Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Mission of Motherhood

"But she will be saved through motherhood..."1 Timothy 2:15

    I have always taken my job as a mother very seriously.  There is nothing else I have really ever wanted to be.  I thoroughly enjoy children!  From the time I was 12 years old until I graduated high school, most of my weekends and summer breaks were spent baby-sitting. Even after high school I worked for a nanny service and also taught in various preschools and daycare centers. I was blessed to marry young, and while I waited anxiously to become pregnant, I nannied for a family with two boys.  When I did discover three months later that I was expecting, I began to make plans to be a stay-at-home mom. My "boss" at the time could not understand why I wanted to stay home when she was offering for me to bring my baby along to nanny her boys at her house.  Wasn't it basically the same thing?  Besides I would be getting paid!
     Honestly, after so many years of substitute mothering I knew that no matter how much a person loves children, she confronts many difficulties when sharing the motherly role with the most important person in a child's life--his mother!  My very first baby-sitting job was spent holding a sweet baby girl - no more than two months old - who cried hysterically for practically the whole time her mother was gone, as she could not ever be consoled by anyone but the mother. Her mother said she didn't mind her crying if I didn't. Really my heart was breaking for her. At every job, no matter how much I wanted to, I was unable to discipline and teach the children as I saw fit because it wasn't the way the mother would have me do it.  And even if my words were true, the children wouldn't believe me until they consulted Mom.  Although the children always enjoyed me and I them, I just wasn't the same as their mother. Theodore Hellburgge writes in Child and Family, 1979, "The child's social development is always retarded if the child does not have a single main mother figure constantly about him, i.e., a person who has enough time and motherly love for the child. In this sentence, every word is equally important. Single does not mean 2, 3, or 4 persons. Constant means always the same person. Motherly means a person who shows all of the behavior toward the child which we designate as "motherly." Main mother figure means that secondary mother figures (father, brothers, sisters, grandparents) may support the main mother figure, but not substitute for her. Person means that the respective adult has to support the child with his whole being and has to have time for the child."
     Because I wanted to raise my child by only one set of standards in the home, I decided to stay at my own home; and nineteen years and seven more children later, that is where I am still. In the midst of my childcare duties I have often reflected on the beautiful ways in which God has made motherhood to be a glimpse of the reality of His own love relationship with us and of the mercy He has bestowed on us to allow us the opportunity to experience here on earth the oneness that He so longs to share with us.  In all the marvelous works that God has done, we see the selfless outpouring that is nothing less than perfect Love.  So, too, no work - however great it may appear - will ever be as important for a mother as bearing, nursing, cuddling, guiding, and giving of herself and her time to her children.  God "takes delight in His people," (Psalm 149:4) and often refers to His own tender care of us in motherly imagery, as in Matthew 23:37, "how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and in Isaiah 66:12-13, "...and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." The oneness of a mother and her child within her womb and at her breast is a reflection of the oneness God wants to have with us. He wants us to seek Him as a baby does his mother. He wants us as mothers to respond with joy when we are sought by our babies, not giving the baby away to other distractions. I have read in several places that for the first nine months of a child's life he cannot even distinguish between himself and his mother -- in his mind, they are one and the same.  Without his mother, he feels lost and incomplete.  In order for his sense of self to develop properly it is vital that his mother be available to him to tend his needs.  Herbert Ratner, M.D., writes in his book, Nature, the Physician, and the Family p. 157, 162, "Because love holds together the delicate membranes of human society and is the basis of our relationship with God, the chief need of the child is to experience love leading to healthy self-love and to be able to love others as he has learned to love himself. Since love is taught essentially through a one-to-one relationship, nature sees to it that the vast majority of babies come one at a time, so that each child has his or her private tutor of love. For this task, nature has selected the mother. As a female, her capacity to care for the newborn is unique... Major authorities now universally agree as a result of studies of the past 15 years that, for the optimum personal maturation of the child, the child needs the full-time attention of the mother or a full-time mother substitute during the first 3 years of life." While we seem to always be in a hurry for a child to become independent from us, God would seem to not have it so. After all, he said that we must become as children to enter the kingdom of heaven; and children are dependent on their parents, most especially their mothers...
     A baby has a natural desire to suck frequently, and God has provided the mother with the very tools to gratify this need.  So often, though, we mothers run from this, providing the substitute of the pacifier so that we can "get something done."  Yet, we are being given a chance to "offer our bodies as a living sacrifice,"-- as St. Paul exhorts us to do in Romans 12: --  to be the food and the comfort of our children, as God longs to be for us. In The Absorbent Mind, pp. 105-106, Maria Montessori writes, "Mother and child are inseparable...For the mother has to feed her child, and therefore, she cannot leave him at home when she goes out. To this need for food is added their mutual fondness and love. In this way, the child's need for nutrition, and the love that unites these two beings, both combine in solving the problem of the child's adaptation to the world, and this happens in the most natural way possible. Mother and child are one. Except where civilization has broken down this custom, no mother entrusts her child to someone else... Another point is the custom of prolonging the period maternal feeding. Sometimes this lasts for a year and a half; sometimes for two, or even three years. This has nothing to do with the child's nutritional needs... but the prolonged lactation requires the mother to remain with her child, and this satisfies her unconscious need to give her offspring the help of a full social life on which to construct his mind."
     Many times our children need us in the night. They are teething or frightened or sick, and we are made to believe  that we are doing them good to let them cry it out or to console themselves. God's wisdom seems to think otherwise. God never sleeps, so great is His care for us.  Perhaps He is offering us another chance to be like Him, to lay down our lives for our "friends"--the very goal of our lives.  What is wise to the world is foolishness to God.  Many saints gave up whole nights of sleep to pray.  St. Paul speaks of preaching the Gospel "in toil and hardships, through many sleepless nights." 2 Corinthians 11:27  A mother then could be said to preach the Gospel by her very life, and this is what I believe is meant by "But she shall be saved through motherhood,..."  (1 Timothy 2:15)
     A child is comforted by the mere presence of its mother and is often much better behaved when she is around. I often wonder how many opportunities to grow in holiness we pass up in the name of doing something more important when our children want us to play with them or hold them or show us some new thing they've learned.  Jesus was angry at His disciples for shooing the children away. (Mark 10:13-16 ) Martha was told that Mary had chosen the better part (Luke 10:38-42), yet why do we so often feel useless and unproductive when we are holding our children as opposed to cooking or cleaning or working outside the home altogether? Not that these things do not have to be done, but perhaps not as elaborately as we think necessary. Margaret Mead writes in Catholic World, November 1970, "A little baby needs continuity of care, all our studies suggest that too frequent changes of the mothering person are hard on children. If a mother works full-time, it is very difficult for her to provide this continuity. A small child also needs someone who is intensely interested in him or her, who will spend endless hours responding and initiating, repeating sounds, noting nuances of expression, reinforcing new skills, bolstering self-confidence and a sense of self."
     Often I have been asked for my secret to such well-behaved children.  At first, I really didn't know what to reply.  Then I started to think what I may be doing differently than other mothers, and I would say that I always nursed on demand, never gave the children a bottle or pacifier and never left the children with a baby-sitter before the age of 2.  Now I simply say that I "spoil "them when they are babies and make them listen when they are old enough to understand.  Making them listen then is done more easily because they know they are loved and sense that I want nothing but the best for them. In my experience, the more time I spend with them when they are very little, the less time is required for me to supervise them when they reach the toddler years.
     Being thoroughly content with my job as a mother,then, I was confused when God called our family to be missionaries in the fall of 2010.  Had I been wrong about all these things that I had felt so strongly about for so long?  I struggled at times through the missionary training, not understanding if God was calling my role to change.  My oldest was now 12, the same age I had been when I first became a "substitute mother."  She was very good with her siblings and often helped me around the house, but how would it be if I was not present at all for a good while? I went along with the training, at first thinking God wanted me to let go of my high ideals of motherhood - as if it had become like a god to me.  As the days went on, however, I noticed a big difference in the behavior and attitude of my 2 year old son when I left him with his siblings for long periods of time. I began to think I could see what God was teaching me. I felt God calling me back to remember all that I had known all along. I finally realized what my mission was to be -- to show other moms the world over the dignity of the role of the mother: the mother who imitates God by making her very body ever-present; the mother who serves rather than being served by her own desires and tastes and self-fulfilling tasks. By fully living Christ in the home, mothers can be real missionaries every day.
      You may be thinking, that's all great for other women, but it's not for me. However, by the very nature of woman, motherhood is for every woman, not only biological mothers. Many women are unable to conceive or have not yet met the one they are to marry or choose to remain unmarried in order to devote themselves to the Lord. All of these women are called to a spiritual motherhood. Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D, Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart in Los Angeles writes, "Spiritual motherhood is about nurturing life.  It is about helping another grow and develop into the person that God desires them to become." As we heard, a child needs a full-time motherly figure - a woman who will forget herself for the sake of the child. While the biological mother is the most perfect choice for her child, many children are in need of this kind of mother through adoption, which is a selfless choice for couples who are unable to have children of their own. Sister Timothy Marie goes on to say, "Part of what is known as the “feminine genius” is a certain empathy and inherent compassion. Women can see the deeper issues even when the exterior fa├žade reveals okay-ness. We can, as appropriate, bring peace and discernment to others and confidence as well. These natural gifts can be fueled by supernatural grace to bring about peace and joy to countless souls. One of the ways women religious live their consecrated life to the fullest is through spiritual motherhood.  When you ask sisters and nuns what drew them to the convent, to the cloister, many will respond with some variation of the idea that they recognized that God had created their heart for MORE.  The world sees what the religious woman gives up…marriage to one man, a family of her own children.  The religious woman sees what she receives, Christ as her spouse, and all the peoples of the world as her children.   Marriage to Christ did not free her from a family but for His family."  
     The mission of motherhood, then, is for every woman. Of course, without Christ as our strength, these things will be impossible to accomplish.  Therefore, let us allow Him to be the Everything that He wants to be for us.  Let us remain united to Him through the constant prayer of quiet contemplation which is so readily available to us in the recesses of our home and by the frequent reception of the Sacraments.

