Three years and Treasures in Heaven

As the third anniversary of my daughter Anna’s death approaches, I wanted to write something to mark this season. I guess it’s hard for me to keep writing of suffering and grieving when really, we are doing so much living. The hard truth is that death is always a piece of our living, but it is a piece that adds meaning, and substance, and depth. In light of death, we understand the blessing and the gift of life more profoundly. In the light of this cross, I have come to find fulfillment in serving the Lord through simple everyday living. This earthen vessel holds many treasures.

We are living in joyful expectation of our 10th child these days. Our newest little princess, our eighth daughter, should arrive at the end of June, and so far she is healthy and growing beautifully. Despite my “advanced maternal age,” I feel great, too. Pregnancy sure was easier on my body 21 years ago, but it is easier now in so many ways with the wisdom of age! It seems my growing belly is like an invitation to chat about all things “children” and it presents me with a challenging but beautiful way to witness on an almost daily basis. At some point, I think every mother has been asked how many children she has. For me, this has been a loaded and difficult question since my son Michael died eight years ago. I’m always tempted to give the simple half-truth version of the answer, that this is our 10th child, and leave it at that. As you might expect this usually piques curiosity (or disbelief!) and is always followed by more questions. I usually have a split second to decide how to answer. Sometimes it’s a sacrifice for me to tell the whole truth, but more often I can’t help but think of the person on the receiving end. Imagine asking a casual and friendly question and getting socked with my whole truth that two of my children have died! But the truth is the truth and it serves, if I am willing to tell it. Most often these moments that inspire a curl of dread at the outset, turn into moments of shared faith. They are opportunities to speak Truth, open hearts, console and be consoled, to serve and be served. Sometimes, I discover someone who is suffering greatly, sometimes it’s someone who has never known the sting of loss, and other times I am pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Christian that I would not have known otherwise. Thanks to my baby bump, these grace-filled moments happen every day. I consider that a gift and I’m thankful for the struggle of it, for these are the treasures I am storing in Heaven. Anna’s death, though still a painful reality, is serving the Kingdom. And it’s beautiful to me that it happens in these cases because of life! Isn’t this precisely the message of the Gospel after all? Because Jesus died, we can have life!

Photo courtesy of Charles Wainwright for Pillars magazine

Photo courtesy of Charles Wainwright for Pillars magazine

I love this family picture. It is happy and full of life, but it only tells half the truth. There’s so much more to the story. I often wonder how the Lord expects me to tell it without Anna and Michael here to be in the picture with us. There are a few thousand words this picture cannot tell and I feel so keenly what is missing even as I rejoice in all that we are. What I have come to understand more deeply in these past three years is that the story must serve the Kingdom in order to bear fruit. It isn’t merely for my own transformation, though that is miraculous in itself, but it must be for God’s good and holy purposes. Why do I love my neighbor and forgive my enemy? Why do I proclaim life and not death even though I know fully that life only truly comes after death? In service to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He submitted to death so he could proclaim life. His death is always part of the story or there isn’t much of a story. This picture captures so much of my heart. I am blessed. I am grateful.

IMG_5692But always this picture tells the rest of the story. My treasures are in Heaven. This part that is missing gives so much more meaning to all that is here. I have learned to overcome what is missing by seeking all the life that is before me. Being pregnant at 41 is a sacrifice but it is nothing compared to the sacrifice of living without this new life.  She is loved beyond measure already.

The way to overcome death is to seek life. Jesus is life. The Gospel is life. Death is overcome.
The Mass each week calls to mind my own journey these past three years. For a time after each of my children died, Heaven came to Earth to meet me in my need and brokenness and my heart has found healing in the presence of the Giver and Creator of life. The consolations have been many and I have grown in my faith in many ways, but like the final words of blessing, there’s more to it than my own faith. There is a call to arms; “The Mass is ended, go in peace to Love and serve the Lord.”

