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Perfection or Perdition

We were sitting at the dining room table when it happened.

I was reading one of our homeschool books aloud while my older son was fumbling around with a pair of scissors- awkwardly trying to cut out puzzle pieces to glue to a frame.

Predictably, he was doing an inexact job.

In a sudden fit of frustration he threw down his project, crumpled it up in his tiny fingers, and screamed, “If I can’t do right then I don’t want to do it at all.”

I was shocked.

First of all, this is a child who spilled an entire bag of flour over my kitchen table and added spoonfuls of water to make pancakes. When it didn’t work, he simply sprinkled sugar all over the mess and licked it.

“Tastes the same, Mama.”

::insert eyeroll::

But more importantly I was shocked because, only the night before, I had said this exact phrase to my husband.

“If I can’t do it right then I don’t want to do it at all.”

Perfect.

Or nothing.

It was particularly memorable because I was soaking wet at the time. I know, sounds thrilling. Truly, it was just because my baby puts me in chokehold any time water runs out of the bathroom faucet.  

The phrase would have been lost to time.

Except it wasn’t.

It was sitting on the lips of my five year old.

Perfect.

Or nothing.  

I called “time out” and decided that we needed to regroup. Something about my son had changed- I was sure of it. I decided to spend the rest of the week carefully watching him. And what did I conclude?

Well, my son is a sponge. His mood is immediately lifted when we are laughing. He is concerned when his brother cries. He has memorized several well-worn books on his bookshelf. He pouts when he doesn’t get his way. In short, he currently (and accurately) reflects the world around him.

He hadn’t changed.

I had changed.

And he was reflecting that back to me.

Perfect.

Or nothing.

I can’t speak for everyone but, in my life, personality changes tend to take the scenic route. It’s only after years of journaling and reflection that I can see the boulders that moved my boat into different, and sometimes difficult, waters. But in this particular case, it was glaringly obvious.

My increased need for perfection started the moment my husband and I made the decision to homeschool our children during their early years. I can remember the immediate sense of duty and weight that accompanied our decision. I had a new hat.

Teacher.

And I wanted to wear it with pride.

I was excited.

But with that excitement came a tinge of uneasiness.

I have worked in public schools.

I have worked in private schools.

I have worked outdoors with children, in camps, at libraries, and in museums.

I know what the general population thinks about homeschoolers.

Homeschoolers are unsocialized.

::beats dead horse with another dead horse::

Homeschoolers are weird.

Yeah, probably. But weird kids are weird- no matter what four walls you drop them into.

Homeschoolers are behind.

You know, except for all the stupidly evident examples of homeschoolers who excel at the same rate as their peers.

The funny thing is- people don’t seem to often question your decisions and motives when you take the “traditional” education route.

They don’t assume that you are anti- “whatever the other person is doing.”  

SPOILER ALERT- we’re not.

They don’t assume your house must be a wreck.

They don’t assume that your children are being socialized improperly.

They don’t hold your life up under this tiny little microscope and say, “Oh that weird behavior- IT MUST BE THE HOMESCHOOLING.”

Unfortunately- even people I generally adore in every other realm of my life have not always been accepting concerning this particular choice.

And instead of letting that go, I decided to show them up.

I know, how gracious and Catholic of me.

Homeschoolers are dumb.

Fine- then my kid is going to read classics ONLY. We are going to have a rigorous curriculum, never mind that he is in kindergarten!

Perfect.

Or nothing.

Homeschoolers have messy, unorganized lives.

Fine- then my house is going to be immaculate!

Perfect.

Or nothing.

Homeschoolers aren’t socialized.

Fine- then we are going out every day and I will show you just how motherlovin’ friendly my kids are!

Perfect.

Or nothing.

Clearly- this had become a little demon foothold. It was not only perfectionism but pride. I now carried the weight of everyone else’s opinion on my shoulders. I had fooled myself into believing that I could be a perfect Catholic and a perfect mother and a perfect teacher and a perfect homemaker…

Clearly I forgot- perfection is not a part of the human condition.

It’s a part of God’s condition.

I need supernatural grace.

I cannot get to heaven by myself.

