Monday, March 30, 2009

Questions that challenge us

From my post over at OSV Daily Take:

Over the last 24 hours, my 12-year-old son has been asking difficult questions. Last night he wanted to know about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He asked whether any country could hit us with a nuclear missile and whether we had a way to stop it. The notion of detente didn't seem to sit that well with his still innocent mind. How could mutually assured destruction be a good thing, he seemed to ask with his eyes if not his words...continue reading.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A short clip you need to watch now

I came across this ad from Catholics Come Home and just sat at my computer and cried while I watched it. It's that good. Like a Catholic version of the movie "Defending Your Life." Click HERE and take two minutes to see what I mean. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

NY is going to 'Drop the Rock' -- finally

This issue is important to me, so I'm running my OSV Daily Take post here as well:

On the surface, drug laws don't seem like they could ever be a bad thing, and yet in New York State they have been a terrible thing for many people who committed minor offenses but had to serve prison sentences under the draconian 1970s legislation known as the Rockefeller drug laws. These laws, which were put in place by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller during a time of rising heroin use, require judges to mete out harsh mandatory prison sentences even for the most minor drug crimes. The result has been the devastation of countless lives that would otherwise have been saved by treatment. I know that because I saw it happen first hand.

Back in the 1980s, a dear friend of mine, a talented young man who was more like a younger brother than a friend, got involved with the wrong people. Before long, he was addicted to cocaine and began a downward spiral into a terrible world that he did not know how to escape. I watched him suffer. I saw him try to break free. He was eventually tricked into believing that if he delivered this one packet of drugs from one dealer to another, he would save a friend in trouble. He agreed, and he was arrested, set up by someone looking to save his own hide.

This otherwise beautiful, sweet, spiritual kid had a thriving hair salon and was well on his way to recovery when the Rockefeller drug laws ensnared him. He lost everything and had to serve hard prison time. I can remember many Friday nights during those long months when my friend would call collect from prison, desperate to hear a friendly voice amid the harsh life he faced every day. A gentle soul by nature, my friend told me how he had to act tough, scary, in order to protect himself behind bars.

My friend was one of the lucky ones but no thanks to the justice system. He managed to come out of prison as sweet and kind as ever. He rebuilt his business into something even better than it was before, and he stayed clean until the day he died of cancer a week before he would have turned 36.

I learned so much from my friend. I asked him to take me to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting so I could understand what he was dealing with. He did. I asked him to explain to me what it was like to live with the monkey of drug addiction on his back day after day. He did. He let me know a world that was foreign to me, and it helped me see the face of drug addiction in a real and powerful way. Even all these years later, I can remember being amazed by his resiliency, his determination, and his utter lack of anger toward a system that should have offered him treatment but instead locked him up with common criminals.

The Rockefeller drug laws, which the Church in New York has long opposed, have done similar things to thousands of young people, parents, families. They have ruined lives because they do not allow a judge to take into account a person's history, or lack of criminal history. Non-violent, first-time, minor drug offenders should not be incarcerated when they can be rehabilitated through the most basic treatment programs.

It is a feather in New York Gov. David Paterson's cap that he has managed to reach a deal that will dismantle these drug laws and replace prison sentences with drug treatment for minor offenders. The system must focus on dealers and drug lords and not on the people at their mercy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Have you hugged your colon today?

For weeks now I've been meaning to talk about my colon. Well, not just my colon, but your colon, too. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, something that is near and dear to my, um, colon. Before this month ends I want to urge you to think about colon health. If you are over 50, please get a colonoscopy. If you are younger than 50 and have ANY family history of any diseases of the colon, please get a colonoscopy. It is not nearly as bad as it sounds. Trust me.

Next month it will be 21 years since my mother died of colon cancer at age 47. She was the picture of health, or so it seemed, until the cancer was diagnosed. So, obviously, the 50-year-old age limit should be lowered. Colon cancer affects lots of people long before they ever hit that magic age. Quite frankly, given what we know about prevention and the tests available for diagnosis, no one needs to die of this disease. I certainly don't plan to die of it. I'm going to die of something, but is sure won't be colon cancer. I'm 46 and I've had two, count 'em, two, colonoscopies already. I'm now on a once-every-two-years schedule because of my family history. That is not a fun prospect, but it sure beats following in my mother's footsteps.

