Ten virtues of Mary: Universal Mortification

When someone as lovely as Olivia writes and asks if I’ll write a post for her series on Marian virtues, I find a way to say yes. Even if she asks me to write about Universal Mortification. Even if I really have no idea what that is.

When the time comes to actually write that post, I realize with increasing discomfort how oddly fitting it is that I’ve been tasked with this particular virtue.  

Mortification can be described as the practice of being the master of one’s own impulses. Sometimes, people practice exterior mortification, through physical penances like fasting. These acts are meant to prayerfully unite us to Christ, who suffered for us. The idea is that by suffering in small ways, we can better imitate Christ and become more like him.

Other times, mortification is interior…putting someone else’s needs and feelings and preferences before our own. 

Either way, mortification is uncomfortable.

And universal mortification, the virtue I’m to write about, means we are supposed to do this mortifying stuff all.the.time.

I am the very worst at this. Even when I manage to convince myself to do anything remotely mortifying, I moan and groan and complain so much that I wring all the opportunity for virtue right out of it. I’ve convinced myself that God never wants me to suffer or be uncomfortable in any way. Never mind that suffering and discomfort are part of the human condition. Never mind that my vocation as a mother of small children includes consistently placing the needs of others ahead of my own. Never mind that complaining is not, has never been and will never be a virtue.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been sensitive. I don’t mean just that my feelings get hurt easily. I mean physically sensitive. Every seam in my socks, every tag in my shirts, pillows that were too firm or too soft, food that was too chewy or too gelatinous, any of it could really bother me and ruin my day. Bright or buzzing lights. Loud sounds. Strong (or even faint) smells. Having anyone touch my hair. When any of these things happened (pretty much every day), headaches, itchy skin, and fretful feelings followed.

As an adult, I’m a better master of my overactive physical sensory system. Or maybe I’m a better manager of my environment. At any rate, I don’t have to be so uncomfortable any more. No one can force me to wear a shirt with an itchy tag. Once I was living on my own, I set the thermostat where I wanted it, used only unscented detergent, slept on perfect pillows, and always had the most comfortable spot on the couch.

But then I became a mother. Suddenly, my own physical comfort was not the most important thing. You know how the sleeping baby is pressing on the nerve in your arm and your arm goes all pins and needles but you won’t move because you don’t dare wake the baby? Or how you’re still hungry but there are only three peanut butter crackers left and you give them to your three little ones instead? Or how you reallyreallyreally have to go to the bathroom but your potty training three year old is about to have an accident and you cross your legs as hard as you can and let her go first?

Maybe you do.

I’m guessing Mary knew about these things, too. She accepted an unplanned, divine pregnancy that would ostracize her from her friends and family, then rode a donkey on a long journey to Bethlehem when she was very, very pregnant. She gave birth in a stable surrounded by animals, alone with her husband, away from home, and probably no one brought her any orange juice afterward.This alone seems like an excellent start to a life of accepting discomforts without complaint as a way of serving Jesus.

Did little Jesus ever throw his scrambled eggs in her hair? Or spit up down the front of her robe? Did her arms ache from holding and rocking his sleepless little wiggling body when she could barely keep her eyes open?

These are nearly universal experiences of mothering.We suffer through these little things, putting our children’s needs and comfort before our own, because that’s our job. When I do these things, though, I often sigh heavily. I roll my eyes. I wish internally that my kid would give me the last cracker. I bark at her to hurry up because I really need the bathroom. I might be the master of my physical impulses, just barely, but I’m far from mastering my heart’s impulse to gripe about the sacrifices I’m making.
Mothering is ripe with opportunities for mortification, and being a mother has probably eliminated the need for me to wear a hair shirt. But I could stand to do a much better job of bearing the small (and large) discomforts of mothering with grace.

Mother Mary, I want to imitate your virtue of universal mortification. Inspire in me a desire to put others’ comfort before my own, at least sometimes. And if I can’t rejoice in suffering, help me at least to stop complaining about it so much.

