Sunday, November 29, 2009

The waiting begins...

As I sat down to write this Advent post, I realized that I am way behind where I normally am at the start of the new Church year. We have not yet made our pink and purple construction paper chain that hangs in our kitchen and gets shorter as we get closer to Christmas. We have not moved the Holy Family out onto the front porch, as we usually do to mark the start of Advent. I have not yet blessed our Advent wreath or even wrapped the candle bottoms with tape so they don't wobble and stand all askew for the next four weeks. The new Advent calendar is still in its wrapper.

Amid all the hubbub of this holiday weekend, which was packed with birthday parties and play dates in addition to feasts and family, I went back to the post I put up on the First Sunday of Advent one year ago. To be honest, that post really captures how I feel about this season, and so here is an updated version of that Advent post:

"Jesus said to his disciples: 'There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.'" Luke 21:25-28

And so begins Advent. I love that the Church launches into the new liturgical year and the four-week period leading up to Christmas not with the joyous news of Mary's fiat or her visit to Elizabeth or anything Christmas-related but instead with a reflection on the second coming. Yes, we are working our way toward the celebration of the first coming, the Incarnation, the moment when God became one of us, but let's not forget that this life journey we're on is supposed to be about preparing ourselves for the moment when Jesus comes again. Very poetic, I think, the connection of the two comings at this time of year.

Sometimes it's hard to think of Advent as anything more than just a happy time, brimming with excitement. Certainly at our house, Advent is fraught with fun. Every day the kids tear a link from the purple and pink Advent paper chain hanging from the kitchen window, open a door on the Advent calendar, hang an ornament on the little evergreen Advent tree, and gather around the Advent wreath before dinner. For them, this season is all about the countdown to the big day.

Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with our culture. In a society where people are willing to claw and kick their way to a cheap digital camera or TV at 4 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, it's pretty clear that we've kind of lost sight of the big picture and certainly the overriding message of this season. Advent becomes one big warm-up for the main event, and these days the main event seems more like a WWF throw down than the coming of the Prince of Peace.

For a long time, I was caught up in a spiritual version of the Christmas obsession. I had forgotten what this time is meant to be. I would declare that I was a Lent person, not an Advent person. Advent always used to seem a little too happy and optimistic for my taste. Then I started paying closer attention. While Advent certainly is a time of hope and joy, it is also a time of penance and sacrifice. It is at once a time of anticipation and a time of reflection, a time to rejoice in what we know is coming but to make ourselves ready for what is still to come.

When I think about this season, I keep coming back to a Thomas Merton quote that resonates with me:

"God approaches our minds by receding from them. We can never fully know Him if we think of Him as an object of capture, to be fenced in by the enclosure of our own ideas.

'We know him better after our minds have let him go.

'The Lord travels in all directions at once.

'The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

'Wherever we are, we find that He has just departed. Wherever we go, we discover that He has just arrived before us."

I find that quote very appropriate for this season, when we're trying to fit God into our version of Christmas instead of fitting our lives into His version of Christmas. But the God we're looking for comes in His own way and in His own time. We just have to step out of the way, pray, watch and wait.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Advent ideas for families, classrooms

From my OSV Daily Take post today:

Advent is right around the corner. As a busy mom and a faith formation teacher, I'm always looking for new ideas for bringing this season to life for my family and my students. Check out a sample issue of OSV's Advent Take Out: Family Faith on the Go by clicking HERE. I'm already planning to give the construction paper Advent wreath a try with my fourth-grade class.

You can also get more Advent ideas by going to OSV4Me by clicking HERE. You'll find general information on the season, prayers and projects, such as how to make a Jesse Tree, something I've always been intimidated to try, and how to make Advent star sugar cookies.

Another great site to check out for Advent is Karen Edmisten's "No-Panic Advent Series." You'll find everything from standards like the Advent wreath and Jesse Tree to more unusual ways to mark the season, like the Jesus Stocking or St. Lucia Bread, and a complete list of great Advent books. Check it all out by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A close Encounter of the best kind

When Dennis and I first started dating, after being friends for a while, everything about us seemed in sync. We often said the exact same thing at the exact same time, bantered back and forth like a well-rehearsed comedy team, wanted all the same things out of life, even bought each other the same card on our first Valentine's Day together. And it was not a traditional, common card. It was one of those eccentric artsy cards. It was totally unexpected and happily surprising when we realized that we were so in tune with each other that even our card shopping reflected it.