If you were reading my blog last year, you got a bird's eye view of my colon. I don't want my new readers to miss out. So here it is again for old time's sake, a first-hand look at the inside of my colon, and a damn fine colon it is.

You, too, may have such a photogenic colon, but you'll never know until you go for the test. Now go for the test.

And in case you're not quite sure what you could be doing to try to prevent colon cancer, there just happened to be this article in the papers today. Not good news for you red meat eaters, but we vegetarians sure do take some comfort in it. Red meat is no friend to the colon. Cut it out or at least cut it down. High fat diets aren't so great either. Click HERE to read about dietary suggestions for colon health.

People don't like to talk about colon cancer. It's not a "pretty" disease, not that any disease is pretty but this one sure fares worse than many others. In fact, it's shrouded in a bizarre kind of shame. But colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in this country, so it's time to give this disease some long-warranted attention.

Next year I plan to remind you of all this at the beginning of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. By then I might even be passing out blue colon cancer "buddy bracelets" to add to the excitement. See, a good reason to read my blog for at least one more year. Now go talk to your doctor and sign up for a colonscopy before you "forget."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Did you miss me?

Sorry I've been away for a few days. We had a virus at our house that just wouldn't leave. I think we finally kicked it this weekend. So, I'm back, feeling better than I have in days physically but somewhat depleted and deflated spiritually. I had really been going strong with my Lenten spiritual reading and, in some ways, I was feeling the effects. There was a sense of underlying peace even as I went about my crazy days. Then the virus hit -- first Olivia, then Chiara, then Noah, then me, then Noah a second time. Only Dennis escaped unscathed. Although I carried my spiritual reading and prayer book around the house with me, I just couldn't focus on anything. And with each passing day I felt myself slipping backward a bit. Even my little Lenten sacrifices seemed more difficult, less meaningful the farther I got from my prayer life. I made a misstep here and a misstep there until I finally stopped and realized that the prayer and reading really had been making a difference.

So today I came crawling back to God, groveling and asking for help to get back on track. I hung my head, spiritually speaking, and decided to start at square one. I picked up The Little Black Book that is one of my Lenten guides. Today's reflection was about having "shamelessness" in our prayer, being willing to go back to God again and again and again, like a pesky child begging a parent for something.

Jesus tells us to be persistent. Speaking of a man who goes to his friend at midnight asking for bread, he says, "I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence." (Luke 7-8)

The Little Black Book asks: "What does this mean?...Does God need to be cajoled into doing what we want?" No, God does not answer our prayers because we are skillful at asking, it says. He answers our prayers because we are "shameless in asking."

My spirit was buoyed. Maybe there was a method to my madness. It's rare that shameless persistence is such a positive thing, so I'm going to run with this one -- straight to God.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tomorrow is not guaranteed

My latest Life Lines column:

I was sitting at the kitchen table this morning, when my 3-year-old decided to strike up a conversation about God and death. It’s not the first time she’s delved into the philosophical realm, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise. But even with the previous warning and the experience of writing a book about helping children deal with grief, I still consider it a challenge to talk to my son and daughters about dying.

After a series of classic preschool questions tinged with a touch of mysticism...Continue reading.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The big thaw

Chiara and I took advantage of this spring-like day by hiking around Beaver Pond at Five Rivers Environmental Center across town from us. Despite a flooded trail that prevented us from looping the entire lake and mud up to our ankles, we had a great time, watching the geese and listening to the waterfall. We stopped in the center to visit Aries, the one-winged owl who makes his home there, and then picnicked out on the grounds. It was a little cool for a winter picnic, but Chiara loved it. Spring is definitely in the air.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sure signs of spring

I was looking out my kitchen window today, when I spotted the one thing that is sure to bring a smile to my face at this time of year -- a hardy little snowdrop with bright green leaves and delicate white flowers standing out against the dreary brown earth of winter. This one little snowdrop that you see in the photo above is always the first thing to come back to life each year in our yard. I know that other signs of spring will follow in fairly rapid succession, each one bringing us one step closer to the promise of lush green that will eventually surround us.

