Thursday, December 30, 2010

Do you have a patron saint for the new year?

From my OSV Daily Take post today:

So I went ahead and gave the old Patron Saint Generator a spin over at Conversion Diary for a little New Year's fun with a spiritual twist. (Hat tip to The Anchoress for that one.) With the click of a button, a little prayer, and another click of a button, you can get yourself a personal patron saint. Sort of like a Catholic version of Spin the Bottle or Magic 8 Ball.

I clicked and prayed, hoping for some spectacular saint to show up in my queue. Drum roll, please...St. John Berchmans. Really? I have to admit that I was more than mildly disappointed at this turn of events, which is probably not the right attitude to have when seeking a patron saint. If not spectacular, I would have settled for a saint whose name I at least recognized. I was convinced that my 14-year-old son had transferred his energy to my pick by standing near me when I clicked and he was really meant to pull the patron saint of altar servers and young people. But, alas, my son tried again on his own and came up with Francis Xavier. We are apparently in need of Jesuit patron saints.

I went to St. John Berchmans' info page, and found this: "John Berchmans was not noted for extraordinary feats of holiness or austerity, nor did he found orders or churches or work flashy miracles." Come on, my son's pick of Francis Xavier was all about flashy: "The gift of tongues. Miracle worker. Raised people from the dead. Calmed storms. Prophet. Healer."

Then I continued reading the St. John Berchmans' bio and found the one line that seemed to make this saint a perfect pick for me after all: "The path to holiness can lie in the ordinary rather than the extraordinary."

Sigh. So that's it. Story of my life. Trying to work my way toward sainthood through the ordinary stuff of life. Okay, okay. I'll take it. Although I did spin a second time to get a backup patron saint and came up with John of the Cross. That's what I'm talking about. Darkness, struggle, mysticism. Surely that first spin was just a warm-up, right?

I'm going to head into the new year with an eye on St. John Berchmans to see what this saint might have to say to me, but I'm hedging my bets by keeping John of the Cross on the sidelines in case I need an alternate at any point, or, more likely, an extra. Can't have too many patron saints.

So give the Patron Saint Generator a spin and let us know which saint will be watching over you during the coming year. And if you get St. Francis of Assisi, I don't want to hear about it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve: Emerging into the light


"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it."
-- John 1:1-5

Those of you who are regulars here at NSS know that I've been in a dark spiritual place this Advent, kicking and silently screaming my way through the weeks. I wondered how I'd ever pull out of the funk before Christmas, or if I'd pull out of it at all. Despite my best efforts to stay right where I was, however, I found myself bubbling with excitement today, and not because of the presents or the tree or the big dinner plans. No, this was something totally other. This was God at work. Little by little today, I felt myself emerging from darkness into light, almost giddy with the reality of what we were about to celebrate.

As I sat at Mass tonight surrounded by my family, by many friends and acquaintances, by the beautiful lights and trees and Nativity scene, the joy and hope that had been lacking this season suddenly moved to the fore and filled my heart to overflowing. (A little like the Grinch when he realizes the Whos down in Whoville are still singing, sans presents or feast.)

"Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King." On this beautiful, silent night, my prayer for you is that the Christ whose birth we celebrate today will fill your days with light and life, hope and joy now and forever. And may we always remember (yours truly especially) that the darkness has not -- and will not ever -- overcome the Light.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Week 4: the heart of darkness


We have been plunged this week into the deepest, darkest days of winter. Light is in short supply as we journey through the final days of Advent in anticipation of the birth of Light.

I have to be honest with you. I have been basking in the darkness this week, and not necessarily in a good way. Okay, in a bad way. God and I really haven't been on speaking terms lately, which wasn't God's idea but I'm still annoyed with Him over it. Yes, sometimes I treat God like a spouse, sibling, parent, child, depending on my mood. I get mad, I lash out, I talk too much, I don't talk at all, I yell. I figure God can take it. Then I wait and wait and wait for God to come around and make me see the light. But this week that hasn't been happening so much, and as we inch closer to Christmas I worry that everyone else will be singing Joy to the World while I'm still singing the spiritual blues. I keep waiting for a sign.

So I went to Mass on Sunday and again on Monday because Noah was serving, and I had to smile when I heard the same first reading from Isaiah both days. First the Lord says, "Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!" Right. Exactly That's the kind of sign I want. Then the other shoe drops when Isaiah says: "Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?" Hmmm...Yes, I would say I have been wearying both people and God this week. Funny how that reading came up two days in a row, especially when I almost never go to daily Mass. For a brief moment I thought maybe this was the sign, but then I brushed it off and sunk back into the darkness to wait for a better sign.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when the winter solstice, full moon and total eclipse came together at once for the first time in 456 years, I pulled my coat on over my pajamas and stood in my driveway in my slippers at 3:12 a.m. hoping to see something spectacular. I looked up and saw nothing. Thick whitish-pinkish clouds moved by, making it impossible to see the moon covered in shadow. Ever so briefly a thought crossed my mind: I know the moon is there even though it's hidden from view. This is exactly how I feel spiritually right now. I desperately want to feel God's presence, to see God casting a shadow across my life, but I can't. And yet God is there behind the spiritual weather system that is wreaking havoc with me. But again I brushed it aside. Yeah, whatever. That's not a real sign.

