Ruth Knutson is the wife to Dr. Ron Knutson, an anesthesiologist in Bismarck, North Dakota. Together they have five children. No one would suspect such a poised and joyful person to have had a childhood full of extreme abuse and neglect. But Ruth points out, “It’s what we do with the rest of it that is our story.”
Growing up in Williston, Ruth’s bad-tempered, alcoholic mother was not married to the father she never knew. There were four half-siblings; an older brother and younger sister and two younger brothers. “My house was a disaster,” she said. “If I put stuff in the laundry, I never saw it again.”
One of Ruth’s earliest memories was at five-years-old, pleading with her mother not to leave her with the abusive stepfather. Her mother would not protect her. Two of their houses burned down; one from electrical problems and the other because her three- and four-year-old little brothers were home alone playing with matches.
THE LIGHT OF CHRIST
Amid the chaos, there was her grandmother. Her grandmother had eleven kids and her grandfather had died of cirrhosis of the liver from alcoholism in his late forties. “My grandmother always made me feel safe,” Ruth explained. Her relationship with Jesus began at Mass with her grandmother. “I thought: Jesus suffered and made it through, so I can make it through too.” Years later, when Ruth married Ron, she joined him in the Lutheran church.
As a third grader, Ruth recalled telling God that she had enough. “I told him I didn’t want this life and that I wanted to die and be done,” she said. “I felt God tell me clearly: This is not your life.” It gave Ruth awareness that she had a future to live for and that her terrible home life had nothing to do with her.
A WAY OUT
Years of looking out for her siblings and trying to keep the home in order were overwhelming. By sixth grade, Ruth walked to her social worker’s office and asked to leave. She and her sister, who was eighteen months younger, were placed with different relatives for what became the first of Ruth’s four foster homes.
When her sister was sixteen, she ran away to Wyoming and eventually had two children; one she gave up for adoption, the other was raised by the father. Her sister died five years ago at forty-nine of cirrhosis of the liver. Ruth’s three brothers have also struggled with addictions.
She reached out to them to help, but they made other choices. Ruth does not judge, however. Much their life was beyond their control, such as getting drunk for the first time at two-years-old or being drinking buddies with their mom in junior high. Ruth attributes her own happiness and fulfillment with God and family but said there is a lot of randomness we cannot control.
While in high school, Ruth met her future husband who was two years older. “He knew my mom was a character and that I was in foster care, but he didn’t run away,” she said. By the time she was a senior in high school and he was a pre-med major in college, they married.
“I can’t emphasize enough the love and support that Ron has had for me and how blessed I feel to be a wife, mother, and grandmother,” she said. Ruth stayed home to care for her family until the youngest went to school. Then she earned degrees in addiction counseling and social work and was an addiction counselor for seven years. “I loved working with patients and realized we are more alike than we are different,” she said. “I really think the 12-steps [to sobriety] is a spiritual journey; one that we can all take by surrendering to God.”
REUNITED WITH HER MOTHER
Ruth believed that she had overcome her past, but then learned twenty years ago that her mother had lung cancer. She felt that if she really had forgiven her mother, she needed to go visit. Ruth drove to Minot and brought her mother back to Bismarck. “God’s grace filled me with peace,” Ruth said. “I felt so sorry for her. She never experienced how much love children give you and you give them.”
Her mother had been sober for ten years, earned a math degree, and worked as a tutor. “I wanted her to say she was sorry, but I had a light bulb moment and suddenly understood that she never saw me as a child,” Ruth said. “She was never able to be my mother, but I realized I had a small window of time to be her daughter.”
During the six months they had left, Ruth visited frequently, often telling her mother: “I love you.” It was something Ruth had only heard once from her mother from behind a door.
Soon, her mother started saying it back. When her mother died in October 1995, it seemed both mother and daughter were at peace. “That time was a gift,” Ruth said.
There is one more part to the story, however. “The story would not be complete without forgiving yourself,” Ruth said. She had to forgive herself for not being there for her sisters and brothers and for not trying to start a relationship earlier with her mother.
In the end, Ruth said that her past has given her a heart full of gratitude. Even the bad things are part of the blessings of her life today. For instance, while raising her children, she taught them compassion in a meaningful way. “If you make fun of someone for dirty hair or messy clothes, know that you would have made fun of me when I was a little girl,” she taught them.