Soon after we were married, we moved across the country -- from New York to Texas -- to start our life fresh. We eventually bought a house under construction and, not long after, had our first child. Life began to get more stressful and less carefree. After struggling through a difficult miscarriage and a year of medical issues following it, we had another child, another move back across the country, and, finally, a third child when I was almost 43 years old. To say that life was very full -- and sometimes very difficult -- is a monumental understatement.

The blissful feelings of those early days, when we each recognized the other as soul mate, best friend and lifelong love, started to get buried under the day-to-day obligations and normal stresses that come with parenting and professional lives, volunteer service and home owning. It was becoming harder and harder for us to see the couple we had once been, despite our deep and constant love for each other. Our actions, tone and words didn't reflect the love we knew was there, so we decided that we would do something we had talked about now and then but never pursued seriously: attend a Worldwide Marriage Encounter Weekend.

Even up until the moment we entered the Don Bosco Retreat Center at the Marian Shrine in Stony Point, the two of us were wondering if this weekend could really make a dramatic difference in our busy lives. Marriage Encounter veterans had told us again and again that it would be life-changing, transforming, but we had our doubts. We vowed to give it a 100 percent anyway and see what happened.

I am here to tell you that it was, in fact, everything promised. While the room wasn't stellar and the food was mediocre at best, the weekend itself was amazing, restorative, renewing, and, yes, transforming. Over a period of two days, Dennis and I explored ideas and feelings we hadn't thought about in a while -- or ever, in some cases. The weekend didn't dredge up problems or dwell on the negatives; in a gentle and life-affirming way, it gave us an opportunity to stand side by side looking out at the future as one. Through the powerful stories and examples of our presenting couples and priest, we learned how to create a married life of joy, passion and excitement even in the midst of our daily challenges and struggles.

Marriage Encounter is not about sharing your deepest feelings with strangers, something Dennis feared when I first started suggesting we attend. It's about sitting together, as a couple, away from everyone else and really giving each other some much-deserved attention, something that had been sorely lacking in our lives. We left the retreat center with the resolve to put into practice all the skills and tools we'd been given in order to make radical changes in the way we live out our marriage.

The really interesting thing is that so far my excitement and hopefulness and anticipation for what's ahead for us is actually continuing to increase even though the weekend is behind us. I kind of expected that after we left our Marriage Encounter cocoon, we'd be right back to where we started, but that's absolutely not the case, and if you look at the presenting couples, you can see that this new reality is not a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing. We were in a great place when we left Stony Point on Sunday night, but I have to say that today we are in an even better place, and I find myself giddy -- much as I did in those early days of our relationship -- over what I realize I still share with Dennis. That's not to say we don't expect fights or setbacks. We wouldn't be human if we could live a perfect life. But we do expect to be able to manage those setbacks better and to bring real healing to any divisions threaten to pull us apart, the kind of healing that can actually make our bond stronger.

We will be married 15 years in April. The WWME weekend was the best anniversary gift we could have given to each other. We can look toward the future and see a life where the intense feelings of love and our joy in being a couple do not have to diminish with age or time or struggles. Because we have made a decision to love, because we have been reminded of our great gift and given what we need to keep that gift alive and flourishing, because we have put God back into his rightful place in our marriage, nothing seems impossible anymore.

If you have not yet made a Marriage Encounter weekend -- or if you made one a long time ago -- sign up today. You will never regret it, I can promise you that, and will more likely wish you had done it years ago. We did ours through the Archdiocese of New York, which will be sponsoring 2010 weekends Feb. 12-14, April 16-18, Aug. 13-15, and Nov. 5-7. Call 914-524-7088 for more information on NY weekends. For those outside the archdiocese, click HERE to go to the Worldwide Marriage Encounter national website, which will connect you with local ME weekends and resources.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The up side of a glass 'half empty'

Here's my latest Life Lines column:

By all appearances, I am a glass-is-half-empty kind of person. Something as simple as a burned pot of tomato sauce or a broken dish can send me crashing into a woe-is-me state. And yet, I would argue, beneath my pessimistic veneer beats the heart of an eternal optimist. My husband, Dennis, would probably raise an eyebrow over that statement, or just outright laugh, but the older I get, the truer I believe it to be.

