I love you so much I could eat you up: what I’m learning from thirteenth century nuns

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Overlook at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA. Photo by The Manual.

Jesus knows how bodies work

Your hunger for truth, beauty, and goodness is real. Really take, really eat, really be fed. It is here for you. I am here for you. I had been going to mass for months and the real presence was my last obstacle. At a New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA, we gathered around the altar with a few other people at a daily mass, and as the priest spoke the words, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you,” he held up the bread that the monks made there, and I felt in my body that this was Jesus, that he was speaking to me. It was less a command and more permission granted, affirmation given. You are hungry, and I am here to feed you. I was overwhelmed to be seen and known in this way, and I sobbed through the rest of this very intimate mass.  

That kind of mystical experience of the eucharist has only happened that one time for me. I became Catholic shortly after becoming a mother, and my typical experience of receiving the eucharist is much more mundane. I’m usually herding a preschooler in front of me or holding a squirmy toddler. I don’t often feel that I have much of a devotion at all to Jesus in the eucharist. And yet, the grace is still there. He still feeds me. And he feeds the baby inside me, which is growing without conscious thought or effort on my part. Jesus knows how bodies work.

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“If I had you, I would eat you up, I love you so much!”

In Caroline Walker Bynum’s essay, “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century,” she explores how, for many women in this time, “The eucharist was … a moment of encounter with that humanitas Christi … For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’s humanity was Christ’s body and blood” (p.129). These women had a profound understanding of Jesus’s experience of living in a body that impacted everything about how they understood him and their own bodies. “The humanity of Christ with which women joined in the eucharist was the physical Jesus of the manger and of Calvary. Women from all walks of life saw in the host and the chalice Christ the baby, Christ the bridegroom, Christ the tortured body on the cross” (p.130). And, in a way that seems crazy to us now, these women knew that that they could unite with Christ’s sufferings in their bodies and express their love for him in a physical way.

It is this “being-in-the-body-ness” that I experience when I am tired and distracted at mass. It is not removed from Jesus’s experience. He knows what it is like to be in a tired, distracted body. It is this “being-in-the-body-ness” I live when I look at my baby and am overwhelmed with love for this truly good, undeserved gift. In and through the body, this mystery of new life came to me. When I smother my baby in kisses and nibble at her chubby cheeks, that feeling of I love you so much, I can’t get enough of you, I just want to eat you, is not removed from Jesus’s experience either. God created us, in our bodies, with an appetite for what is truly good. Bynum writes, “Both in a eucharistic context and outside it, the humanity of Christ was often described as ‘being eaten’ … Anna Vorchtlin of Engelthal exclaimed, upon receiving a vision of the baby Jesus: ‘If I had you, I would eat you up, I love you so much!’” (p. 129-130) These thirteenth-century women knew, in a way I am just beginning to discover, that this appetite is real. We live in bodies that literally hunger for the good and beautiful, and it is Jesus we desire. This is my body, take and eat. He is here, to feed us.

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Visitors join the monks around the altar at mass. Photo by New Camaldoli Hermitage

that time I ugly cried at a poetry open mic

I recently had an experience that I think could be described as mystical, in that it felt like a sudden and unexpected outpouring of grace. I’ve been trying to process what happened and why it happened ever since, because although I am very grateful, it was also extremely embarrassing.

On Wednesday night last month, Chris told me that the after-party for the Thursday night prayer service led by the seminarians would be a poetry open mic, and asked if I would want to read one of my poems. I immediately said no. But then, the next day when his classmate texted me asking if I would read a poem if she did, I reconsidered. Two invitations? I decided I would read my villanelle, but I would also read a very good villanelle.

This prayer service is held in the chapel of the seminary on campus, which has the acoustics of a huge bathroom. The seminarian leading the singing doesn’t need a microphone, his voice carries easily. And the response from the pews is thunderous. It is a beautiful time of candle-lit prayer, most of it sung, with a couple short readings and a homily. The last line that closes the evening is the seminarian singing, Let grace come and this world pass away. And the response is, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

This last line, the chorus of voices echoing around me, got me. I had this sudden, deep longing for everything to be made right, a strong desire for Jesus. And the way I experience this kind of longing is through crying. (I’ve mentioned I refer to it somewhat jokingly as having the gift of tears, which is a thing, I just don’t know if I really have it). I teared up but quickly pulled it together because everyone was starting to leave and head downstairs for the open mic part of the evening.