Then last night I drove with a friend to an Advent prayer service where another friend was giving the Scripture reflection. Again I hoped that this would be the thing that would finally lift me out of my spiritual doldrums. We sang, we prayed, we watched the incense rise to the heavens amid flickering candles. Then my friend spoke about the reading from Song of Songs, reminding us that we are supposed to see God in the role of lover, a role that doesn't always feel comfortable even as it beckons us to meet our God in the most intimate way, turning over our hearts, our souls, our lives with a passion that burns bright enough to light up even the deepest winter darkness.

So maybe I'm not that far off base after all when I say I sometimes treat God like a spouse or child or sibling or parent. Because in all of those relationships beats the heart of true love, love that sometimes gets turned on its head when we are confused or frightened or angry or disappointed, but in the end remains true. And God patiently waits there, wondering if perhaps I'll ever get around to giving Him a sign instead of always expecting God to take the lead.

In reality, this week has been full of signs. Not the spectacular signs we see in the Old Testament or as we run through the Gospels this week of Mary and the Annunciation, Joseph and the angel in his dream, Elizabeth and her recognition of God's presence upon Mary's arrival. Now those are signs. My signs have been much more subtle -- the feeling of community among friends as we prayed together; the beautiful Christmas tree and strong smell of pine that took my breath away when I walked into my darkened, empty parish church, not realizing the decorating had begun; the moon hidden behind clouds on a starless winter night; the words of the prophets ringing true for me today as they rang true centuries ago; the friends who meet me for coffee or drive up for dinner and listen to my stories and my whining and love me just the same; the husband and children who bear my dark moods and spiritual angst amid their pre-Christmas joy, patiently waiting for me to come around and join them. Each one pours a little more light into my weary soul and reminds me that I should not wait for a sign; I should become a sign.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

To Rome, with love


Here's my little love letter to Rome, which appears (with my photos) in today's Albany Times Union:

When in Rome...

By Mary DeTurris Poust

From the moment my plane touched down in Rome, I was in love.Visiting the country where my grandfather was born was the fulfillment of a promise I'd made to myself. I was awed by the prospect of standing in St. Peter's Square, walking through the Coliseum and soaking in the artwork of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Bernini as I wandered through churches and piazzas.

I had 10 days to explore Rome on my first visit to the Eternal City, a trip that involved a weeklong university seminar for journalists who cover the Catholic Church. Armed with my favorite guide books, an Italian phrase book and an appetite for adventure, I set out to make the city my own. But I quickly learned that without a willingness to think outside the tourist box, my pilgrimage could deteriorate into a parade of indistinguishable ancient churches and artistic masterpieces.

So how to experience Rome like a Roman? When my wristwatch stopped working on the first day of my visit, I took it as a sign:....continue reading HERE.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Adonai...



I have no words of wisdom, no inspiration to offer to you today. I'm still bumping into things in the spiritual darkness that has been my home for a week or so. I decided to let Amy Grant speak through her beautiful song instead.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Local goodies for last minute shoppers

Before I get started on local gift ideas, let me just say that I have not set foot in a mall this Christmas season, which is always my goal. I don't like malls any time, but I especially don't like them before Christmas. And I figure if I made it this far, I'm home free because there ain't no way I'm going to a mall or anywhere within a five mile radius of a mall in the coming week when all those crazy shoppers are fighting for parking spaces and sale items.

So...if you live in New York's Capital Region, it's just a short drive to my town where you can find lots of cool stuff without the nasty crowds. (And if you're not in this region, get creative and look for similar shops in small towns near you.)

First I'll start with food. Of course. In keeping with the theme of this blog, these suggestions won't just be any foods but food with a spiritual connection.

Trappist Preserves make a nice, yummy gift or stocking stuffer. Although you can always buy them online HERE, folks in Delmar can pick them up right at Hannaford. That's right, jelly and jams made by monks sitting on the shelf next to Smucker's. Whodda thunk? Chiara will accept no other jelly on her PB&J. She prefers seedless red raspberry, although they make loads of flavors, typical and not so typical -- like hot pepper mango jelly or Kadota fig preserves.

Cheesecake by the Nuns of New Skete is available in the refrigerated case at Delmar Marketplace, and word on the street is that it is unbelievably good. So this may be on my dessert list this year. This, too, is available through online orders (HERE) if you can't get to the store or want an unusual flavor, like Irish cream or Kahlua. Or if you just need regular cheesecake deliveries, no matter what the season. Yum.

Moving away from food but keeping in our spiritual mindset, just walk across the street and head to Peaceful Inspirations, where you will find so many cool things you won't be able to decide what to get. I have to restrain myself every time I'm in there or I would leave with arms loaded down with books and earrings and angels and wall hangings and incense. (For Facebook friends keeping score at home, this is where I purchased the myrrh incense I mentioned the other day.) One of my favorite items is a lotus candle holder (see photo at the top). They have them in so many beautiful colors and sizes, with stands or without. A really nice little gift for someone special. And they have tons of other things related to the spiritual quest, from meditation bells and Mala beads to books on Our Lady of Guadalupe and Celtic art to salt lamps and peace flags. And if you go there, you'll be right around the corner from Perfect Blend, where you can get a coffee and something delicious to eat. (No, I am not being paid to advertise for these places.)

Of course, I Love Books is right next door to Perfect Blend. See how many places you can go without ever moving your car? At I Love Books you will have your pick of wonderful merchandise, but be sure to stop by the Local Authors shelf where you can get my book, "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship." (You can also get it online or wherever you buy your books.) Makes a great gift -- for a friend, obviously.