The sacrifice has been re-presented and the resurrection has been celebrated. We will have all of Eternity to enjoy the consolations that have only been glimpsed here briefly, but today we are called to serve in God’s great army. Our sufferings and crosses become our armor and serve a great purpose in the Lord’s battle for souls. We have work to do, however small it may seem. We have treasures to store up for Heaven.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves…Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” (2 Cor 4:7,10)

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It’s baby week in the Pullano house!!

A quick bit of my rambling thoughts for today.  The level of anticipation and excitement and busy-ness is high around here as we wait for the arrival of our own royal highness!  I think we are all imagining cuddling and snuggling a new little baby in all her innocence and sweetness and the waiting is a true exercise in the virtue of patience!

For me, there are the usual doubts and fears about the enormous task that lies ahead.  Am I up to it?  How will I juggle it all?  Luckily I’ve been here a few times already and know from experience that of course it will work out and yes I will be up to it – what other choice is there?  There is Joy in the sure knowledge that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Which is not to say that it will all be a piece of cake. Of course having babies and raising a large family is full of struggles.  I don’t have many children because I love being sleepless for months and months or because I love donating my body for years at a time.  To be sure the effort and the sacrifice is great at times.  Many look at me and think I must be made of something superhuman in order to pull off having 9 children.

Indeed I am.  I am a daughter of God.  Simple but divine.  I possess the same superhuman quality we are all capable of possessing. In fact, it’s the very quality we are all created for, to Love.   Not by our own power but by God’s power can we experience that agape love that overrides all else.  It’s the kind of Love that says, yes I will give up myself for you.  And I can’t take much credit for knowing this.  I guess you could say I stumbled upon this truth when I said yes the first time to accepting Life.  Whatever the reasons or circumstances at the time God used my ‘yes’ to teach me something far more beautiful and wonderful and amazing than I ever knew existed.  He showed me that because of His Love, His divinity, His Holy Spirit living in me, I am superhuman.

I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words, “Greater Love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13)  Or for one’s children, or for one’s family, or for one’s God.

To be sure the list of complaints at 39 weeks pregnant for the 9th time is looooooong.  I’ll spare you. You’re welcome.

The sacrifice is great and I know all too well that it is only the beginning.  In fact, I really don’t know the extent of the sacrifice this little life will require of me.   Just as I didn’t know that when I was carrying my 5th child that his life would be so short  – or so fruitful.  I didn’t know when we had our very first child the sacrifice that would be required just 18 short years away.  I didn’t have any Simeon in the temple to predict that a sword would pierce my heart – twice.  We have no guarantees that this newest little life won’t require great sacrifice.  That’s not how it works.  We give ourselves up to Divine Love and Trust in God, come what may.  All the sacrifice day in and day out is part and parcel of Loving.  I bear it all gladly.  And it is like nothing really in light of what Jesus did for us on the cross.  It is the small everyday way I can participate with Him in the cross.

It is the supreme gift of my womanhood and humanity, to be full of life, creating with God, saying Yes and offering myself as a sacrifice in a physical way.  For this I was created and the gift of the opportunity is beyond compare.

I remember being in labor with our 7th child, while our little Michael was in the hospital next-door receiving chemo treatments.  It was gut wrenching to watch his sweet little innocent self suffer and endure that.  In some strange way I wanted to share in that suffering with him.  I really wanted to take it away from him of course but what could I do? Nothing. Except in my contraction-induced haze of pain I had the idea that if he could suffer then so could I.  So in some sort of effort to share in it with him I refused all manner of pain relief and by the power of Love delivered a healthy squalling 9lb 4oz baby girl (and continue to question my sanity to this day!)

It was the sentiment of the cross really.  It was the greatest Love that motivated me, silly as it may seem.  I suppose looking from the outside in someone might question the sanity of Jesus on the cross, walking willingly to give up His life.  But from the inside, wow does it make good sense!

Only by being both a receiver and a participant of that Love does it make all the sense in the world.

