To my Church, in a time of crisis

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shadow of person on water during daytime

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In recent months, I’ve been retreating periodically from Facebook as it grows steadily more toxic. But I have never before seen the level of toxicity that I have seen this week.

I got on this morning, after a two-day (mostly) social media rest, and I shared the video linked below without comment. But then I realized: I need to comment. I need to share what I am feeling about all this.

I am feeling bruised, nauseous, sleepless, grief-stricken, very close to hopeless. And although those feelings definitely apply to what has happened in my Church, which I love, they are equally a response to the way people within my Church are treating each other over it. The things that are being said; the conspiracy theories, the way everyone is lining up according to political leanings and convincing themselves that God is on THEIR side, not on the side of those OTHER, less worthy, less Catholic Catholics.

In fact, yesterday morning when the daily readings turned their attention for the first time this liturgical year to the end times–for those who don’t follow the daily Lectionary, this happens every year at this time, but this year it felt different to me–I thought of the heartbreak I am feeling as I see my fellow faithful rush to condemn and blame and point fingers at each other, and more particularly, at whichever flavor of clergy they don’t like, rather than try to work together to fix what is so clearly broken, and which so many of us have been too silent about for far too long.

And as I listened to that “be ready, you don’t know when it’s coming” Gospel, I thought for the first time in my life: I think I’m about ready for a second coming, Jesus, because I don’t think I can stand to see the world get any worse than it is right now.

I thought about all those times in the Church’s history when there has been upheaval. We look back from our comfy 21st century vantage point and say, “Oh yeah, this heresy in this century, this abuse in this one, and then they fixed it at this point.” I’ve never before thought about what it means to live through that. It’s awful. I have to believe that the Spirit will see us through, but that does not help much right now.

To my fellow Catholics I say: We are all hurting. We are like wounded wild animals, lashing out. But we’ve got to find a better way. As Bishop Barron says in the video below, this is the time we have to fight for our Church–and this does not mean reclaiming it from the “homosexual agenda” or the “reactionary fill-in-the-blanks.” Those are human divisions, human constructs, and when we get focused in on those, we make idols of our own agendas. We have got to start acting like Jesus and listen to each other with open hearts. We have got to set aside our secular agendas and picking and choosing which leaders we give credibility to and which we don’t, based on how well they reflect our own particular flavor of political ideology. We have got to stop rushing to judgment about motivations and who’s guilty and who’s not, simply based on which person we WANT to be guilty or not guilty.

We have built some serious idols in our Church, and it’s time to stop trying to prop them up. It’s time to take an honest look at what is broken and recognize that no one side can claim righteousness. There are major, painful days ahead, and the more we fling vitriol, call names and place blame, the more deeply we are allowing Satan to get in and split us apart.

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Mercy In The Age of Facebook

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Because the spiritual works of mercy have always been a little tough to pin down, I offer this today:

The Spiritual Works of Mercy – in the Age of Facebook

Mark Piper

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Image by mkhmarketing, via Flickr

🔶 To Give Counsel to the Doubtful, in person, without a shield of anonymity, with charity and goodwill as your motivation

🔶 To Instruct the uneducated, including oneself, and to recognize ones lack of knowledge and to refrain from instruction when necessary.

🔶 To Advise Wrongdoers, in person, without a shield of anonymity, with charity and goodwill as your motivation, and to use prudential judgement to know when not to offer advice.

🔶 To Comfort the Afflicted, in person, in prayer, in silence

🔶 To Forgive Offenders, your offenders, when the time is appropriate and to do so with intimacy not anonymity

🔶 To bear patiently the troublesome, employing silence often, and avoiding trite exchanges online.

🔶 To Pray for the living and the dead recognizing that clicking like on a prayer does nothing for your soul or the well being of the deceased. Take time to unplug and simply be.

Most importantly, avoid hate. One cannot always avoid anger, but anger can be constructive, hate however, blocks fraternity, charity, and love.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters named anger & courage; anger at the way things are, courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” – St. Augustine

Author: Mark Piper, Director of Lay Association, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, West Midwest Community

For more “Mercy on a Monday” posts, click here.

