On Becoming a Hero: Roles, Rituals and the True Self

Yesterday at the grocery store, a man handed me a wad of cash, saying “Here ya go, ma’am. Merry Christmas.” And the fifty-year-old, tall white man wearing a black baseball hat and backpack, walked away. To be honest, I was rather troubled–I looped around odd places before driving home to make sure no one was following me.

It prompted me to consider “Why me?” I attract a good deal of attention when I’m out with my two kids pushing mini-carts in the store and a baby wrapped to my chest. My guess is that me as “mom with three kids” met some kind of ideal in his head someone working hard and “doing it right,” so to speak.

The irony of me matching someone’s ideal is such an odd thought to me, because, despite how stereotypical we are, I (and my husband) never set out to be a certain way. In fact, we’ve just sort of stumbled and fumbled our way since we fell head over heels in 2006. In truth, I have watched people my age go off, continue their education, travel and do other things that we really couldn’t and I’ve felt so massively and heavily at times that I’m doing everything wrong. Yet through no intention of my own, I align to someone else’s view of “the good life,” a “hero” in a certain sense, someone to-be-admired. Strange.

Roles and Rituals

It got me thinking about our roles in life, the roles we play with each other and the rituals we use to enact these roles and their ontological status–are they real? And quite honestly, the answer is yes. Many a faddish magazine dismisses rituals (religious, family or otherwise) as “play-acting.”  But the jobs we do for each other in our roles actually enact our values: as a mom, I take my kids to the grocery store, I pack their lunch, I help them decorate a Christmas tree and I snap their photo all-the-darn-time. I’m not play-acting. Yes, these jobs come with the territory of the relationship — a mom helps kids do certain things — but they are also rituals. In the words of _________, a ritual is “The story we tell ourselves about out ourselves.” I would paraphrase that to say rituals are the culturally sanctioned actions through which we enact our values.

When I pack a lunch, I am playing a role in the cultural set-up that has designated school as the socializing setting for young children; I am playing a support role to meet the kids’ basic bodily needs of eating within the cultural context of school and what that does for them and me in ordering our lives and relationships. And yes, it is a role. But it is critical, and when I participate, I enact or bring into reality my own approval and buy-in to our value system. These rituals hold our cultural, relational fabric together. To dispense with them is not to be more “real,” but to cut individuals off from relational, cultural unities and isolate them.

The roles we play then are more than empty motions, and I think people become heroes when they learn to play the roles for the good of others, to recognize and transmit the goods of community and culture. Indeed, as Aristotle said, man is a political animal. We exist in and of communities; a person alone is not fully realized. Roles and rituals function to preserve and transmit community, an essential good to human life.

To give an example, a young man to aspires to be a firefighter in order to be thought of as strong and attractive, does it for the wrong reasons. A man who serves in the job (or role) of firefighter and forgets himself as he works to save others, becomes a hero. Without his intention, he draws the admiration of others. And a person who dismisses the role of firefighter as empty, prestige-seeking has lost a sense of the fundamental value of putting one’s abilities to the service of others in a particular way.

Vocation

Whether we pursue it or not, people become heroes or attain to holiness without seeking this directly–to seek it directly would be impossible. But by intending to serve, to play roles and do jobs for the aid of others in the service of goodness, we attain to what the roles and the rituals signify–goodness, unity, love–the holy, spiritual realities immanent to the physical.

Super heroes

This same phenomenon appears in super hero movies. The hero typically doesn’t intend to go out and “be a hero.” Rather, he or she becomes a hero when she starts to use her abilities for the good of others simply because those powers are hers. Captain America, for instance, doesn’t become a hero when he gets super strength. He becomes a hero when he breaks orders to rescue the captured POWs. Peter Parker doesn’t become a hero when he uses his abilities to win wrestling matches; he becomes a hero when he recognizes that “with great power, comes great responsibility,” and he takes up that responsibility.

