Lenten Reflection-March letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

March is part winter, part spring and this year once complete, it is Easter. Alleluia! This Lent I reflected on my parenting in relation to religion, faith and spirituality. My Catholic faith was paramount during my childhood and I wanted my kids to be a part of the Catholic Church. Over the years, I repeatedly considered how best to help them gain faith and develop their spirituality; to teach the prayers and sacraments, but to steer away from blind obedience and excessive guilt.

I wanted the kids to have a moral compass founded in Judo-Christian values and centered in the Catholic tradition which, for better or worse, is the faith of our family. It has its messy bits and lots of them, but any organized religion is flawed-they are run by humans, after all. The Church’s 2000-year history, its rituals and its catholic with a lowercase c of universality meant that my children would be part of a world-wide church, something much bigger than themselves. A foundation on which to build their individual faith. And although the Church hierarchy is male only, Mary-the blessed mother-is central to our faith and her maternal love is a focus I didn’t want to lose.

When the kids were little, I was active in our parish. I taught CCD, organized the summer bible school and sat on the school board and parish council. Our social life, my volunteering, and the kids’ education centered around our parish. We enjoyed the bonds of the community and built deep friendships, many we have maintained for the twenty years since we moved from Columbus. We were young and had young children; this was where we built their religious foundation, taking the kids to mass, praying before dinner, and choosing catholic schools.

But like most of my parenting, imparting faith and spirituality morphed with the challenges, temperament and age of each child. Smart and quiet with her hands folded nicely on her desk, Mary Kate looked the quintessential Catholic-school girl, yet she practiced her faith in a sociable and pragmatic way. Whether processing down the aisle dressed as St. Lucy on All Saints Day, taking up the gifts or reading at the lectern, Mary Kate liked to participate at mass.  She also had a Pascal’s Wager approach to God, a hedging of her bets. If there was a God and heaven, she had given her best, and if not, she was content with herself. When she was older she figured out how to bypass parts of Catholicism, particularly the sacrament of reconciliation. With her good girl reputation firmly established, she chose the middle of a pew while waiting her turn and shortly before she and her fellow pew-mates stood to go to the confessional, she would calmly get up and go to the bathroom. Then, upon re-entering the church she would take a seat with the kids who had finished. She shared this ploy with me when she was grown, explaining that there was no need for a mediator between herself and God. I was surprised, but impressed with her ingenuity and her introspection.

As a small child, Patrick enjoyed the pageantry of the mass. He mimed the movements of the priest during the Eucharist prayer, he sang the responses and he loved going with us to communion. When it was time for his first communion, he was a soulful seven-year-old who had deep thoughts about the complexities of life and the unknown of death. Questions about the purpose of life, the existence of a God that couldn’t be seen, and worries about dying kept him up at night. I understood his worries and angst well, as I have spent my life pondering and occasionally being obsessed by these questions and fears. I refer to this as our Scottish soul or melancholy because Mam, my beloved granny and your great-grandmother, too, shared this soulfulness. It was a burden for her, a fear that engrossed her thoughts and prayers. I’ve tried to embrace this soulfulness or melancholy in a positive way, for both Patrick and myself, teaching that it is a longing for understanding, a passion for knowledge and a stirring for meaning. Rather than focusing on the dark side, I pushed him to consider the light side-being profound and purposeful. Yes, that last sentence was a Star Wars reference, but easily understood by Patrick as a kid and teenager. I encouraged him to explore his spirituality. Through prayer and the exercise of his mind and body he found ways to harness his soulfulness and understand himself without the worries of the unknown consuming him.

Mass was a happy, social time for Meg. She was the last baby of our friends and literally was passed around during mass. Happy and snuggly, she loved being held, and went to others readily. She would reach out her little arms when she spotted family friends and I would pass her over.  It was not unusual for her to end up several aisles away having gone from family to family, being held by my pals and entertained by their older kids. For little Meggie, Catholicism and faith were synonymous with being loved. Unfortunately, her good start fell flat in New Jersey. She was the first to go to CCD and our parish’s program didn’t offer much intellectual understanding or depth. Meg was flummoxed by the simplistic yet dogmatic approach. When her 2nd grade teacher declared as undeniable fact that God was Jesus’ father and that Jesus rose from the dead, Meg walked into our kitchen indignant that no explanation was given. She was skeptical. As she prepared for Reconciliation and First Communion, the teacher continued dismissing her questions. She soon felt deceived. Meg loved mythology and knew the Greek stories well. She wondered if Catholicism was just another myth. She participated in the sacrament, but doubted the doctrine. These years were tough years to be Catholic-the pedophile scandal, the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope and the Church’s hostility toward gays and lesbians-turned us from active parishioners to C and E Catholics. When we arrived in Belgium we were culturally catholic, like most of our European friends. At St. John’s International School, with its ecumenical curriculum, Meg gained knowledge of world religions and spirituality. She continued to question and chose Notre Dame, in part, to experience a strong intellectual Catholic community.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our aunts and their cohort of friends who helped me sustain my Catholic faith. Their lives of faith, service and love are the images that I hold onto when I grow frustrated with conservative, rule-mongering Catholics. The Sisters of the Holy Cross inspire me to delve deep into my faith and spirituality, not obsess with whether I am contributing to the collection basket or participating in the rites. Their concern and focus is on my spirit and my soul. Lucky me to have been blessed with the friendship and guidance of so many holy women.

And, my faith and the Catholic Church offered me one of my life’s favorite honors . . . being your Godmother!

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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