Post-COVID, we all know way more about the threat of disease and possible cures than we ever care to know. However, when I was a little girl, things seemed more… cloudy. When illness struck, my siblings and I visited our working-class neighborhood family physician. To this day we laugh about the unorthodox medical treatment we received. He must have been the only M.D. for miles by the looks of the jam-packed waiting room. If you made it through that narrow hallway of horrors, seats filled with slumped figures hacking and puking, good ol’ Doctor “M” would greet you in the exam room—a lit cigar securely propped on his bottom lip. The well-tanned, grizzled doc would give you a quick once-over while puffing smoke in your face. I remember struggling to hold in my coughs while frantically mulling over the only two possibilities ever to come from that “thorough” examination: drop your drawers for a penicillin shot, or if you were lucky enough to clear that frightening hurdle, then—the preferred magic pink pills. Oh, how I longed for those pills over that painful jab in my rump. More than half the time, to my great relief, he would dash off a prescription and hand it to my mom or dad. No matter what ailment we suffered, we went home with those same fuchsia tablets in a tiny paper envelope. To this day, I have no idea what the prescription actually was. But it must have been darn good if it treated so many problems! Like a magic bullet, a dose of those pink pills promised complete healing, which must have happened pretty quickly based on the evidence of leftover pills that accumulated in our medicine cabinet over the years.
If only we had a prescription miracle remedy to fix our fallen natures. I can almost picture the infomercial now, “Suffering from this soul-crushing sickness? Have we got the cure for you! Take our Vita-Glow Halo capsules and you’ll be amazed by the incredible instant results. In just days, you’ll be made absolutely new!” The sacraments are undoubtedly a kind of powerful medicine for our ailing souls. A good confession followed by reception of the Eucharist has to be the best one-two punch cure out there. Those graces send us happily on our way… until we engage with yet another nasty virus or bacteria that is sin. And as we all know, we will interface with more. So, how can we strive for spiritual health in our day-to-day lives as we journey through Lent?
In 15 years of living in the same Denver neighborhood, I can count on one hand the number of neighbors my husband and I have actually gotten to know. And by “gotten to know,” I mean exchanged cursory hellos, and shared a few passing conversations about the weather or concern over suspicious cars. Growing up a midwestern gal where I considered many of my neighbors good family friends, it was quite an adjustment to experience family life in such… isolation. Shortly after planting roots, we realized we had chosen a neighborhood populated by a lot of seniors and childless, middle-aged couples, and oh yeah.. a whole lot of dogs! We took walks, waved, often with no response, and watched the parade of dog owners and their cute pooches passing our home, all the while seeking a glimmer of connection. I used to joke to my husband that I was on some neighborhood watch list—that crazy lady with the little kids in tow who over-enthusiastically waves and smiles… and creeps everyone out. Watch out for her! Eventually, though, we became resigned to the silo culture. We just drove to find our community. Gratefully, our parish and Catholic school filled a void. But, I still felt jealous of friends who lived in those suburban “cul de sac” neighborhoods where everyone’s kids played together and the moms delivered meals if someone was sick or had a baby…
Recently, everything changed. No block parties, or steaming casserole dishes, but a profound shift, a real thawing of the ice. Our family is suddenly on the neighborhood map—not literally, but in a way that indelibly connects us to those we live near. In some ways, this new connection has been even more personal & fortifying than the ice cream social event I longed for years ago. The key to unlocking that change is rather surprising and hidden. In fact, it has been lodged in the dirt all along.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist the title. No need to avert your eyes, I’m talking about the other V-word, VIRTUE. While it’s not nearly as provocative as the first word that readily comes to mind, maybe it should be. When I was growing up way back in the… rhymes with shmeventies and shmeighties, I heard absolutely nothing about virtue or virtuous living. It was as if the word had fallen out of favor among prevailing Catholic thought, and yet our own doctor of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas, has owned the discussion since the time of the Greek philosophers. Maybe it was too closely associated with those scary images of nuns whacking kids with rulers. Who knows? But I was blissfully unaware.
When my own kids started being introduced to virtuous living in their Catholic schooling and from the “Book of Virtues” by William Bennett, some ten years ago, one of them asked me directly what virtue meant. I couldn’t answer clearly. All I could muster was, “er… uh… I’m pretty sure honesty is a virtue.” I remember looking up the v-word and thinking, “How do I not know this?”Since then, I can’t get enough of the topic!
I’ve noticed you haven’t written in a while. I hope all is well for you and your family. The events of the last several months have been tough on all of us. You don’t know me, but you’ve been in my thoughts and prayers. Thanks for sharing your perspective on family life and faith and I hope you continue to write. Maybe you’ve just switched formats and I’m not aware. Either way, God bless you and your family.
As this thoughtful reader’s email aptly points out, I haven’t written in a while. Many of you are thinking, yeah, and so?… Well, at least Donna misses me! First off, thank you for your sweet letter. To answer your welcome question, our skeletal staff of five here at “Late For Church,” (AKA the family) are faring remarkably well despite the roller coaster of events playing out across our country and world. Other than a nasty flu-like virus (COVID? possibly, but not definite) which hit my son, daughter, and me at the beginning of March, we are all fine. I can readily speak to their physical health, however not so knowledgeably on their emotional, mental health. How is it that I cannot nail down my kids’ and husband’s moods when we’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time together, living on top of each other for months? I can barely grasp my own thoughts and feelings, let alone the rest of my family.
I wrote this many years ago as a new mother who was just beginning to understand the depth of my own mom’s love for my siblings and me. Happy Mother’s Day to all the sacrificial mothers out there—biological & spiritual! Today, look a mother in the eyes (even if via zoom) and tell her thank you!
My Mother’s Eyes
I remember my mother’s eyes. They were clear, light blue, deep-set with a faint perimeter of feathery skin that crinkled when she smiled. Those calm, translucent eyes managed to communicate so much. But her childhood snapshots were incongruent somehow. As a child myself, paging through tattered, old-fashioned, black paper photo albums, her youthful eyes seemed slanted and squinty, only faintly reminiscent of the woman I knew. I actually felt a little pity for my homely, little mommy. Her face must have needed to grow in order to accommodate such complex and interesting eyes. As she aged, the skin around the eyes became more delicate, thinner, and fainter, giving her penetrating eyes a whitish, oval frame. Now, when I look back at photos of her during her mothering years, I see so much light emanating from her face. I’ve heard it said those who are filled with goodness sometimes seem as if they are shrouded in light. Her goodness radiated from the eyes.
As a kid, if I got hurt she’d give me a quick, concerned once-over as if silently recounting all of my limbs. Once all were accounted for and intact, her gaze would fix on me, offering such comfort. When she was proud of one of my little accomplishments, her eyes would soften and seem to laugh. They would light up to cheer me on when I was struggling, like trying to get my first hit in softball. My stare would zero in on her eye line in the stands as I waited out the right pitch. But there were also times throughout my youth when her eyes betrayed the otherwise well-adjusted motherly exterior. I had a natural love for baking, one of only a few interests we did not share. My mom was usually exhausted after a long day of work. She was a school teacher who rushed home and did the lion’s share of the housework as well. Having the impeccable timing of a child, it was then that I would generally hit her up to help me bake cookies. Her eyes were incredulous and impatient. But soon, without much prodding, they would look up signaling resignation. In that glance, I could almost instantaneously smell the homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Amidst the strange events that are unfolding worldwide, I have been so grateful for my Rosary. The Holy Rosary is my tangible link to the Blessed Mother who continually leads me more deeply into relationship with the Trinity. A month or so ago, I gave a talk to a moms’ Bible study group in which I shared my personal story of how I came to rely on the Rosary. A mere string of beads has been a source of strength and comfort when I had nowhere else to turn—and thanks be to the Almighty, those beads are fortifying me once again when so much uncertainty and fear abound. What a profound sense of peace to pray the Luminous Mysteries with the Pope and the rest of the world this week. I hope we all continue to pick up this powerful devotion daily and marvel at the results.
You don’t have to enjoy saying the Rosary. Truth be told, I often don’t. But, now more than ever, give it a chance. I hope the talk I’ve linked below helps you understand why.
Here’s the intro they read before I began.
Our speaker today is Mary Jo Gerd. She has been married for more than 15 years to a wonderful husband she believes God handpicked for her.
However, she is currently employed by three overbearing, domineering bosses…ages 13, 11, and 9. They just happen to call her mom which is the best and hardest job she’s ever had.
Before taking on that important role, she worked as a promotions writer and producer for a movie channel, doing trailers, celebrity interviews, and red carpets. She traded in her “glamorous” media job for the more rewarding, albeit lower-paying vocation of full-time wife and mother. She hasn’t looked back since. Well, maybe once or twice.
She and her family are active members of their Denver parish. She enjoys writing about family life and her reversion to the Catholic faith on her personal blog, Late For Church.blog. You can often find her essays featured on New Advent. She’s been regularly interviewed on Relevant Radio’s, “Morning Air” discussing all sorts of Catholic topics. And she is a brand new board member of the non-profit organization, Families of Character.