After grabbing tea and scones, Chris and I found seats right in front and sat chatting with his classmates, waiting for the poetry part to begin. I was nervous because as it started, it seemed most people were reciting poems they had memorized, or doing original spoken word poems. I firmly planned to just read the two poems I had brought. Some were funny, some were funny and high energy, and mine were neither. But when it was my turn, I stood up, put on the designated “poetry scarf,” and began.

The first poem went fine. I did a little introduction about villanelles, said I’d be reading a really good one for them first, and read it. Then I turned to mine and felt it deserved a little introduction, too. I think I made the mistake of being rather vulnerable. I shared that this poem was about the Visitation, and that as I was a fairly new convert to Catholicism, I was still getting to know Mary. I like this part of scripture because it shows us Mary from Elizabeth’s perspective, and gives us another glimpse into her life. By this time, my voice had started shaking. I realized that I had just opened up a lot of myself in front of about forty people, most of whom I didn’t know. But I took a deep breath and started reading my poem.

As I was reading, it was the strangest thing, it was like I was surprised by the poem. It’s about two women, two mothers with babies in their wombs, and I suddenly thought, I’m probably the only mother in this room. I read, “Already she faced her share of the sword,” and thought, who am I to be writing this about this woman? By the time I got to the line, “Blessed one! With your yes you moved us toward/the home we long for, and all things made right,” I had totally lost it. I was full on ugly crying in the middle of my own poem.

I garbled out the last two lines, muttered, “Sorry,” and tried to sink as quickly back into my seat as I could. I could not stop crying.

I was so embarrassed and I had no way to explain to all these strangers why I was crying. I wasn’t really sure why either. I tried to dismiss it – it’s just because I’m really tired. But as I tried to block out everyone around me and how ridiculous the situation was, I remembered that God usually does speak to me in deep ways through tears. And this had felt like grace – just much more publicly humiliating and therefore bewildering than I would have chosen.

Two days later I went to a lecture on campus about Chiara Lubich, who founded the lay movement, Focolare. I had no idea who she was but for whatever reason I wanted to go hear this talk. The professor spoke about Chiara’s focus on Maria Desolata  – Mary desolate.

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He said that Mary, at the foot of the cross, sees all of the misery and suffering of the world, and holds it all. That Maria Desolata was an icon for Chiara for looking unflinchingly and lovingly at a world in pain. Chiara wrote, “If Jesus forsaken seemed to us to be the pupil of God’s eye open onto the world, we can say that Mary desolate seems to us a kind of camera obscura taking in all that is negative in the world (Essential Writings: Spirituality, Dialogue, Culture, p. 299). And the professor commented, “The Mary who holds the disfigured Christ is also the one who can gaze objectively at the world in all of its disfigurement. Just as a photographic image is developed from a negative, Mary can hope for redemption of a fallen world in the midst of her and the world’s most complete agony (“Chiara Lubich: A Saint for a New Global Unity,” Casarella).” 

And I started to cry again. Was that what I had experienced, a tiny glimpse of this? Was that the grace?

Professor Casarella went on to say that Mary desolate also offers “an icon of knowing how to lose.” He summarized Chiara’s thoughts on this, saying, “Apart from her Son, Mary had very little. When she lost him in his Passion, the loss was total and decisive. But she saw this loss for what it really was. The one who prepared all her life to be alone, became Mother to each of us, to the whole of the world (Essential Writings p.302)… Her love, her capacity for giving is human, real, and maternal. It consists of a unique capacity to bear the sorrow of the world in one’s heart. According to Chiara, when a mother hopes all things for her child and puts up with all the troubles involved, she sees further than others. (“Chiara Lubich: A Saint for a New Global Unity,” Casarella). 