The past 9 months has been a time of physically giving my life for another.  The upcoming labor and delivery will not be a walk in the park but the suffering is just a glimpse of the cross.  The Love is the fullness of the cross.  I get to experience both.  Again.  What a gift.  What a Joy.

stay tuned….

At His feet

It’s such a happy and joyous time of year if you are a parent of a senior in High School. The culmination of years of planning and working and testing and playing and accomplishment is happening in many ways as the school year winds down.  The seniors are enjoying lots of festivities and award ceremonies leading up to Graduation and ultimately moving on to the next exciting phase of their lives.  Parents get to revel in successes, organize the celebrations, re-live the glory days of our own High School fun and generally take pride in our kids.  For our family the anticipation started last Fall with SAT’s and the first college acceptance and it was gradually building until a friday night 3 months ago.  On March 2, 2013, we had to abruptly change course with all of our plans when our daughter Anna was killed in a car accident.

We have changed courses and accepted what is before us but these days are still hard. Even as I celebrate and rejoice on behalf of all the other kids, my heart aches without my own.  It’s a strange place to be because I can’t say she should be here.  She shouldn’t obviously.  I can’t even say I wish she were here.  I would never wish her anywhere but exactly where she is.   I just miss her.  All these moments of celebration are moments that scream at me “you lost so much”.

And those are the moments that I am reminded of my place.  The place where Hope springs eternal and Love conquers death. The place of wisdom and truth where our beautiful Mother meets me in my pain and sorrow.  It is the place from which the whole of my life has purpose and meaning. I belong at the foot of the Cross, the only place where the joys of the world pale in comparison to the triumph of Eternity.  To sit at the feet of Jesus is to remember that I have not lost.  Truly I have gained.  Anna has gained.  Teach me your ways Lord.  Turn my tears into dancing.  At your feet, with your Mother, I will learn. This is the day You have made for me, by your cross and resurrection, so I will rejoice and be glad in it.

When I sit at His feet I am reminded of the reason for my Joy and it has little to do with Earthly celebrations and accomplishments. When I sit at His feet my purpose is renewed. Basic, elemental – I am His.  Mary is quietly by my side but her example speaks volumes.  I am here to do your will Lord.  I am here to live out your purpose for me come what may. I am here simply to receive all that you have poured out for me; Mercy, Love and Healing.

And it is easier here to remember that there is a time for every purpose under Heaven.

There is a time for rejoicing and celebration.

There is a time to sit at His feet.

Cross of Joy

I sat down with Andrew to work on homework last night and as he started to put his name on the top of the paper he said, “Mom can you just write the letter ‘d’ for me?  I’m terrible at making ‘d’s’.” I said, “No way.  The fact that you aren’t good at making them is the very reason you need to do it yourself.  Only practice will make you good at them.”  So he practiced it a few dozen times, with me showing him how to make it better, until he felt more confident in his ability.

Many times the Lord deals with us in this same way.  We ask for our crosses and burdens to be alleviated because we know God loves us and could easily take the burden from our shoulders.  We are told to pray unceasingly (1 Thes. 5:17), and in faith ask “Father, if you are willing take this cup from me.” Lk. 22:42.  Yet so often we are met with seeming silence.  Is it because God knows that our crosses are important for our growth and learning?    By our crosses we learn to rely on God more fully.  Ideally, when we walk with the Lord through a trial we gain confidence and trust and realize a new strength.  By our sufferings we are shaped and formed and refined on our way to perfection, like gold that’s tested in fire.

“Their sufferings were minor compared with the blessings they will receive. God has tested them, like gold in a furnace, and found them worthy to be with him.” Wis 3:5

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And yes perfection is the goal!  We are created for it so we can rest easy in the assurance that God has a very good reason when He allows His children to bear their burdens. They will ultimately be for our good.  We are being groomed and refined.  We are being made worthy to share in the inheritance.