Heroes and Saints

So I don’t think that any of us can set out to become heroes or saints, in Christian-speak. But I think that people become heroes when we use our abilities to service of others, for the transmitting and caring for the good of others, the unity of our societies and authentic values. And this comes out most often through our roles and rituals: brother, daughter, sister, mother, firefighter, nurse, priest, teacher, planning committee co-chair, mom’s group leader, artist, ball player etc, etc, etc.

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The Transformative Purpose of Pain

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_edit.jpgI wanted to re-post an email devotional that I get from Fr. Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. In just a few paragraphs, it sheds light on and explains something that resonates with my experience over the past few years, the transformative power and purpose of pain.

I’ve highlighted the one paragraph that stood out the most to me:

Transforming Pain
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.

Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation. Unless we can find a meaning for human suffering, that God is somehow in it and can also use it for good, humanity is in major trouble. Because we will suffer. Even the Buddha said that suffering is part of the deal!

We shouldn’t try to get rid of our own pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach. When we can hold our pain consciously and trustfully (and not project it elsewhere), we find ourselves in a very special liminal space. Here we are open to learning and breaking through to a much deeper level of faith and consciousness. Please trust me on this. We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.

As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross or, as in Michelangelo’s Pietà cradling Jesus’ body. One would expect her to take her role wailing or protesting, but she doesn’t! We must reflect on this deeply. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. It’s as if she is saying, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” Consider the analogy of energy circuits: Most of us are relay stations; only a minority are transformers—people who actually change the electrical charge that passes through us.

Jesus on the cross and Mary standing beneath the cross are classic images of transformative spirituality. They do not return the hostility, hatred, accusations, or malice directed at them. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery of Christianity. It takes our whole life to begin to comprehend this. It tends to be the wisdom of elders, not youngers.

Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to try to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame, where our private pain is not center stage but a mystery shared with every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time. Our pain is not just our own.

Retractions: Finding an authentic self-love in Christian language

It’s come time that I would like to discuss Christian language about losing the self and about self-love, and do so by revisiting something I wrote a few years ago called “The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood.” 

In this well-intended piece, I wrote about how motherhood requires giving up of the self in order to be purified. Some of that is accurate, but some of what I wrote is off-the mark, and falls into the category I’ve come to despise in mom-devotionals: rationalizing our legitimate needs away. 

I wrote this: “But the false self who feels buried, who thinks we are above drool and spilled cereal, who wants everything to be easy, without sacrifice, and who wants accomplishments for accomplishments’ sake must die in the desert of motherhood.”

And to this I would now reply: Hold on. It’s true that no one is “above drool” and the mundane pieces of life, but neither should anyone be confined to the mundane aspects of life. Perhaps this “self who feels buried” doesn’t need to “die,” but rather is in a real need of being resurrected, cared for, and set on a path of purpose–in short, loved and healed by Jesus.

Yes, in the Gospels Jesus says that “He who seeks to gain his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake shall gain it.” And this is very true, but I fear that I’ve misapplied it myself and seen it wrongly applied quite frequently.  God loves us and wants good things for us. He gave us emotions, and when they are severely out of balance, it’s a signal that something needs to be fixed. Following God is meant to be a fulfillment of who we are called to be and of putting our gifts into his service. It is not the squelching of our abilities, moods and value. When we “give up our life,” this is a call to put our gifts at the service of God rather than selfishness.

And we can know that this is accurate because of the greatest commandment. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves if we have no love of self. Fr. Jacques Philippe, a well-known priest and writer on the spiritual life has written:

Love travels along two paths that are inseparable in the end: love of God and love of neighbor. But as this text suggests, there is another aspect of charity—love of one’s self. (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) This self-love is good and necessary, not egoism that refers everything to “me,” but the grace to live in peace with one’s self, content to be what one is, with one’s talents and limitations.
– Called to Life, p.69

Christian devotionals sometimes wrongly attack self-love and self-care as selfishness or indulgence. But they are not always the same. Being a self, caring for ourselves is actually what allows us to give to others.