Leaving I Love Books, head back across the street to the Breathing Room, a little yoga place where you can buy gift certificates for classes, yoga equipment, CDs and more. Don't you feel more peaceful just thinking about it? Ooooommmmm.

Finally, if you are in the area tomorrow, Saturday, December 18, the Delmar Farmers Market will have its last day of the season inside the Bethlehem Central Middle School from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Hair of the Dog will be playing the entire time. Shopping and a show. For free. Can't beat that, can you? Lots of local vendors. Stop by, but bring your reusable bags and even your reusable coffee cup. Think green Christmas.

Anyone else around here have any good ideas to share? Please do so in the comment section. And remember, even if you don't live here, there are sure to be similar shops somewhere near you. Avoid the malls and the inherent headaches. Shop close to home.

Finding calm amid the chaos

I have heard from so many friends telling me that my previous post about my difficult third week of Advent rang true for them. Apparently a lot of us are feeling the same joylessness, the same darkness and confusion at a time that is supposed to be filled with light and hope.

Then today a Facebook friend in Italy posted a beautiful reflection on this very topic. I guess some things translate across oceans and continents.

The post is from a certain simplicity* (uncomplicated creative living) and it's just what I needed to hear, read, think about, absorb. I'll get you started here and then link to the blog, because you should go there today -- and any day you need a lift -- to hear lots of positive things with servings of Italy on the side.

From Diana Baur's post today:

The clutter, the discord and the difficulty are what produce the fertile ground of creativity.

On the day you decide to follow a creative path, you will have lesson after lesson handed to you. You will feel beaten, humbled, and alive. You will be aware of large churnings under the surface that no one can see or feel but you. You might smile at friends and family, talking to them about things you have always talked about, but inside you will be jumping hurdles, slaying dragons, praying for answers.

You will feel like you are running as hard as you can - in a bowl of mashed potatoes.

Your advances will be small, your badges earned. You will be a student for a very, very long time. You will wonder whether it was worth it. If you should not have just stayed where you were, in the land of mediocrity and perpetual indecision.

Continue reading...

Thank you, Diana, for giving me food for thought when I most needed to know I am not alone and I will move forward. Peace to everyone out there today who feels like they're running hard but standing still.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent, Week 3: Every rose has its thorn

I began this week basking in the glow of Gaudete Sunday. The thrill I get when it's time to light the pink, ahem, ROSE candle in the Advent wreath is a little ridiculous. It's just a candle, after all. And yet, I fully appreciate the placement of rose in the third week rather than the fourth. It's a little wake-up call, a sudden bright spot that urges us forward before it's too late.

My Gaudete spirit only increased when I went to a nursing home with my parish's youth ministry group last Sunday to sing carols and distribute little Christmas crafts. As we sang O Come All Ye Faithful, I spied a tiny woman hunched down in a wheelchair just to my right, singing away and smiling at me. She waved me over, and I tried to understand what she wanted me to do. Something with the Christmas craft. We tried to communicate in loud whispers so as not to disrupt the young girl reading from the Gospel of Luke, but I finally gave up and squatted down near her wheelchair to wait for a break in the show.

As I knelt there next to her, she leaned over from her chair and put her arm around me, squeezed my shoulder, and smiled. She did that at least three more times in the span of a few minutes. Talk about a bright spot in my week. When we finally managed to get back to the craft and what she wanted me to do, it became clear: She wanted me to have the Christmas decoration meant to hang on her door. After my futile attempts to make her keep it, I thanked her and took it home, promising myself I'd pray for Ruth whenever I saw it.

Then, due to the alignment -- or misalignment -- of a few events (too confusing to go into here), my rose-y spirit began to dampen and darken. Gone is the joy I had felt only days ago, gone is the hope that is supposed to be building with each day until it reaches its crescendo on Christmas, gone is my interest in or motivation for prayer. Zippo. Nada. Nothing. Darkness.

And so, during this season of dark and light, I find myself going in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Maybe it's meant to be this way. Maybe I'm supposed to experience the heart of John's Gospel in a real and felt way, knowing once and for all that the darkness can never overcome the light.

Rather than skipping through this week of Advent, I'm plodding and brooding and wishing the season would be over and done with. Then I stop and remember Ruth, smiling and singing from her wheelchair in a nursing home where life -- as pleasant as the staff tries to make it -- is difficult, at best. Every day. For Ruth and so many others like her -- my almost-98-year-old grandmother, for example -- life is never going to get easier at this point, and yet they carry on with the same determination and spirit that got them to this point.

I think Ruth was placed in my life last Sunday for a reason. When I find myself sinking into self-pity over my un-Christmasy feelings this week, I see her smiling face and feel her little squeeze around my shoulder and remember that light can come into our lives in the most unexpected ways and the most unlikely places. We just have to be willing to open the door to it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why Merton matters

Ever since I first came in contact with the writings of Thomas Merton some 25 years ago, he has spoken to me. I know I'm not alone there. Countless people of every faith and persuasion have found meaning in his writings and his life. Of course, others will counter that with claims that he was too flawed to be held up as a role model, or, dare I say, saint. But that's precisely why he's a great example.