“I always ask God what I’m supposed to see,” she said. “I’ve come to understand that there is something to learn in every circumstance. My prayer has always been, ‘Dear God, give me eyes to see, a mind that is open and a heart filled with compassion.’
Patti Maguire Armstrong
is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest book is "Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families." She writes for the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Legatus Magazine and several blogs. Armstrong has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. She and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their ten children. Follow her on Twitter at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.
From our childhood days, most of us can remember a daily prayer to our Guardian Angel. The prayer of my youth went: “O angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.” Angels are a consistent feature of the Jewish and Christian understanding of our spirit-world. They have a high profile in Christian tradition, regularly referred to by Jesus Himself. Modern portrayals of angels in pictures and statuettes tend to take them less seriously, indeed a new angel-culture has become popular commercially which does not reflect the angels of Scripture and tradition. Angels are to be found in the Bible from its opening pages. We find an angel guarding the gate of Eden in the book of Genesis. In the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations, it is the angel who announces the Day of Judgement. Jesus is strengthened by an angel in the garden of Gethsemane. Angels appear in the Bible as messengers from God to His people. Only three angels are given specific names–Raphael, who accompanies Tobias on his travels and protects him, Gabriel who comes to Mary and asks her to be the mother of Jesus, and Michael, who is named in the Book of Revelations as the angel who leads the angelic forces against the devil. Angels are also referred to in the Bible under different groupings such as Cherubim, Seraphim, and Powers. There are nine groupings in all. In some places in the Bible, angels seem to represent God Himself. The visit of God to Abraham in Genesis 18: 1-2 is one such example. Angels are taken for granted in the writings of Saint Paul. They are constantly referred to as part of the believer’s landscape. To the Christians at Rome, Paul writes: “for I am certain of this. Neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). To the Christians at Corinth he writes: “If I have all the eloquence of men and of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing” (1 Corinthians 13:1). To the Christians at Thessalonica he speaks of the end time: “At the trumpet of God, the voice of the Archangel will call out the command and the Lord himself will come down from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). The prayer of the Church is also very rich in the understanding of angels, and prayer is always an expression of the Church’s belief. In the Eucharist, we include angels in our vision of worship. At the very beginning of each Mass we ask the prayers of “all the angels and saints” for forgiveness of our sins. At the Preface to the Eucharist Prayer we join with the “choirs of angels in heaven” in their unending hymn of praise. In the first Eucharistic Prayer we pray, “We ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angels to your altar on high, in the sight of your divine majesty ..” The angels are part of our dialogue with God. Devotion to the angels has been very rich in popular piety. Surely one of the most beautiful awareness’s is that God has given us a personal angel to guard us through life. Yes, we each have a personal friend at God’s throne – our Guardian Angel. Jesus refers to this in Matthew 18:10: “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.” Saint Michael the Archangel is often venerated on mountains. One can think of Mont San Michel in Normandy; Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry; or St Michael's Mount, a small tidal island in Mount's Bay, Cornwall, England. There has been a recent revival of devotion to the Archangel Michael, recalling the practice of reciting, in public, a prayer to Saint Michael after each Mass in the liturgy prior to Vatical II. Many of an older generation will remember it by heart: “Blessed Michael the Archangel, defend us in the hour of darkness. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God restrain him we humbly pray and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell and with him all those wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (328 & 336) tells us: “The existence of spiritual beings, that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition…. From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading them to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men and women united in God.”