In true humility, we recognize our gifts so that we can give them! True humility doesn’t pretend that we are worthless wretches with nothing to offer anyone, cowering in a bedroom feeling low. Yet, it always maintains the other side of the truth, which is that none of us are ever perfect and that it’s good also to recognize our shortcomings and sins and aim to get better.

So I retract my portions of my essay. The intensity of my negative emotions meant that something needed to change. For me, I started working outside the home. Maybe this isn’t the path for everyone, but it has made me feel that I am using my gifts at the service of others and answering a call.

Encouraging Scrupulosity – Another problematic theme I see in some devotionals

And now, if I may, I have seen an entire genre of mom-devotionals in which frankly I see scrupulosity encouraged alongside this downplaying of the legitimate needs of parents.

In one recent post, the author found sinfulness in her social media latte post. She declared that she was a hypocrite, posting her shiny, “best life” photos while avoiding the stickier interior issues. Maybe that’s true, but I’d had enough of this style and unsubscribed. The post had also included that this was a break after a long stretch of busyness for her, and I just couldn’t shake the ill-feelings that this was precisely the sort of Christian-mommy post that finds sin where it isn’t and overlooks some other legitimate goods. These things are misleading and frankly unhealthy.

Here’s what bothers me about this genre of devotional:
1. Finding sin in innocent actions encourages scrupulosity. I don’t want to discourage examination of conscience, but neither should we obsess over all the minuscule ways we might be sinning. There are more loving, healthy, helpful, Jesus-centered things to do instead.
-2. A coffee break can be a healthy impulse–as a mother, a little alone time is necessary for sanity. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves–the “ourselves” isn’t optional. As I mentioned earlier, if we aren’t caring for ourselves appropriately, we cannot care for others. In humility, we see our own value interconnected with the value of others. Humility is not acting like we are worthless and don’t need to recharge or manage our own needs.

If some time out with a coffee is self-care, it is pernicious to look for sin in an innocuous action.

3. Where does this self-critical confessional stem from? Honestly, (and I’m speculating here)  I think it stems from a sense of guilt at life going well. Sometimes, we are so accustomed to speaking of the cross, that we forget the joy and the resurrection. I’ve spent time reflecting on this myself–what to do when things are going well. What is there to “offer up” so to speak?

The answer, I believe, comes as forgetfulness of oneself, not as worthless, but in seeing opportunities to love others. Instead of continuing to look inward, we can turn our gaze outward to help others–to give back some of the goodness that we have been so lucky to receive from God.

4. God loves us. He does want us to live good lives–to have “life abundantly”–and while we do need to realize our sin, we need to also see our value, that we have gifts we are called to share. Fussing over lattes isn’t one of them. When life is going well, something isn’t necessarily wrong. It can be a time to share blessings.

Perhaps the author’s quiet cup of coffee strengthened her to jump back into the parenting fray or gave her a chance to write something which would encourage others.

Only the individual and God can say what is indulgence and what is self-care, so I can’t claim to know the state of her soul.

[For the record, I do not intend anything like the “prosperity gospel” here; I do not believe that God heaps material goods on people for being Christians. What I do mean is that when we do have abundance, we should be grateful and share it instead of looking the gift-horse in the mouth, so to speak, and seeking out problems with it.]

There are legitimate goods that are okay to celebrate and enjoy. And I believe that we live the Christian life when we focus on what we can give. In Bishop Barron’s words, “your life is not about you.”

When he speaks of the great values of God and teleology, Bishop Barron says: “None of this is meant to be crushing to the will, but liberating. When these great values present themselves to our freedom, we are drawn out beyond ourselves and integrated into great realities that expand us and make us more alive. “

So–what do you think? Have you had any turn-arounds in thought? Do you buy the distinction I’ve made about self-love and selfishness? 

 

Learning Latin is like learning English

A latin student of mine asked what it would take to get ready to be ready for AP Latin? And it made me reflect on what it really takes to learn a language and how we learn even our native tongue. I thought I would share my answer and my ponderings.

I think that language is more transformative than we tend to realize. (NB I’m not that great at it, but I’m a little further than my students). Language is part of the building blocks of our mind, how we think, how we live. Words make abstract feelings and experiences communicable. George Orwell was onto something when he wrote 1984 and imagined the government limiting language in order to limit thought.

I told my student that to be ready for AP Latin, you need the latin equivalvent of what it takes to be ready for AP English. Advanced English is more than noun/verb agreement. Reading novels introduces the advanced middle-schooler, for instance, to stylistic language, an expanded vocabulary, building scenes, implications, repeated metaphors and meanings that carry between sentences. To make this linguistic level jump, a student must have the basics of language down, as children do. Children converse with their parents about concrete objects; they listen to songs and watch television in it. The Latin student should likewise have a child’s level of fluency before beginning advanced and abstract and stylistic texts.  Learning Latin is hard because the culture that goes along with it just isn’t around anymore. So we have to make it up through anachronisms such as the video above of a latin professor singing Adele’s Hello.

To get to fluency, the language must become our own, internalized. It isn’t enough to memorize charts of verb conjugations; to learn a language we have to care; it has to be part of us; it has to start to form the shape of our thought. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare on the page and being confused, and watching it played out well–seeing the words in action, embodied by actors who express their reality and about whose fate we are actually concerned.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a relationship to learn a language, a person that we care about enough to make the jump of total communication in that language. I think this is true. I recommended memorizing text, reading in basic Latin and listening to songs in Latin. Middle schoolers listen to songs in English–it’s one of the cultural, subconscious ways they experience language as tied to art and emotion.

That’s it. The question was interesting to me because it made me reflect on the effort it takes to learn and what it takes for us to rise the levels of linguistic experience in our native tongue and how that corresponds with learning another language.

For me and Latin, even though I’m not that good at it, a large part of why I care is because I am Catholic. I wanted to learn Latin to read theology, to access the history of the Church, to pray in Latin. I have Latin prayers memorized, and I sometimes try to read the Bible in Latin–which was recommended to me by a professor. It’s smart because as Christians, the Gospel stories are so familiar to us, that it’s almost impossible not to understand them even in another language if we can pick out just a few words. Then our brains can  make the jump to piecing together all the meaning connections between the words. It’s a funny sort of experience. I like it, and I’m still not the best language student, but I do want to keep working at it.

Have you learned a foreign language? How long did it take? What strategies helped? If you could learn any language, what would it be and why?

Video & Song: I heard the Voice of Jesus Say

Music and the Spiritual Life

I have found that music has a profound ability to remind me of truths and lift me out of a dark mood. Also, as I reflect on it, I realize that the Christian musical canon had a more formative impact on my development than I realized.

In school, I did chorus, and we learned plenty of medieval and Celtic music. Sometimes the lyrics were Christians, sometimes not.

In church, I began to recognize the melodies of many hymns because they were the same traditional ballads carried over from the old countries and brought to new life and reshaped by new communities with new lyrics.

It’s both a cultural phenomenon and purely beautiful. I credit my exposure to medieval music and chant as one of the primary reasons I never dismissed the Catholic Church as just archaic and weird. The beauty that rose from the tradition in music and art was already part of my own foundation.

One of my favorite songs I first learned as a celtic ballad and then relearned it as a hymn: “I heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” It’s one I sing to my kids at night

A formal choir version is in the video above. What do you think? Do you have favorite hymns, spiritual songs or others that just put you in the right place?

I’m Voting 3rd Party: Conscience Is Not A Luxury, But An Imperative

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“It’s wasting your vote”

“We can’t afford your protest this time–it’s too important.”

How many times have we heard the admonitions that voting for a third party is either futile or downright dangerous. Well, I’m voting third party this time around, and I encourage anyone who isn’t totally for Clinton or Trump to do so as well.

Joe Heschmeyer at Shameless Popery has described it succinctly: The two candidates are “awful”:

“As for Clinton, while she has been evasive about certain late-term abortions, her overall support for the legalized killing of unborn children is  unambiguous. Indeed, she’s only gotten worse with age: she went from arguing that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare” (adding, “and I mean rare“) to arguing that they should simply be “safe and legal” (the “rare” language is also conspicuously absent from prepared campaign materials, so this wasn’t an innocent oversight). Indeed, it’s not enough for there to be a constitutional right to abortion: she’s pointed to the need to change religious beliefs to favor abortion, and the Democratic Party is in the process of including new language in its platform to encourage federal funding for abortion (breaking the Hyde Amendment truce).”

“Trump has called for torture as a tool for winning the war on terror, as well as “taking out” the families of terrorists (he later denied that this necessarily meant murdering the families). As for waterboarding, he’s said:

‘They asked me, what do you think about waterboarding, Mr. Trump. I said I love it. I love it. And I said the only thing is, we should make it much tougher than waterboarding, and if you don’t think it works, folks, you’re wrong.’ “

Now add to his support for torture and general disregard for religious and ethnic minorities, his disgusting comments from 2005 about how he (as a married man) chases married women, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.

These are simple facts about the candidates;  those who are motivated by concern about one or the other candidate cajole me to vote for the opponent.

Still, I hear reassurances that the wrongs of the candidates aren’t that bad, and I simply must support the “lesser of two evils.”

We’ve all been voting the lesser of two evils for too long. It has led to this–the two most disliked candidates since voter opinions have been measured.

So it’s time to do something different–vote your conscience. Continue reading

5 Books that Led to My Conversion

Uc2JTTW9vaMCNine years ago, while I was an undergraduate, I converted to Catholicism. Most people know that about me, and a lot of people think it’s strange, and that’s okay. 

I read a lot then and I read a lot now; here are five books that helped me on my way (in addition to the numerous actual people I observed and whose example and conversation affected me):

  1. The Confessions of St. Augustine
    1. Granted, this great saint and theologian was trained in rhetoric in the classical Roman educational style, but his language draws the reader right in. He is so forthright in telling his own wrong-doings, the thought-process of his conversion and in describing the nature of God and how he discovered it.
    2. It’s near-impossible not to be captivated by Augustine’s style and emotion as unfolds the story. There is a lot I identified with and a lot that I learned that Augustine puts into words rather well.
    3. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”
  2. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
    1. A tour-de-force modern classic of philosophy that goes through the history of the Enlightenment moral philosophers to explain why moral/ethical discourse today has gone astray and why we often have difficulty just talking to one another about it.
    2. He criticizes the Enlightenment, destroys relativism as a fall-back and proposes a modern Aristotelianism.
    3. When I was pondering the casual relativism so rampant on college campuses, no other book dealt with the philosophical difficulties therein so well or so broadly. In many ways, this book was for me intellectual permission to set a stance, to reject the proposition that there is no truth, but while maintaining respect for others.
    4. Interestingly, MacIntyre was not Catholic when he wrote this, but he did later convert.
  3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Continue reading

8 Things that Make a Good Day

To tell the truth, I often agonize over how to spend my time: what is the right balance of work/play/socializing, etc etc etc. But there is something that helps me. The moral philosophers from Aristotle into the present day always ask what is the good–that which promotes man’s flourishing?

So I ask myself: what is good? What is flourishing? I think monks flourish. It’s no secret that I admire the avowed religious life very much.  But I think everyday lay people in cities and countries can flourish too. So what’s that like?

But what are the actual daily activities that comprise a life well spent?