I find comfort in the fact that he carried on, following his path toward God, even when he was thrown off course by his humanness. I look at Merton and see holiness wrapped in weakness, and isn't that where most of us are? We're all called to be saints, but oftentimes our humanity gets in the way. In Merton, we can see ourselves, trudging ever closer to God despite mistakes -- some of them pretty major -- and confusion and doubt.

Today, on the 42nd anniversary of his death by accidental electrocution in Bagkok, I am taking time to remember and reflect, but Merton is never far from my thoughts because so many of his words are constantly ringing in my ears.

Hanging next to my desk is this Merton quote from Thoughts in Solitude:

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 doing 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.

See what I mean? Comforting and yet challenging. I read those words and think, "Oh, good, Merton had no idea where he was going either." Then I read a little more and think, "Oh, no, he trusted God completely. Can I do the same?" For me that's a saintly role model, reminding me that I'm not alone but pushing me to go beyond my typical response and reach for something deeper, truer.

A couple of years ago, I received a wonderful blessing in the form of a silent retreat called "Merton in the Mountains." By a lake in the low peaks of the Adirondacks I had one weekend of solitude and silence, a brief glimpse into Merton's way of life. It wasn't easy. In fact, it was downright difficult and more than a little frightening -- to give up my voice, to sit and wait for God while trying to throw off the monkeys of worry and doubt and pride and ambition. Merton knew those same feelings, and yet he continued to return to the silence, the solitude because that is where he knew he'd find God.

Another quote from Thoughts in Solitude:

To love solitude and to seek it does not mean constantly traveling from one geographic possibility to another. A man becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary. From that moment on, solitude is not potential -- it is actual.
But perhaps the quote that always calls me back, the one that echoes in my head, is the quote below. It's a constant reminder of my inability to ever know God if I try to make him in my own image:

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.
Merton reminds me that I still have a shot, even when I don't get it right on a pretty regular basis. Merton, with his beautiful and powerful words, gives me something to hold onto when God feels very far away.

Thomas Merton, pray for us.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent, Week 2: the waiting game

I am not a patient person. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I consider myself to be one of the most impatient people I know. If I start an exercise routine, I expect to see results the next day, or sooner. When I pray, I often do so with one eye half-open, as if to watch for some sort of lightning bolt answer that might come down from heaven right there on the spot. I don't like to wait. Ever. Or, almost ever. There is one exception to my inability to sit still and let things unfold as they should, and that one exception is Advent.

As others spin with frantic holiday energy -- buying gifts, baking cookies, singing carols, decorating trees -- I am quite content to ignore it all and simply wait. Which kind of makes the rest of my family a little crazy. They want singing Santas and twinkling lights, but our house is decidedly unfestive at this point. If you were to stop by, you might even wonder if we plan to celebrate Christmas at all, so barren are our table tops and windows and walls. The only signs of the season are Advent signs: a wreath on the kitchen table, a purple and pink paper chain hanging from a window, the Advent calendar on the hearth, and a little Advent tree that my grandmother gave me. There's something beautiful about the starkness of it all amid the abundance of Christmas that is so obvious everywhere else. And, despite my usual impatience, I have to admit that there's something wonderful about the anticipation that continues to build every day, that expectant feeling that recognizes that something amazing is just around the corner but the time is not quite right, our spirits not quite ripe.

I find that my willingness to wait becomes stronger with every passing year, much like my love for the Advent season itself. When I was young, I didn't feel a connection to the Advent season. I used to say I was a Lent person, always more comfortable in the desert than in the midst of a party. But then slowly, slowly, slowly I began to "get" Advent, which is a desert experience of a very different kind. Silence and darkness, waiting and watching, surrender and trust. This, too, is a time to pull away from the rest of the world and retreat to a quiet place where God might get a word in edgewise.

Of course, some of my pre-Christmas patience has a practical side as well. If I put up the tree on December 1, I know I'd be tired of it long before the big day finally arrived. And the last thing I want is to be ready to leave the party before the guest of honor arrives. Waiting makes the tree and all the trimmings seem that much more special to me, and I'm hoping that the feeling is beginning to trickle down to the kids.

This morning, when I said we'd probably put up the tree next weekend, Olivia jumped for joy. When I offered to put a few little snowmen decorations out after school today, Chiara could barely contain herself. Excitement is building little by little as we inch toward the main event, trying ever so hard to keep our focus on the constant light of Jesus and not on all those twinkling, temporary flashes around us.

Patient waiting...a pregnant pause, full of expectant joy, much a like a mother waiting for labor to begin. We are growing more ripe each day, more ready for what is to come. In the crisp, cold air we feel a warm glow that burns stronger and stronger each day, as our hearts cry out, Maranatha, "Our Lord, come."

Friday, December 3, 2010

From one spiritual friendship author to another

Sometimes the blog world and the world of Facebook just amaze me. That's how I "met" Dan Brennan, author of "Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women." In addition to posting a review of my book on his website (HERE), Dan posted the following review on Amazon. The best part (as far as I'm concerned) is that Dan is Protestant/Evangelical, confirming for me that my book is not limited to a Catholic audience (despite the word "Catholic" in the title.) Thanks for the kind words, Dan. Here's his Amazon review:

Five out of five stars
A Protestant's Thumbs up!
By Dan Brennan

This review is from: Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship (Paperback)

Since I have a passion for the subject of spiritual friendship, I was eager to get this book when I found out about it. I was not disappointed. Mary DeTurris Poust does a great job of translating the depth and passion of spiritual friendship in Catholic tradition as something good and beautiful for twenty-first century readers. As a Protestant/evangelical, I highly recommend this accessible book. When I was looking for resources on cross-gender friendship as I was writing my own book, I could hardly find any books or material written from an evangelical perspective. However, I did come across a reference to the friendship between St. Francis de Sales and St. Jeanne de Chantal. That discovery opened the doors for me to discover the rich history of spiritual friendships in Catholic Tradition.