I need the church.

Moreso, I was robbing my children of a parent who was pushes down into the grittiness of life so that I can grow, confess, and be changed by the gospel. Who needs confession this week? I have this life handled!

I was robbing my friends of true intimacy that is built on a foundation of understanding and service. Instead, I built up walls of judgement and resentment. You don’t like what I am doing? Well, look at how more put together and calm I am? You wish you were like me!

I was robbing my spouse of opportunities to serve our family. He will just mess this up anyway! I need to do it!

I wasn’t just setting a bad example for my son- I was slowly curling my fingers around the fruits of original sin.

Perfect people don’t need God.

They don’t need the sacraments.

They have this life thing handled.

Perfect.

Or nothing.

I wish I could have some incredible conclusion to this cautionary tale. I wish I could say I “figured it out.”

I don’t have very many lightning in the sky moments.

The people who thought we were crazy- still think we are crazy.

But should I be seeking their approval? Should I be worried about debunking their stereotypes? Or should I be concerned about the particular stewardship that God has given to me and be seeking His approval?

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? or am I striving to please men? if I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.” -Galatians 1:10

I don’t have it figured out.

Maybe all my critics will be right and next year we will be putting our kid on a bus to public school.

Maybe all my critics will be wrong and my family will homeschool everyone until they are brooding, smelly high schoolers.

Maybe, as a Catholic and a homeschooler, I just need to focus on my particular children and ask myself every day, “What’s God’s story for us? What does He want our particular situation to look like? What will bring Him glory?”

This week- it meant something real simple.

I sat down next to my son and I took out the coloring book. I grabbed the markers and I scribbled outside the lines.

Donald looks fabulous.

And when my son freaked out and told me I was doing it wrong I simply said, “It’s okay, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be something beautiful.”

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It’s A New (Liturgical) Year! – How to Make a Resolution and Keep It

The days leading up to January 1st are filled with resolution-making for the new year ahead – eat healthier, exercise more, spend more time with our family, make more money, be more organized, think more positively. We look at our lives, find an area in which we desire improvement, and make a generalized decision to “Do Better.” We charge into the new year full of hope and optimism, convinced that we are going to vastly improve our lives, be happier and more fulfilled.

But statistics show that most New Year’s resolutions fail by February 1. Two of the biggest deterrents from achievement of our goals – vague and unrealistic expectations, and making too many resolutions. A person who makes ONE focused, measurable goal is much more likely to succeed (“I will exercise 4 times a week for 20 minutes” is much more specific and achievable than “Exercise more!!!!!!!!”)

Spiritual resolutions are much the same way. We resolve to pray more, go to Mass more, become more patient, do more works of mercy – but those aren’t really resolutions; rather, they are vague wishes that we have no actual plans to implement. We say to ourselves, “I need to pray more,” toss up a few hurried prayers throughout the day, and then look up months or years later and wonder why we are no closer to God than before.

We sometimes read the lives of the saints and become discouraged when we see their dedication and love of virtue, and their complete abhorrence of sin. We intellectually know that they are right and praiseworthy, but we sometimes think, “I could never be quite that detached from the world.” We read quotes from great saints, such as this one from St. Philip Neri: “He who desires anything but God deceives himself, and he who loves anything but God errs miserably,” and become disheartened. We feel as though we are too complacent in our sins, and don’t possess the fortitude to overcome them. How can we become a saint, when we have so many faults?

Image Credit: catholicradiodramas.com

Remember that even the greatest saints did not become saints without effort. With the exception of Mary, all saints suffered from original sin, and overcoming their sinful inclinations did not come naturally or easily. It did not happen overnight. It took a lifetime of prayer and self-denial.

We know that sin separates us from God, so we must make a concerted effort to avoid sin. We know that prayer is essential, so we must pray. (“It is certain that he who prays is saved; he who prays not is damned.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori) But if our resolutions are “avoid sin” and “pray more”, we are going to make no more progress than when we try to “lose weight” and “think more positively.”

To make progress in the spiritual life, we need a plan. To overcome a vice or grow closer to God, we cannot simply have a vague idea in the back of our mind. We must make a firm resolution and implement it. We must write down our resolution, think of it throughout our day, have a way to measure our success, and pick ourselves back up when we fall.