  1. Loving relationships-spouse, friends, children, parents, churches, organizations, civic life. The people we love tie us together and are worth spending time with and enjoying.
  2. Cooking and eating – food is part of life, and a good part. Cooking it, enjoying and it and sharing it combine an connection with the source of food and sustenance, enjoyment and community, a chance to share partake in those relationships mentioned in 1.
  3. Enjoying art – music, books, visual art, etc. Beautiful things, natural or man-made, invite us to appreciate life simply as it is and sometimes to contemplate the source of the beauty. Man-made art adds a layer of human reflection to contemplation.
  4. Maintaining the goods of our lives – our homes, our tools, our clothes, aspects of our communities etc. It shows care and gratitude to repair and clean the things that contribute to our lives. It keeps us grounded to provide for own physical needs and that of others.
  5. Creating – contributing our gifts to something new and meaningful, be it pottery, gardening, painting, writing, carpentry. This work also contributes to our community and engenders mutual flourishing
  6. Exercising – Care for the body that allows us to live and move is so important
  7. Being in nature, even if it’s just the yard or garden, or gazing at the sky from our city balcony. Watching and interacting with creation is both an appreciation of beauty, and it reminds us of what it real and the forces of the earth which are more powerful than we are.
  8. Spirituality – in addition to appreciating the beautiful and loving one another, to attempt to and to commune with God, the source of all, restorer of all and our own maker, is the simplest grounding there can be.  (PS there is a short-cut, the sacraments, the Bible and the Catechism)

Continue reading

The 1 Biggest Reason Nature Matters in our Spiritual Lives–from a Modern Point of View

 

iStock_000057827554_MediumBeing outside is one of the great pleasures in life, particularly in good weather. I love pulling weeds, planting seeds, pushing the kids around for a walk or run and even the occasional hike; (see my picture of Skellig Michael in Ireland above).

But I don’t consider the “why,” very often, as I do with a lot of other things.

This short article really hit-home for me about some of the reasons being outside feels so good and is so good for us.

“God created humans in the wild and placed us in a garden. We’re meant to live a substantial portion of our lives outdoors—and it’s a unique place to experience our Creator and restore our spirits.” – Michael Hyatt

In a sense, this is so obvious, and yet we don’t hear it enough. Our love for natural boils down to a simply, basic spiritual reality.

Great saints have said similar things, “The Heavens are singing the glory of God” -St. Francis.

Hyatt ‘s blog connects it with business and personal development, which is nice in this case because sometimes it helps to hear things in a contemporary context. And he has research and studies about how being in or even just seeing nature aids your mind, concentration, sleep habits, physical fitness and also spiritual life.  Continue reading

Local Report: Lay Women Take Up the Cause of Mom Ministry

It’s Friday morning and there is coffee brewing in an unused classroom at St. Philip’s Parish in Falls Church, VA. Christina Landauer sets out donuts and stirring sticks while her two year old son plays with a Lightening McQueen riding car. Her infant is asleep in his stroller, and the two older children are in school. She is setting up for the moms group, which she founded.

I attend this group, and I’ll admit, it can be terrifyingly isolating to embark on the path of stay-at-home mother, particularly for those among us who did not grow up with sizeable experiences with young children. The endless, sleepless nights and the stresses of finicky napers and picky eaters can be enough to set anyone on edge. In these times, a welcoming home of women who are traveling the same road or who have traveled it is a comfort unlike any other, akin to the ugly duckling reuniting with her family of swans.

As Mass ends, other mothers slowly trickle in, some holding the hands of preschool aged little ones, some wearing infants or carrying them in a car seat. Some moms have both with them. There is an option for babysitting in the next room so that the women gathered can relax. A few kids go over to play, a few stay with their mothers.

As the group settles in, everyone introduces themselves: newcomers and old friends alike. They begin in prayer and Landauer shares a reflection on growing in holiness as a mother. There is an option for Confession and the chance to share, bond and grow as mothers.

I for one have been tremendously impressed by the kindness and warmth of the women in the St. Philip’s moms group. This is not a high school clique, but a community of folks who care, who are earnestly striving to follow Christ and are who are grateful both to help and to be helped along the way. Continue reading