Jesus himself had to endure the cross before He was resurrected.   As true Christ followers we cannot expect an easier road.  Nor should we want one!  True love of Christ requires our desire to share in His suffering.  It is this desire that allows us as lovers of Jesus to offer our own sufferings and crosses to Him.

Growing up, I often heard the phrase “Offer it up” when I uttered complaint.  Of course it meant nothing to me outside the bounds of my own relationship with Jesus and only as I grew closer to the Lord could I begin to understand the merit of that statement.

Loving Christ turns suffering from a Cross to a Joy.

Just as I would desire to suffer in place of my child if I could, so I desire to offer to Jesus my sufferings for the salvation of souls.  I endure them gladly rather than lament and bemoan them if they can be used for His purposes and to the end of accomplishing His holy and divine will. Furthermore Jesus calls us to Love not only our friends but our enemies in this way.  To Love perfectly is to lay down your life for another.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”  1 John 3:16

This is what Christ did for us.  From His perfect love he died for all, not just for those of us who love Him back.  He died for His enemies.  He suffered for people who hate Him.  WIth those who love Him, He established a covenant of Perfect Love, so that we could go forth and share that same Love, even with our enemies, because to love an enemy is to love Jesus.  It is never by the power of our own flesh that this is accomplished but by God’s Perfect Love given and received.

This is our call as true Christ followers.  Can we follow Him all the way to Calvary?  After all, only when we drink the cup Jesus drank will we be able to sit by His side in glory. (Mt. 10:37-38)

Suffering is a part of life that we simply must accept. What choice is there when suffering is everywhere?  But when we accept the perfect Love God has given us our Joy can come from bearing up under the weight of our sufferings.  We can and should take Joy in living this basic Christian witness.  Just as I wouldn’t have let Andrew struggle in frustration on his own, God would never ask us to endure something if He didn’t give us the equipment necessary to do it.  We are never alone or without His almighty hand of protection upon us. He helps us carry our burdens, making sure they are not too much for us to bear.  Ultimately we will be victorious and every struggle will be overcome.  What Joy we have in His promises!

What if Andrew hadn’t liked my response and chose a different reaction?  He could have had a little tantrum, thrown down his pencil, and said I just can’t write the letter ‘d’ and I don’t want to practice it.   He could have resisted and cried and turned it into a miserable homework experience.  Had he done that, his stubborn tantrum would have been the more difficult path to the same end – practicing until perfect.

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in...

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luckily for us God makes perfect.  Our efforts will always be humble and imperfect, but our effort is like the mustard seed. God can grow it into the tallest tree. Our willingness to suffer for the glory of God, whatever life throws at us, is precious in His sight.  He doesn’t expect us to do it perfectly, only to lean on Him and trust in His providence and remain Joyful as a christian.  He is patiently by our side encouraging as we enter the fire and He understands what we will some day understand for ourselves; that the only way out is through.  Jesus knew this in the garden as well and it was the cause of His agony.  He knew He must go through His passion and desperately didn’t want to but it was the only way to secure the joy and perfection of the Kingdom for all mankind.  He prayed the ultimate prayer, “Not my will but yours be done.”   That is the prayer we should pray unceasingly.

When God does not take our crosses from our life we can know with certainty and with Joy that “His will be done”.

There can be no greater honor.

Storms

*In light of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, I pray that all who are living through that tumultuous storm will take comfort in the strength and peace of God*

I went to a funeral yesterday.  The weather was surprisingly warm and sunny as I got in my car and left the neighborhood.  The funeral mass was at a church across town and as I got a few minutes away from home I noticed the sky up ahead was looking pretty dark.   I continued to drive along and the sky grew increasingly overcast as it seemed I was heading right into the storm. The sky got darker and darker until I was directly in the thick of it and was actually surrounded by near-blackness.  It felt appropriate considering my destination.  Very quickly a deluge of rain pelted my car and the wipers were swinging furiously.  Even though I was surrounded by utter darkness and deafening rain I could see the edge of the storm cloud up ahead and bright sun filtering through white fluffy clouds beyond.  I knew that it was only a matter of moments before I would be out of the storm and it would once again be a pleasantly warm fall day.  It was a bit daunting driving through it with very little visibility (though I live in the snow belt in Central New York so not the worst of what I’m used to!)  Sure enough a minute later I was out from under the oppressive clouds and the sky was so clear I thought it would be smooth sailing all the way to the church.  My route took me a round-about way and as I got closer to church wouldn’t you know that I was almost under that storm cloud again?  Luckily we parked and got inside the church before the rain started in earnest.