"The mothering function is one of the most important of all human events, but, unfortunately, one of the least appreciated or regarded by society." Harold Voth, M.D., Medical Times, November 1980

A Morning Prayer for Mothers:
O, God, how great and how important is the vocation which Thou hast given me and how difficult it's duties.  I am called to educate the children whom Thou hast confided to me, each of them according to its peculiar character, and to induce them to rid themselves of their faults and to practice Christian virtues.  O, my God, I am ignorant and weak.  How will I be able to see always the way that leads to success without Thy assistance?  Send down, O Lord of Light and Knowledge, a  ray of Thy Divine Wisdom from Thy Heavenly Throne into my heart, as Thou didst once give to Solomon in answer to his prayer for a wise and intelligent heart, so that he was enabled to govern his people.  Enlighten me that I  may keep equally far from undue severity and from untimely indulgence.  Inspire me with the proper spirit to reprehend, to mistrust, and to admonish them.  Grant me the blessing to fulfill my duties, led, as it were, by Thy Hand which leads all of Thy children in the way which is best for their salvation.  O, Holy Ghost, Thou Who bestowest infinite graces,  grant me the gifts of wisdom and counsel for the benefit of my children.  Amen.  Follow with one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be.  Taken from the book The Christian Mother by Rev. W. Cramer.
Wonderful Books for Mothers:
  • The Apostolate of Holy Motherhood
  • Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers by Monsignor P. Lejeune
  • 1 Timothy 2:9-15 from The Holy Bible
  • A Mother's Rule of Life by Holly Pierlot
  • Wife, Mother, and Mystic by Albert Bessieres, S.J.
  • Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing by Sheila Kippley
    "A mother is she who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take."
                                                                                                            Cardinal Mermillod

