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.
I was already about eight weeks along and we were going to Mass at a friend's house as part of a birthday party. We had not yet told anyone. Odd for me since I usually like people to know right away and want all the prayers. But for the first time ever, I was still in a bit of denial. I was still processing the fact that yes, this was real and yes, we were doing this again. I was not ready to share just yet. Plus, I was feeling pukey and it was better for me to just buck up and get through it than think about it too much. Mass was in the backyard. There were dozens of little kids and we brought our lawn chairs and the parish priest walked over to celebrate Mass for us. And despite my general pukiness, it was beautiful: This whole group of families praying and singing together on a chilly and sunny October afternoon. There was music and as we made our way through the blankets and cold grass to receive Him, it played: Fill my cup, let it overflow. And the words hit me hard. “Lord? That cup of mine? It's pretty full already, Lord. You see that, right? Haven't I shown you already that I'm terrible at this cup handling thing? And yet You're really going to keep going? Really, I'm okay. You can head on over to the next table, please. See that lady, there? She needs it more than I do and it looks from here like her cup is pretty empty. She should have my share. I'll set that cup out when I'm ready but I'm all set for now, thanks.” How often we hear that phrase "overflowing cup" and yet I had never really stopped to think what a dang mess that is. I mean, who wants their cup to overflow? I do not really mean that. I want mine just full enough, thank you. Ready when I want it, full when I want it, and certainly not empty, but NOT runnething over and all that, getting my hands and table all stained and messy. I want the blessings to be neat and perfectly timed and manageable, filling my cup just enough so that it does not make a mess and still brings joy. You can pour, Lord, but You should know better than to spill. Yet His method is so different. His table-waiting methods would never pass at even the most mediocre of restaurants. He chooses as He wills to pour until we feel we cannot on our own handle it anymore and the blessings come streaming down the table, until our hands and lips are stained with the blessings and we are changed and become more like Him, reveling in the good and beautiful. We learn how to love and trust with abandon, letting those blessings overflow to the people and world around us. He pours where He wills and sometimes it seems unfair and ridiculous, not pouring when we are desperately thirsty and overflowing our cup when we already cannot catch a breath. It all seems so very messy. At least from our perspective. And I am not sure that there is anyone who loathes and distrusts a mess more than I do. Why cannot this life, this whole plan, be a little more organized? Why cannot we each get the perfect amount in our cup, enough that we can handle it well and it all makes sense? God is perfect order. His plan is not haphazard or out of control. Yet, it often seems that way to us. I have begun to think of it like a mosaic. If I were all shrunken down and standing in the midst of a giant mosaic, what would I see when looking around? Fragments and random colors and lines of mortar gluing the jagged and crooked pieces together. It would seem a mess. Why would this color be next to this color? I do not see any pattern or order anywhere and this piece certainly should be here and not there. But from the eternal God point of view, high above our understanding and limited perspective, it all makes sense. What we thought was a mess was a million little pieces perfectly and intricately put together to create something beautiful. And someday I believe, I hope, we will see that mosaic in its fullness. So I did that afternoon what I do and I tried to let the words begin to penetrate my overwhelmed and fearful heart. And, of course, I cried. Because that is also what I do. “Lord, (deep breath) okay. Fill my cup and help me handle the overflow. I don't particularly like it, but this life is messy. Love is messy. Opening my heart to Your will is messy. Teach me how to see this perceived mess as beautiful, as blessing, as part of that perfectly amazing mosaic you have planned. This crazy, beautiful, messy life…it's Yours. Fill my cup, Lord. Let it overflow.” To let go of the control, to trust in His ways is not easy for an organized control freak like me. But one drop at a time, or perhaps one gushing spill at a time, He will help me get there.