Christus in the storm on the lake; Rembrandt (...

Christus in the storm on the lake; Rembrandt (1633)(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Storms in our lives are inevitable just as death is inevitable.  Both are difficult and painful but are simply a part of this life.  The only guarantee we have, the only promise in terms of suffering, is the hope of Eternal rest and peace and Joy in our next life.  Not this life.

As Christians, that is, as Christ followers, we are called to follow Jesus the way Mary did. She set the example for us as the very first Christian, not merely following her son and savior to Calvary, but investing herself in His burden every step of the way.  Loving Him as only a mother could, blow-by-blow. She didn’t bow out when she was afraid or when the pain of what she was forced to silently witness must have been almost unbearable.  She steadfastly followed Jesus and took the blows in her mother’s heart as the whip sliced open the flesh she once carried and the nails crushed through the hands she once held.  With trust she stood at the foot of the cross until the bitter end.  With a suffering and sorrowful heart she watched her beloved son leave this life.

We are called to no less.  We are called to carry our crosses in the many different forms they take in our lives.  We are called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary.  No promises and no guarantees for smooth sailing!

After our son died there was a temptation to feel entitled and deserving of a break from pain and suffering.  Surely after what we went through we wouldn’t have to endure more?  I caught myself in those early days living in fear of something horrible happening to another member of my family.  How could I survive it?  But I caught myself.  I knew then that no matter how much I didn’t want to face another storm that it could very well happen.  I also knew that I would weather it, the same way I weathered the loss of Michael, with faith and trust in God.  That relationship was the only way to carry on and move forward in Joy and not as a slave to fear.

“For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

We must flee to the refuge of God’s sovereignty even when it feels as though He didn’t handle our cross for us.  We do that by Surrendering and trusting that He had a good reason for allowing us to carry it.  That doesn’t mean we roll over as victims to pain and suffering, but it does mean we don’t let it win the rule of our lives.  We suffer our cross, yes, and it is often painful and difficult to bear, but we do it with the promise of Joy ahead and trust that we are learning and growing as God wishes.  We look just a little way toward the horizon and see the edge of the black storm cloud and the sun shining through fluffy white clouds beyond and let God carry us until we get there.  And when the clouds threaten again, we trust that again God will carry us through.  This much He did promise us.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deut. 31:8)

This was a lesson the apostles learned in the storm at sea.  They were terrified when the storm came up and the waves were washing into the boat. Jesus was sleeping and when they woke Him in a panic He rebuked them saying, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Mt. 8:26)  And yet they were afraid.  They feared even though Jesus was right in their boat!  Jesus is in our boat too.  No matter the storm we face, we are commanded to trust in God and seek His refuge.  Even if the waves are pouring in we must understand we will never sink.  We will never perish.  Even were we to perish from this Life, if we cling to the true life-giver we will LIVE.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Just as the church served as our refuge from the storm, God is always our spiritual refuge in times of trouble.  His arms are open wide, His word is living and true, and His love for us knows no bounds.

Related reading: Seasons and Mary

I Work Out

“I’m sexy and I know it. I work out!” These lyrics by the oh-so-appropriately named (even if a little inappropriate) LMFAO are rolling around in my head. I got myself back to the gym this week, after a little workout sabbatical (read: been waaaay too busy for that)  so I think that now qualifies me as “working out”.  The’ sexy and I know it’ part- well -I’m laughing something off!  So that little voice in my head and the screaming button on my jeans guilted me into finding time for the gym.  And for the record I would just like to say that I have not missed going to the gym at all.  Really.  Not at all.  I don’t enjoy exercising in a forced and contrived environment, though I’ve done it out of necessity for years.