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Home Visits Parts 2 & 3 & More

      About a month ago, we gave a talk to our Youth Group about the importance of sharing our material wealth with our less fortunate neighbors, reminding them that not everyone has had the same advantages in life. While we tend to have the attitude that what we work hard for should be ours to spend on whatever material possessions we crave, God has a different view in mind for His family. Although He never condones laziness for the poor nor does He demand compliance from the rich (for God loves a cheerful giver),He does ask us to follow His example and give to others what appears to be rightfully ours. To back up our teaching, we read from St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians chapter 8 verses 8-15: “I say this not by way of command, but to the genuineness of your love by your concern for others. For you know the act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And I am giving counsel in this matter, for it is appropriate for you who began not only to act but to act willingly last year: complete it now, so that your eager willingness may be matched by your completion of it out of what you have. For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have; not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality. As it is written:
“Whoever had much did not have more,
and whoever had little did not have less”

      We then had the children help bag canned foods, rice, sugar, and packaged nutritious drinks that we bought with a generous donation of $1000 received from a man named Jack ,who was once stationed in the Philippines during his time of army service. He witnessed the poverty of the people, and when he heard we were serving here, he asked us to use the money to distribute food to those in need as we see fit. No sooner had we finished our bagging than Father Joe invited our family to harvest mangoes from the tree of one of Holy Rosary's parishioners, Cherry Uayan. Once there, Cherry approached me to tell about a family her husband and son had just encountered while searching for sweet potato to plant. Their search led them to the dilapidated house of a crippled man. This man--who has a wife that Cherry referred to as “innocent” and three children, two of whom are special needs—hobbles through his garden of sweet potatoes to tend the plants that are his family's only source of food. When he was asked for some sweet potatoes to plant, he asked in return for some rice in order to vary a little his family's diet. Upon hearing this pitiful story, Cherry could not get it out of her heart, and she resolved to ask us if there was anything more we could do for them. She remarked that this man was in no way lazy. He was doing all he could in his poor condition to provide for his family. We marveled at God's timing! We told her we had just given a youth group talk about this very thing, and “yes” we were very eager to visit the family so we could give further assistance. When we arrived at the inadequate house later that week, we were not prepared for what we saw. As there was not enough room for all of us to fit in the house, we stood outside to share God's Word and offer the man a box of food. He looked ashamed, but very grateful. I peered inside to see his two children who were lying half-naked and dirty on the bamboo floor. I smiled at the sweet little girl and her face lit up in the most beautiful happiness I've ever seen! I asked the man their ages, expecting to hear 2 and 4 years. He replied that they were 6 and 9 years old!!! I knew then that their special need was a result of lack of nutrients, probably from the time they were in the womb. These two sweet children could not sit up or speak, and I wondered if they ever had a chance to be outside—to see the blue sky and the rich green surroundings of the mountains and trees. I wondered if there was a way we could give them some kind of seat so that they could watch their dad as he worked the land. Odilio thought maybe we could buy some strollers for that purpose. I love the idea, and I'm still waiting for the time when we can do that. Right now we have the intention of getting the family different kinds of seeds to plant so that their diet will be varied on a regular basis. Also, Cherry's family has offered two of their trees to cut down and use for wood to build the family a better house. We want to work with Father to be able provide the parish maintenance workers for the job. Hopefully, by Christmas, this precious family will have a new home!

       One Sunday after Mass, two of our friends, a husband and wife, approached us to ask help for their neighbors, who are fellow fishermen. The husband is the lead fisherman for his group; so when the waters are too dangerous to risk taking the boats out, such as in typhoon weather, the men in his group always look to him to provide them with their daily needs. However, he is in the very same position; and while he may be more respected in the town and able to get some things on credit-which he did in order to help his neighbors-he really is suffering just the same. He asked us if we would be able to offer temporary assistance to the fishermen during this hard time. We said we would be over as soon as we got some food bags together. When we got to their house and told them the number of bags that we brought, they quickly sent word to the neighbors nearest them. Many families with small children arrived. They couldn't thank us enough, but we told them to thank God and to keep praying and following Him and He would always provide their needs. They left immediately, and our friends explained that they were rushing home to eat because they hadn't had their breakfast yet and it was already lunchtime. Then the wife proceeded to tell us that there were still other families who needed help if we could. I could not fight back tears as she relayed how one neighbor(whom I knew quite well) in her desperation had come some previous nights before to ask if their family was finished eating their rice so she could please eat what was leftover. This woman's husband is also a fisherman, but due to the current situation he had been traveling to a nearby town to work as a laborer for $3.50/day. With five children, this was not enough to adequately meet their needs. We went right away to purchase still more food....
      All of these people are just a sample of those like them whom we meet every day. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they are in need. So often we have heard them say how they feel God's love in our presence here, how they cannot believe that we would leave our “riches” for “rags”, and how they hope we can live here a long time. We are making an appeal for them and for us. As of today, we have zero dollars in our missionary funds account. Our visas for remaining here for at least one more month are due on Tuesday, and we do not have the funds to pay for it. If you believe in what we do and if you have a “surplus” at this time, we are asking you to help us in our time of need. Know that we are praying for you, and we are grateful beyond words for any amount that you are able to send!
        To close, I will tell you once again of Conchita, whom I wrote about in my last blog. She came to see me almost every day this week, so desperate was she for food. I was becoming a little frustrated, as she would come at most inconvenient times, and I prayed for patience and true love to receive her. When she came today and I gave her the food that she needed, she hugged me tightly and with her voice cracking with emotion she said, “You always give to me, and I am ashamed I have nothing to give to you. I will go to the church and pray, and I will give you grace.” Tears streamed down my face as I thought how my gifts could not equal hers-how hers was so much richer, and how we are just friends exchanging needs!
You can send your donations to:
Odilio and Stacie Alvarez
c/o Family Missions Company
12624 Everglade Road
Abbeville, LA 70510