This post is part of a series on the Ten Virtues of Mary, hosted by To the Heights and running every Tuesday until the middle of December. So if you need some help in the virtue department, here’s a great place to start! ;)  

October 7 – Introduction to the Ten Virtues of Mary – Olivia of To the Heights

October 14 – Lively Faith – Molly of Molly Makes Do

October 21 – Blind Obedience – Kendra of Catholic All Year

October 28 – Constant Mental Prayer – Jenna of Call Her Happy

November 4 – Heroic Patience – Kelly of This Ain’t the Lyceum

November 11 – Profound Humility – Carolyn of Svellerella

November 18 – Angelic Sweetness – Regina of Good One God

November 25 – Divine Wisdom – Britt of The Fisk Files

December 2 – Universal Mortification – Abbey of Surviving Our Blessings

December 9 – Divine Purity – Gina of Someday Saints

December 16 – Ardent Charity – Christy of Fountains of Home

December 17 – Massive GIVEAWAY at To the Heights – Just in time for Christmas

Advent, cookies, feasts and seasons, little holydays, liturgical year, Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, saint celebrations

Why I’m baking biscochitos

Biscochitos are tiny little crispy bits of heaven by way of New Mexico. They are the state’s official cookie, and they are eaten at Christmas and other festive occasions. When we visited New Mexico two summers ago, we loved them and vowed we would make them at home. All of the recipes I could find then were a little more complicated than I could manage that year. Then last Christmas, I had less time than ever for baking (or anything, really) with the two baby twins needing my care.

This year, I am a more confident baker, and I am baking biscochitos for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12.

The real way to make biscochitos is to use your New Mexican great-grandmother’s recipe that has been handed down in your family (and about a pound of lard). I have no New Mexican great-grandmother, and this isn’t a family recipe. It doesn’t belong to me at all- I found it on the website for a New Mexican newspaper – but I’m adding it to my family’s traditional celebration for this feast. (No lard, though. I used butter and just a tiny bit of Crisco. Crisco is scary, but lard scares me even more.)

I love Our Lady of Guadalupe. She doesn’t belong to me, exactly…maybe no more than the cookie recipe does. Her story, though, reminds me that God always finds ways to meet us where we are and that God is big enough for all of us.

On December 9, 1531, an Aztec peasant named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac Hill. His people had been under the rule of Spanish conquistadores for many years, and the Christian faith had been forced upon them. When he saw the Virgin Mary, though, she looked like him: she was wearing native dress, had brown skin and features like his (instead of like the Spaniards), and spoke to him in Nahuatl, his own language. Juan Diego reported the encounter to the archbishop, who requested proof that the lady was who she claimed to be. The lady instructed him to fill his tilma (cloak) with the roses growing on the hill and take them back to the archbishop. (It was the middle of winter, so the presence of the roses was in itself miraculous.) When Juan Diego followed her directions and opened his tilma to show the roses to the archbishop, they both saw a clear image of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the fabric.

Because the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego’s people as one of them and spoke to them in their own language, millions of people converted to Christianity. Where the Spaniards had tried (and failed) to force the people to accept their faith, this apparition brought a message of love and acceptance: truth isn’t the property of the people who are persecuting you, there is room for you here, and God wants you just the way you are.

In Mexico and across the United States today, there are Masses and parades and celebrations honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. At our parish, there was a Mass at 5 AM to start the day off, and there will be a dinner with a dance this evening. At our house, there will be a feast of fajitas, queso dip, and tamales. We’ll play Mexican music and enjoy each other’s company as we remember that God is the God of everyone…including each of us, even when we aren’t looking for God. And we’ll eat biscochitos for dessert.     
We cut the biscochitos in the shape of stars for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her mantle is full of stars, like the night sky…and it’s big enough to cover all of us who want to stand beneath it. From now on, these cookies will be our way of remembering how she came to share God’s love with everyone.