Walking Together is a very good book that introduces us to that history and what spiritual friendship looks like in our superficial and shallow culture today. Poust does an excellent job of helping us understand the beauty of friendship love for us today. Something so beautiful requires nurturing, communication, transparency, and intentionality. Poust gets that. I recommend this book for all Christians who are hungering after something more deeper than what the media portrays in popular friendships.

Tune in today for a discussion on friendship

I will be a guest on "In the Heartland with Bishop Pates" of Des Moines at 10 a.m. CT today. You can catch the show live online at www.kvss.com, or listen on KWKY 1150 AM in Des Moines and KVSS 102.7 FM in Omaha.

Also, for those of you looking to buy my new book "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship," please let me know if you have trouble getting a copy. Word on the street is that smaller bookshops cannot get the books in stock because the larger distributors are back ordered. Folks in New York's Capital Region should contact me directly and I will get you books in time for Christmas. Other folks can send an email and we can work something out by mail.

Or visit the usual spots, including Amazon, and, of course, my publisher, Ave Maria Press. (B&N and Borders are back ordered at the moment.) And, remember, if all else fails, please contact me directly for signed copies.

UPDATED: Just found out that my book tops the list of Christmas gift suggestions over at The Anchoress. Plus lots of other friends have books on the list. Check it out HERE.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Join the Advent Conspiracy



Every Advent I set out with the best of intentions. I will pray more, and I will not allow the secular world's clarion call of "Buy, buy, buy" to drown out the less flashy but more important scriptural message of "Stay awake!" I vow not to go to shopping malls. I refuse to put up decorations too early. I take tags off the parish Giving Tree. I talk to the kids about asking for reasonable gifts and not expecting everything on their lists. But inevitably, by the time we're one week out from Christmas, I find we've blown our budget and bought way more than anyone needed -- or wanted, for that matter.

I just got off the phone with a friend and I talked about my issues with this season. Most people I know are almost done with their Christmas shopping. I haven't even started. So I told him, "Don't expect too much. I've decided I'm just not going to try that hard this year." I do not mean that in a Bah-Humbug! sort of way. I mean that I'm just not going to let worries over meaningless gifts that will probably get tossed in a closet become the focus of the next few weeks.

Then I saw the video clip above. (Big h/t to Mike Hayes over at Googling God for bringing this one to my attention.) It says it all. Watch it, and then join me in not trying so hard -- or spending so much -- this season.

And while you're at it, check out the second part of Patrice Athanasidy's Advent series over at Fathers for Good. Click HERE to read about how her family counters the focus on material stuff at Christmas.

Then click HERE to read Jesuit Father James Martin's post on Advent "desire" and how it's not all bad.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Advent, Week 1: Spirituality in shades of indigo

As we move through this first week of Advent, I feel immersed in indigo-tinged prayers. Not literally, since the candles in our Advent wreath and the paper links on our Advent chain are clearly purple. No hints of midnight blue there. But inside, when I settle into prayer, I bask in the deep, dark, blue-purple shades that are meant for this season.

My pastor described it last weekend as the shade of the night sky just before dawn. Perfect imagery, I think. Imagine that dark mixture of black and purple and blue that suddenly transforms into bright oranges and yellows and reds with the appearance of the sun. Or, for those of us following the color chart of Advent spirituality, the appearance of the Son.

We are waiting for the Son-rise of Christmas, the moment when Light enters the world in a totally transforming way, the moment when we open our own lives up to that Light and allow it to cast out the shadows that lurk in our souls.

"...What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." -- John 1:5

The infancy narratives are lovely to read during this season leading up to Christmas, but no Scripture speaks to my heart better than the poetry of John's prologue. If those words had a color, they'd be indigo, don't you think? Even the readings of this season have an indigo feel to them -- the anticipation of Christ's birth balanced by the anticipation of the second coming and our willingness to be ready for it at any time. Maybe it's just me, but, boy, that's as indigo as it gets.

"Stay awake!" Jesus tells us this week. We are on guard for what is to come, but we know enough to be not afraid because just when the night seems to reach its darkest hour comes the Light, and our world is reborn, our indigo souls flushed with the bright white of Christ's love.

For at least a few minutes each day, soak up the indigo shades of Advent. Prayerfully (and figuratively, if you're not a morning person) sit in the pre-dawn darkness and feel the anticipation of the sunrise that is to come. Get away from the reds and greens that bombard us during this season and settle into a peaceful, prayerful, joyful, expectant indigo spirituality.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Thanksgiving Day to remember

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I got to thinking back to the first Thanksgiving Dennis and I spent as a married couple. We had moved to Austin just a few months before and decided to give thanks in a different way that year. So today, I am rerunning a favorite Life Lines column in honor of the holiday and in recognition of all those folks who will not sit down to a feast of food on Thursday. Here it is:

In the past, whenever the dolls and Legos would overflow our kids’ toy bins, we’d give things away to charity. We figured it was a good way to do something nice, clean our closets, and teach our kids the importance of giving to others all at the same time.