The spiritual writer Thomas a Kempis said, “We would be well on the way to perfection if we could weed out one vice from ourselves each year.” May I issue a challenge to all of us as we head into this new liturgical year?

Let us choose one vice we struggle with, and strive to eradicate that vice from our souls and to grow in the corresponding virtue. What sin do I find myself confessing over and over again? What sin most robs me of peace? What sin is most responsible for discord in my family? Spend a few minutes sincerely examining your conscience. Be completely honest with yourself. Pick ONE thing. Try to choose the thing that is truly most damaging to your soul, but it also should be something that is a bad habit, something you do frequently. If you find yourself participating in petty gossip once or twice a month,  yet you find yourself having outbursts of anger several times a day, work on the anger. Be very specific, don’t overthink it, and don’t waffle on your decision – pick one and stick to it.

1. Offer a short prayer each morning – “Jesus, today help me to not lose my temper with my children.” “Lord, please help me to overcome the habit of taking your name in vain.” We must show God that you are serious about this by asking for His help! We can’t do it by ourselves. “Those who imagine they can attain to holiness by any wisdom or strength of their own will find themselves after many labors, and struggles, and weary efforts, only the farther from possessing it.” – St. John of Avila

2. When we find ourselves in a situation where we are tempted towards our particular sin, we should say a short silent prayer asking for help. “Lord, help me remain patient.” If we can walk away from the situation to rid ourselves of the temptation, we should do it.

3. If we successfully overcome the temptation, we should say a prayer of thanks for God’s grace. If we succumb, (and we often will), we should say a prayer of contrition. To take this exercise a step further, we can assign ourselves a little penance for every time we fail. If we are striving to speak kindly about others, and found ourselves making 3 rude remarks about someone today, we could say an extra 3 Hail Marys before bed in reparation for our sin.

4. We should have recourse to the sacrament of Confession frequently. There is a unique grace attached to this sacrament that will aid us in overcoming our sins. We should tell our confessor that we are working on this particular fault – he may have advice or words of wisdom for us. When we receive Communion, we should again renew our dedication to overcoming this fault, and ask Christ, Who is present within us, for strength.

A word of warning – We are going to fall, especially if a bad habit is deeply ingrained in us. We should NOT be discouraged. Proverbs 24:16 tells us that even the just man falls seven times – but he rises again. We are sinners in need of God’s mercy. Our failings will keep us humble; we must get back up and keep trying. If we exercise every day for a week and don’t lose a pound, we may be tempted to quit exercising. However, we know that if we persevere, we will eventually shed the extra weight. The same principle applies here. Perseverance is key. Continue to pray for God’s grace. “Pray with great confidence, with confidence based upon the goodness and infinite generosity of God and upon the promises of Jesus Christ. God is a spring of living water which flows unceasingly into the hearts of those who pray.” – St. Louis de Montfort

St. John of the Cross said, “He who loses an opportunity is like the man who lets a bird fly from his hand, for he will never recover it.” Let us not let the opportunity of our LIFE pass us by. We are created to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next. If we do not do these things, then nothing else matters. We frequently hear that this world needs more technology, money, environmental protections, education, good politicians… No, what this world really needs is more SAINTS. We can have none of the other things if we are not striving to be the people God calls us to be.

It is not easy or fun to work on our sins. Sin is comfortable. Practicing virtue is uncomfortable. It is much easier to indulge than to deny ourselves a bodily pleasure. When we are tempted to give up because it’s hard, we should remember that, “Apart from the cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” (St. Rose of Lima)

As St. Therese said, “You cannot be half a saint; you must be a whole saint or no saint at all.” As we enter into the new liturgical year, let us make up our mind to become saints. Let us begin our work to overcome one sin. We have a specific plan, let’s put it into action. Let us build up the Body of Christ and encourage each other on the path of holiness. With God’s grace, let’s see how much spiritual progress we can make in a year.

“Let us go forward in peace, our eyes upon heaven, the only one goal of our labors.” -St. Therese of Lisieux

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