I was sitting next to one of Chris’s classmates and when she turned to me at this point to whisper something, she saw that I was crying. She looked concerned and asked,”Are you okay?” I nodded and whispered, “Yeah, I’m fine, I just had this mystical experience the other night and I think it’s making more sense to me right now.” She accepted this as a reasonable explanation (you’re the best, Jackie).

I’m still reflecting on all this and will be for a long time. But in the meantime, St. Therese of Lisieux said, “Everything is grace.” It took ugly crying in front of strangers but now I think I have some idea of what she meant.

Why this millennial convert is grateful for Humanae Vitae

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong. – G.K. Chesterton

As a way of response to the bemoaning in some circles of the Church’s “irrelevancy,” re the 50th anniversary of “Humanae vitae,” (the papal encyclical that reiterated the Church’s stance on contraception,) I’d like to share the story of how the Church wooed this millennial home. 

Unity, contraception, and authority – the super sexy buzzwords that shaped my journey from the evangelical world to the Catholic Church. I became Catholic at a Friday afternoon Mass less than a week after my first baby was baptized into the Church. A couple days before, I had a surge of doubt – How did I get to this point? Am I making the right decision? But when I sat down and thought about my spiritual course of the last few years, I felt overwhelming peace. Having been raised in the nondenominational, evangelical Christian world, I had learned to look to Jesus. To make decisions with the question in mind, Will this lead me closer to God? Will this require me to trust Him more? I was reassured, only Jesus could have led to me this place of trust, where I was ready to submit to the authority of His Church and cross the Tiber.

As a college student in the Bay Area, discovering the Church as a two thousand year old institution that has the audacity to hold to crazy truths that Protestant denominations have abandoned was shocking and challenging and, strangely, very compelling. I probably asked Chris, the one Catholic in our university evangelical student group (now my husband), a million times – You actually believe this? Oh yeah, and there was that. I also happened to find Chris very compelling. Contemplative and competitive, deep and fun, he really seemed to love Jesus … and yet, he was Catholic. Why do you have to go to Mass every Sunday? Why do you pray to Mary? If you eat Jesus, aren’t you a cannibal? I was a bit sassy, but, not so secretly, very intrigued.

I went to a Spanish Mass with Chris in Oakland throughout the summer of 2011 and when I studied abroad in Spain that fall, I found myself going to Mass with a new friend in the program. She was Catholic, and I continued to ask questions. I couldn’t receive the Eucharist, and had some awkward bumbles asking the priest for a bendición when I stepped forward in the communion line, but I went back week after week. The Mass was the same everywhere! If it was true, Jesus was physically present in millions of churches all around the world. Chris, back in California, was hearing the same scripture readings. A unified, global Church! The ritual and form was such, I could participate in a different language. I learned that Catholics fasted the hour before receiving the Eucharist; they didn’t bring their bagels into the pews. Church as a sacred space? Didn’t the Church know it was supposed to appeal to my generation with amplified music and hipster coffee in the foyer?

When I returned to Stanford, I still wasn’t sure about Catholicism, but I was pretty sure about Chris.

“I think we should date,” I said.

Let me think about it,” he said.

And when he got back to me, he said, “I want to date you, but there’s two things you should know. I’m fine with marrying a Protestant, but I want to raise my kids Catholic, and I want to follow Church teaching on contraception.”

WHAT THE WHAT. There’s Church teaching on contraception?

I was shocked to learn that yes, in fact, the Church holds to the traditional Christian view that contraception is a moral issue and it is wrong.

And in fact, Protestants believed and taught this until 1930, when the Anglican Church announced contraception to be acceptable in certain circumstances and other denominations followed suit in the decades after. I had no idea. This rocked my world because every single Christian in my life until this point, once married, had no problem with using contraception. In fact, it seemed to be encouraged. Babies are blessings, but they are planned blessings. Faced with this news, I set about learning more because a) I wanted to date Chris and b) I didn’t want to be a Duggar.