Monday, September 19, 2011

Home Visits (Part 1)

     We are slowly but surely starting to fit regular home visits into our weekly schedule. While we had home visits in our hearts right from the start of our mission here-asking for a list of names from chapel leaders of sick or homebound in the parish-it isn't until recently that God has been revealing to us those special persons who need our presence the most. Below is the story of one such lady.
      Odilio was on his way home from town when he first met Conchita, a sweet, little elderly widow who always wears a white hat and carries a basket. She was walking with a friend, and the two old ladies stopped him to ask for 10 pesos, which is about a quarter in U.S. Money. He ended up giving them double that amount and they were ecstatic, giggling like little school girls! He also prayed with them, asking God to bless and care for them and provide for all of their needs.
      Some time after, the two women showed up at our house and sat down to rest on the front steps. When I noticed them, I invited them in and gave them drinks of water. They told me that Conchita was poor, that her husband had died already, and that she had no rice to eat. I packed a little sack for her with rice, coffee, and bananas. She was so very grateful as she put the sack into her basket. When they made their way down the steps, I could tell she struggled with the basket and I called Odilio to help her carry it. He told her he would carry it home for her, but she insisted that to the church would be far enough, as she wanted to stop in and say thank you now.
      Every so often after this, Conchita would show up to say that she had no rice in her house, and we would always do whatever we could to help her, filling her basket with what we had on hand and helping her to carry it as far as the church. One day very recently, she came during lunchtime and we offered her a plate of rice and fish. She accepted, but she would not sit at the table with us, even though I kept insisting. Instead she contented herself to sit and eat on the bamboo bench a few feet away. I kept looking over at her to make sure she was getting enough to eat, and I couldn't help but notice-since she had respectfully removed her shoes upon entering the house-that her poor toes were swollen with arthritis. After lunch I told her that we would like to visit her at her house soon if she would let us know where she lived. She said her house was very poor and that she was ashamed, but she told us the general location of it, which is much too far for her to have to walk.
      When we arrived at her house, she was so happy to see us, although she kept saying, “My house is so poor, with so many holes. I am so ashamed to you.” We kept reassuring her that we didn't mind and that we were there to share God's love with her. We gave her a bag of food and also some snacks that we shared together. We read to her from the Bible, which she really appreciated, telling us that it was nice to listen to us since she cannot see well enough any more to read herself. When we got up to leave, she begged us not to go, saying that she would be lonely for us if we went. We stayed a great deal longer-as long as we could-before promising to return the next week. She asked if we would bring her a picture of us next time, so that she could “see” us between visits.
      We have also discovered that she has five young children living with her in her small home. To our understanding, they are her grandchildren that she cares for while their mother is at college. In any case, she has many mouths to feed on her own. We will do all in our power to visit her more than once a week.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nothing Better


   More often in mission life than at home, formal homeschooling doesn't always happen. So many unexpecteds come up that there is just no time to sit down for lessons. At times, I am tempted to let this cause me great anxiety, as I worry about the kids keeping up with their studies; but I know that the best kind of learning doesn't always come from books. I am so grateful for the wisdom and experience of the Summers family, especially Mrs. Genie Summers, who advised me not to pack very many school books. God has shown me over and over that this was the right decision. Here are some recent examples: …............
    Ever since our friends, the Ocaba family, mentioned showing us the way up the mountain so that we could share food and God's Word with the many poor families struggling to survive there, I longed to go and be a part of the distributing team. I knew, however, that such a thing was most unlikely because it just isn't practical to try to carry a toddler, a preschooler, and a heavy care package for 5 miles up steep and slippery paths and back again. I would have to be content to hear of the trips from my husband and older children and to see the pictures they promised to take.
    Not long after my husband's first successful trip up there, our family was having a “Desert Day” in a nearby town and I slipped on some rocks in a stream while crossing with my 17 month old son. I fractured some of my ribs, and the pain was almost unbearable. I felt that God was reaffirming to me what I really already knew: going up a mountain with the little ones was completely out of the question. I tried to put the idea out of my mind.
    God is so incredibly amazing, though, and He felt like answering a desire of my heart! When our two fellow missionaries Teresa and Susanna, who are currently working on the mainland, heard about all of the needy people Odilio had ministered to, they asked if we could organize another trip up the mountain so that they could help too. Susanna's cousins from India were coming soon to visit her in the Philippines, and she thought they would really enjoy such an adventure. Of course, Odilio was more than happy to accommodate this request.
    The next week, our friends arrived at our home on Camiguin with the two cousins from India and a friend from a Catholic community here in the Philippines. To my surprise, all three of the new guests happened to be young men who loved kids. During the first day of their visit, we all got well-acquainted and it was decided that with so many extra muscles around now, it would be no problem for all of us to make the trip up the mountain!
    The climb was anything but easy, but I am so grateful for the opportunity. It was an experience I will never forget! On the morning of the climb, Odilio took the visiting crew to town to get the food that we would be distributing, while I stayed home to clean up and get the kids ready to go. Susanna's cousins came back from the shopping trip with several packages of candy that they bought to treat our kids. The kids were super-excited, and I let them put one package of some small gelatin cups in their backpack for a snack along the way. However, in the crazy struggle to get ourselves in one piece to the chapel on the mountain where many families were waiting for us, the snacks were not mentioned even once by the kids on the way up, and they seemed to be completely forgotten about. It wasn't until we were safely in the chapel and Odilio and some of the others were giving a Bible sharing and some wonderful testimonies about God's loving providence, that my 3-year old asked me if he could have his snack now. I glanced around at the crowd of people and counted about 15 to 16 children among them, including my own. There were only 12 gelatin cups in the package. I told Vincent that there were not enough snacks to share with all of the children and it would not be nice to eat in front of them. I gave him a choice. He could open the package right then and give the gelatins to the other children. If he did this he would have to wait until we got back to our house to have a treat of his own; I reminded him of the other packages of candy that we had left there. The other choice would be to wait just a little while longer and open the gelatin cups on the way back home when we were out of sight of the other kids. Vincent was silent for a long while after this explanation of choices. I figured he was pretty disappointed about the whole thing. I was surprised and touched when finally he said, “Mom, I want to open it now.” “That's nice, Vincey,” I said and reminded him that he would not get any. By this time, the testimonies and even the distribution of the food packs was almost done. I got the package of gelatin cups from the backpack and opened it. Vincent took out two at a time, and I directed him in passing them out. “See the little boy in the blue shorts and the little girl with the short hair next to her mommy?” And Vincent would walk by himself over to the ones I indicated and then come back for two more. Before long, he had his 5-year old brother Samuel helping him until, in the same fashion, he had offered one to each of the children who were present. Coming back to me after the last hand-out, he peered into the bag to find that there were two gelatins left, one green and one red—his and Samuel's favorite colors! “Can me and Samuel have these?” he asked hopefully. “Of course,” I smiled at him, so proud of his generosity.
Vincent, age 3
    On the way home, I relayed the incident to Susanna, who said very wisely after listening, “What better Catholic education can you get?” I heartily agreed! I could have remained at home with the three younger children and taught them to follow directions by matching up pictures in their workbooks with pencils and to subtract using their fingers as counters, but the real life experience of walking directly to each indicated person will stay much longer in their memories; and besides, now they know a truer way to figure numbers using God's Math—which tells us that sometimes