I’m about to write something extremely controversial and provocative. Proceed with the pitchforks and torches if you must. It will not change my opinion. Here goes. I’m glad—no, downright gleeful that my kids’ Catholic school does not celebrate Valentine’s Day. There. It’s officially out there. I’m truly happy there will be no shoebox “mailboxes” wrapped in red and pink paper and plastered with colorful stickers and foam heart decorations. No cutesy purple cupcakes heaped with gobs of frosting and sprinkles. No party with pastel streamers, balloons, Pinterest-inspired crafts, sugary drinks paired with adorable polka-dotted straws, and candy galore. Some of these things I look back on fondly from my own youth. I did really love those candy hearts with the pithy little sayings… miss you, be mine, kiss me. And taking my stuffed mailbox back to my desk where I opened each valentine with eager anticipation—I’ll admit—it was fun. And yet, I don’t want that same pleasurable memory for my own kids? There’s a reason I’ve taken such a counter-cultural stance against the feast of February 14th. In one sentence, we’ve lost our minds, folks. We took a turn towards Cuckoo-Ville, accelerated, and haven’t looked back.
I’ve been on the receiving end of countless awkward comments. Unfortunately, I’ve uttered plenty of them too. Navigating social situations is a bit like dodging roadside IED’s while blindfolded. The obstacle course often gets more treacherous at family gatherings during the holidays. Christmas get-togethers are already rife with turmoil and stress. Merely sharing surnames and relatives doesn’t mean anyone will agree on anything: faith, politics, diet, fashion, or even what’s funny. Why would anyone want to pile on and make an already difficult situation more strained? “Pass the green bean casserole, Uncle Ned, you pony-tail wearing, commie-loving hippie!” Obviously, not appropriate. But what about the more veiled remarks delivered with the best of intentions? These little conversational nuggets are the dirty bombs of small talk. The gift that keeps giving—like my father-in-law’s homemade sugar-free cranberry sauce which packs a bitter wallop upon first taste, but the memory of that punishing, mouth-puckering sharpness lingers a lifetime.
If you’re as ancient as I am, you’ll remember those Wendy’s commercials from the 1980s which featured a spritely grandma who takes apart her fast-food burger to reveal two comically oversized buns with a pathetic, tiny piece of meat nestled on one of the halves, barely detectable. It’s dwarfed by the pickle chip. An unwitting spokesperson, this little gray-haired lady, heroically takes up the voice for the rest of America. She, like all of us, is tired of being ripped off, as she rightly demands, “Where’s the beef?” (If you don’t know the commercial, trust me—it’s a laugh riot, but you should stop reading now so you can finish your spelling homework.) The point of the commercial is that other fast food joints try to pass off tiny burgers in enormous buns to unsuspecting customers, while Wendy’s clearly has their priorities straight. It’s all about what’s sandwiched between the gigantic slabs of bread, the generously portioned all-beef patty. That tiny speck of meat the other restaurants are peddling will never truly satisfy.
Recently glancing at the calendar as November winnowed away, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition of notable days. To my surprise, sandwiched between the two biggest consumer holidays of the year is the weekend which marks the beginning of Advent. I must have realized this before, but for some reason, it was the first time I really made the connection. In other words, God turned a nightlight on for His daughter. To my shock, the crucial Sunday when we begin to prepare liturgically and spiritually to welcome the Savior of the whole wide world—just happens to be bookended by Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Situated poetically between a day for hardcore bargain hunters which inspires fistfights in the aisles of Walmart—and a workday when adults opt to remain in their jammies staring at blue light for hours trying to score killer deals, we find the kick-off to Advent. Is it just me or is the world committing a dastardly sleight of hand, playing up the non-essential part of our lives in the lead up to Christmas and seriously downplaying the only part that truly matters? Am I so unsuspecting and gullible as to fall for a trick like that? Not this year. I’m looking back at what the world has to offer and demanding none too politely, “Where’s the beef?”
Years ago I used to enjoy the mind-numbing babble of a popular national morning show while I got ready for work. One segment that caught my attention was, “Eat this! Not that!”The ultra-skinny host whose own diet clearly consisted of an occasional rice cake topped with kale would run through a display of mouth-watering dishes, often well-known fast food items. With the help of an “expert” guest, the bobble-headed anchor would compare the fat and calorie information of each. By comparison of the nutritional facts, they would conclude, “Eat this grilled chicken sandwich which has 50-billion fewer calories than that one loaded with mayo and fried in gobs of fire-retardant lard. (Gasp.) And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever eat that!” But the greatest shock entertainment value came when they compared seemingly healthy salad entrees against obvious fat-laden dishes like pizza, or hamburgers and fries. The plates piled high with greens and veggies often contained—wait for it—double or even triple the calorie content of the junk food items! The moral of the story: unsuspecting customers were often hoodwinked into heart disease by the lurking fat in “healthy” salads. Poor shmucks! “They should eat this delicious all-beef patty! But not that deadly harvest salad piled with carcinogenic croutons and dreaded trans fats! It contains enough calories to nourish a small town for two years. Just look at all that BACON and RANCH!” Yum…
Recently, I came up with a twist on the morning show game which has shed some light on the problem of recurring sin in my life.Let’s call this little game of spiritual discovery, “Hate THIS! Not THAT!”