I learned that the Church teaches that sex is inherently unitive, pleasurable, and procreative. I learned that for millennia, Christians have believed that the sexual act is, by nature, tied to co-creating life with God. And further, that couples don’t have the right to actively mess with that (sacred) reality. What about couples who are infertile? What about women past menopause? Neither of those cases involve the couple actively interfering with the sexual act to render it sterile – there’s nothing immoral about infertility. (Though it’s true that the Church has a long way to go in its pastoral care for couples struggling with this).

I learned that the Church teaches that couples can track their fertility to avoid or achieve a pregnancy. There are many methods of fertility tracking, but they are lumped together in the Catholic world under the title, Natural Family Planning

When a couple is highly motivated and uses NFP effectively, it has a 98 percent success rate in avoiding a pregnancy. Well, isn’t that just Catholic birth control, then? Nope. A couple using NFP to avoid a pregnancy doesn’t do anything to alter the sexual act. They abstain from sex when the woman is fertile, following her body’s natural rhythms. It’s an ongoing conversation between themselves and God, month by month, but in general, there’s an attitude, an orientation, that is open to life as each sexual act is open to the possibility of life.

I found all this very new and alarming. And fascinating. People actually do this?? Do they all have a ton of kids because NFP doesn’t work or because they just want to? The vast majority of families I knew growing up had two kids and then were “done.” I was also intrigued because I knew basically nothing about my fertility.

I met with a married woman I knew who had recently converted to Catholicism to ask her about NFP. How does it actually work? She explained briefly how she tracked her fertility, and then told me that her husband actually wrote down her observations each day. He was intimately familiar with her cycle and could see, with her, if she was stressed or sick, from the signs her body was giving her. My take away from this was – I have no idea what cervical mucus even i! It can tell you that you’re sick?? But I was drawn to several points from what she shared. Her husband cared about her fertility. The man could discuss cervical mucus! He had a vested interest in it. And this led me think about, for the first time ever, I don’t want to be the one responsible for if I get pregnant or not. If I get married, I want my spouse to share that with me equally. And a second thought, I don’t want to ever feel used by my spouse, or use him. If we could take only the pleasurable aspect of sex and not the other reality of possibly creating life, by rejecting part of my body, namely, my fertility – well, that didn’t seem as right to me anymore. I wanted to be all in, with him, holding nothing back. It started to make more sense that for something as intimate and powerful as sex, there would be a lot of self-sacrifice involved for the sake of the other.

It was the strangest thing, but as I learned more about NFP, I found more and more that it seemed empowering of women. I met with a nurse and NFP instructor in San Jose and she taught me more about my body than I had ever learned in health class. My body is amazing! Women are amazing! Why aren’t we all taught how to track our fertility? This coincided with an obsession I had with midwifery, and there’s a lot of rhetoric in the birth world about how strong and goddess-like women are, so I was riding a feminist high. This feels like true feminism! Why is the pill given as a solution for any female problem? Why are we told to medicate our fertility away?

Learning more of the why’s and how’s of NFP led me to start considering the authority of the Church. “No contraception” felt like a super personal, crazy demand that the Church somehow had the boldness to impose on me and my sex life… but as a Protestant, I had come to profess Jesus as Lord. And that meant He had authority over my life. This was a foundational part of youth group, college ministry, church on Sunday, you name it. Give your life to Jesus. “Your life” included how you thought about your studies, future career, justice, money, friendships, and sex. I am so grateful for this formation. It molded my heart, from a young age, with an inclination towards radical trust in the Divine Will. But I never once heard anyone talk about Jesus having authority over family planning. Trust God with the number of kids I’m going to have? That’s going a little far, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, why? It began to feel inconsistent. I looked at the spiritual mentors in my life – people living out their love for God in their decisions about money, their work for justice, their sharing of the gospel with word and deed– it seemed nothing in their lives was outside of God’s control. Except, it seemed, accepting children. Save sex until marriage, and then, go crazy? I assumed so, but didn’t really know; it wasn’t talked about. The vibe I gleaned from excitement about engagement and weddings (though, granted, this wasn’t huge in the Bay Area,) was once you’re married, all that chastity and self-control stuff is finally a thing of the past! And this felt odd to me. It started to make much more sense that I was practicing self-control and practicing chastity for when I would need to use those virtues in the rest of my life. If using NFP cultivated self-control in the relationship between a married couple, wouldn’t that be good, not just for the individual, but also the marriage?