12-12= 2:)

   {Some of the children that we met that day were visibly malnourished. I can't describe the feeling of coming face to face with such a reality, which previously I had only known about by mail. Father Joe explained that such a thing was common for those dwelling in the mountains, where coconuts were often the main source of nourishment. On Odilio's most recent trip up there, he distributed some children's multivitamins and other fortified children's foods with vegetables along with the usual care pack food.}

    Mission life has held many surprises for our family. One in particular for me is that I felt compelled for the first time in my life as a mother to volunteer my time outside of the home without my children accompanying me. I teach Religion class twice a week at the parish high school. I teach 14 and 15 year-olds on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 1:30-2:30. The time that they allotted me is perfect, since my little ones are napping then. God has reassured me that this was His plan as well as mine. No matter how many times Julian(my 17 month old) wakes up looking for me on the other days of the week or how many times he refuses to fall asleep at all, every Tuesday and Thursday that I teach, he consistently stays peacefully asleep until after I return:) Anyway, I really enjoy sharing God's truths with my new students.
    The goal of my class is to teach the young people to know and love God and to want to serve Him by living virtuous lives. I started out teaching them the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Through Scripture, testimonies, and the Catholic catechism I showed them how God is Love and how He is the only One worthy of all of our love. We also talked about needing His grace in order to accomplish this, among other things, etc.
    After about five or six weeks of lessons, I gave them a study guide followed by a test the next week to see how well they were understanding everything. When I entered the room on test day, I asked them to bring all of their books and personal belongings to the front of the room and to arrange the desks for test-taking, a procedure that my oldest daughter informed me was the norm for classes at the school. As the students were bustling about appearing their best to obey my command, I noticed one young man tucking his study guide into his pants. My eyes met his and I shook my head no, holding out my hand to take the paper. I was a little disappointed at this, and I walked the room collecting everyone else's study guides that they seemed to be keeping until the last minute. I said as I walked the classroom, “This is a Religion test. You don't want to cheat. That would be against the seventh commandment because you would be stealing answers. If you have any questions please ask me instead of your neighbor and I will help you.” I finally handed out the tests and took my place at the front of the classroom where I stood watching and waiting for anyone who might need help. As the time wore on, I became increasingly disappointed and my heart was heavy with sadness. Most of the students were trying to sneakily share answers. With apparent disappointment in my voice, I addressed the students once again, “The whole point of this class is to help you want to love God with your whole heart. You cannot do that by cheating. Getting all of these little questions right makes no difference if you are doing it in the wrong way. You are showing that you care more about your score than about pleasing God. I have not been a very good Religion teacher if you want to cheat on your test. Please just do your best. I will be more proud of you for getting a low score by yourself than a high score by cheating.” I trust that this one incident spoke more clearly to them than all of the previous lessons combined.
    In all of this I am reminded of one of my own reasons for choosing to homeschool. Humility and holiness have always been my highest aim in teaching my own children. My oldest daughter, Maddie, aged 13 ½ , made the tough decision to attend “real” school for the first time in her life. She prayed about it a lot and felt that it would be a great way to become part of the community of Catholic children here and possibly influence some of them by good example. There were many things to consider when she made this decision, the hardest one being that she wanted to be a part of our other ministries, too. She knew she might miss many of our family activities and prayer times. She was also nervous that she wouldn't be able to keep up with the other students, since she had never been in a regular classroom, and she wasn't sure how much she really knew. In fact, since I wasn't able to teach her a whole lot during our missionary training last year, she was a year behind in Math, and she was a little embarrassed to be with children younger than she. Nevertheless, she felt the most peace about going to the church high school (grades 7-10) than about staying in homeschool.
    I believe the experience has been a good one for her in many ways. She, too, has had kids wanting to copy her answers, but she kindly tells them no. She has witnessed how cruel some kids can be to one another, and she has made efforts to be a class peacemaker. She has real homework for the first time ever, and despite all of her good study habits and best efforts, she still at times gets low scores on some assignments and tests. When she gets frustrated at herself, I remind her that I would much rather she be holy than smart. While I love books and value studying, I believe that nothing can replace the real life experiences that can often be missed if too much time is spent in the classroom.