Angelus, Mary

The Angelus
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

It all started because I wanted to feel more sane.

(The logistics of managing my family are not usually simple. Sometimes, I can feel my sleep-deprived brain straining as I face a situation where the best solution is for me to spontaneously grow two or three additional hands. I always figure it out, but I often have a moment where I think this might be the time that I absolutely can’t find a way to manage. Then the moment passes. I do manage, and I go on.)

Between 11:30 and 1:00 nearly every day, though, I wonder whether I will survive.

This time of day makes me think of running as fast as I can down a steep hill, leaping over obstacles and dodging low-hanging tree limbs while being chased by a pack of rabid wolves, knowing that behind them is a giant boulder, rolling, rolling, faster and faster, picking up speed as it descends. If I stop moving, I will be eaten alive and then crushed to death.

(Perhaps that is slightly dramatic, but you get the idea. I get a little bit tense at this time of the day.)

I lay as many things out as I can ahead of time to simplify the process. I reheat leftovers for lunch. I put Cheerios on high chair trays and place books and toys at the table. I try to eat before or after the children so that I can have both hands free to deal with whatever comes up.

Still…there are often two wailing babies both wanting to nurse and eat at once. I try to let one nurse while I feed the other from a bowl with a spoon. Sometimes, it works, but often the one in the high chair is upset. I can’t nurse them both at once because I need a hand free for the hungry preschooler, who wants to eat now. Or, maybe today he doesn’t want to eat at all, or wants juice instead of milk when juice isn’t an option, or has decided he now hates peanut butter, or wants to go outside instead of eating lunch, or changed his mind about having sauce on his spaghetti…

One can never quite tell what a preschooler might decide an hour before his nap. He’s tired. He’s hungry. He admits neither of these things. And he’s aware that I’m kind of maxed out with the two smaller people.

There are still breakfast dishes in the sink (or on the table!), and I’m putting lunch together for all of these beings, and all I want to do is make it to nap time so I can lie down.

There isn’t a thing I can do that will reliably calm everyone down at once.

It is a tough moment.

Sometimes, I realize I’m repeating a phrase over and over in my head in an attempt to cope. While out loud, I’m saying reassuringly to my children, “I’ll be right with you,” or “Hold on just a second, Mama’s coming,” my inner voice is saying over and over, “No one is dying. This is not that bad. Don’t panic, this isn’t an emergency, it just feels like one,” or, on the worst days, “I’m ok. I’m ok. I’m ok.”

Finding a rhythm has been a challenging part of becoming a stay-at-home parent. Some days seem to drag on endlessly. On those days, I find myself looking at the clock and counting down until afternoon nap time or until George will be home. This time surrounding lunch, though, has always been the hardest.

During the Easter Season this year, I started to chant the Regina Caeli every day at noon in Latin. It’s a traditional practice for Catholic Christians during the fifty days of Easter. (Depending on your background, one or more things about this might seem weird to you. Feel free to ask questions.)

I don’t know that much Latin. My husband is the Latin scholar (and was once offered a job in a small Georgia town as a high school Latin teacher). I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and came to the Catholic church as an adult, so I didn’t grow up with much Latin in church, and I studied French and Spanish when I had the chance to learn languages in school. Latin is foreign to me.

Despite its strangeness (or maybe because of it!), there is something so moving, so beautiful, so deeply spiritual about chanting Psalms and prayers in Latin. The words move through me from a deep, hidden place, transcending time and space. It is as if for a moment, my voice is joining innumerable voices past, present and future, weaving a tapestry of prayer that wraps around the universe.

Chanting the Regina Caeli, I felt my soul communing with the Divine. Even on the days when I didn’t stop moving while I chanted, my soul stood still. Each day, chimes would ring on my phone at noon, calling me to prayer. I spread peanut butter on bread and heated carrots in the microwave and felt my pulse slow and my breathing deepen as I sang. Observing my new daily practice, The Boy started chanting, too. Soon, we both knew the prayer by heart and would chant even in the car. We heard the bells, we started chanting. It was our rhythm.