I think it has something to do with my desire to shed some of the worldly wants that take up too much of my energy. And I think it has something to do with the realization – finally – that I am truly blessed and that I should appreciate my blessings while I have them. Because I know all too well that in the blink of an eye life can go from near perfect to perfect storm.

It occurred to me recently, as Chiara skipped through the kitchen singing a song about a baby beluga and Olivia practiced Hot Cross Buns on her violin and Noah headed out to a middle school movie night, that life is good, very good. Despite the chaos, despite the almost-daily nagging that must go on just to get the kids to do what they know they are supposed to do, despite the bad economy and general stress, there is not much that could make my life any better than it already is.

As I get older, and, dare I say, wiser, I am starting to notice things I once took for granted. I look around and see a healthy family, and thank God that the worst we have had to deal with so far is the occasional cold or stomach bug. I watch my children surprise me with an unexpected act of kindness toward someone else, and I thank God for the time I’ve had with them and pray that there will be much more. I hear Dennis upstairs getting Chiara ready for bed, reading a book and saying her prayers, and I thank God for a husband who is still my best friend.

I’ve never been one to shy away from telling people my age. The numbers have never meant that much to me. But now, at 47, I am definitely more aware of time and its passing and how quickly the years seem to fly by. I know that what I have today may not be what I have tomorrow – physically, mentally, financially, professionally.

Sometimes when I talk to my grandmother, who is almost 97 and still living on her own, I hear the exhaustion in her voice. Her days stretch on endlessly, as do the nights. Just bending down to tie her shoe is fraught with danger because one little misstep and she could fall. In her I can see at once how powerful and how fragile life is. She is a testament to willpower and determination and strength. But even with all of that, time eventually has its way.

I pray that I get the kind of time and health that my grandmother continues to enjoy, and yet I am very conscious of the fact that I am now the age my mother was when she died. A swing of 50 years.

It would be easy to dwell on the latter possibility, to mark my days with what-ifs and fear, but then I’d be giving up what I have right now for what may never be. “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Mt 6:34)

So it turns out that maybe the glass is half empty, but that’s only because I’ve decided to drink fully from the cup of life.

To read other Life Lines columns, visit my website by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Prayers without words, without ceasing

When I think about my spiritual life, I tend to look forward. As in, when Chiara is in full-time school, I'll have more quiet time and my life will be more sane and THEN I'll be able to pray on a regular basis. Or, if I can just finish this one project, I'll be less stressed and THEN I'll be able to add Liturgy of the Hours back into my morning routine. Or, this would be a great time to pray -- it's quiet, there's nothing going on, I'm in a good frame of mind -- BUT I should probably fold laundry, make a bed, eat a snack, check Facebook.

In other words, I am very good at coming up with excuses for not praying, even when prayer time falls into my lap. I have allowed myself to get caught in the someday trap, thinking that there is a magical day down the road when all the planets will align and I will find myself with gobs of free time, so much free time that I don't mind spending a chunk of it in prayer. Aha! That's the crux of this, isn't it? The reality is that praying is often hard work, harder than raking or cleaning or writing, and so even though I claim to want it in a big way, I always manage to put it off and blame my circumstances. If only (fill in the blank), I'd be more holy.

But I know deep down that spending time with God isn't only about sitting down in silent prayer on a regular basis (although that would help immensely). It's more often than not about learning to see my regular, boring, sometimes frustrating actions as prayers. Remember the post on the laundry last week? Same idea here. As I said to Dennis the other night, as I was lugging the umpteenth basket of laundry up two flights of stairs, if I really did make my laundry a prayer, I would finally know what it means to pray without ceasing. There's that much laundry.

We don't find God after all the work and other responsibilities are done, we find God in those responsibilities. But that's not always easy, is it? I know it's not for me. Logically I can recognize that I need to see Jesus in the eyes of my children, my husband, my friends, my business colleagues, the lady holding up traffic at the drive-thru window at the bank. But practically that can be a challenge. Smiling my way through difficult things has never been my strong suit. Even as a young kid, my one grandmother would often scold me by saying, "Don't give me that look." Yes, I have a "look," an obvious expression of annoyance, anger, frustration, disappointment, you name it. Mother Teresa I'm not. So the idea of giving up the look and the sarcasm and the yelling for a serene smile is really not that appealing to me, and yet how do I become more centered, more spiritual, more God-focused if I let myself get carried away with the emotion of the day.

