The night before last, Matthew got the dreaded Cortisol Dump. According to the books, babies have a natural window within which they need to go to bed, and if they don’t then their system drops a half-pint of stimulant into their bloodstream—no doubt a survival mechanism left over from an era when infants killed off their parents at an early age and ruled the earth.
We saw it coming a long way off. Matthew didn’t sleep well the night before that, which meant that his morning nap came too early, which meant that his afternoon nap came too early, which meant that he took an early evening nap, which meant that he stayed awake through the Magic Window and got the Dump. (I imagine the sound was like when Pac-Man eats an energy pill.)
The downside was that I was tired all yesterday and marked almost nothing off of my to-do list. The upside was that I played games with Matthew all alone until after eleven o’clock, and I was privileged to see exactly where he is: Continue reading “Buckets, beads, and the Imago Dei”
In the office of readings for yesterday, Jacinta noticed how Paul says that “we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1Thess 2:7; cf. Isaiah 66:12). He doesn’t say “as a nursing child with its mother,” she commented, because nursing children abuse their mothers constantly, pinching and smacking and even biting the body that feeds them. This, my friends, is the domestic violence no one is talking about.
Just today I put Matthew on my shoulders to give him some respite from his lowly existence as a crawling infant, and he thanked me by grabbing two handfuls of hair and leaning back for all he was worth. When I yanked him upright, he swiped my glasses off and smacked me on the face.
“Yes, is this 911? I want to report an assault. A nine-month-old boy. Yes ma’am, nine months old. No, you don’t understand, ma’am, this boy—well, fine then!”
God seems to know how to handle these little thugs. Psalm 8:3 says that “Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise.” I, on the other hand, have brought forth from the mouths of infants and nurslings Kleenex, carpet bits, old tomato, and bugs.
Jesus says of the final days, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!” Woe then, because that’s when it’ll be bad. Comforting thought. When the baby pinches, smacks, and bites Jacinta, she can think to herself, “Well at least we’re not doing this while we run from the Antichrist!”
As a 6th grade CCD teacher, I found myself yesterday afternoon at a Children’s Mass. My reactions to Masses geared toward children typically range from fatheaded (“Never!”) to broadminded (“Fine as long as I’m not around”). About half an hour into his homily Father warned the kids not to go to the bathroom during the canon of the Mass, and my 11-year-old son leaned over to whisper, “If we ever get to that part!” Kids and keepers alike began to unravel.
But lo and behold! We did get to the canon, and as the solemn tones of that august prayer rolled over the pews the seething mass of kinderfolk settled into an uncharacteristic moment of focus. Like a vision, awareness suddenly gripped me of the baptismal character at work in each tiny head. Continue reading “Children en Mass”
The other night, I lay beside Matthew as he was “sleep training.” This means that he stood up in bed and fussed and chewed on my arm while I lay on the big bed next to his. I could just about make out what he was saying, in his 9-month-old way: “You’re RIGHT THERE and you KNOW what my problem is! Why can’t you just FIX IT?! What’s the PROBLEM?!”
But I ignored him, because he needs to learn how to lay down and go back to sleep by himself. I told him he was OK and that I loved him. After a while he slumped onto his bed, muttering to himself, and soon he fell asleep.
I hate doing that to him. I lay awake long after he was asleep, taking these quiet moments to talk with God. “Why have things been so HARD lately?” I asked him. “No one else can see inside me, but you know EXACTLY how worn out I have been! If Matthew could just sleep, so much would be better—and you could do it EASILY! Why won’t you just FIX IT?!”
But after a while I just slumped back onto my pillow. I could feel God’s presence, as though he were assuring me that he was right there and that he loved me. “God, I don’t know what’s going on,” I said, “but I give all of this back to you as a gift—and I’ll give you back anything else you send me. Thank you for letting me give something to you.”
Last night I read a reflection written by my father two or three years ago. Every culture, he said, seems to have a legend about a “golden age” when things were better and people more virtuous and the goods of this life more abundant. Along the same lines, most people have their own picture of “back when things were better,” usually drawn from the misty memories of childhood. Some spend their lives trying to recreate that golden time—but it’s a mistake. That was Eden, and the way back stands barred by a seraph with a flaming sword.
I feel the pull. There was a period when I was a boy that seems now like a lost paradise, and there was a period early in my marriage that in retrospect seems calm and enviable. Recent years have been hard: bad health, strife at work, a difficult baby, my wife exhausted—sometimes I have felt that it just couldn’t go on.
But I realized even as I read my father’s note that this, right now, is my Eden. My wife and I enjoy a kind of deep friendship only possible after trials have worn away the sharp corners of selfishness. I have an easy, natural friendship with my oldest two children, a friendship that promises to be life-long. My younger kids are too young for real friendship but they are neat people and just beginning to show their future selves. My baby is soooo attached to his Papa that I can hardly leave the room without a scene. My colleague next door at the office is a true friend, someone who calls me up when I’m depressed and forces me out of my self-imposed isolation. Never in my life have I enjoyed such a cornucopia of different kinds of friendship—and not just any friendships, but the ones that will seem meaningful at death’s door.
Friendships and hardships together have brought me closer to Christ than at any point previous. I know firsthand what St. Francis meant about “Sister Death,” and why the cross is the most beautiful object in the world. I know by experience that we only find ourselves in a sincere gift of self. This, this now, is what I have wanted from life.
At first, just glancing from far away, in my present sorrows I see a flaming sword between me and Eden, but that’s a trick of perspective. Close up, I see a pillar of fire leading the way to the promised land.
When I pointed out this morning that our baby Matthew would have been killed had he been in those villages near Bethlehem, my fifteen-year-old daughter Bernadette was thoughtful. This evening, she gave me a set of poems she had written, and I want to share them here:
Have you ever seen a baby’s smile light up the room?