All too soon, the fifty days of Easter ended. A longtime liturgical geek, I couldn’t possibly keep doing the Regina Caeli after the appropriate season and explained this to The Boy. He just looked at me and said, “well, what do we chant now?”

Enter The Angelus. I remember this painting from school, long before I had any idea that there was a prayer by the same name or that people actually prayed it.

The Angelus, by Jean-Francois Millet

I looked up the text for the Angelus and discovered I was in for a real challenge. I had no idea how cumbersome the Latin chant is compared to the Regina Caeli. It’s long. It’s unwieldy. It’s not repetitive, except for the Ave Maria part. There’s the crazy long tag at the end (after the “Oremus,” which made me smile and wonder what we’d been doing all along if not “oremus-ing”). It seemed completely impossible when I first saw it. I despaired that we would ever get the hang of it. And I missed the familiar Regina Caeli.

I didn’t know how to begin learning the Angelus, exactly, so I looked for a recording. After a bit of searching, I found a beautiful slide show with the text of the chant below the images. Chanting along, bit by bit, we started to learn just small phrases, a line or two at a time. We couldn’t keep up in the beginning. Mostly, we let the beauty of the chant and the images wash over us. Little by little, it started coming together.

I am so glad we stuck with it. It is truly a prayer now, a moment in the day when we pause, when I breathe more deeply and remember that there’s a bigger picture. This pause is often what restores the balance to the day. It takes all the tension out of the air and makes my heart beat more slowly. The children get calmer…the preschooler chants along. The atmosphere in our kitchen changes.

Why is this working for us? Part of it is the routine. Part of it is the heavenly music  (sung in the recording by the Daughters of Mary). Maybe part of it is just the difference in my breathing needed for singing the chant.

Part of it, though, is perspective. Every single day, I am stopping to recall a seminal event in the salvation story of humankind…God at work in the world, in people, in a woman, long before Jesus ever showed up. In the Christian story, what it meant for Mary to say “yes” to the Angel Gabriel was that everything was about to change…that God’s desire to build a relationship with humanity through Christ was being brought to fruition. It changed everything. It matters. And so, it restores something to the balance of my universe to remember every day at noon that Mary’s “yes” is what started the whole thing rolling along. Her “yes” meant that there could be a baby…and that meant there could be a Savior.

Meanwhile, when I’m finished praying, all I have to do is get three children fed and down for their nap.

Yes. I can do that.

frustration, keeping sane, magnificat, Mary, parenting, post office, twins

Destination Post Office

It’s all about managing the situation today. I have one goal: to get to The Post Office. With all three children. By myself. It would be a bonus if we could get to stand outside for a minute during that process.

Starting at 7:30 this morning, I began arranging everything, absolutely everything, to work toward that goal. At 9:53, things were looking good. The Boy had eaten breakfast. I had most of one cup of coffee on the inside of me (and even though I was wearing the rest of it on the outside for a little while, it still counts). Both babies were changed, fed, dressed, and sleepy. I had even showered (!) and was getting dressed while The Boy played in the bathroom floor with his trains. The babies were hanging out in front of a mirror in their bouncy seats, gooing and cooing pleasantly.

(I never fully appreciated before what it meant to be able to close the bathroom door and be alone in there. Any bathroom time I have now is a very public, very carefully engineered experience. Generally, I expect to be rinsing the soap out of my hair while singing to the twinfants and doing a running commentary on the train action offered by The Boy, who is crashing the engines into the wall and yelling, “Look, Mama…what’s gonna happen?”

The Boy: Crash! Whoa! Look at that!
Mama: Whoa! The yellow box car is going straight up the door! Now over, across…oh, my goodness, he just crashed into the green tanker car!
The Boy: Here comes the engine!! Whoo whoo!! Crash!!

