Monday, August 11, 2008

Posing for Holy Cards

If I've learned one thing about last week's "responsible and generous parenthood" brouhaha, it's that people really don't like it when their ox is the one being gored.

Not an especially new phenomenon in human behavior, I know. But when the ox is the notion that one type of Catholic family, one style of Catholic family life, is somehow sacrosanct, above even completely abstract discussion if that discussion has the remote possibility of offending the type of family in question, the goring can get pretty--well, gory, for lack of a better word.

Because we all know that large Catholic families are the right sort of Catholic family. We all know that all large Catholic families are holy, the same way that skirt-wearers are holy and veil-donners are holy and homeschoolers are holy and secular Franciscans are holy and daily-Mass-goers are holy and daily-rosary-sayers are holy and soup-kitchen volunteers are holy and students at [fill-in-the-blank] Catholic college are holy and...

You know where this is going, right?

I know some wonderful large Catholic families (and some wonderful smaller ones, too). And one of the things that makes them so wonderful is that if I ever suggested out loud that the circumstances of their lives make them models of holiness they'd slap me down, or at least grumble something about a particular devil taking up the flank position.

Because holiness isn't about externals. It never is. It never was. It never will be.

Some of the things in my list are special calls. Some are things any of us could do, if the circumstances permitted. All of them are ways of living or habits or practices that, if God works with us, may help lead us along in the right direction toward holiness, a goal toward which we should all be striving each day of our lives.

But not one of them is proof of holiness. Not one of them permits us to look at the people in question and say, admiringly, "Wow, you must really be holy." Not one of them absolves the people who are doing or living this way from the duty to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, as we must all do in this earthly vale of tears.

We might be tempted sometimes to think, for instance, that a mom we know who is expecting her twelfth child is really, really holy--but we don't know if she is or not; and if she is trying to reach holiness, the closer she gets, the more she, like all who approach sainthood, will see all her little tiny faults magnified as huge obstacles to Our Lord's presence, and spend more time in prayer and penance the closer she gets to God. The last thing she wants to hear is that we think she's holy, especially that we think so based solely on the number of children she has borne.

We might also be tempted to think that a veil and skirt wearer is holy, or a daily Mass attendee, etc. just because of how they appear to us. But none of those things, good though they may be, is proof of holiness, which is a quality of the interior soul, not the exterior life.

If you read about a young nun, for instance, who followed the rule of her convent but slowly became dissatisfied, wishing for reform, to become part of a movement of reform that was then becoming an ever more prevalent voice sweeping through Christendom, you might almost be tempted in your mental image of this unknown lady to start posing her for holy cards. That is, until you realized that the woman you were reading about was Katharina von Bora, who ran away from her convent and became the wife of the Protestant leader Martin Luther. On externals alone we can't judge; indeed, there's nothing to stop us from praying that both Katharina and her husband drank of God's mercy by the time of their deaths, and that their souls have not been lost. But it's easy to start reading the story of a young nun and automatically supply the halo, gilt border, and prayer on the back, so to speak, before you've even gotten to the third sentence on the page.

The dangerous part is that we tend to think this is a good thing, this premature canonization of all those whose lives meet or display certain external criteria. But it isn't. We don't help each other grow in holiness if we keep insisting that some among us need no further growth in this life, and we don't do people any favors by building little shrines and lighting candles in their general direction instead of joining hands in prayer with them, understanding that they, too, struggle to be good, and ceasing to value the externals of their lives so very disproportionately.

We can admire and respect those who tackle difficult challenges cheerfully, or show by their unfailing charity, example of inoffensive mildness, and unwavering love how we, too, may be. But it's a bit much to set up a camera and start asking them to pose for holy cards; those out there whose holiness would astound us if we knew of it seldom advertise this interior reality to the world.


Mary Poppins NOT said...

As a matter of fact, it is one of my greatest pet peeves when people hear I have seven children and say, "You are a saint". I say no, those very same children often are the cause of my greatest failings in patience and charity and duty. No. I am. not. a. saint. Just hoping and praying to be one someday.

Oh, I home school, also. Don't wear skirts more than half the time, don't wear a mantilla, and only bake my own bread when I get around to dumping the ingredients in my bread machine.

I do paint icons, though, and one of my girls used to want to be a nun.

So what do you think. Whats my holiness score? :)

Anonymous said...

Well, I only have four children, send them to public school and I don't know any homeschoolers personally, or women who only wear skirts or veils to Mass. I've never been to a Latin Mass. Looks like I'm totally off in negative holiness charting over here. Love your posts, Red and I totally agree with one hundred percent about responsibility and generosity. Jen

Anonymous said...

Such interesting observations, but the question of measures of holiness is best left to the deity over all of us. Best that we be getting on the best we can, and not trying to catch glimpses of our back view in the mirror? It seems, to want to dicuss the largeness of a family, that one has not lived in such a one, and is wondering about the parents in such situation. Again, best be trying to do ones best and not concerning oneself with family size, as from this day and age, unless there is infinite patience and tolerable mental attitudes, living in a large family is an endless exercise in fortitude ONLY, until one can 'escape' to take the previous baggage to one's new nest. Well, best be getting on.

MommaLlama said...

Lovin' the post Red, like Mary Poppins Not, we get lots of comments...

We have three adopted sons, homeschool, I wear a mantilla to Mass, can't stand skirts (but wear them on occasion), and my boys are usually well behaved in public (most especially at Mass).

I'm not an especially patient person, can't stand distraction in Mass (the mantilla actually helps because it takes away my sight line), and homeschooling isn't always easy! So while we usually are scored very high in the 'visual saint scale' ... we are certainly ORDINARY!

Alexandra said...

"...those out there whose holiness would astound us if we knew of it seldom advertise this interior reality to the world."

Yes, this is a basic Christian truth. Holiness is between us and God.

pinewoodcastle said...

This really strikes a chord with me.

I will be really honest and open here:

I am one of those kind of women who started wearing skirts and attending the Latin Mass hoping to "get holy". After a time I realized I wasn't fooling anyone, including myself and my husband! I felt as if I were trying to change from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

I still wear skirts, but not all the time. We do homeschool, but every three months or so I want to send them away on the school bus. I did take a leap of faith and have a fourth child, and am prudentially and prayerfully discerning any more. I have lost my enthusiasm for the Latin Mass, though I still go mostly because my husband wants to and I don't care to go to the N.O. alone.

So if you would ever meet me IRL, I would hope that you would not come away with any false impressions. Pray for me - I too struggle to be good and to stay in God's good graces.

Red Cardigan said...

Pinewoodcastle, God bless you! I think so many of us sometimes are in that place, where we start to think that this new habit or that new devotion will "make" us holy. It's a real temptation!

Anonymous said...

Oh, pinewoodcastle, I really appreciate that! There's a lot in your story that's mine, too, and I have to wonder: is this a typical, almost cliche, thing that a lot of us do? Do we revert back to our faith and are so overwhelmed with the goodness and rightness of it all, that we go overboard?

I did the Latin mass thing, too. Yes, I do love it, but it was so far away. I felt guilty not homeschooling, because, well, REAL Catholic moms HS and wasn't I one of those? Didn't I want to raise my children to be the best, God-loving, daily-mass-going, obviously-Catholic, saint-book-reading, pop-culture-eschewing, modest-dressing, scapular-wearing, rosary&novena-saying children I could?!?

But there were a few problems: I was lousy at teaching them academic things. And I just did not like the idea, at all. Funny how when you do like the idea of something you are told: that's God's way of letting you know His will, but if you hate something, well, that's God's way of calling you to a sacrifice!

Nothing wrong with trying things and ruling them out if they don't work, but here's the dangerous part: the other super-Catholic ladies kept telling me that it was of course better for me to have another child and to understand that NFP was not a good thing for "real" Catholics. And I started to buy into it.

Won't get into details, but had I done that, there would have been really REALLY stressful things to deal with in my marriage on top of what was there and I can't say for sure that it would have survived. Some people really and truly are called to have small families, which is the most Catholic, holy thing that THEY should do.

But it gets so...puritanical. Almost like a checklist, like Red alluded to: Skirts, always below the knee but even better closer to the ankle? Neckline no more than 2 fingerbreadths below collar bone? No sleeveless? No bathing suits? No makeup/hair coloring? No TV/movies/contemporary music? All books in your library have some kind of overt Catholic reference? You start to feel like you have to out-Catholic even yourself...yeesh!

Now, my kids go to both Catholic and public schools, I listen to the Ramones, the Pogues and Amy Winehouse again, I let the young one watch/read Harry Potter and the older ones watch the Simpsons and the oldest go see stupid Will Ferrell movies that he thinks are the funniest things on the planet (gag me, but I'm not an 18 yr old boy!), we play video games together, I wear jeans (with heels sometimes!) and tell raunchy jokes to my husband and friends who won't be offended by them. I laugh so much more now.

My way is not for everyone - some with sensitive sensibilities might really object to my music, my clothing, my family size and what I allow them to see/read - but they need to know that there is no "best" in all of this. And that's where the conflict comes in.
Anon again; thx!

eulogos said...

I wear skirts to work and church, because I prefer that. I wear jeans or shorts or short denim skirts (short for me is anything above knee length) to work in the garden. It really would not occur to me that wearing skirts had any relationship whatsoever to holiness. Or that wearing jeans had any relationship to the opposite. I kind of think we ought to dress up a bit for church but realize that as long as clothes are modest, there is no REAL reason for people not to wear jeans to church. I just don't do it, except on weekdays. But I do wear blue denim skirts occasionally, and how different is that?

I homeschooled for two years, and concluded that it was not the best thing for my family. We didn't have a large network of relatives and family friends, the only other homeschoolers around were fundamentalists who outright told me they didn't want Catholics in their group, and I thought the family would be just too closed in on itself without some contact with the outside. I also felt worried about whether kids would be up to grade level if they went back to school. One wasn't, in one subject, but he caught up during the first year back, although I think his spelling suffered for years from the lack of school type drill. Still, he is quite successful now, as an adult. I never thought of home school as a holiness question either. I just wasn't happy about some of my kids' interaction with school at the time. I do think the two years off was very beneficial to the one child I was so worried about then. She, by the way, has a masters degree and 5 kids of her own now.

I have strong emotional feelings towards the "by all means, have more kids" way of thinking although I recognize intellectually that this isn't best for all people in all circumstances. I can't really overcome my feeling that some people cheat themselves of children they would love and enjoy out of excess cautiousness. I never thought of this as a holiness issue either. When people do that "you must be a saint" or "you're going straight to heaven" thing, I say, "not really, ask my kids." or "not really, ask my husband," while grinning as if this is just amusing repartee...which is what it is and nothing more.

I don't think anyone should be BLAMED for having a lot of kids, even if they are not well off and the kids get reduced price lunch and the family gets food stamps. I personally don't think receiving food stamps is a moral issue. As I said before I think people who are better off are very likely benefitting from some kind of government subsidy of an industry, or some kind of legislative intervention, and that the ability to make a substancial income is a large part luck and another part blessing, with a very small amount of moral virtue involved. And the person who makes a lesser income may be demonstrating just as much moral virtue working hard at his less well paying job.

Personally I have encountered only criticism of too many children, and criticism of people who homeschool. I haven't met any people who criticize families for having too few children or for not homeschooling. I haven't met anyone who thinks women ought to wear dresses all the time. Where are these people? Certainly not in my part of the world.

Susan Peterson

Oremus said...

Just kidding.

That was very interesting.
I have met so many different "types" of holy people that I really don't measure by outward appearances. Or I hope I don't.
If you need me, I can be found in the confessional....
Get my point!

kateg said...

I have to admit that after being through some difficult times my thoughts on holiness have changed. I find it now in places I never would have before and realize it is not necessarily in the places I thought it was.

I used to embrace the more children you have the holier you are and felt even holier and holier when I had x children in x years and stayed home full time with them. You get a bonus for holiness if you have 3 or more under 5, or so I thought.

After all my talk of responsiblity below I have to admit that my husband and I didn't act with prudence. Because of our love for new life we very intentionally conceived our youngest when I was battling major depression. I felt that God would honor our love for new life and bring healing. Mental illness though can be pretty nasty.

In short, after the baby was born I was very sick, hospitalized, had to put my kids in day care for a time and live with and be cared for by extended family members, docs couldn't decide if I was psychotic or not. It really was a grave time, serious crisis for 2 years where I did battled what I felt was life and death.

So for all my flapping about responsibility, I'm one who through caution to the wind in my quest for holiness.

Please don't write me any responses about how my thoughts are not Catholic and that I am saying children are a tragedy. I'm sorry I was not better able to communicate my thoughts on this subject previously. It is intense for me becasue my family really did come very close to tragedy going through this.

This child is a treasure and I can't imagine life with out her. I am grateful that I am alive and well and able to care for my family and be present to my kids. I know that others are not always as fortunate when faced with the trials of life.

I realize that holiness for me does not lie in conceiving more children at least not for awhile. I am morally obligated to not intentionally conceive again and this is hard road to holiness for me because the longing for a baby is always there.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, Kateg, thank you so much for sharing this with us.

As someone whose reasons for postponing for a long time now have been medical I can relate. So often I've thought about how nice it would be to have a new little one, right now, in MY time. And it's then that all those voices you hear about selfishness and fear and "If you REALLY trusted God..." are the loudest.

But then I have to stop and think, and pray and work to improve myself, and keep hoping that there will be another opportunity, maybe sooner than I imagine, all while trusting that God is indeed working through my husband's and my prudential choices. NFP does give us the peace of knowing that if God did decide to "overrule" us He certainly can!

God bless you!

Anonymous said...

"So for all my flapping about responsibility, I'm one who through caution to the wind in my quest for holiness."

kateg: and that's why your words are so poignant and meaningful: you speak from experience.

I also had very major problems that no one but no one would ever know about if they saw me. My siblings, parents and closest friends do not know what I went through. The thing that made me say, "it's not only me"? Was a good priest friend who told me: you have no idea what I hear in confession. Adulteries (hetero & homosexual), pron addictions (more widespread than you'd ever imagine), fetishes, addictions of all kinds, mental illness, etc.

and red: "And it's then that all those voices you hear about selfishness and fear and "If you REALLY trusted God..." are the loudest.

YES!! That's exactly what I would hear, too!

And THAT'S why conversations like these are so important...

Thank you, ladies, for your words of experience. They are so reassuring to me. God bless you.

Mary Poppins NOT said...

As I think about all this, it seems we all need to realize that we can not make ourselves holy. Whether we have 12 children and are struggling financially, 2 children and better off, but saddened by the desire for more children, or infertile, or poor and childless, we all are going to have joys and sufferings attached to our particular vocations. But we can not earn holiness by any of it. Holiness comes from God, it is a gift, a relationship. We are all trying to do our best day to day, living and loving, and dealing with the cards we are dealt. How well we stay united with Christ during all our joys and trials is how we become holy, by a relationship, not by earning.

Kate g, my heart goes out to you. I have a similar story, not as dire, but having lived through a phase where I thought I had to earn God's love, I know where you are now, and it is a better place isn't it?

Anonymous said...

"and red: "And it's then that all those voices you hear about selfishness and fear and "If you REALLY trusted God..." are the loudest.

YES!! That's exactly what I would hear, too!

And THAT'S why conversations like these are so important..."

Yes, yes and yes again!

"I realize that holiness for me does not lie in conceiving more children at least not for awhile. I am morally obligated to not intentionally conceive again and this is a hard road to holiness for me because the longing for a baby is always there."

Amen! It is truly sad when our sisters in Christ can not see how difficult longing for a baby and practicing abstinence while fertile are, especially with a less than cooperative husband.

Mom to seven plus one in God's care

Anonymous said...

Kate G - what a heroic story you shared. thanks. you are obviously very loved on earth and in heaven.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I think the culture of contraception is probably one of the reasons for the whole "more kids= holy" illusion...

Because these days many Catholics assume that if someone doesn;t have a large family, it must be because they're in violation of HV.

And they assume that a large family MUST mean that the parents follow church teachings... even though some large families contracept, and many smaller families ARE accepting every child God gives them... and following church teaching my NOT using in vitro, etc.

Also, I think the "You must be a saint to have so many children" is a subtle anti-family view... it's a 'Catholic' way of saying 'oh you poor dear' because, of course, your kids MUST be a source of constant mortification and penance and you must be the model of sanctity for not beating them in the supermarket....

(I get the "saint" comments, and I only have 3!)

Meanwhile, I find my kids are MUCH less frustrating than the coworkers I used to have....

Anonymous said...


I just discovered your blog, and love it! And I think we were participating in the same conversation over at Inside Catholic (though I think I'm done there, too). I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts here about generosity, prudence, and NFP.

I too recently had to sacrifice a desire for another baby for the good of my family after much prayer and thinking. It's hard. It's a very hidden sacrifice.

Anyway, I'll be checking back here often--I've enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Elizabeth B.

Anonymous said...

I went back to look at the Inside Catholic thread and it's gone. (Unless I'm not seeing it?) If they pulled it, I think that's a great disservice to readers and to Catholics. The comments were from both sides of the story but there was nothing "bad" or objectionable in anything I read. Strong opinions, surely, but why is that not OK? And if a troll came in using inappropriate language or something, why not delete the offending comment(s)?

It's a shame; I thought the Inside Catholic was a good place for Catholic debate.


Anonymous said...


I thought the same thing for a minute, but if you click on "See All Articles" (it's in small print under that little box with four article titles in it) you'll find it there.

--Elizabeth B.

Red Cardigan said...

Elizabeth B., welcome! I was very impressed with your persistent charity over at Inside Catholic, especially considering how many people were "piling on" so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Red, thanks very much! I thought you were also very charitable, and clear-headed.

--Elizabeth B.

kateg said...

Hello Red,

I just wanted to let you know that I got your comment and appreciate your understanding.

I think it is unfortunate that many people took this topic of being responsible and generous as such a sore one. It is interesting how certain groups take the liberty to discuss specific examples of what would be considered selfishness for couples to avoid conception but the minute you even mention something in theory about responsible family planning you are the bad guy.

I came across another blog today and read an old post re: this discussion and was surprised at this particular bloggers ignorance on it and gross misrepresentation of the things discussed. Didn't someone also compare you to a communist somewhere in here?

Personally, I am not bothered by specific discussion like "mothers who have been psychotic perhaps should not continue to conceive children." Lay it on me. Help me to form my conscience. Perhaps some individuals difficulties with the topic is their conscience at work.

Though I would love more children I realize I want to be able to bring my kids to heaven with me, and in order to do that they need me well and able to care for them.

Thanks for your willingness to discuss this subject that is at the heart of the Church's teaching.