Ever since Noah turned 2, he knew that many of his toys would eventually go to “the poor.” We never really put a face on “the poor,” but whenever a toy was conspicuous by its absence, Noah would ask if they had it.

We thought we were teaching him a valuable lesson in Christian charity. Then one night he took the globe off the coffee table, spun it around and randomly put his finger on Egypt. “Is this where the poor live?” he asked.

I tried to imagine what was going through his head. I had visions of hungry children on the other side of the world opening boxes filled with Teletubbies and beeping plastic steering wheels.

And so began our quest to teach our kids just how many people are desperately poor, not just on the other side of the globe, but on the other side of town. We tried to find ways to drive the point home: a brown bag full of cans from our pantry at Thanksgiving, a gift for the Giving Tree at Christmas, an Easter basket for a needy child. They were all lovely sentiments – and important in their own ways -- but hardly enough to convey what the Gospel challenges us to do.

The first Thanksgiving after Dennis and I were married we volunteered to serve breakfast to hungry men and women who didn’t have plans for a home-cooked meal, or a home for that matter. A woman who ran the Catholic Worker House was happy for the extra hands and told us to be at the day labor corner at 7:30 a.m. to hand out hard-boiled eggs, tortillas and hot coffee.

The woman was known around town as “The Egg Lady” because she was out there with her eggs not just on Thanksgiving but every day. She drove homeless people to AA meetings, let them shower at her house, gave them clothes and offered them prayers. She reached out a hand where many would recoil in fear. She told us how one man she’d been helping stole her car. She said it without a hint of anger, without an ounce of regret. Then she boiled more eggs and went back out to the streets.

Now that is a lesson in Christian charity. Talk about living the Gospel. It’s not nearly as neat and easy as throwing some canned corn in a paper bag. In fact it’s the kind of charity that I find downright scary. But it’s exactly the kind of charity we need to embrace if we’re going to teach our kids about compassion and our duty to make sure people have eggs and coffee and a generous serving of dignity and respect.

Maybe this year we’ll hold onto the extra Elmos and try a different approach – like talking about the fact that there are poor people right here, that they’re just like us except they don’t have a way to pay for food or doctor visits or heat during the winter. Bags of food and boxes of toys are a good start, but they won’t end poverty. We end poverty, and not just with a checkbook but with a change of heart. Maybe that’s a naïve idea, but people like The Egg Lady put it to the test every day.

Unfortunately there are plenty of opportunities to test our mettle. Spin the globe. Put your finger down. Anywhere. That’s where the poor live.

Originally published in Catholic New York, November 2001. If you would like to learn more about the real "Egg Lady," click HERE.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Get a free hug to start your weekend


Here's a great video (with awesome music) to send you into the weekend with a smile. Give someone an unexpected free hug today.

Celebrating with my soul sisters

Thank you to all my Cornerstone sisters, friends from St. Thomas the Apostle, and friends from Delmar in general who gave up a night at home with their families to attend my talk and signing at Christ the King Church in Albany. I had a great time. I hope you did too. I felt so lifted up and blessed by your support. Your being there really meant the world to me, so thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And related to the book stuff, here's a new Amazon review of my book, posted by another Diocese of Albany friend. Thanks, Fran. What a wonderful review:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Walk - and a Gift - For One and All, November 19, 2010
By FranReadsALot "Fran Rossi Szpylczyn" (Albany, NY United States)

This review is from: Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship (Paperback)

Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for your friends and family? Look no further, Walking Together will fit the bill for so many, because friendship is the gift.

Using examples from many sources, Mary DeTurris Poust puts forth a beautiful little volume that is a gift to read. She is intellectual but completely accessible, she is filled with great warmth but never saccharine. Her words about people as diverse as St. Francis de Sales, Bishop Howard Hubbard, her mother and her husband and more will inspire you.

I love books like this, written in a way that allows you to flip from chapter to chapter, not necessarily in order. Each chapter invites you to look at friendship that is spiritual but very real. And if being Roman Catholic is about anything, it is about being in our bodies and being part of The Body that is all very real. That said, this is not a book for Catholics alone, but rather a way for anyone to reframe their view of friendship and faith in a new light.

And while you are buying gifts for all of your friends, please - make sure you buy one for yourself!

Click HERE for the Amazon link, HERE for the Barnes and Noble link, and HERE for the Ave Maria Press link. I'm hoping to get a Pay Pal link up on my own website soon so you can order signed copies directly from me in time for Christmas. If you want a book signed before that's up and running, email me privately and we'll work something out. Once you've had a chance to read the book, please consider posting a review at Amazon or B&N. Thank you, one and all!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Soul to Soul Conversations

Check out my latest column on spiritual friendship, Soul to Soul Conversations, up on Faith & Family Live! this week. I'll be taping a podcast for Faith & Family today, so stay tuned for more on when you can download that.

Soul to Soul Conversations
The importance of spiritual friendship
by Mary DeTurris Poust

We live in age when we can strike up a new friendship with the click of a mouse, when our “friends,” many of whom we’ve never even met, can number into the hundreds, or even thousands, thanks to social networking. Yet despite all the connections and links and “likes” about everything from what we cooked for dinner last night to our latest work project, most people are hungry for something more.
We can have 395 Facebook friends and still feel lonely. We can “talk” to people all day in an almost constant stream of e-mail, telephone and online chats and never have a conversation that dips below the surface to touch the soul. We can surround ourselves around the clock with co-workers and neighbors, parishioners and family members and still wonder at times if we’re flying solo.