Just last week I was talking to some Sisters of Saint Joseph about the importance of taking time for spiritual retreats. And one of the sisters compared the growth experienced on a retreat to what I'm witnessing in my yard right now. In the dark, underground, where no one else can see, growth occurs. Roots grow deeper, life gets stronger, and suddenly there is s flower where there was once nothing. So it is with our spiritual journey. In the deep and dark recesses of our hearts, growth happens hidden from sight. We may look at ourselves and see the same old same old, and then one day something changes, something blossoms, and we realize that we were sending out spiritual roots in the quiet stillness, waiting for the moment when our true self could emerge for all the world to see.

Snowdrops were one of my favorite discoveries when we moved to upstate New York. And although I love the flowers that are to come, these little white signs of determination and hope are special to me. Imagine what I'll be like by the time the bleeding heart and lilacs leaf out.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An amazing story of survival, forgiveness

So many times, as I was reading Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculée Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin, I had to remind myself that the book was not fiction, that it was all horribly, unbelievably true. Although I just happened to pick the book up because I'd seen a few mentions of it in various places, it turned out to be the perfect book to read during Lent. It is a story of incredible suffering and unshakable faith and unimaginable forgiveness -- which is precisely what we're supposed to be reflecting on during these forty days.

Left to Tell is the story of Immaculée's miraculous survival while hiding in a tiny bathroom for 91 days with seven other Tutsi women while Hutu killers called her name just outside the bathroom door as they searched and searched for her for only one reason: to kill her. And not to kill her quickly, but to torture her and make her die the same kind of unspeakable death that almost her entire family and ONE MILLION Tutsis did during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

You need to read this book. Today. Now. Everyone needs to read this book because we need to remember what human beings are capable of when they choose evil over love, easy lies over hard truths. As I read Immaculée's heart-rending story, I heard echoes of the mob shouting, "Crucify him," 2,000 years ago. I saw flashes of images of Jews packed on trains headed to certain death at the hands of the Nazis. And I wondered, how do we allow this kind of senseless, shameful, systematic bruality to happen again and again throughout history? Where were the voices of reason? Where were we? On Good Friday, as we reflect on the Passion of our Lord, we cannot hide from the fact that we play a role in human suffering every time we remain silent in the face of injustice. Similarly, when you read Left to Tell, you will likely think back to where you were in 1994, where our country was in 1994, when the Tutsis were being exterminated, and grieve for a world that would allow this to go on unchecked and in plain sight.

This book, however, is not just a chronicle of death and suffering; it is the story of one woman's ability to trust in God even when she had no obvious reason. Each night, when I put this book down before going to sleep, I would close my eyes and see Immaculée in that cramped bathroom -- hungry, afraid, silent but always faithful. Her willingness to stare into the face of the man who killed her family and hunted her down and offer him forgiveness is a lesson in complete and total surrender to God. It is awesome and humbling and a stark reminder of just how radical the Gospel of Jesus is when we don't try to water it down or soften it up.

I honestly cannot say enough good things about this book. Please read it. And please visit Immaculée's website by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Priestly celibacy could be up for 'discussion'

From my post at OSV Daily Take today:

Cardinal Edward Egan, outgoing Archbishop of New York, said today that priestly celibacy is not a closed issue and is "a perfectly legitimate discussion."

"I think it's going to be looked at, and I am not so sure it wouldn't be a good idea to decide on the basis of geography and culture not to make an across-the-board determination,"...continue reading.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I preach, but do I practice?

Sometimes, when I'm yelling at my children for yelling at each other, I realize how ridiculous I must sound. Surely even my 3-year-old must be wondering why it's OK for mommy to yell, but it's not OK for her to yell. Same thing with the whole tone-of-voice debate. Did you have to answer your sister that way? Can't you speak to your brother in a nice tone of voice? Do you talk to your teacher that way? Well, guess what? I'm pretty sure they didn't conjure up that annoying tone of voice out of nowhere. They are like sponges, soaking up everything -- good or bad -- from what they see and hear around them. I hate it when I realize that part of what they're soaking up are my own bad habits.

I think that's why today's Gospel makes me so uncomfortable. Jesus points to the Scribes and Pharisees and says, "For they preach but they do not practice." Gulp. I don't need a Scripture scholar to tell me that this line isn't just about the Jewish leaders of Jesus' time. When I take the time to reflect on what I try to teach my children about the way they should talk, the way they should act, the way they should strive to live, I have to admit that I may be doing a whole lot of preaching, but practicing? Not so much. Which is too bad because, as they say, actions speak louder than words.

The Little Black Book that I'm using for some of my Lenten reflections says that the way to avoid being a hypocrite is to "acknowledge our own flaws" because it is only when we are willing to face our own sinfulness head on that we are able to help others move beyond the sinfulness that holds them down.

And nowhere is that more obvious than right here at home, as we struggle to get the kids out the door each morning, or settled down for homework each afternoon, or bathed and into bed at a reasonable hour each night. Those are daily opportunities to be Jesus to my children, to practice what I preach.

It would be easy to look at the big picture and pat myself on the back for my general behavior out in the world each day, but can I say the same thing about my behavior among my family each day? Ah, there's the rub. Sometimes it's easier to love a stranger in a far-off land than it is to love the people living alongside us. The stranger doesn't give us that tone of voice or death stare. The stranger doesn't talk back or mess up the house. The stranger can be kept at arm's length. Jesus doesn't invite us to love at a distance. He invites us to love as we want to be loved. Easy to preach, pretty to quote, difficult to live.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My view of the Transfiguration

I've never found the Transfiguration to be easy or comforting. I wrote this column a few years back, but it still resonates with me today:

Jesus knew that when the frightening events surrounding his crucifixion began, his Apostles were going to need something to keep them going. So he gathered three of them – Peter, James and John – and took them to a high mountain where he was transfigured before their eyes. This dazzling moment was meant to offer them encouragement and comfort during the time when they would lose hope, and it is meant to do the same for each one of us as we journey through Lent and through the difficult times of our lives. Like a priceless photo we can turn to again and again, the Transfiguration stands out as one shining example – literally – of just how understanding and compassionate Jesus is.

But there’s something else in this story that I find even more comforting than the image of Jesus between Moses and Elijah: It is the image of the Apostles falling to the ground in fear despite the fact that they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Throughout the Gospels, the Apostles never fail to remind us that the people Jesus handpicked to spread his Good News were often scared, missing in action or worse.

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter was more concerned with erecting three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah than with digesting what the event really meant. He later denies that he even knows Jesus. He is absent from the foot of the cross and boarded up in a small room with the others when Mary Magdalene comes to proclaim that she has seen the risen Christ. Peter alone should provide each one of us with the comforting realization that if he can become The Rock, then surely we can become at the very least pebbles worthy of getting caught in the Master’s sandals.

Jesus took these three Apostles up Mount Tabor, knowing that they would need something pretty spectacular to shore them up when the times got tough. God spoke from above, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” It doesn’t really get more spectacular than that – not until Easter Sunday, that is.

I have to admit that I had never really given much thought to the Transfiguration as an image designed to give me strength. I have listened to the Transfiguration account year after year, believing that its significance was something beyond my comprehension. It’s too mystical for me, I thought. That was until recently, when I sat down with this Gospel reading – away from Church, away from homilies, away from enthusiastic children trying to climb out of my lap and into the next pew.

That’s when it hit me: Jesus is at once transfigured and transfiguring. Yes, he is God’s son revealed to us. Yes, he gives us an image we will never forget. But he does more than that. He reminds us that through the power of God’s all-merciful love each one of us can be transfigured here and now in our daily lives. We might not be able to dazzle like the sun, but our souls can radiate a spectacular spiritual light if we just open our hearts to Jesus and his transfiguring message of compassion and forgiveness.

Lent is under way. Perhaps we are struggling to keep our Lenten promises and sacrifices. Maybe we, too, have fallen in frustration or fear. If that is the case, we can reflect on the image of the Transfiguration, and listen to the words Jesus spoke to his Apostles when he reached out to them in their fear, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

Copyright 2009, Mary DeTurris Poust

Friday, March 6, 2009

Learning to let grace find me

Sometimes things happen that really catch me off guard, in a good way. I get a phone call or meet someone and think, yes, this is God's hand at work in my life. I may not know why or how it will affect things down the road, but I have a clear sense that it's all beyond anything I'm doing. That has happened several times this week, which makes it even more powerful. It's like grace upon grace entering into my life.

