Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pillars of Salt.

"Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Sebastian. "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."

Sebastian is Evelyn Waugh's tragic bright young thing in the brilliant Brideshead Revisited. His remembering becomes worship, and he clings to his irrecoverable childhood (famously in the form of his teddy bear, Aloysius). I thought of him after a conversation about remembering. We were remembering the places where we were happy: particularly college, when the world was ours and what we did with our freedom was do things that felt holy.

For 4 years, I belonged to that small sub-population at the Catholic University of America that exists mostly in the Top 5 Catholic colleges: Thomas Aquinas, Christendom, Steubenville, the University of Dallas, and... well, praise be to God, there are more than 5 now. Here is a taste:

It's just so true.

It is possible to go to Confession weekly, attend Adoration every day, say the entire Liturgy of the Hours with your dearest friends, study the Great Books and the Doctors of the Church, and be so wrapped in a world that feels comfortingly sanctified all the time.

Get this: There is nothing wrong with that. Those college years are years of intense formation. Looking back at my habits of being, I'm starting to think that I was such a cute little puppy. Have you ever watched little puppies playing? There's a reason they play. If they don't play at being big dogs (and even sometimes think that they already are big dogs), they will never get to become big dogs. If little monkeys don't get to imitate their parents, they do not survive in the wild to become the parents of new little monkeys. My Ana Therese--now 21-months old--plays intensely at dancing, mothering, and praying. I don't grudge her this time of formation, because I know it's crucial to her growth into a young woman who knows she is loved and is capable of loving. The mother delights in her children's play. Our Father delights in our play at pleasing Him.

However. We grow up.

Eventually, the Catholic girls have to leave that bubble. We graduate (sometimes only after several degrees), we enter the workforce, we marry and have children, or we enter a religious order. We grow, and even if our daily lives continue to include the Sacraments and the prayers of the Church, that comforting feeling they once gave us will leave.

I remember when I was first married and jumped out of that puppy life. I was disoriented. Where was my structure? Where was that control? Had it all been pretend? I went into mourning, because I had become so attached to that formation period. I didn't want to take my final vows and move into adulthood. Several years into childbearing, I felt like I had completely lost myself--that Catholic girl who constantly read the Fathers and prayed for hours in the chapel was gone.

She was not gone, but she was invisible. The visible reality of my sanctity, it seemed to me, collapsed under the demands of my adult vocation. Graduates of that formation period have several reactions to the change: Some old friends have declared that all of our prayers and sacrifices were a farce. Because the farce was exposed, it had nothing enduring to offer. It was fun, but now we are beyond all that. This is not true.

It mistakes the path for the summit. It mistakes the stream for the source.

When a seed is buried in the earth and watered, it cracks wide open. It grows pale and the shell rots. The root slowly reaches down for stability, and the shoot pierces that barren earth. The years of playing at sanctity were the seed, and they have fallen away. The girl who lived as a seed is no longer a seed, but is broken and growing up. I reach for the Sun because I died.

My days do not look now like they did when I was 22, or 24, or 27. It does not mean that I'm starting all over again every time a new child is given or a new crisis strikes. When I am able to sit in a church for an hour in silence, it is water to my soul. When I can get to the Sacrament of Confession, I am complete and whole and healed.

I can no longer brag that I say the entire Rosary every day (the 3-year-old cries), wear a mantilla to Mass (the babies tear it off), fast every day of Lent (angry mommies are a near occaision of sin for children), and have read all of Benedict XVI's encyclicals. Instead, I boast in the strength of Christ, because soon He will be all I have.

It is easy to mourn the "glory days." I still hear old men exclaim, "College! The best years of my life!" They were beautiful years, but not the best. This is better, because it is closer to home. I'm not a puppy any more (more like a juvenile!), and I want to be a big dog.


Gina said...

As a young Catholic woman just out of undergrad, I can really resonate with this posting. Thank you for the hope that this has provided me and the confidence, that as things change and I move further from my catholic "bubble" life's going to be ok...just different. AMDG

Cara said...

Oh my, you have put this into words so well. The seed dying and the coddled puppy growing up. My college years were the same, and my entry into marriage and family was such a spiritual jolt. I've always mourned the disappearance of that lost spiritual intensity, but your reflections have helped me recast the entire experience. Thank you!

Faith E. Hough said...

LOL, loved that video. :) I can't say how many times I heard those words from the mouths of my Steubenville colleagues.
Somehow I had the awareness during college to recognize FUS for the bubble it was--so I was able to fully appreciate the cushion it gave me without being too jolted when I entered "real life." Still, I find myself spouting on the same theme every time I go to confession, "I find it so hard to find time for prayer like I used to!" One priest (who, incidentally, was a widower with children) gave me the best answer: "Then why aren't you making every moment you spend doing things for your children a prayer?" Why is it I always forget the obvious answers?

Anonymous said...

I really liked this post, as I have struggled in the same way. I have found that college was like being in a spiritual garden, where delighting in God and the things of God was like delighting in beautiful flowers. Now, however, I have traveled into the spiritual desert, where there is only sand and heat, where God seems to have hidden His face. Where God wants me to follow Him not on my terms, but on His terms--to be with Him in the children who demand so much of me, in the cooking which often becomes tiresome, in the stress of getting unruly children ready for school, in the lack of sleep, continual activity, etc. While I find myself frustrated at times, not sure of who I am and who God is anymore, I take comfort knowing that God is in control, that He is with me, and that He in His own way, in His own time, and on His own terms, is drawing me to Himself.

Lydia said...

Erika, you nailed it with this. I've been thinking about the CUA years lately and wondering what happened. Getting past that initial shock is a little rough. Fortunately, it eventually leads to a little more humility (which I lack).It was good. It was beautiful to have the Shrine and adoration and women's group and wandering into Mary's garden to find your girlfriends praying the rosary. It wasn't farcical. It was intense and maybe a little romantic, but it was definitely formative, and the good things about it have lasted. It's good to know that that world is still there. On days when the runny noses and constant questions get me down it helps to remember at 5pm the friars at Dominican House are assembling for mass, and that Dr. White is chain smoking somewhere. But it's better for those of us who have moved along to keep in mind that our little Catholic bubble was training for the reality of God sanctifying through the crucible of ordinary life. We studied about this, and trumpeted it, but we didn't understand it then. It wasn't time to understand. For that time, it was enough to know it was true. Now we are in the midst of it and it's easy to lose sight of what we learned. But we can't stay on the mountaintop. We have to go back down into the world with the burning memory of learning the truth buoying us up. As long as I can keep sight of what I know to be true, which is absolutely the product of my happy Catholic bubble at CUA, the real work of vocation and sanctification is a light burden.

Erika Ahern said...

That is beautiful! I think you said it better than I did. The burden is light...

Vijaya said...

I just discovered your blog via a comment on Faith's and am delighted. I do hope our children can go to a Catholic college once they're old enough (if they wish to go, that is).

We are neophyte Catholics and am enjoying reading your posts very much, and esp. about the one about the gifts rec'd. All that we take to heaven is our character ... so striving to work on that constantly. I'll tell you that grace abounds even in the most sinful heart, when the heart is contrite and willing to surrender to Christ.