So, this week I'm trying to move beyond the laundry and the oatmeal, to a place where I really, truly try to see Jesus in the people around me. Again, it's sort of easy to find God in a pile of laundry. Dirty socks can't talk back. But can I see God in my whining 4-year-old, in my snarly almost-13-year-old, in the person in the grocery store who is rude for no apparent reason? Ah, that's another story.

Pray without ceasing. Some, especially our Eastern brothers and sisters in faith, do that through the Jesus Prayer -- "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner" -- saying it over and over throughout the day in order to develop an inner stillness and an outer closeness with God. Even if we don't say those words, however, we can nurture that kind of prayerful spirit, using everyday actions to turn work into prayer, struggles into prayer, joys into prayer, worries into prayer.

St. Paul said:
"We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing." (1 Thessalonians 5: 14-19)

So my challenge today will be to make lunch with a prayerful heart, to calm Chiara's crying with deep compassion rather than strong words, to paint the front door with patience even when the painter's tape fails, to meet Noah's teen-aged glare with a smile rather than "the look."

I found this quote from Mohandas Gandhi that seemed to fit the bill today:
"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday night slow down

Dinner is over and the day is winding down. It's been a good day. Church, followed by lunch out at an Indian restaurant with Dennis and Noah while the girls were at a play date. After being away for a day on a speaking engagement, I was happy to be home this afternoon doing laundry, straightening up toys and piles of papers, catching up on email, puttering around my office. Whenever I go away, even if it's for only 24 hours, I realize how much I love being home. And that's always a good thing.

Being here tonight -- as Chiara pushes a toy baby stroller around the house while wearing a tutu and plastic heels, as Olivia argues with her over what they're going to play, as Noah practices piano -- I feel a sense of calm despite an utter lack of anything resembling calm. It's calming not because it's quiet or peaceful or relaxing but because it's familiar and loving and unconditional.

Our less-than-perfect home life still manages to rise to the level of wonderful because it is wrapped in the love that we have for one another. It's a lot like my less-than-perfect spiritual life, which manages to be resilient and amazing even when I am not doing my part because I am wrapped in the arms of a loving God who waits for me when I'm too busy or too distracted to pay Him any mind.

Tonight, as I look at my kids doing things that are clearly meant to drive me insane, I have to smile because in them I can see how I must look to God. As I flit from one place to another noisily whining about what I need or want, asking for things every time He turns around, and only occasionally remembering to say, "Thank you," I imagine God patiently listening and resisting the urge to yell, "Shut up."

We are loved so completely. Sometimes it's hard to remember that. We think we're not worthy. We think we have to jump through all sorts of hoops to be loved by God. But He loves us without conditions, without strings, without asking anything of us in return. I'm sure He'd like us to listen, to follow the rules, to pay attention to what He's saying, but, like any good parent, God doesn't withhold love because we don't always live up to His expectations. We are loved simply because we are.

Friday, November 6, 2009

When one door closes...

OK, well, technically my door didn't just close. It was removed and hauled off by carpenters. And it was three doors -- two in the front and one in the back. This was a huge project we've been wanting to do for years and it's one of reasons I was not able to post yesterday. It was complete chaos here with three workers in our kitchen and front entry, cold air blowing through the house, children doing their usual thing and four events between the hours of 3:30 and 7 p.m. So I hope you'll forgive me for missing my Thursday blog day. I did think of all of you around 9:30 p.m. and considered the prospect of hopping on the computer and writing something quick, but I really doubted that I could come up with anything coherent at that point.

So it's Friday, and today promises to be no less crazy than yesterday. Later this afternoon I head downstate to visit with my grandmother. Tomorrow I present my workshop, "Lost Generation: Reaching Adult Catholics Disconnected from the Church," to the catechists of the Archdiocese of Newark. Lots of prep work left to do even though I've given this workshop multiple times.

But I want to leave you with some spiritual thoughts for today and tomorrow...

Every night before bed, I read a reflection from Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, and last night's reading really struck a chord. It was a passage by Richard Baxter from The Saints' Everlasting Rest, and it talked about how God is "in earnest" with us even when we are not in earnest with him, how the Holy Spirit is "grieved" when we resist him, how God is "afflicted with us" and regards every "groan and sigh" we utter.