Continue reading...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A potential convert tests the waters - UPDATED


If you think Facebook is just for superficial commentary on the silly and sundry things that happen throughout the day, think again. Sometimes Facebook gets serious. And spiritual. Yesterday a Facebook friend posted the following status update:

“Ok, all you Catholics out there - what words of advice, encouragement or warning would you share with someone who is thinking of converting to Catholicism?”

Wow. It takes a lot of courage to send that message out there into the universe, or at least the world of Facebook. I promised, in my OSV Daily Take post yesterday (where you can read what others have to say on this subject), that I would respond with my own answers to that question today. It's a good question for any Catholic to ponder every once in a while, I think. So here we go...

Advice: Follow your heart, or, more accurately, follow the Spirit. If you're being drawn to the Catholic faith and feel the stirrings of something deep within your soul, don't ignore it. Embrace it. Revel in it. Sometimes, as a lifelong Catholic, I'm envious of those who have had a "conversion experience," those people who aren't just born into the faith but are called to seek out the Catholic faith in an active way. What a tremendous gift!

When I hear about someone considering the Catholic faith, I am filled with awe and excitement. Awe because it's a reminder that God is still calling people; excitement because I know that grace will flow from your conversion, and your life will be transformed.

Encouragement: Ours is a rich and beautiful tradition, filled with ancient rituals that connect us back to our beginnings but also feed us where we are right now. Take the time to explore and appreciate the many diverse spiritual practices that will strengthen your faith, starting with Mass, of course. But don't stop there. You can find spiritual nourishment in so many wonderful places -- private devotions, like the Rosary; silent meditation or contemplation; the lives and examples of saints and holy men and women from throughout our history; the Liturgy of the Hours (although I have to admit that I still struggle with this one in a big way).

As you continue on this journey, know that you are surrounded by countless others -- the Communion of Saints -- who walk the same path. We are a family, and you are never alone.

Warning: Unfortunately, every family has its issues. Many of us born into the Catholic faith take it for granted. We forget, sometimes, just how amazing this gift of faith really is. We sit in church and look bored. We forget to pray at home. We complain about this priest or that parish. You will come to the faith with a zeal that many of us cradle Catholics have never known, so you may look around and wonder why you're the only one who seems to be on fire with the faith. Be patient with us.

Being Catholic isn't always popular. In fact, it's often not popular. People are likely to tell you you're crazy for wanting to join us. People will decide at dinner parties and summer picnics that it is the perfect time to confront you about every single thing they hate or don't understand about the Catholic Church. Don't be afraid. Although it can get annoying to be grilled about things over which you have no control or misconceptions that many people cling to, it's all part of the package. Jesus never said it was going to be easy. He often said it was going to be really, really difficult. Those moments are likely to be the times that reaffirm your faith and force you to put into words what you normally just keep hidden in your heart. It' s a beautiful faith, a Church that stretches back in an unbroken chain to Jesus Christ. You can't get that anywhere else.

Finally, our Church is not perfect. It is made up of human beings, and while I'll be the first one to stand up and say that I find that excuse rather lame when monumental sins and scandals come to light, the reality is that it is true. God gave us free will, and some of us will not use that freedom for good. Given the history of our Church and the enormity of our world, it is inevitable that sometimes someone with less-than-pure intentions is going to enter the picture and do things to hurt the rest of us. Keep the faith. They are not the Church. We are the Church. We are the Body of Christ on earth, and if Christ is for us, who can be against us?

UPDATE: I'll be talking about this on the Son Rise Morning Show with Brian Patrick tomorrow, Nov. 12, at 6:50 a.m. Eastern time. If you're not in Cincinnati, you can listen live online by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Friendship under a spiritual microscope

This review really captured the heart and soul of my new book. My favorite review of any book I've ever written. It appeared in this week's Evangelist of the Diocese of Albany. Check it out, if you have a few minutes.

BY FRAN ROSSI SZPYLCZYN

A recent piece in the LA Times newspaper left me stunned. Citing one study of Americans, the article stated that most people "had one-third fewer non-family confidants than they had 20 years earlier, and 25 percent had no one in whom to confide whatsoever."

It continued, "Another study of 3,000 Americans found that, on average, they had only four close social contacts."

We are a pilgrim people and, as Catholics, we are "covenantal" people, so those numbers startled me. That may be one reason I enjoyed "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship" by Mary DeTurris Poust.

With friendship frequently defined as being a mouse-click away, this book shines with the potential of what relationship can actually mean.

Continue reading HERE.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More Mary than you know what to do with...



Sorry I've been absent from the blog for a while. Book promotion in other arenas is burning up a lot of hours. In a good way. So...if you'd like to see what I've been doing while I've been away, here we go:

Tonight I'll be on Currents, the nightly public affairs show of The NET, at 7:30 p.m. If you're not in Manhattan or Brooklyn, you want watch it live via streaming by clicking HERE. It will repeat at 11:30 p.m. tonight and 6:30 a.m. tomorrow. And after that it will be up on YouTube.

You can also click on the video link above and watch my interview via Skype with the folks of Everyday Faith Live! on Telecare-TV. I'm at the 15 minute mark.