“Thus all who dwell on the earth shall know,
and all who inhabit the world shall
That nothing is better than fear of the
nothing more salutary than to obey his
Sirach 23:27

Thursday, July 7, 2011

For the Love of God

     One of my very favorite stories that Jesus tells in Sacred Scripture is that of Lazarus and the Rich Man. I feel that while it is such a short story with very few details, it is, nevertheless, so very rich in meaning. Not only does the story illustrate what it truly means to love our neighbor as ourselves, but it also conveys to the reader the wholehearted love with which we are to love God, the Highest Good.
      The story can be found in Luke 16:19. It tells how a rich man, upon his death, finds himself in Hell, and how a poor man named Lazarus is conversely eternally comforted at the end of his life on earth. The rich man is said to have “feasted sumptuously every day” while Lazarus desired the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. One would think after reading the story the first time that the rich man is condemned to hell for the one reason that he does not share his bounty with the poor man, and that the poor man is welcomed by the Saints simply because he was poor. However, a closer look will reveal that the judgment is also based on their choice of a god. Because the rich man's god was his “stomach,”-as we can gather from the fact that he chose to eat the choicest and tastiest food every day- he failed to even recognize the needs of his neighbor who lay right outside his gate. Lazarus,on the other hand, is not even said to have begged from the rich man, only to have desired; but what's more, he desires only the scraps, in other words, only what is required for him to stay alive.
      Sacred Scripture makes it very clear that love of God and love of neighbor are interrelated, and that we cannot have one without the other. In fact, in 1 John 3:17 we read, “But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” Saint John then says that this is how we can be sure that we love God: precisely when we love our neighbor in this way. If we truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we will want him to have the same quality of food and other goods as we enjoy; and if we truly love God, we will not mind having the same quality of food that our poor brothers and sisters eat. I think we can say that the more we love our neighbor, the more we love God, and vice versa—the more we love God, the more we will love our neighbor and be willing to “give to everyone who begs from (us)” (Mt 5:42) without question because #1. we will be more likely to expect the best of our neighbor without judging and #2. we will view our material goods as they truly are, and they will not in the least have a hold on us. Our love for God will compel us to love as He loves: “for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”(Mt 5:45)
      These are the thoughts that have been going through my mind the last few months, as I have been approached almost daily by those (and oftentimes the same ones) who are in need. I have been very humbled by the simple requests for rice and sardines, the most basic of foods here. I cannot help but feel ashamed that I have been seeking the richer tasting, more American-like foods such as cheese and dairy and sauces, when I realize how many people here go to bed hungry. I am even more ashamed when I realize that some of them have been my very closest neighbors...
Alvarez Family with Arlen
      Last week, Arlen Ocaba, one of our good friends from our first neighborhood, stopped by to pay us a visit since she had some business to attend to on our new side of town. During our conversation, a woman who lives 12 miles up in the mountains appeared on our doorstep, asking for any food we could spare. I asked pardon from Arlen as I got up to pack a bag from my pantry for the lady-Rosalinda- whom we had just recently hired to wash our clothes, as she is in desperate need of an income. When Rosalinda left, Arlen told us that she too had helped her many times before, as well as many others. She went on to say that even though she herself had little to share, she could not turn people away. She told us that there were many times when she wondered how she was going to feed her own family of six children, whom we know to be very respectful and Godly young people. She said that they all depend on her husband, who is a fisherman. There is never a guarantee of a catch. Because of this, she has taken to trying to grow seaweed to dry and sell, but it has not been so successful. With this to worry about, she often hikes up into the mountains to bring clothes and food to the people, who she says have even less. She knows the hard life of the mountain all too well. Her mother died when she was only 4. Her father then abandoned her and her two siblings and she was raised by her grandparents in the mountains. She has told us that this is what gave her such a great faith in God, because many times she found herself crying out to Him for help as a young child. Arlen told us that the poor are often judged as just lazy, but she pointed out that when you are weak from lack of food, you cannot work so easily.
      As Arlen continued to share her story, we were in utter amazement. First, we would never have guessed at all of her family's hardships. They were always so happy, and they never asked for anything. She told us that poverty has made her brave because she must find a way to survive no matter what. She invited us to her home later that afternoon to say the rosary with a group of women from the church. When there, we saw the poor condition of her house. We could see the sky through places in the roof, which leaks into the small living room when it rains. That same living room is the “bedroom” of three of her children who sleep on small mats put down on the cement floor. There is no back door, enabling neighborhood dogs to roam freely in and out. The dining room and kitchen have a floor of rocks, as they are located just under a shelter out the back door, close to the sea. Worst of all, there is no seawall to block the huge waves that sometimes come all the way to the house, making knee deep water to stand in. Arlen and her husband, Nanding, said that the government has been promising to put up a seawall, but they have yet to keep their word.
      Thinking always of their neighbor, they also wanted us to see another house close by which is in even worse condition. There, in the small, dilapidated shelter, which leans for lack of proper support, live a family with eight children and one on the way. At one end of the house, there is no floor at all. About three years ago when waves came up too far, the family lost their 1 year old baby during the night. In the morning she was found washed out by the seashore.
      Such stories are heart-breaking, and we have asked Arlen if we could share her story in hopes of helping her. Odilio and Nanding have estimated the cost of constructing a small, cement seawall to be about $2000 including labor. We have already vowed to cut back our own family's living expenses to be able to contribute. We also want to allow others the opportunity to help as much as possible. If you feel called to donate to these construction funds, please mail donations to Family Missions Company and specify to be used for Philippines Seawall Project.
      When we told the Ocaba family that the process of raising funds would take time, Arlen replied, “We will just pray and leave it to God. If nothing happens, we will survive. We will be happy because we have peace. My husband is a good man. All of my children have a good faith in God.” Truly this family knows the cause of true happiness! Our own lives have been enriched by knowing them, and we can say that they have been our missionaries!