First I came home from Denver, fired up by the people I met and the experience of spending so much time with so many Catholics. Several readers have asked what I was talking about when I was in Denver. Well, my presentation was on the "Lost Generation," those adult Catholics who are disconnected from the faith and how we might reach out to them and welcome them into a loving community. Normally public speaking is really at the very bottom of my list of favorite things to do. I believe I ranked it right behind being buried alive in a previous post on the subject. But Denver was exactly where I needed to be last weekend. I knew that almost from the moment my plane landed. And although I was nervous, as usual, when my first workshop approached, I really did find a way to put it in God's hands and allow whatever was meant to happen to unfold. The result was so good it startled me -- so much so that I wasn't even nervous the next day when it was time for my workshop. That, to me, was a revelation, a sign that if we are willing to open ourselves up to something, even something we might not really want to do, we often find ourselves exactly where we need to be.

This week has been more of the same. I came home to a pile of work and a bunch of interviews that needed to be done. All I can say is that those interviews, with four different Sisters of Saint Joseph who are retreat masters and spiritual directors, were more like spiritual experiences, not at all like work. I am lucky in that I rarely find my work to be a chore. A challenge, yes, but not a chore. It is too immersed in spirituality and God and faith to ever be really burdensome. As I sat and talked with the sisters about silence and prayer and just how powerful retreats can be in our "regular" lives once we return home, I had the distinct feeling that I was supposed to be learning a lesson, not just writing a story.

Fast forward to today. An unexpected phone call leading me in new directions -- possibly. An email offering a spiritual lift. And, best of all, a package in the mail that both surprised and touched me. I saw something from Denver and assumed it was an official follow-up of some sort to my workshop. But it was not. It was a note from a Dominican novice who attended my second workshop and stayed after to talk to me. In the process of discussing various things, I happened to mention that I never got my copy of Magnificat's Lenten Companion. I just said it in passing because we were talking about related things. Anyway, there in my mailbox was a copy of the Lenten Companion with a note thanking me for my presentation and for focusing attention on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I realize that may not seem like a big deal, but for me it really is. Part of me was so nervous when I saw two Dominicans sitting out in my audience at my workshop (to be rivaled only by the presence of both an auxiliary bishop and the head of evangelization for the archdiocese at the previous day's workshop). I spotted those Dominican habits and immediately thought: Great, Dominicans. After all, they're preachers. Surely they'd be better standing up there. But I let that thought go and remembered that, for whatever reason, I was the one meant to be there that day. And by opening myself up to that possibility, that reality, I opened myself up to the graces that come with trusting in God's plan. And now I feel those graces multiplying -- in something as simple as a note from a novice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What's your sign?

From my post at OSV Daily Take:

This morning at breakfast I was lamenting the state of our world and, more specifically, the state of our country. As I read the seemingly endless stories about the seemingly endless bailouts, I told my husband that I no longer feel like I can honestly tell my children that if they work hard and treat people right, they will get ahead in this life. Continue reading...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Parent of the Year award goes to...

So I returned home from Denver last night to a lovely family reunion. Dennis had cleaned the whole house while I was gone, including all the bathrooms, and dinner was ready when we walked in the door. The kids, he said, had been just great while I was gone, helping him out and not even fighting that much. All was well, and then...

The fighting began. Chiara was screaming at Olivia in the family room, "Open your eyes! Open your eyes!" When Olivia did not open her eyes or respond to questions, Chiara ran into the kitchen to tattle. Dennis and I immediately called to Olivia and asked, Why? Why? WHY???!!!??? wouldn't she just answer and look at her sister. We told her to go to her room, and she did, crying hysterically the whole way. When the crying continued to get louder and more frantic, I went up there to put an end to the insanity. That's when Olivia told me, through barely contained sobs, that the reason she had her eyes closed and was not talking was because she was following the instructions in the Centering Prayer book I brought home for the kids from Denver.

That's right folks. We punished our daughter for practicing Centering Prayer. Can anyone top that? I really doubt it.