I loved this image and this reminder. Grieved and afflicted are usually words that convey negative feelings, but in this case those words are flipped on their heads in a way that makes us feel loved and wanted. God yearns for us, aches for our attention. What a beautiful reality. It made me flash back to the days when I was writing the Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism. I was working on the chapter that focuses on the Holy Spirit and I came to the part where the catechism quotes St. Paul and tells us that the Holy Spirit is the "master of prayer" who intercedes in our lives "with sighs too deep for words."

"Sighs too deep for words." I remember that phrase hitting me like a ton of bricks when I was writing. I just stopped everything I was doing to ponder that thought. When it comes to Trinity, the Holy Spirit probably gets the least of my attention. OK, that should be definitely gets the least of my attention. I tend to go directly to Father and/or Son. I love the idea of the Holy Spirit, but rarely call on the Spirit -- unless it's a weekend like this one when I'm going to speak in public. Then I call on the Holy Spirit and beg for the right words, the right tone, the right message for that particular audience. But imagining the Spirit sighing on my behalf, breathing Life into my life, grieving when I'm unaware of His presence, that gives me such incredible comfort.

So today, this weekend, as you go about your busy lives, take a moment to listen for the sighs of the Spirit whispering in the background. Open a door and let the Spirit slip in.

"In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will." (Romans 8:26-27)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

From God's dreams to our house

Four-year-old Chiara is always trying to put things into chronological order in her mind. You may remember a post I wrote this summer where she tried to wrap her mind around the fact that it's never tomorrow. Lately when she asks questions, she wants to know if she was a baby when it happened or if she was still in my belly. But every once in a while she asks about something from ancient history -- say five or six years ago -- and she gets this quizzical look on her face when I tell her that no, she was not yet in my belly. For a 4-year-old whose view of the world pretty much revolves around our house, her school and our church, it's pretty hard to imagine a time and place beyond all of this, a moment where she did not exist even in my belly.

We were driving to her preschool recently when she asked one of her many questions about our life as a family, something about when Noah (who is almost 13) was a baby. And, on cue, she asked if she was in my belly then. So I had to tell her again that she was not yet on the scene. But this time, instead of just looking at me as if I was speaking in tongues, she said:

"You mean I was still in God's dreams?"

Well, that just melted my heart, and I would have stopped the car on the spot and turned around to hug her if it wouldn't have caused a huge accident. She has said it several more times in the past week. I love the fact that she now has a poetic and beautiful explanation that makes sense to her, one that reminds her that she has always been in a safe and loving place, even before she blessed us with her presence here.

Last night, she came walking into the kitchen with our wedding album and she pointed to various pictures and asked questions. I told her how much I loved those pictures and, of course, she asked, "Why?" When I told her it was because it was from the day I married her daddy and that was a very special and happy day, she said:

"Because you couldn't wait to get home and find out what kids you got?"

Sort of, although the finding out part may have taken a little longer than what Chiara is estimating. From God's dreams to our house. It may sound simplistic, but it's really just a pared down version of this beautiful passage from Psalms:

"You formed me in my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother's womb.
I praise you, so wonderfully you made me;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you knew;
my bones were not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned as in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes foresaw my actions;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped before one came to be."
-- Psalm 139: 13-16

Monday, November 2, 2009

A view of purgatory on All Souls' Day

My post at OSV Daily Take today:

All Souls' Day is a favorite day of mine on the Church calendar. That comes across as morbid to some folks, but it's anything but. Then, again, I'm a big fan of purgatory, too. I like today's focus on the family and friends who have gone before us. I like to remember that we remain connected even though we are separated, that they are experiencing the eternal life that we are working toward. And I love the fact that purgatory hangs out there like a giant safety net, waiting to catch me if I don't measure up. And, really, how can I possibly measure up? I would not be so presumptuous as to assume that I will be fast-tracked to heaven when this earthly life is done. I think working my way toward perfection in purgatory sounds like a pretty generous offer.

I came across this quote from Pope Benedict XVI that really says everything I feel about purgatory but in a much more eloquent way:

"I would go so far as to say that if there was no purgatory, then we would have to invent it, for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God. And yet we don't want to be, to use an image from Scripture, 'a pot that turned out wrong,' that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and stand there in the fullness of life. Purgatory strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being."