There were these flashes, then, when the Catholic Church didn’t seem quite so crazy. Or, if crazy, at least consistently crazy, and very confident of its authority to proclaim truth, which was interesting. I kept getting glimpses of how this counter-cultural lifestyle would require me to trust God more than I ever had to before. If the Church seems more consistent on the sex thing, what else might it be right about? Rather than pushing me away, it drew me in.

I kept reading and asking questions, praying and seeking God’s will. I felt my heart open and continue to soften until I felt I could agree to raise my kids Catholic and do this NFP thing. So, still Protestant, I married Chris in a Catholic church. I went to Mass on Sundays and let the Holy Spirit speak to me, often through the gift of tears . And in perfect timing, it led me to that Friday afternoon Mass at the end of October, my husband holding our two month old daughter who had been baptized six days earlier. I felt the chrism oil dripping down my forehead and knew, when the priest said, “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit,” I could say, “Amen,” because it was Jesus who had brought me home to His Church.

 

 

turn it into love

Every kind of work can become prayer.

– St. Josemaria Escriva

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One of my spiritual practices now is offering up the work I do as prayer. File this one under Things I Love Now That I’m Catholic But Had No Idea About Before. (Confession, saints, Natural Family Planning, relics, and feast days are just a few others in that category). I’m still learning about this practice, but as a way of understanding work and prayer, it has formed a new way for me to relate to God. Similar to the monastic bell idea, and this is kind of a part two to that post. After Evange was born, I was added to a Facebook group of moms in the campus ministry organization I worked for. I remember different threads popping up around the question – As a mom with a newborn, I can’t find space have a quiet time anymore. What do your prayer lives look like with babies? At the same time, I joined a Catholic mom Facebook group focused on Advent reflections. Through that (and this blog that I’d been following for a while because she’s also a convert, and loves Anne of Green Gables and Harry Potter – the best!) I started to see that Catholics seemed to have an understanding of prayer that extended beyond the “quiet time” in a very helpful way for a sleep deprived new mom.

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I’m a big fangirl of this lady, and she wrote a reflection that stuck with me. She was talking about this idea of offering up the small, every day tasks. That we have the choice to whine or complain about the little things that just need to get done, every day – feeding our bodies and others’, cleaning up after feeding those bodies, cleaning the mess of non-toilet trained others – or, we can offer up those tasks as prayers. From what I gather (again, baby Catholic here) there are formal prayers, like the Morning Offering, to offer up the day ahead, all the work, prayers, joys, and sufferings, that will come, to Jesus, for however He wants to use them. But I think you can also just pray throughout the day. When I hit the end of my energy or patience, I try to quickly, mentally, pray – Help me do this well, as a prayer for ___. (Quick side note – I usually like to pray for the pregnant women in my life, but right now there are SO MANY I can’t keep track of them all. We’re definitely not in the Bay Area anymore).

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I don’t know if that’s really what offering it up is, but that’s what I do. This understanding of prayer is also deeply linked to a Catholic understanding of suffering – that we can link our suffering to Jesus’s. I think I first heard about this in relation to labor pains – that women would ask for prayer requests before labor, and offer those intentions up. Zelie’s due date was Good Friday and I was excited about the idea of being in labor on that day – Dang! I’ll be suffering as Jesus is dying! How cool is that?? But then I had to ask Chris, “So, how does offering up someone or something in prayer work, exactly? Do I have to keep them in mind while I’m in labor? Cuz that is not happening.” And he said no, I can pray before labor, to offer up my suffering as a prayer, for whatever. And I was like, ok cool. But she was born four days early. And I got an epidural because I didn’t want another 50 hour labor. So, obviously not ready for Good Friday levels of suffering over here. But everything can become prayer, and that’s something I wish I had known sooner and want to keep leaning into.

Turn it into love, my friend. Turn it into love. 

-Blythe Fike