Seen sheer happiness for no more reason than a laugh?
Have you ever heard a baby’s song without a tune?
Or, playful, fought him for your bread, at least a half?
You may have noticed that the New Song blog fell suddenly silent a week or more ago. I had just begun the Jesse Tree project, and I was tossing up additional posts, getting into the Advent season–and then nothing. The Holmes house hit a major bump when all the kids came down with this nasty cold/flu thing going around and flopped around on chairs and couches like they had just rolled off the rubber chicken factory line.
Actually, the major bump was when Matthew the seven-month-old filled his head with mucus, started coughing, and stopped sleeping. My wife and I took turns pacing with him through the night for the better part of a week; we did only the essentials during the day, and by the end we didn’t do those, either. We hit that point where you have to rearrange things on the kitchen counter creatively so you can put down your cup. Only you can’t find a cup, because all the sniffling, hacking rubber chickens take one sip from each cup in the cupboard, decide they need a new cup, and even drink from your cup when you’re not looking.
So the Jesse Tree project is dead for this year. But in all that night-time pacing I thought a lot about new ideas and directions for the blog. I actually compiled a spreadsheet one afternoon of all my top blog posts from the past couple of years and I ranked them by the number of “hits”. And I learned something extremely valuable from that exercise:
Which posts get lots of “hits” and which do not is pretty much random. It has nothing to do with how well written or thoughtful the blog post is. Seeing that fact in cold numbers really takes the ego out of blogging.
So I figure I should just keep writing about whatever I enjoy writing about, although I do have some crazy ideas about new directions that may or may not work out, depending on which way the wind blows. To this point in my life, when I have kept on doing things I enjoy then God has always opened neat doors in front of me.
The tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra had long been a popular pilgrimage destination, but when sailors from Bari, Italy stole his relics from the Turkish-occupied town, devotion to St. Nicholas took off in the west. Given the stories of his generosity and his love for children, it was natural that St. Nicholas should surround himself with the aura and the legends of Father Christmas, a lingering memory of Norse legend. Within a couple of hundred years, the Feast of St. Nicholas was a landmark in the Advent season, hailing the election of the Boy Bishop (more on this character later) and the exchange of Christmas gifts.
Since my childhood was not spent in the Church, the first time I encountered any celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day was when I visited my soon-to-be wife’s family. Later, when we lived in Gaming, Austria, we experienced the intensity of medieval devotion to St. Nicholas. A friend who was a boy in Gaming around that time has posted his vivid memory of Nicholas and the Krampus here–you can see what I mean by “intense”! Our first daughter was a baby at the time, and we realized that we just had to stay inside. Krampus was too much.
Once back in the states, we brought new fervor to our celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day, although we haven’t opted to have a demon chase our children with whips. Instead, we bought a giant cookie mold of the bishop Nicholas from houseonthehill.net; since the cookies need time to age, we make them a couple of weeks ahead of time. The night of December 5, the kids make gingerbread cookies for their stockings.
In the morning, the stockings are hung by the fire place–the beautiful, hand-crafted stockings my mother has lovingly made for each child–and in the stockings are cookies, some chocolate coins to remember the story of St. Nicholas’ gifts, and a small gift. Typically, the stockings buy time for my wife and me to get up slowly and make breakfast at a more leisurely pace.
In the afternoon, we’ll make hot cocoa and eat the giant Nicholas cookies. I like to give at least one giant cookie away, if I can. Because I’m into medieval customs these days, our background music will be an album of medieval folks songs for the feast of St. Nicholas.
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Abraham lived long, long ago in the city of Ur, where people worshipped the moon and other things as gods. In those days, his name was Abram. But the one true God called Abram to leave his home and travel far, far away to a new land that God would show him, and because Abraham believed God and obeyed him his name was changed to Abraham, which means “father of many nations.”
It seemed like a funny name at the time, because Abraham didn’t have any children. He and his wife were old, and it didn’t seem like they would ever have children. But by a miracle, God gave them a boy named Isaac. Everything seemed fine: Abraham believed God’s promise about the land and about his children, and God had brought him to the land and had given him a child.
But God wanted to push Abraham to be even greater than he was already. He put Abraham through a terrible test by telling him to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice. How could God give Abraham many descendants if Abraham’s only son were dead? And how could God ask Abraham to kill his own child? But Abraham trusted God even when he didn’t understand. He went to the appointed place, got everything ready, and raised his hand to do what God had said—but suddenly God’s angel called out him and stopped him. He gave him a ram to sacrifice instead of Isaac, which is why today’s ornament is a sheep.
Because Abraham had obeyed him, God promised him not only the land and many descendants, but also that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s descendant. With this promise, light dawned over the darkness left by Adam and Eve. God had begun something with Abraham that would become the Advent story we tell every year now.
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
When Adam and Eve sinned, something went terribly wrong. It was not just that the world was a sadder place for them. It was not just that now they would have to die someday. Something went terribly wrong inside of them, in their hearts, and all their children were born with darkness in their hearts. Remember that the whole world came from God and was supposed to return to God through Adam and Eve and their children. By the time of Noah, the children of Adam and Eve had become so bad that God decided to send a great flood to destroy the whole world.
God warned Noah to build an ark. He told Noah to bring two of every animal into the ark so that the animals would not all be destroyed in the flood. So when the rain poured down and the water rose up even over the mountains, Noah’s family and the animals on the ark were safe, and when the water finally went down and dry land appeared, it was a new day for the world. God promised that he would never again send a flood to destroy the whole world.
But something was still wrong inside the hearts of men. Darkness was still on the earth, and it would grow again.