I went back full steam and did a class and some cardio and some weight training.  It was difficult because the whole time my mind was whirling with the lists and responsibilities just waiting….lurking in my mind.   But as I said, necessity drove me and I moved from machine to machine working each muscle group thoroughly. Despite the weight of duty calling and a slight boredom, I persevered knowing that I would be thankful later that I accomplished a worthy and healthy thing for myself.

Two days later I realized some of the fruit of that worthy and healthy thing…. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) to be precise.  Apparently it does require muscle use to move fingers on a keyboard.  Still I was proud of myself and willing to endure a little pain for the sake of the greater good.  Until the third day when I moved from tight and sore into full-out robot maneuvers because it just plain hurt too much to bend. Anything.  I vaguely remember crying out to the universe, “I take it back! I un-workout!”  There just isn’t enough healthy and good, and definitely not enough sexy, that could or should justify that pain and suffering!

The crosses we bear in our lives often feel similar, whether of our own making or not.  They are sometimes painful and heavy, sometimes tedious and aggravating and often we can’t really see the point even if we have a vague sense that somehow they are for our good.   How often do we cry out in distress to make it stop or change or go away or improve?  How often do we seem to get no response and see no change?  Or how often do we come through hardship the better and stronger for it?  In every case, God asks us to persevere and trust in Him because He knows exactly what the point is.

Simon de Vos - The Israelites after Crossing t...

Simon de Vos – The Israelites after Crossing the Red Sea – WGA25334 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can look at the example of the Israelites coming out of slavery.  They were in the desert waiting on the Lord for 40 years! They cried out and prayed and begged, and in spite of manna raining down from heaven to feed them daily, they ultimately failed to trust.  Moses went up Mt Sinai for 40 days and by the time he came back down God’s chosen people were worshipping idols. (Ex. 32) These were a people that had walked through the Red Sea on dry ground! They experienced miracles directly from God but how easily they gave up when the waiting didn’t seem to make sense.

We can ask, about the Israelites, and about our own lives, what is the point of the suffering God allows?   I certainly can’t pretend to have the answer to that profound question; who can know the mind of God after all?   But it is not difficult to look back at the Israelites on their way to Canaan and see where they might have gone wrong.  They certainly lost patience, and failed to obey and trust in God’s promise to lead them to the promised land. They questioned and tested God when they were hungry and thirsty (Ex 16-17).  The minute the going got tough they decided they had a better way.

What they missed was the point that our sufferings are an opportunity for purification.   They provide an opportunity to rely totally on our sovereign God and believe wholeheartedly that there is a point and a plan and that He is providing all the grace we need to be victorious for eternal rewards.

When we look at our crosses from this perspective they become easier to bear.  When we open our hearts to God in total trust and abandonment, He fills them with Grace to bear up in our circumstances.   He teaches not only the bearer of the cross but sometimes those who come into contact with another’s cross, how to trust and rely on Him in all circumstances.  He fills our hearts with Himself, thereby assuring us of victory.

My muscles are no longer screaming at me in killing pain.  I’m not even sure what was accomplished by those few little workouts, but somehow I know it was good and I’m glad that I have the first and most difficult week under my belt. Even if it’s on a very small scale, I am stronger and better off and more prepared to take on bigger and better workout challenges that will lead to a healthier and happier physical me!  Most importantly I’ve opened up an opportunity for myself to grow and to change.

If those Israelites had known then what we know now, if they had the knowledge of hindsight, imagine how obedient and full of Love for self and neighbor and how faithful in trusting and worshiping the one true God they would have been.

Wouldn’t they?

After all the land of milk and honey awaits.