Current "Sea Wall"---washes away almost immediately with a strong storm

Standing at the edge of their property at Low Tide

View just outside of the back door into the living/dining/sleeping area

Back of the house where wood boards are used to "replace" the damaged cinder blocks

Side of the home--wood is very brittle

Back "door"---Plywood to slide over
     “Why should I fear in evil days, when my wicked pursuers ring me round, those who trust in their wealth and boast of their abundant riches? One cannot redeem oneself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; one would never have enough to stay alive forever and never see the pit. Anyone can see that the wisest die, the fool and the senseless pass away too, and must leave their wealth to others....For all their riches, if mortals do not have wisdom, they perish like the beasts.” -Psalm 49:6-11 and 21

Family Missions Company
Philippines Sea Wall Project
12624 Everglade
Abbeville, LA 70510

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bring Them Here To Me

      When we first arrived on Camiguin Island with Mrs. Genie, who had come to install us on our first mission, we were all told to seek the Lord in His holy Word to see what He had to say to each of us concerning our task here. During my personal prayer time, I opened my Bible to Matthew 14 and I read about the feeding of the five thousand. I really focused on the words in verses 16-18: “Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me...” I felt the Lord saying to me that while I may not have much to offer in the way of ministry, if I give Him what I do have for His glory, He will bless it and make it into something that will really count. While I had this basic understanding at the time, I would not really know until now all that Jesus was saying to me through those particular verses...
      Mr. Frank and Mrs. Genie Summers, founders of Family Missions Company, are fond of quoting St. Thomas Aquinas (I believe) who said that “grace builds on nature.” By nature, my husband and I are both introverts. In fact, when we bought the last house we lived in we did so with the intention of raising our children secluded from the outside world. We took the motto of St. Benedict “Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work) as our own. I went so far as to copy his monks' schedule as best I could and incorporate it into our family life. While at the time it seemed to be God's perfect and final plan – one that suited our natures just fine - He confounded our pride and complacency, as is often His way, and called us to a much less private way of life.
      Many of our doubts about missionary work had to do with our very natures. Neither one of us would be considered a mighty preacher like St. Paul, whom we studied in Acts of the Apostles during Intake. Neither did we have musical talent to enhance our ministry like many of the other missionaries in the company. Nevertheless, as Mrs. Genie reminded us before she left us to ourselves here on Camiguin, God has called the Alvarez family personally to this place at this time. He will use us according to His will, which will be in accord with the natures He has given us.
      If you have read any of my other blogs, you know that it is in my nature to love children. I love being a mother and leading my children to Jesus. One of the ways I love doing this is through books. My children – even my oldest – love to read and to be read to. Some of our favorite times together are spent on the couch or bed, me with some wonderful story or other in hand and the children surrounding me to listen. One aspect of the Benedictine schedule that I included in our family schedule years ago is that of an afternoon rest period with spiritual reading. Each child is made to lay down quietly and look at or read a book about God or one of His saints. Before becoming missionaries we had a collection of many such books, but since then we have reduced the amount considerably, and at the moment we have in our possession only our Bibles and at most five picture books of prayers or saints.
      Since a few days after we arrived here on Camiguin Island, the yard where we are staying has been full of children, all eager to meet the new American family. Many of the children come a little after dawn and don't leave until past dark. We have also seen these same children at Mass unaccompanied by any adult. The first Sunday that we attended Mass here, I heard whispering and giggling behind me. I turned around to see middle- school aged children eating cookies and carrying on. I smiled and handed them an illustrated Children's Mass Book. They took it eagerly and it held their interest for the remainder of the Mass. This was not to be the last occasion that I would have to do this. I have been surprised at the lack of discipline and attention of even the oldest kids during the Mass. It seems to be for them only a gathering to show up to, but I really don't think they know what it means and why they are there. I have been shocked too at the lack of attention the children receive from their parents. I have not ever even seen most of the parents of the children who hang around outside our door from morning til night. At first I thought it was only because the children had never seen foreigners and were curious; but a month later I now realize that this is the norm for them. During our first week here, we began to say the rosary with the children outside in the evenings. As time went on and I realized that the children would not leave all day, there were times when I wondered, Shouldn't they go home now? Don't they need to eat? Don't they need to see their parents, to help out at home, etc.? I remembered the Bible verses from Matthew and I could just hear Jesus saying to me, “You yourself give them something.”
      Now, besides the evening rosary, we try to include the children in whatever we can that our daily schedule holds. We offer them snacks or food if they are here at mealtimes. I also read to them from the Catholic children books that we have. One day while I was reading a picture book about St. Joseph to my 3 year old during quiet rest time, I noticed that one little boy of about 10 or 11 had not left our front porch. We were inside the house, but he could see and hear us and was trying to listen to the story also. I turned the book towards him more so that he could better see the pictures. Even though it was a very simple story, he really enjoyed it. A few days later, he approached me with some of his friends and asked, “Tita (a term of respect which means Auntie), can we borrow that story book?” When I handed it to him, he and his friends ran off to read it under a tree. Another time, when my daughter Meredith was reading her Bible out by the seawall in our “backyard”, some of the older kids asked if they could borrow it when she was done. We have figured out that books, especially picture books, outside of the school classroom are extremely rare, if not nonexistent. There is no public library or bookstore that we are aware of anywhere on the island. Even though we only have a few books, we have much more than these children have ever seen! For this reason, Meredith thought it would be a neat ministry if we could have a small Catholic library in our new mission house. We could include a story hour with a teaching and prayer, etc. For this to work, we would need the help of our readers. If any of you have any used Catholic children stories that you would like to donate, please send them to the address below.
      We also invite them to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3, explaining to them how when we truly love God we will be sorry for the wrong we have done and ask Him to help us because we want to please Him, Who has done nothing but loved us so much. I told them to think of something they may have done, like using bad language, that offends God. This was prompted by the fact that often times after the rosary, the children will stay to play with our kids in the yard and will use bad language as they do so. We were unaware of this at first because they were using their own Bisayan language that we cannot understand. However, it was recently brought to our attention by a young girl who is active in the church who stopped by to see our girls one evening. I asked Odilio to directly address this issue before the rosary the next night. He kindly told the children that Mother Mary is not pleased by bad language and please not to use it since we want to learn only “good” Bisayan words. We thought maybe we would not see them around so much after this, but they were very receptive to the admonishment and one of the mothers, who is the only other adult who attends the rosary, was very grateful, saying, “Thank you for reminding us about bad language. I will also tell the children again in Bisayan.” (!) Many times, Odilio gets the children to help clean up the yard by raking the many leaves that fall everyday. The children are truly wonderful, happy people who want very much to please adults, they only need a bit of guidance. We just learned that one of the boys (age 15) who comes everyday is not a Catholic and never had any intention of becoming one until he saw how our family interacts together. His cousin told our daughter that he likes to see us eating together, praying together, and having fun together. He now wants to be baptized and help as an altar server at Mass! He now has to convince his father to allow him this privilege. It is our hope that all the children continue to come around and that we will never run out of “food” to give them. Please pray that we will be open to what God is asking of us concerning His dear little ones, and that all that we teach them will take effect in their lives and last into eternity!