If you click HERE, you can see the recent review of my book in U.S. Catholic.

And today a wonderful review by my Facebook friend Fran Rossi Szpylczyn is running in The Evangelist (of the Diocese of Albany). Page six for those with print editions. An online version is coming soon. Don't worry, I'll post the link. As if you ever doubted.

On Saturday, watch the Albany Times Union for my Voices of Faith column on spiritual friendship. And don't forget, I'll be selling books after all Masses at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Delmar on Nov. 13-14 and speaking about spiritual friendship at Christ the King Church, Albany, on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m.

There have actually been numerous other radio shows and articles (for which I am so grateful), but I think you get the idea. I'll be heading to NJ tomorrow for a Saturday workshop in the Diocese of Metuchen. If you're going to be in the area, check my website for details and stop by and say hello. God is good. Life is good. I am blest.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Talking spiritual friendship on Son Rise Morning Show


If you missed my interview on Son Rise Morning Show with Brian Patrick, have no fear. It's right here on podcast. Zoom ahead to the 2:13 mark, if you want to go right to Brian's interview with me about my new book.

Click HERE to listen in.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finding soul friends for the spiritual journey

In this age of Facebook and Twitter, when we can have hundreds, even thousands of "friends," many people still feel isolated or lonely. We may have more virtual friendships than we can count, but nothing that dips below the surface to touch the soul. Spiritual friendship offers something more, the possibility of connecting with true soul mates who journey with us on our path toward God. It's not some newfangled notion, but rather an ancient tradition with scriptural roots.

Interested in learning more? Check out my story, "How to Develop Spiritual Friendships," in the November 7 issue of OSV by clicking HERE.

You can also catch me talking about this topic and my new book, "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship," on the following radio and cable shows on Friday, Oct. 29:
8:30 a.m. ET, Spirit Radio, KVSS 102.7 FM, Omaha/Lincoln region

10:40 a.m., Everyday Faith Live!, Telecare-TV on Cablevision or Verizon FIOS, New York Metro area. You can also watch the show live online by clicking HERE.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

You can't make this stuff up


Take a good look at the photo above. This is a perfect statement on my life at this point. Or a good indication of why my sanity seems to be in constant peril. Let me give you the back story...

I decided to take a deep breath and head into Olivia's room for a bit of de-cluttering today. We needed to move summer clothes out and winter clothes in, but it's not nearly so simple with my beloved 10-year-old middle child. She is a collector, a pack rat extraordinaire. I dare any other 10-year-old to top her. And just so you know I'm not exaggerating, let me take you through just one drawer in her bedroom. That is where I discovered the items above. I'll introduce you.

On the left we have her collection of "whistling acorns," and, trust me, she practices her acorn whistling all the time. Next we have "Spoonella." Yes, that is a plastic spoon with a pipe cleaner wrapped around it. You might not be able to see her little eyes and nose, but they're there. Next in our crazy lineup is my personal favorite: Pinkie. When I pulled this little gem out of the drawer and started to toss it into the trash bag because it is the broken heel off a plastic dress-up shoe, Olivia screamed. It's a dog. She turned a broken shoe into a dog and will not part with it. Need I say more? Why, yes. I do need to say more.

Bringing up the rear in our photo is the balloon she got at a gymnastics birthday party one year ago. Apparently she's holding onto this one to see just how small it will get. That, too, was saved from the trash heap. And, what I wasn't able to photograph for fearing of ruining furniture was the oozing bag of "goop" brought home from school last year. This mix of water, glue and who knows what else was seeping out of its sandwich bag and onto everything around it. That I threw away, despite the arguments.

So there you have it. I could go on and on...the shoe box full of "fossils," the Hello Kitty tin of tags saved off clothing (she bequeathed this to Chiara today), the endless stacks of journals with one page written in each -- the one to save the pandas, the one to save the earth, the one to document nature, the one to catalog fairies, the one for her detective "business."

Despite my frustration over the disaster that is her room, this kid makes me smile and smile. Just writing this post and thinking about her wide-eyed face as she described Spoonella makes me happy. And Spoonella isn't the only one of her kind. She has family somewhere among Olivia's friends. Did I ever have an imagination this amazing? I don't think so. How I wish I could go back to that magical place if only for a day.

Go ahead, open a drawer. You never know what kind of treasures you might find.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Judging a candidate by her clothes. What year is it again?


Show of hands, please? Who here votes for a candidate based on what he or she is wearing? Didn't think so. You can put your hands down.

Why -- WHY? -- does the NY Times feel the need to devote a giant feature story in today's Style section to what the candidates -- wait, let me correct that -- what the FEMALE candidates are wearing on the campaign trail this season? Have we really not moved forward at all? Are women still going to be judged on their hair, their glasses, their pant suits, or lack therof?

Apparently we have not made one inch of progress when it comes to judging women candidates based on what they say or do. We're all still back in the high school lunch room, checking out the cool girls and wishing we could be like them, or risking a date to the prom -- or the general election -- if we're not.

First of all, why is there a story about this at all? And when will the feature on the fashion sense of male candidates be making its way to print. (Although I wouldn't be surprised if that doesn't eventually show up given what I'm sure will be the outrage the Times will hear from fed-up female readers.) Second, are they saying it's impossible for someone to look like Sarah Palin but think like Hillary Clinton, and vice versa. Do we still think someone has to look like a man to think like a man, and why do we want someone to look and think like a man? