Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Love Story

Several years ago, I wrote a short piece for Catholic Digest on our conversion. I've always wanted to say more because I'm a woman in love and I can't stop thinking about my first Love: Jesus Christ.

Baptism: I'm like the paralytic brought to Jesus

There's only one baby picture of me, I suspect because I was the fourth and last child of my parents, born in Khandwa, India. Although my mother was raised in the Anglican Church (her father was a priest who went on to become a Bishop) she brought me to Jesus at a Methodist Church, probably because the pastor there, Rev. Sham Rao, was a family friend. He baptized me when I was 2 months old, on the Feast of St. Patrick, March 17. My soul was marked as belonging to Jesus. I will always be grateful to my parents for my life, but especially for baptism.

And so began my life in Christ. I do not have a memory of not being in conversation with Him as a small child. He was ever present in my mind and I remember falling off chairs and tables because I was making space for him on those chairs and tables. I was already in love, thanks to all the Bible stories my mother shared. I was also aware of my guardian angel and had complete confidence of his protection. I lived without any sort of fear. My mother suffered greatly because of this. She tried to tell me cautionary tales but to no avail. I also had no fear of death because I knew that then I'd get to be with Jesus forever, just like my older brother, Arun.  

And so I grew. We moved to Bhopal when I was still an infant and there I went to St. Joseph's Convent School when I turned four years old. I loved the sisters and was sure I'd be a nun some day, a doctor-nun.

My father went to Germany to study and it was a shock to realize I'd forgotten him upon his return. I was five when he left again, to the US, and it was a very difficult time for my mother, managing everything on her own and not having any money after my other brother had a case of rheumatoid arthritis as well as several abdominal operations. I wrote about this in A Feast for Christmas. One thing that amazed me was my mother's faith in God's providence. And He did provide.

We moved to the US shortly thereafter, but returned to India a year later with my sister and mother when my parents' marriage began to fail. My brother stayed behind with my father in the US. And although I didn't know it at the time, this would be disastrous for my faith. I only knew that after we returned to India, I'd not only lost half my family, I'd also lost my best friend, Jesus. I no longer enjoyed the same closeness as I once did.

Eroding Faith: the Necessity of a Father

I was ten years old when I read the Diary of Anne Frank. I wept over what I learned was the holocaust. I couldn't believe that God would allow such carnage, and to His chosen people! This problem of suffering was one that my mother couldn't answer. She told me to have faith, but I was losing it. By that time, I was also aware of the suffering around me--the poor, the sick, the destitute. It seemed God didn't care for His creation at all, that only people like Mother Teresa, Damien of Molokai, and Albert Schweitzer did anything to alleviate suffering. They became my role models. By the time I turned twelve, I made a conscious decision not to pray because it seemed useless. I wanted to be a doer, not realizing that the great works of the saints had a foundation of prayer. But the day I made my decision, I cried buckets because I had truly lost my best Friend.

The absence of my father loomed large and I decided to rely upon myself, become self-sufficient. I enjoyed my studies and dreamed big dreams, of ministering to the sick, and in my old age, writing about the many adventures I would have. And as I grew and matured, I was puffed up with myself and missed Jesus less and less, until I didn't think of Him at all. I filled my time with studies and work and music. I think perhaps music and science are the two subjects of my curiosity and delight that still made me think, Oh how beautiful! There must be a God.

Where Sin Abounds so does Grace

I broke my poor mother's heart by being utterly willful and unrepentant of anything. She, of great faith, couldn't understand how she could've raised a child who actively chose not to have faith. I went to church, only to sing in the choir and make us both happy. I met the love of my life (now my husband) and reveled in the lust. We joked about how eager I was to be corrupted.  

When my mother died, there was no longer a reason to go to church and I didn't after the funeral. I was finishing up my studies in microbiology and was thinking about getting a job. Dreams of medical school vaporized; I was utterly alone and desolate. For the first time I felt fear. Fear of debt. Fear of failure. Fear of myself. When the acceptance letter finally came, I declined.

I spent more than a decade of my life in decadence. I didn't give a thought to the poor or suffering. I lived for myself and for pleasures. I thank my guardian angel for protecting me because surely had I died in my 20s I'd be in hell. I would've rejected God's mercy because frankly, I didn't think I needed it. I'd lost all sense of sin.

A Softening of the Heart

Michael and I finally married after ten years of pursuing our own dreams separately. That was the first step in living not just for myself, but for him too. I thought I'd given my all to him but it wasn't so. I withheld my fertility. Only five years later did we decide to grow our family. Max and Dagny taught me (still teaching :) even more about how to love, but just as quickly we closed that door, and this time permanently, with a vasectomy (we joked it was his 40th birthday present--and I write about those regrets in Contraception, Infertility and a Faith Journey).    

I quit working as a research scientist and embraced the life of being a homemaker. That old buried dream of writing surfaced. While still pregnant with Dagny, I looked into taking a writing class at the community college and as luck would have it, Peggy King Anderson was offering a class weeknights on children's writing and best of all it was offered at the local high school, just 10 min away. I didn't know the first thing about children's literature but I loved it, especially since I was discovering a wealth of it with Max, who adored being read to.

Some of the women in this writing class and the next one I took a couple of years later became my critique partners. I grew with them thanks to their many secret prayers. Molly and I would stay late talking books and faith and it was she who told me I was the world's worst atheist. She could see the little flame of God inside me, even if I was unaware.

My journey of faith is tied to Michael's. He had grown up with no faith at all and sometimes I think my loss of faith was necessary for us to be together. Tragedy struck American soil on 9/11 and it shook Michael to the core. He started examining his values and reading more conservative literature. We often talked about the things he was reading and I was writing. Our hearts were softening. 

The kids started school and with it came several bad influences, though the good far outweighed the bad. We didn't know how to counter the permissive culture, the complete insanity of rejecting natural law. I thought about my own childhood and the wonderful assurance that Jesus gave me but I couldn't be a hypocrite and send the kids to Sunday school when we did not believe. So we tried our best to love and raise the children with an emphasis on having a sense of right and wrong that is indeed written upon our hearts.

But one Christmas I was compelled to buy a children's Bible (You gotta love Amazon. I just checked on the link and it was Dec. 5, 2006 :) and Michael was so enamored by it, he offered to read the stories to the children. So began a love affair night after night as we read stories.

Church: Which One? 

But how we resisted going to church. I liked the Jesus and me theology. It was simple and uncomplicated. Also, every church we looked into didn't seem right. A group of people met to worship at the elementary school, but it felt too casual. I know that when two or three gather in His Name, He's there, but I wanted a sense of the sacred. Then there was a big church at the bottom of our hill that advertised "No Weird Stuff." What were they implying? That there's weird stuff in other churches? I went online to investigate the Anglican church, the one where I had some roots. But it was no longer the same church even. There were women priests and even homosexual priests. How could it be? It's as if people made the church in their own image. Whatever they liked in the Bible, they kept, and whatever they didn't (like the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, remember Henry VIII?), they just threw out. Finally, after much grumbling, it made sense to go to the first church that Jesus established, which was the Catholic Church.

It was Fall 2008. Max and Dagny were already in school and had begun playing organized sports. Michael thought it might be good to wait until after football season ended but that didn't make any sense to me because faith shouldn't depend upon any season. So we went one Sunday in October to St. Jude Parish, just 10 min away, near the high school.

I cried and cried because I was home. My kids had never seen me cry like this so I had to assure them it was because I was happy. Later Michael told me it all seemed very strange because the only thing he knew about the Catholic Mass came from movies like The Godfather :) 

After Mass, I tried to enroll the kids in Sunday school but Mary, the very nice lady in-charge asked about the childrens' ages and when they were baptized and I said, "never," she told me I needed to speak to Deacon Karl about RCIA. What in the heck, I thought. She said it was a Rite of Christian Initiation. Boy, I thought, why can't you just join a Catholic Church; why all the fuss? Any other church would welcome us with open arms, but not Catholics; they made it hard with all their rules. But I am glad they do.

RCIA: Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults

So I took my complaints and questions to Deacon Karl and he was wonderful about explaining everything. We enrolled in RCIA, which had already begun. We all went to morning Mass on Sunday but Michael and I and the others who were inquiring about the Catholic faith were dismissed after the homily so that we could more deeply ponder the Gospel. The kids stayed in church with our sponsors. I will always be grateful to the donut ministry that kept my kids sugared up and Knights of Columbus for keeping an eye on our kids while our sponsors joined us for RCIA. We'd go home for a few hours, then returned for the children's RCIA, led by Mary. Then it was time for Mass and this time, the children were dismissed for lectio divina. Deacon Karl worried about us burning out and suggested we do this over a couple of years, first the parents, then the children or vice versa, but I am so glad we made this journey of faith together. I now hear that it's very rare for entire families to enter the Church so but God granted us all the graces. Our Sundays automatically became reserved for Church, given we only had a few hours in the afternoon. And our conversations often revolved around the Catholic faith. But it wasn't smooth sailing at all. My health took a dive. Migraines became more frequent and vicious. I had to reverse every single position I held that went against the faith. It definitely bruised my pride but I'd rather live with Truth. It is both good and beautiful, though not always easy.


RCIA helped me to fall in love again. At any point in the journey, any of us could've dropped out. In fact, in our adult class, two Protestant women left before the Rite of Acceptance. During Lent, there were scrutinies and minor exorcisms. I almost lost it all on Palm Sunday. After reading the Passion during Mass, I felt unworthy. I knew I deserved death, not life. But Jesus drew me to Himself and showered all His tender mercies upon me. I wanted nothing more than to be in the shelter of His Cross, to be washed clean in His Blood. Our entire family was received into the Holy Roman Catholic Church at Easter Vigil--April 11, 2009, the feast of St. Gemma Galgani. I know all heaven was rejoicing, and especially my mother and brother and all our beloved dead. Many friends here on earth were also praying for us and I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them.

A New Creation

We are no longer the same. We are new creations in Christ. We might look the same, keep the same job, have the same hobbies, but we are no longer the same people and we could no longer keep on living the way we used to. Michael and I opened our marriage again to new life. We made sacrifices for the children to be able to attend Catholic schools. And thanks to The Godfather, Michael searched out the Mass of the Ages and we happily attend the Latin Mass. We prayed for more faith and God opened doors that we simply had to walk through. Our move to SC was that of fleeing Egypt, says Michael. I find myself writing about the saints or other treasures of the Church--her wealth inexhaustible. For the first time, I will attend a Catholic writing conference. I find myself returning to the childhood state of being in conversation with Jesus throughout the day. And the fire that was ignited at baptism burns so hot, I want to light the whole world on fire. This is my love story. It has no ending because it will continue through all eternity.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Charleston

My sister-in-law and her family came to visit last week so we took the opportunity to be tourists in our own town! All pictures taken by Max. I love his eye for the details.


 
 
  
  



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Monfort Retreat

My daughter spent a week at the Monfort Retreat Center and returned home happy. Bit by bit we are hearing the things she learned. They spent a lot of time on Fatima, since 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions. Unlike Mepkin, these sisters are thoroughly orthodox and do not hesitate to teach the difficult things. There are many hard teachings in the Bible regarding heaven and hell, Holy Eucharist, marriage, etc. and these are all contradictory to the culture at large. It's not easy being Catholic. We are meant to live in this world but not be worldly and that's hard. I highly recommend this retreat for Catholic girls who want to strengthen their faith. For a week, they retreat from the world, spend time in prayer, enjoy the beautiful outdoors, learn a new craft, and make friends with other like-minded girls. A funny story: Dagny met a couple of girls whose parents are even stricter than us, which made her happy to be our daughter :) Someday we hope to make a retreat there as well. 

 
 
  
 
The garden grew while she was gone and we are taking note of what's doing well and what's not. Cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers are doing well. The melons and squash too, but I have a feeling the crabs are going to go after them. The leafy veggies like Swiss chard and beets are getting chomped on. I was able to harvest some but not much. We also have a very naughty squirrel or raccoon who keeps removing the plastic flowers of our hummingbird feeder and pretty much draining the whole thing every night. I bought another feeder with feeding holes and except for dumping out some of the sugar water, they've not been able to drink out of it. So fingers crossed they'll leave it alone for our pretty little hummers. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Agnus Dei

A few years ago we sang a Mass written for two voices in honor of St. John the Baptist by Rene Quignard for Laetare Sunday. There were no recordings at the time. But just on a lark I decided to see if I could listen to it and found: Agnus Dei. It is my favorite movement. St. John the Baptist reminds me every day to write true, no matter what the cost. Today we celebrate his birth!!!


Monday, June 19, 2017

A Writing Retreat Gone Wrong

I was so excited about a writing retreat at Mepkin Abbey, which is only an hour away from our home. And it is truly a lovely retreat center. However, we had not received a detailed schedule (as I normally do when I register for a conference) but assumed that there will be lectures followed by quiet time to write. However, the retreat was designed with a lot of sharing, so there wasn't much time for writing if one also wanted to join the monks for the liturgy of the hours. One of the monks had addressed this, saying it's hard to do both retreat activities and LOH but I find it's good to spend extra time in prayer while on a retreat. My favorites are Vespers (evening) and Compline (night). I also had a horrible migraine the whole time and couldn't believe that it had lasted as long as it already had -- eight days total. So I was already at the end of my rope before I began the retreat. I wondered why God would make this retreat possible if it was going to be so terrible. What lessons did I need to learn?

I am still processing all of that. But three things are on the forefront. The value and need for silence, for orthodoxy, and for learning to suffer well. I always ask why God allows so much suffering and evil. One of the things I did after returning home was to spend some time with St. John Paul II's Salvifici Doloris. I think the problem of evil and suffering is the most difficult to reconcile with our understanding of an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient God but JPII is an amazing writer who can clarify this. He writes, "every suffering is an experience of evil." This is so true. But it is our response that matters. We can either be in despair or join it to Christ's redeeming suffering, giving our own some meaning.  


 
That brings me to the lectures on storytelling, which were very good. The focus was on our personal narrative, how it fits with the larger one, in family, society, the world, and how it relates to the Greatest Story. In a nutshell, we listened to stories on hope, exile, repentance, and home. I couldn't help but think that even within the Church one can be exiled for preserving tradition. Other ideas were on gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes, and going forth. It reminded me how important it is to share our personal stories, of how God has worked in our lives. I think I've done that in bits and pieces, but never in a cohesive, structured manner, and this is something I will do.

Here are some pictures from the abbey grounds, where I strolled and prayed the rosary, which is nothing more than pondering the greatest story with Mary.  

 


 
  

 
This was my room -- light and airy. And here I'd write late at night. But it was sooooo good to come home to my family. In just three days, a little cucumber was ready for picking. And the kitties missed me because they demanded to be petted. Best of all, it was soooo good to celebrate Corpus Christi and Father's Day at Stella Maris. Our priest tied the two celebrations with one word: Presence!    

  

 
 
 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Commencement


What a pleasure to attend Commencement exercises at the Citadel for the Bishop England Class of 2017. It was the hundredth for BEHS!!! I am so proud of these young men and women, but before I go any further, I also want to express my sorrow for the parents whose children face difficulties and are not able to participate. I say to these parents, it's going to be alright. Time is the great equalizer. 


I never wanted to go to these kinds of ceremonies because they felt hollow. I only went to my own to honor my mother's wishes. College was a whole another thing and how I wished she'd been alive. I would've gone happily. And for my PhD, I wanted so very much to walk with my advisor but she was on a year-long sabbatical right after I defended my thesis. So beware of what you wish for. There is so much wisdom in the tradition to mark the end of a phase, the beginning of another. It's a time to reflect upon the blessings, and to receive blessings for the future. I'm so grateful my children have had a good experience and are eager to celebrate these milestones with a smile.


Alex Skattel delivered a very honest and inspiring commencement address. A BE graduate, only thirteen years ahead of this class, he connected well with the kids. He made three points on following your dreams peppered with personal anecdotes. 
1. Don't Panic. When he graduated from Clemson, the country was in the middle of a financial crisis. There were no jobs. He lived at home and although many people thought he was lazy and aimless, he was developing an app.
2. Own your Failures. We all make them. It isn't fatal. Apologize instead of making excuses. Be honest. For every success, he's experienced a dozen failures. But that's just the nature of trying to do something difficult. 
3. Find your unfair advantage. What do you love to do? What do your friends and family see in you? People who love you will criticize you, push you to do better. Lean in and listen to them. They will cheer you on and support you through your challenging times. Your best unfair advantage is right here--your family and friends. So true!

Bishop Guglielmone reminded us all at the end what's the most important thing: keep the Catholic faith. Let it be an anchor. Make a difference. Be an advocate for good.







We were all hungry after this so headed to Lewis Barbecue. This is probably the first time I've tasted brisket that rivals Michael's on the Big Green Egg. By the time I took a picture, kids had polished off most of the food. 



 


You've come a long way, Max! From an atheist kindergartner to a young man filled with the Holy Spirit! I can't wait to see what God has planned for you.