Suppose you had a choice: your dream car with all the options and a summer home on the shore, or a life of daily toil spent with persons you truly love and who truly love you. Which would you choose? Think twice. The answer lies in what really makes you happy. If there is more to happiness and fulfillment than material comfort, where can we turn to find the truth about these things? While there is always a limit to the number of things you can accumulate, or cars you can fit on your driveway, there is no limit to the amount of happiness a human heart can receive—or give. The same is true for love. Ultimately, the human heart reaches out to the infinite and eternal love of God. The Second Vatican Council tells us that we should look to Jesus Christ to find the meaning of human fulfillment. “Christ…in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his very high calling” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). The Christian father must look to the God-man, Jesus Christ, for the meaning of human life and happiness. Turning to Christ we see a very different conception of happiness than that offered by our consumer culture. MISSION: REDEMPTION Christ’s role on earth can be depicted in terms of a mission. God the Father sends His only-begotten Son into the world to reconcile it to Himself. In other words, the mission of Jesus is nothing less than to save the souls of all people from all time. Christ achieves this mission through His roles as priest, prophet, and king. As the perfect priest, Christ offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the salvation of all humanity. As a prophet, He bears God’s message of reconciliation to the world, teaching about God’s love and mercy. As king, He rules the universe, exercising His authority through service and humility. The mission of the modern-day father, like that of Christ, is the salvation of souls. The difference between them is the fact that Christ’s mission is universal, concerned with the salvation of all mankind. The father’s mission is concerned primarily with the salvation of his own family. Despite the difference in scope, the father has the same methods at his disposal to achieve this mission of salvation. Through his share in Christ’s grace in the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony, a father shares the grace of Christ’s death and resurrection with his children. He is also a priest in the sense that he brings his children to the sacraments, giving them a direct share in the grace of Christ. The father is a prophet—the bearer of God’s message—to his children by fulfilling his obligation to teach them the Catholic faith. Lastly, he performs Christ’s kingly function as the spiritual head of his family. This headship is always exercised in a Christian manner, rather than a worldly manner. A father’s obligation to lead his family in holiness is not a call to domination, but to service. A FATHER’S FULFILMENT Each week at Mass when reciting the Gloria we learn that Christ alone is the holy one. In living out the vocation of fatherhood, a man is called to imitate the holiness that led Christ to give His entire self for the love of His brothers and sisters. At its root, then, fatherhood is a call to holiness. The example of Christ shows that holiness consists in the radical gift of oneself for the sake of others. Fatherhood is the mission that allows a man to give of himself unreservedly. Thus, it is through fatherhood that most men will find their greatest happiness. To avoid fatherhood for the sake of that dream car, or that special summer home, is to cheat yourself out of one of life’s most rewarding experiences. By calling men to make a gift of themselves to others, God calls fathers to a life of remarkable holiness, indescribable happiness, and true fulfillment.
Have you ever seen a tightrope walker? The most important part of getting started is not balancing. Balance is important only after you start. In the beginning, the most important thing is to make sure the rope does not go slack. To cross the distance, the rope has to be held at both ends. There has got to be tension. That is a good image when we talk about a lot of questions, including this one: Why do I have to go to church? There are two things that we have to hold in tension, and by doing so, we can make it safely across to the other side. Regarding the question, here is the tension: we are sacred and social. We are sacred individuals, created in God’s image. We are also social individuals, and this is also because we are created in God’s image. On one side of the rope, we assert that we are each awesome and unique. We are loved personally by a personal God who is fully invested in us as if we are the only one He has ever created! This is why G.K. Chesterton pointed out that going to Church does not make one a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes one a car. Because God is relational, my worship of God must come from my heart. I must make a personal profession of faith in Him. Here is the other side of the rope: we are also created by a God who dwells in “community.” The mystery of the Holy Trinity reveals that God is one in nature, but three in persons. God is not alone, and so He creates individuals who are interdependent. The family is the first community we experience and the only way we enter into the world, understand ourselves, and gain insight into our destiny. Heaven is the communion of a perfected human family united to God’s Trinitarian life. If we ignore this social dimension, we misunderstand the point of our personal relationship with God—it is so that we can learn to love and be loved by others the way God desires. So, when answering the question “why should I go to church?”, we need to remember to hold both sides of the rope in tension. On one side, we need to understand that we are created as sacred individuals and on the other, that we are created as social individuals. Our response to the reality of God, our worship of Him, must therefore be both personal and public. If we can hold both sides of the rope in tension, we can start to walk across. A quick look into the Old Testament and the New shows us just how to do that. In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments affirm that God cares about what we do on the day of rest, the Sabbath. He does not suggest it, but demands that we honor it. He is not doing that for His sake any more than a doctor is when he demands that you take a few days off from school or work to get better. It is not for your doctor, it is for you. To stay spiritually alive and healthy, God demands that we honor the Sabbath weekly. Resting is directed at remembering what the right order of relationships are: God, others, self. Stepping away from daily business, we are free to do what God desires—to enter into rest and grow in intimacy with God and others. So one part of this balancing act is knowing that in the Old Testament God really does care about our time. In the New Testament, we see why God cares about the time we set aside for the Sabbath. The New Testament reveals what the Old Testament was preparing us for. The Passover meal in the Old Testament commemorated the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land. Jesus elevates this ritual in His Last Supper and now it communicates what it once only commemorated: new life, a life of freedom, the fullness of life itself. God’s life given to us in a sacramental action. Jesus becomes the very food for our own journey towards Heaven. Eucharist is a sacrament where we gather together, as the “new Israel” to offer thanksgiving to God (that is what Eucharist means), and participate in the very sacrifice of Jesus that sets us free from sin, separation, and death. At the Mass, it is Jesus giving Himself to us and our response of thanksgiving is what we give back to Him. So it would not make much sense to desire intimacy with God but ignore the very way that God wants to weekly (and daily!) invite us to share in His life. Two ends of the rope: personal intimacy and public participation in community. Sacred and social. So you see, when the Church reminds us that we have an obligation to go to Mass on Sunday’s, it is not ignoring our need for intimacy. Mass attendance assumes that we are honoring the Sabbath already by resting from unnecessary work and growing our relationships. If we only honor the Sabbath by just going to church, we miss the meaning of rest and relationships with others that God desires from us. But if all we do is rest and grow relationships, and not go to church, we miss the very place where we get to intimately receive and respond to the new life Jesus is offering us. We need both ends of the rope to be held taught because whichever side gets loosened, the result is the same: You do not make it across to the other side. So instead of loosening one side of the rope or the other, let us keep the tension and get started on the journey together by asking Jesus to help us with our balance as we honor the Sabbath, and grow in intimacy with Him and others!
Our priest spoke about envy in his homily yesterday. He said he suffers with it from time to time. And the truth is, so do I. It is such an ugly thing to admit. It is embarrassing. And, it is destructive. It can just devour. It steals from us joy, peace, and gratitude. We cannot be grateful for something while also being envious. The two seem to cancel each other out. So I try—my husband and I—both, to be intentional about what we are grateful for each day. We share three things that we are grateful for, usually around dinnertime. It was hard at first. But it has become easier the more we do it. And with each thing we mention with gratitude that day, the envy of another thing dissipates. Something else that helps me with envy: the realization that we all carry a cross. Many are invisible, even some of mine. And yet, they are still there. If you get to know a person well enough, you get to eventually see their crosses too. And so, getting to know the person I am envious of; that also quiets the envy. I think envy is a thing of superficial reality; not of what truly exists. Envy is the pseudo-reality of what I create without much interaction; not the reality of what I get to know when I listen, when I get close, when I get to know another. And it is a cross that I create for myself that does not bear any fruit or grace. It is dead-weight. When we see someone else with their many blessings, we have to remind ourselves that there are many things happening outside of that picture that we do not see. And while someone may have the blessings we long for, they may also be carrying a cross that would break our backs. And vice versa. God is good. God is generous. He loves us individually. Personally. We are unrepeatable beings to Him. We are precious to Him. And so He gives. He gives us what is good for us, and He gives others what is good for them. He does not give it to them instead of to us. He does not choose to give it to them and then runs out of the good for us. No, He looks at us, lovingly, as if we are the only one He sees when He casts His eyes on us. And He cares for us and for what our hearts desire. And the truth is that we are all so undeserving, anyhow, of those blessings. Do you think so? This too helps me with envy--blessings are not rights, they are not goods that we earn with deeds or even with faith. We do not get them when we become deserving of them as if it is a checkbox to mark–some kind of accomplishment or recognition. I do not even know necessarily what they are, but I do know that even my crosses have been a blessing for me at times. And I know that some others’ blessings have been their burdens at times too. I know that these experiences are not so isolated. They are the shared experience of this life. And that, also, is something that we are called to do with both our blessings and our burdens: to share them. Again, this helps close the door on envy. To share our blessings: praise God. To share our blessings and our burdens: raise another one to God. Share them so that we can ask others to lift us up to Him too. If you struggle with envy, I want you to know that you are not alone, and that other Catholic and Christian women struggle with this this too. And at times, that is me. I hope that we can help each other through those times with the reminder that there is always more to see, more to know, and more to understand than what we have put together in our mind. And, that God absolutely loves us each of us. Even when we cannot fathom it.
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