To send a donation of religious books or other materials:
Stacie Alvarez
c/o Holy Rosary Parish
Sagay, Camiguin Island
9103 Philippines

Friday, March 25, 2011

Too Many Flowers?

The people on the islands of the Philippines are predominately Catholic. They are warm and welcoming. Their hospitality is outstanding! They are simple and humble, very willing and eager to help with hearts of true servants. The people of Camiguin Island, in particular, are ingenious and industrious, making good use of the natural resources surrounding them.The homes and even the inside of some of the churches are made primarily of bamboo. The beauty of the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our new parish, surpasses that of the greatest cathedral that I have seen. The beauty is in it's simplicity. It tells of the love and pride of those whose handiwork it displays.The altar and the pulpit are both made of tree trunks. The light fixtures are held in place by large tree roots. More beautiful still are the voices raised in song. In their native tongue of Visayan, the crowd rings out loud and clear its praise to the Most High.
Tree Root Light Fixtures
      Since most of the population of Camiguin is already Catholic, why did God call us to this beautiful place where our own faith has already been challenged by the simplicity of the people? Father Joe Villamil, our parish priest here, believes that God sent him a family of missionaries at just the appropriate time. He has most recently been preaching about the domestic church and the importance of the family in society. During these very days, the Philippines government is trying to pass the “Reproductive Bill,” which would limit the number of children to only two per family! The government has long been encouraging its citizens to be “responsible” and back up their natural family planning methods with artificial ones for the sake of population control. While it seems it would be more effective to try to do something about the number of unwed couples having children instead of married ones (who are ordained by the very sacrament of marriage to “be fruitful and multiply”), many otherwise practicing Catholics have fallen prey to this lie and fewer and fewer married couples are having large families, so much so that our family with six children is a rarity on the streets. We are the subject of frequent stares and questions such as, “No contraceptives, mam?” and (my favorite so far) a young man to Odilio, “Are these all your children, sir? And this is your wife? How sweet!”
Because of this, Father Joe is calling our mission one of presence. He believes that the presence of a large family from the other side of the world will be an encouragement to our Catholic brothers and sisters here in the Philippines. He is also hoping we can provide an example of a holy family life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls children “the supreme gift of marriage.” (2378) It also states, “Sacred Scripture and the Church's traditional practice see in large families a sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity.”(2373) While the world would scream that it is overpopulated, we can prove the truth of the One Who created it and commanded us to fill it by embracing new life with joy and a living faith in Him Who invites us to cast all our anxieties on Him, for he cares about us. (1Pet 5:7)
Many times God calls us to do things that don't make sense to our human minds in order to test our faith in His ability to do the impossible. From Hebrews 11:6 we see that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” It then goes on to tell of many holy men and women of old who found favor with God by trusting in Him against great odds. One such man was Abraham, of whom the Scriptures say, “By faith he received the power to generate, even though he was past the normal age—and Sarah herself was sterile—for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.” (Hebrews 11:11) God is still trustworthy and will not fail to bless us beyond our imaginations if we but put our lives in His hands. Often Catholic couples can think of many rational reasons for not wanting to conceive another child. They would contest that God has given us minds and expects us to use them. He does expect us to use our minds— to surrender control to Him and to not worry, which are often the most difficult things we can do with our minds. When we do, we are sure to be rewarded.
Nothing is too big for God to handle. When I conceived our third child, my husband was laid-off from work. While we had no fears and were excited about a new addition to our family, God knew best and the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Not too long after, we conceived again. This time my husband was employed, but his job location changed three times before the baby was born, and at the time of the birth we had no health insurance. Even still, I had the most wonderful birthing experience I have ever had. The baby – a boy, our first son - was born at home, delivered right into the loving arms of his dad, who was coached by an experienced midwife who agreed to receive full payment for her services a week later when we just happened to be expecting our tax return.
It is not always the state of living conditions that matters to God when He grants the blessing of a child, but the state of love into which the child will be received. He proved this when He allowed His very own Son to be born in a poor stable to a young girl who had many rational reasons for saying no to life. Baby Jesus was the first missionary of God's love, attracting to His humble crib people from near and far. Children are still the best missionaries! When the idea of living as missionaries first occurred to us, we Googled, “can Catholic families with children be missionaries” because we had never heard of such a thing.Now we can plainly see that Catholic families with children be missionaries. Let us not deny the world the chance to witness the extraordinary Providence of God's Love, a Love that always has room for more!

“Saying there are too many children is like saying there are too many flowers.” --Mother Teresa
Sea Wall Rosary Group