Exactly. And that is why this day is so hopeful. In our remembrance and celebration of those who have died, we see second chances, opportunity, life. We see the path we will one day walk, whether we are ready or not. And if we are not quite ready, well then, purgatory will give us time to polish up our acts once and for all.

Here's another great All Souls' Day quote from Father Hans Urs Von Balthasar:

"Purgatory: perhaps the deepest but also the most blissful kind of suffering. The terrible torture of having to settle now all the things we have dreaded a whole life long. The doors we have frantically held shut are now torn open. But all the while this knowledge: now for the first time I will be able to do it -- that ultimate thing in me, that total thing. Now I can feel my wings growing; now I am fully becoming myself..."

And finally, I found this powerful and personal reflection on All Souls' Day on From the Field of Blue Children. Blogger Cathy Adamkiewicz posts about staring at her own tombstone, the one that marks the grave she will one day share with the daughter who has gone before her:

"Today, on the Feast of All Souls, I stood at my own graveside, but I didn't shed a tear.

"I thought about my daughter, who awaits me there, and I remembered her life with awe and gratitude. I missed her with an ache that will never leave my bones, but my heart is not heavy. It soars to meet her.

"I looked at the descriptions cast in stone: husband and father, baby girl, wife and mother. The roles that will define us for all eternity.

"I suppose it is an excellent practice to ponder the fact that we will all be dust some day. As I stood on the very spot where I hope my grandchildren and their grandchildren will kneel someday, begging mercy on my soul, I realized the truth.

"It will all be over in a flash."
(Read the full post HERE.) Cathy has written a beautiful book about the short life of her baby Celeste.Broken and Blessed: A Life Story is a moving testament to the power of one tiny and fragile life to change the world around her. That book deserves a post of its own, which I promise to write later this month.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seeing the saints behind the stained glass

Back when I was a kid, I would read from my Picture Book of Saints (that very one up there) every night before bed, and I would imagine that some day I could be as holy and as good as the men and women staring back at me from those pages. I fell in love with the story of St. Bernadette and chose that for my Confirmation name when I was 12. I read the stories of St. Rita and St. Agnes, St. Tarcisius and St. Teresa of Avila until they felt like old friends. As I got older, I graduated to more in-depth stories of the saints. But then, at some point, I outgrew them, or so I thought. I couldn't feel the connection anymore, didn't think I needed the connection anymore. They started to seem like dusty old antiques with no relevance to me and my busy life. And so, little by little, the saints fell into the background of my spiritual life until they pretty much disappeared from view.

I went through a long period of not really thinking about or reading about the saints. I still loved the stained glass windows and statues bearing their images, still remembered their stories, but their humanity and their companionship was out of reach. Then something started to happen. The more I struggled to develop a deeper prayer life and to begin a path toward contemplation, the more I realized that I needed some encouragement -- and not just from friends walking the same road. I needed those old friends whose stories of faith had inspired me so long ago. I needed real examples of people who'd overcome the dreck -- or transformed the dreck into prayer -- and found a better way. The Way.

I rediscovered St. Francis of Assisi, seeing and hearing his story with grown-up eyes and ears for the first time. And I fell in love. I discovered the writings of St. Francis de Sales and felt the stirrings of that long-lost connection. I visited the ground where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was born and felt a sense of the sacred. I devoured anything by Thomas Merton and felt the words touch my heart and soul, even when I was struggling to wrap my mind around them.

Gone were the childhood dreams of one day being a storybook saint. In their place was a warm feeling of camaraderie, not because I am even in the same spiritual universe as the great saints but because they remind me that God will work with me, warts and all, if I truly desire to walk down His path. Will I achieve the kind of holiness I read about in the lives of the saints? Not likely, especially if this morning's family outing to Mass is any indication. Do I get to try again every day? Yes. And the saints are there to cheer me on. Through the words they left behind, through the lives they lived and the works they did, they give witness to the fact that this journey is not about perfection. It is about faithfulness and trust, commitment and desire, willingness and surrender.

I've used this Merton quote on this blog before -- and, yes, I am fully aware that he is not an official saint -- but here it is again because this is one of those quotes that really hit me the first time I ever read it and that I come back to again and again. (It's hanging next to my desk.)

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually do so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone."
-- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude