’s okay to have sex with your spouse.  In fact, it’s VERY okay.  It is a living re-presentation of your marriage vows.  And do you even KNOW what The Touch of Eden is?  You’ll have to attend a retreat at OLMC to find out! 

About the Division of Labor

The commentary on the Mass two weeks ago addressed an idea that has been floating around in my head for awhile, but one that I’ve never been able to adequately express.  It is the Servant-Leader, and its importance was immediately visible to me as regards marriage enrichment.

Clearly, the commentary was focused on Jesus as the ultimate Servant-Leader, the savior who came to earth not to be served, but to serve.  This model, of service to the ones we love, is a perfect template for bringing harmony to our marriages.

The Division of Labor argument typically finds both spouses feeling put upon and unappreciated for all they do, and usually provokes some form of hostility.  In the background of this argument is the suggestion that neither spouse wants to do a heckuva lot more than what they’re already doing to keep the wheels on.  It is this orientation, which is completely human and understandable, that must be re-examined in order for couples to escape repeated instances of this dispute.

As with most things Christian, the answer is paradoxical.  The answer is to seek opportunities to serve your spouse, above and beyond the call, so to speak.  Volunteer to take early duty with the kids on both Saturday and Sunday one weekend.  Play checkers with his dad while he goes to a pub on Sunday to watch the Colts.  Come home early and make dinner for her book club.

Jesus was the model of the Servant-Leader, and we as husbands and wives are called to serve one another.  The side effect, of course, is that both spouses are happier, and a cycle of service can help these small acts of service become a way of life.  One that works both ways.  Not-so-random acts of kindness that anticipate needs and are offered up without being asked.  Leaning into one another, in small ways, rather than leaning away.

For those with too much to do, the answer is to seek one’s partner, and volunteer to do more.  Negotiate where the time will come from.  Seek “Acknowledgement, Acceptance and Appreciation” for your efforts.  Enlist the help of The Holy Spirit.  Your spouse will usually reciprocate, and offer to help you in some way, almost always without being asked.  Repeat, and repeat again.  Release the power of your faith.  Give it up, and see if The Holy Spirit doesn’t lighten your load.


If you and your spouse are spending a great deal of your time arguing, it may be that you could benefit from some coaching in some common areas of discord. The marriage enrichment ministry at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel wishes to be a resource to help improve your marriage.  Our bi-annual retreats and monthly Marriage on Tap events are great places to meet other Catholic couples with similar concerns and an interest in creating an environment that supports marriage in our community.

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If things in your marriage have moved too far along for the kind of informal support we provide in this ministry, we recommend you seek help from Third Option, a Catholic support group for marriages in trouble.

Evangelization is hard work…and it starts in our bedrooms

Posted by Christine Burrows

The election is over, and there’s no friend of religious freedom in the White House. Does that mean, as some might fret, that the Catholic Church (and all its affiliated organizations) are about to be forever subverted?

I choose not to believe this.

I won’t lie. I am disappointed with the outcome of the presidential race.  Maybe you are, too.  But does that mean we fold our arms, sulk, run and hide, or instead figure out how to save the things we treasure so deeply about our faith by becoming true evangelists?

I choose the latter.

We clearly have our work cut out for us.  Many current cultural and political trends run contrary to our beliefs; we are paddling upstream..This work must start, not in city hall, but in our neighborhoods, our homes – and in our bedrooms.

Our bedrooms?  Yes. That’s where we begin to nurture the most important relationship we have – our marriage. Through the marital embrace and open communication, one plus one equals one.  When two become one, we are stronger. In this strengthened state, we can begin to evangelize in our families. Then, if we’re lucky, some of these seeds will take root in our children, friends, siblings and parents. They, in turn, may then grow in confidence to share the message of our faith with their friends and spouses – and so on.

I saw a Facebook post the other day. It was one that had been liked by thousands of people before my kid’s elementary school classmate posted it. It was a picture of a husband and wife turned away from one another in bed. The accompanying story described a husband who asked his wife for a divorce so that he could marry another woman. His wife asked him to agree to carry her out of their bedroom every day for one month before she’d agree to the divorce. No spoilers here… the mere act of reconnecting with her physically drew the husband toward his wife and away from his desire to divorce….just too late.

Not everyone who read that post took from it what I did, but there’s a simple point to remaining physically connected with our spouses. Sharing home or parenting responsibilities with a spouse isn’t enough to preserve the marriage. That’s just co-habitating or co-parenting.

Real marriage involves a physical and emotional connection that doesn’t happen in any other relationships. And, when that intimacy is nurtured and God is blessing it, we can do just about anything… handle the grueling routines of raising kids, deal with unexpected hardships, and even do the hard work of preserving our faith and religious freedom.

So, let’s start our evangelization efforts in our bedrooms, and fortify ourselves for the harder work of evangelizing the rest of the country.