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In Which Julianna Finally Succeeds In Hijacking The Eucharist

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Michael Mayhem

The real key to Michael Mayhem’s success is the innocent look he has perfected.

It was a bad day in choir.

The big boys were out until 10 p.m. the night before for baseball, so of course, Nicholas was falling to pieces long before we finished choir warmup. I’ve been waking at 4:30 for several days, so my patience was stretched pretty thin.

And Michael? I don’t know what his deal was, but he was a disaster during Mass. Michael Mayhem in all his glory, only he’s more devious at 3 than he ever was as a toddler. Eyeing the slides on the sound board (sorry, kid, you’ve caused deafening feedback one too many times; I’m onto you on that one). Stealing my choir hymnal (well, I know “Amazing Grace” by heart, anyway). Fiddling with the microphone cord connecting the sound board to the floor jack. I had debated which jack to use before Mass, trying to decide which one was the least likely to be kicked by a wild child during Mass, but clearly I underestimated Michael Mayhem.

It was Communion, and we had just started the first refrain to “On Eagle’s Wings” when, with a deafening CRACK, every microphone in the music area went dead. I looked over, and sure enough, Michael had unplugged the cord.

Normally we kill the entire church sound system when we need to deal with microphone cables, because of that noise. Plugging back in is much worse than unplugging.

But it takes 15 seconds for our sound system to cycle down and another 15 to cycle back up, and we were in the middle of a Communion song. So I gritted my teeth and shoved the cord back in the jack. (CRACK.) Then I hoisted Michael into a chair beside me and tried to keep calm and carry on singing while out of breath from exertion and temper.

And that was the moment when Julianna hijacked the Eucharist.

(I think she and Michael planned it together Saturday night. After I put them in bed. When they were supposed to be sleeping.)

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You cannot possibly yell at me. Don’t I spend my car rides reading the text from the assembly box of “Up From The Earth”? I have a direct line to God. I have divine immunity.

She’s been showing greater and greater interest in what’s going on at church, and I’ve been whispering to her about bread and wine, body and blood, trying to unpack the Eucharistic Prayer for her. “Next year, that will be you,” I’ve told her as she watches girls and boys receive their First Communion. “Oh, look!” she will cry as the priest holds up the cup. “Eet—iss, Blood!” I took her out of summer school last week to send her to a church program focused on the sacraments, because let’s face it, the girl does not conceptualize at all. She needs as much exposure as she can get, especially since she doesn’t have daily religion class in school.

She wanted so badly to receive Communion last fall, I questioned the decision to have her repeat first grade religious ed along with first grade at school. But after a while, she settled down, going up with her arms crossed, docile as you please.

Little did I know she was biding her time.

When Christian shot the look at me from the piano, shaking his head and laughing, I thought he was reacting to Michael’s sound system exploits. We sang one of my songs post-Communion–ironically, one I wrote as a way to deal with my grief after Julianna’s birth.

Quiet, quiet, quiet my soul
Like a child at rest
Like a child at rest.

I was just starting to internalize this message when the song ended and Christian came over. “Julianna took Communion. I saw her coming back shoving something into her mouth and going, chomp, chomp, chomp.”

The stinker didn’t even deny it. “Did you take Communion?” I asked her.

“Yes, I deed!” She turned to one of our neighbors, who was there with her kids. “Guess what? Guess what? I, I, I, I, I take–I take–I take BWEAD!”

Proof that at least Mom and Dad went through the official preparation process for *their* First Communion.

Proof that at least Mom and Dad went through the official preparation process for *their* First Communion.

Christian was hilarious. He called his parents for Father’s Day and said nonchalantly, “Oh, by the way, Julianna had her first Communion today.”

A beat, while the phone squawked horror and outrage.

“What?” Christian said. “You mean you didn’t know she was going to?” Another beat. “Oh, well, that’s okay. We didn’t know, either.”

Funny guy, my hubby.

The Fasting Isn’t The Most Important Thing

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Even the desert isn’t completely devoid of life. Photo by Moyan_Brenn, via Flickr

In February of 1995 I crashed over the edge of an emotional cliff when the relationship I was involved in ended without warning. (Actually, there was plenty of warning, I was just too naïve, i.e. clueless, to recognize the signs.)

The months leading up to that emotional cliff, I was as far from my faith as I ever got in my life. Which—let’s be honest–wasn’t very far. Still, part of my recovery involved a conscious turning back to God, to the neglected spiritual core of who I was.

It was an awful semester, and when Lent came around, the one thing I knew was that I did not need to give anything up, because I already had. I’d been in my Lenten desert for several weeks already, and forcing food down my throat and concentrating on my studies and my practicing required every ounce of spiritual discipline I possessed at that point in my life.

Great-grandma's gown, Amy's blanketTwelve years later, I was happily married to a man whose family always gave up sweets, and come hell or high water his family was going to do the same. I also had a newborn with what, at least at that time (though it doesn’t anymore), felt like a devastating diagnosis: Down syndrome. My world was reeling when Lent began that year.

5 ½ weeks postpartum, Julianna got sick. As in, near death sick. As in, on a ventilator with oxygen saturation plunging to the 40s sick.

Let’s do the math: recovering from a C-section + grieving the Ds diagnosis + postpartum hormones + child near death + oh yes….Lent.

There was a day, that first week, when my mother took me and toddler Alex to the grocery store, and he kept pointing to the empty spot in the van and shouting, “Beebee! Beebee!” It almost undid me. When we finished shopping at Aldi, the DQ sign across the street was like a beacon. “Let’s go get ice cream,” I said. And despite being the poster child for Catholic guilt, I felt not one twinge for breaking my Lenten fast.

Today is Opening Day for Lent. All over the world people are asking each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Even people who hardly ever think about the faith at other times. And too many of us who do practice the faith approach this season with a deep breath and gritted teeth and an unspoken thought: Just get through it.

Cover Art: Bringing Lent To LifeBut “giving up” is a really limited view of Lent. If you spend the next 6 ½ weeks dwelling on how miserable you are, thinking the greater the misery, the greater the righteousness, you’re missing the point. Sacrifice that does not see beyond one’s empty stomach or missing expletives is not focused in the right place.

Lent is a time to set aside the distractions that keep us from seeing what’s most important. It’s a time to clean house, spiritually speaking–to reorganize and make everything homey and sparkly and welcoming. And although it’s hard work, there can be satisfaction in it—perhaps even pleasure–if you approach it with a good attitude.

Last year I felt overwhelmed by life. Lent turned into a sort of tug-of-war between my earthly obligations and the call to scour the spiritual floors, with me the rope fraying in the middle. This year is blessedly un-dramatic….so far, anyway. And so I recommit to Lent…to the search for the Godly within me.

Adventures in Liturgy With A Musical Mom

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Not this organized. (Photo via Wiki commons)

Friday morning, I flew into church at 7:59 a.m. for 8:00 holy day Mass, trailing a widely-spaced gaggle of little ones–the last one wailing. With Christian out of town, I was single parenting, and it was also the last field trip day of the summer, with speech therapy thrown in for good measure. We’d left for church with the van packed for the day but no cell phone, because I couldn’t find it.

Did I mention I was the pianist for that Mass?

#Pastoralmusicianfail.

There is a certain poetic symmetry in this. After all, for every action in the universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? The feast of the Assumption in 2004, while I was on retreat with Jeanne Cotter, was one of those transcendent moments that stays with a person.

The tenth anniversary of that transcendent moment?

Long, loud toddler wails filled the church as I strode up the aisle, retrieved the keys to the music closet, and got out the microphones, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the parishioners. I got the mics set up in less than a minute, by which time three of my children were sitting quietly at the end of the first row of the music area, and the last–the wailing one–was coming up the aisle with a friend from our choir. I announced “Immaculate Mary,” and off we went. By now, however, Michael had escalated to that catch-breath crying. You know, the kind that is beyond all self-control.

And he was sitting underneath the hanging microphones. The ones you can’t turn off.

Mid-phrase, I waved at Michael to come over to me, thinking he’d hug my leg until I finished the opening hymn. No, no. This child began climbing. In the middle of verse 2 I had to break off the left hand to haul him up, because otherwise I was going to derail altogether.

Luckily, he calmed down once he was on my lap. I didn’t even try to stand up until the Gospel.

Father started his homily by introducing the topic: Mary, motherhood, the importance of the mother-child bond.

And me.

“Look at Kate, this morning!” he said, sweeping a hand in my direction. “Her child followed her around the church, crying for his mother. You cannot keep a child away from his mother. The mother, she is so important.”

Never once have I envisioned myself being invoked as a homiletic example. And if I had to choose a time to focus on me, this would not have been it.

But Father was right. It was a very apt illustration. And everyone laughed.

Michael spent most of Mass on my lap at the piano. Once he settled down, it got steadily harder to play. He reached for the keys. He pulled the hair on my arm. He wiggled his bottom down my legs, then grabbed my arms and used them to haul himself back up. Have you ever tried to play the piano–think “type,” it’s the same idea–with a child pulling on your arm? I found a lot of wrong notes in the piano that morning.

Like this.

Like this. This is his “won’t-look-at-you” look.

Finally I had to banish him. My friend took him onto her lap. By this time–mid-Eucharistic Prayer–he tolerated it. “But he wouldn’t look at me,” she said.

By the grace of God, even epic pastoral musician fail moments can make way for moments of grace and transcendence. When it was all over, Father met us in the prayer garden outside church. This priest, from the Ivory Coast, spent a semester here when I was full-time liturgy director, and he’s been coming back to the States almost every summer for over a decade to cover our pastor’s vacation. We had him over for dinner this summer, and he blessed our family. It was more than a hand motion; I could feel the blessing descend. I have never felt that before, but I felt it that day in my kitchen.

I felt it again in the prayer garden outside our church, as he blessed each of my children in turn and we said goodbye for at least a year. And I was grateful for the reminder that ceremony and solemnity are not, in the end, as important as the love that underlies them.

Kids Who Write Songs, NPM memories, and other QTs

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Let’s start with a story about this boy: Treehouse 8Alex loves to rewrite songs. And oh lordy, sometimes it’s hard for an occasional songwriter to listen to it! Last night in the car, he decided to rewrite Rudolph with shades of the Lego movie: “Big Mr. Buz-niss MA-AN, had a bi-ig crane ro-BOT!”

“ALEX!” I shrieked. “Stop! Stop! Stop! I can’t take it anymore! You have to put the STRONG syllables on the STRONG beats!”

Dead silence. Then: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Christian roared with laughter. “Alex, I’m sorry, you have a mother who’s a spaz about music and words, and she’s freaking out!”

Deep breaths, Kate. Deep breaths.

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TurtleI have another Alex story. You have no idea…never mind, I take that back; anyone with multiple kids in the house knows exactly what I’m listening to this summer.

Mommy Alex told me I can’t change my Batman plane back!

Legos are meant to make NEW things, not keep the old ones!

But I want my LEEEEEGO plane!

But E. made this!

But it’s myyyyyyyyyy Batman plane!

Shut UP!

At lunchtime yesterday, Alex sighed with vast contentment. “I love summer.”

Me, running around doing the short-order cook thing: “Uh, okay, why’s that?”

“Because I lllllllooooooove spending time with my family.”

Face palm.

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You can really see just how small she is. These two are only two years apart.

You can really see just how small she is in this shot. These two are only two years apart.

Last weekend as the choir circled up I had one of those moments when you really process things you see every day. In this case, Julianna’s size. I know she’s tiny, but looking at her on Sunday I realized just how small. She and Nicholas have always been mistaken for twins, but now Nicholas is bigger. Julianna is still marginally taller but Nicholas outweighs her by almost ten pounds. And she’s so much smaller than other kids her age.

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Julianna’s view of the world is so streamlined, so simple and apparently un-nuanced, that sometimes I’m startled when she shows understanding of something her brothers don’t get at all. For instance: she knows when it’s Wednesday. She asks me every single Wednesday can we go to church? She doesn’t ask it any other day. Only Wednesdays.

Now, if you ask the boys what day of the week it is they’ll look at you blankly. Julianna, however, knows Wednesday means either “church school” (religious ed class) or choir practice, and those are highlights for her. And somehow, she knows when it’s Wednesday.

There’s much more going on in that little brain than it appears…but perhaps she processes things differently and that’s why we don’t recognize how much is going on.

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A few snippets of my week at NPM convention. First: I spent hours trying to figure out the route to drive in to downtown St. Louis, and where the best/safest/cheapest place to park would be. When I got there Monday morning, the garage I chose was closed for renovation. Sigh. So I ended up parking on a surface lot across the street. And every day the same youngish man was on duty to come over and collect my $5 for the day. (Yeah, it was a good lot.) He was so nice, and I couldn’t help thinking how nice it was to build relationships, however fleeting, with people.

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Photo by Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton, via Flickr

Wednesday evening I played flute for a concert of music written by women composers, sponsored by WLP. The seven of us who were performing arrived at the Shrine of St. Joseph, site of one of the miracles for St. Peter Claver’s canonization, shortly after 5p.m.. It was a gorgeous day for July, and the man who let us in opened the huge church doors to let the cool breeze air out the building.

Almost immediately three little African American boys, kids who live in the neighborhood, I presume, appeared on the church steps, obviously not sure if they were allowed to come inside. The man went to greet them, invited them in, and for the entire hour that we were practicing, he was shepherding them from one part of the church to the next, explaining the imagery and the statues and who knows what else. I was too busy preparing for the concert to get emotional, but I’ve thought of that several times a day ever since. That memory will remain one of the highlights of a wonderful week.

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The Shrine of St. Joseph was a really lovely space to play flute. My first test note went reverberating around the high ceilings for most of a second before it faded. But it’s not as big and live as the Cathedral in St. Louis. Last summer, Christian and I went to Mass there, and the sheer reverb in that space clarified something for me about musical styles.

It makes perfect sense that the history of sacred music in Europe developed as it did; the music was created for the spaces where it was to be used: ethereal chant; soaring, exquisite motets, stirring organ-accompanied hymnody. That music is uniquely suited to those spaces, and I really question whether guitar/pop-influenced music could be used successfully there.

But it also made it clear to me the flaw in the argument that nothing other than chant, motets, and organ-accompanied hymnody is appropriate for worship. That music developed as a practical matter, not because there is something inherently more holy about it. More reasons to appreciate the greatness of the Holy Spirit, who inSpires people to write music of all styles to nourish the people of God in the many and varied places they gather. 7 QT logo

Where I Spent Last Week, And What I Learned From It

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I spent last week at a conference for church musicians. I want to blog about it this morning, but so far I have spent ten minutes sitting in front of the computer grasping for what to say. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I can think of lots of things to say, but I can’t find the thread that ties them together. Some experiences have to be unpacked slowly over a long period of time.

WLP Instrumental showcase

It was a wonderful week, spent with wonderful people, making wonderful music and gleaning inspiration and insight. At the end of the week, Msgr. Ray East urged us to think of the encounter with Christ we had had this week, and share it with others.

Well, here goes.

The last few years, I’ve spent most of my time and energy being Mommy and freelance magazine/fiction writer. But there’s always a little part of me that tugs on my sleeve, reminding me that I’m a musician, and begging me to carve out some time for writing music. I spent this week away from my children, focusing on being a liturgical musician and composer. I got to be part of several great musical events, singing and playing flute with really terrific people. I got to spend a week focused on writing music and texts for worship with people whose work I admire tremendously.

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I had deep conversations with old friends and made new friends I can talk to as if we’ve always known each other. Being a morning person at a conference that didn’t get started until hours after I’m accustomed to rising, I had time in the mornings to spend a few minutes being still in the presence of God in the adoration room.

And at length, I realized the obvious: that writing sacred music grows out of one’s spiritual life. If your spiritual life consists of clinging to the rock face and just barely hanging on amid the crazies, well, you’re not exactly in a position to bear prodigious amounts of fruit, are you?

For years, I’ve clung to the idea that you do what you can, and a great deal of a mother-of-littles’ prayer time consists of prayer by service. You know: doing dishes and brushing teeth and folding laundry equals my spiritual work.

I still think that’s valid, but my soul is longing for more. I don’t have the solution worked out yet, but I know I’m going to have to make time for contemplation. I’ve been trying for the last several months, but it’s scattered and haphazard. Now it’s time to get real.

You’re all busy people. Feed me. How do you find time for silence and stillness to nurture your relationship with Jesus in the midst of the crazies?