If I knew anything about sports, I think I might have a future on ESPN. Too bad there is no ESPN about trains. I’ve learned a lot about those.)

And now, to get to The Post Office…

The babies were generally entertained by our exchange and sat, all four eyes glued on The Boy, until they both fell asleep. I decided that two sleeping babies meant I should stop getting us all ready and just play with The Boy in his room (something I rarely get to do any more, so both of us really need it). The offer of some playtime with me seemed to motivate The Boy to get dressed faster than normal (though I ended up having to pretend to be a “robot crane dressing machine” to finish the job). We managed to put together his giraffe puzzle twice before both girls woke up demanding to be fed again.

Having nursed the twinfants, I set out again to get us out the door. “Son, look at Mommy. I am going to brush my teeth. Then you will need to put on your shoes and coat.” I loaded both babies into their car seats, LadyBug screaming the whole time. At this point, still shoeless and coatless, The Boy lay down on the floor and refused to speak, move or open his eyes. I tried talking, redirecting, joking, tickling, hugging…he was unresponsive. I ended up dragging him around and trying to put his shoes on him. (I am not unsympathetic, but we had to get out of the house.) By this time, Belle had started screaming and was in serious need of a diaper change. The Boy was moaning, “no, no, no,” and I was quickly moving toward a meltdown of my own. I opened my mouth to tell The Boy to get up, took a deep breath, and started singing.

Magnificat, magnificat,
magnificat anima mea dominum…

It didn’t come from deep within my soul. It didn’t feel like a holy song. It just sprang into my brain and out of my mouth, replacing the words of frustration I’d been about to say. I sang it over and over.

Magnificat, Magnificat…

Maybe at this point in the story, there should be a beam of heavenly light that breaks through the ceiling as a beautiful major chord in second inversion sounds. Harps…a string tremolo…maybe some wind chimes? Both babies should stop crying and open their eyes wide, looking cherubic. The Boy should sit up and smile, and say, “Mama, that’s beautiful!” And smiling, I should energetically move everyone toward the car, a shining gold halo encircling my head. I’m pretty sure that’s how the Blessed Virgin looked when she was getting everybody ready to go to The Post Office.

Surprisingly, none of that happened. Piercing wails emanated from both car seats. I rocked the loudest car seat with my foot while pushing The Boy’s arm into his jacket. I kept singing while I brushed my teeth…magnificat anima mea…I carried The Boy into the living room and deposited him on the sofa, then lugged both car seats with their purple-faced occupants out to join him. I hauled Belle out of her seat and spread out the changing pad with one hand, deftly switching a poopy diaper for a clean one right in the living room floor, rocking LadyBug’s car seat with my left elbow. Magnificat. Belle howled as I put her back into her seat, tugged on my own jacket, then picked up the diaper bag, both car seats, and my letters for The Post Office.

Getting there meant everything now.

I nudged The Boy out the door with my knee, loaded the two screaming baby seats into the car, grabbed The Boy and a granola bar from the diaper bag to feed him, and buckled him into his seat. Magnificat anima mea dominum…I checked for keys, phone, and wallet, bucked my seat belt, and backed out of the driveway, still singing, teeth gritted, over a din of crying, unhappy children. How many were there? Just three? It sounded like forty-six.

They all stopped wailing when the car started moving. We were on the way. It was 11:43 AM, and for a split second, it was silent.

I managed to get the letters mailed and even get in a short walk with everybody before lunch. The Boy’s normal good humor returned when we got outside after mailing the letters. Maybe he just wanted to leave the house as badly as I did.

I’m told this stuff is going to get easier. I don’t know about that. What amazes me today is that it is possible now to leave the house with all of them. So what if it took over four hours to run a ten-minute errand? I did it! And I didn’t lose my temper or my keys or any of the children. I survived. I’m calling it a success.