I have had several recent conversations with friends and professional acquaintances on the subject of openly sharing our Catholic faith. I was a little surprised at how many of them expressed strong reluctance to being open about their beliefs. The reasons given included “We are not allowed to do that at work,” “I don’t want to offend anyone” and “I don’t like to discuss that outside of my parish.” There was a central theme running through their responses which has been the catalyst for a lot of my reflection and prayer over the last few days: Do we ever stop to consider how often our public actions and thinking involving our Catholic faith are influenced by a misguided concern for what others think of us? During the day, how many times do we have missed opportunities to stand up for Christ or share our faith? Is it the conversation we avoid with a troubled co-worker? Is it our refusal to publicly make the Sign of the Cross and say a blessing over our meals? Is it standing up to someone who is attacking the Church? How about the person who is quietly curious about the Catholic faith and is only waiting on an invitation to attend Mass with us? Too often a misplaced concern for the opinion of those around us keeps us from embracing our responsibilities. However, it is crystal clear that Jesus expects us to openly share our faith and acknowledge Him before others if we read the Gospel of Matthew 10:32-33, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” Christ was our greatest example on how to not be concerned about the respect of others. He always taught the truth, regardless of the audience or His surroundings. His enemies recognized this aspect of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 22:16, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.” Francis Fernandez, author of “In Conversation with God,” makes this observation (about sharing the truth): “Christ asks His disciples to imitate Him in this practice. Christians should foster and defend their well-earned professional, moral and social prestige, since it belongs to the essence of human dignity. The prestige is also an important component of our personal apostolate. Yet we should not forget that our conduct will meet with opposition from those who openly oppose Christian morality and those who practice a watered-down version of the Faith. It is possible that the Lord will ask of us the sacrifice of our good name, and even of life itself. With the help of His grace we will struggle to do His will. Everything we have belongs to the Lord.” He goes on to write, “In such difficult circumstances the Christian ought not to wonder which path is the most opportune to follow, but rather, which path is the most faithful to Christ. Certainly, our desire for popularity is the direct consequence of self-love. Our behavior will be the proving-ground of our deepest convictions. This firmness in the Faith is often an excellent testimony to the beliefs of the Christian. In some cases it can cause people to begin their return to the House of the Father.” I would suggest that not taking a stand for Christ and openly sharing our true beliefs may be one of the biggest obstacles for many of us to grow in our faith…and possibly for those around us who are watching our example. If you are a business person, in career transition, a stay at home mom, a student or a senior citizen, chances are that you have faced this struggle with worrying about what others think of you. It is a natural human tendency that affects me and everyone I know. We all want to be liked, respected and included. But, here is the catch…we cannot separate our spiritual selves from our physical being. The faith we profess is part of who. This prestige is also we are and cannot be hidden away. “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives… The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties towards his neighbor, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes). Can we all agree that being “Stealth Catholics” is not the answer? If so, here are five thoughts on how to overcome our fear of what others may think of us when publicly sharing our faith: 1. Show me that in the policy manual. I have heard many times that expressing our faith in the workplace is “against company policy.” Have you actually seen a written policy addressing making the Sign of the Cross and praying at meals, praying quietly at your desk, going to Mass at lunch or wearing ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday? I know there may be exceptions, but let me challenge all of us to consider the possibility that much of our fear may be based on a false perception of possible persecution and not reality. 2.“Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” Please reflect on these words of wisdom often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. It rarely occurs to us to think about our own faith journeys, the example we set for others and the Christ-inspired joy we should radiate as the most effective ways to share our faith. Letting others see Jesus Christ at work in us is a powerful form of witness that will attract others who want what we have in our lives. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:13-14 and 16). 3. Start the conversation with a little sharing of our own. Transparency invites transparency! We cannot expect someone to open up to us unless we are willing to do the same. Our faith journey is a blessing, meant to be shared, and the witness we give may have a profound influence on someone. As we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” 4. Reality Check: Pursuing Heaven vs. Being Popular. Heaven is our ultimate destination and not this place called Earth. Will our critics help us get to Heaven? Will they stand up for us during tough times? No, they will pull us into a secular way of life which has little room for God and where materialism and popularity are the fashionable idols of the day. Francis Fernandez wrote that overcoming human respect is part of the virtue of fortitude. He describes the challenges a Christian may endure as “…rumors and calumnies, mockery, discrimination at work, the loss of economic opportunities or superficial friendships. In these uncomfortable circumstances it may be tempting to take the easy way out and ‘give in.’ By such means we could avoid rejection, misunderstanding and ridicule. We could become concerned at the thought of losing friends, of ‘closing doors’ which we will later be unable to re-open. This is the temptation to be influenced by human respect, hiding one’s true identity and forsaking our commitment to live as Disciples of Christ. 5. Be consistent and lead an Integrated Catholic Life. Do we take our faith with us to work, meals with friends, the kid’s soccer games and neighborhood swim meets? Or, do we only practice our Catholic faith at Mass on Sunday? It is easy to conform to secular expectations, but difficult to publicly show our love of Jesus, live out the Beatitudes, evangelize and lead a fully integrated life. I have always found inspiration on this topic from the wisdom of Saint John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, “Christifideles Laici”: “The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill His will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ.” We cannot do this alone and we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In my own experience, this is a daily work in progress and it is never easy. But, we should all recognize that there are people looking at us to see our example. They want to learn from and be inspired by our courage, if we are only willing to take a stand for Christ. Think about how fortunate we are to live in a Christian country (although our religious liberties are under attack) where all we risk is a little disapproval or alienation from others. In the early Church, to be openly Christian was to risk a martyr’s death. Christians are being persecuted in Indonesia, the Middle East and other parts of the world even as you read this article. I know this is difficult, but a sacrifice on our part is required. The sacrifice is simply to love Christ more than the opinions of those around us. We should realize how little is being asked of us compared to what Jesus endured for us on the Cross. As I stated earlier, the desire to be liked, respected and popular is normal and I struggle with this as do many of you. But, let us pray for one another and continue to ask Jesus for courage, strength and the discernment to know and follow His will and not be concerned about the opinions of others. Besides, I do not see the merits of being the most popular person in hell. Do you?
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.
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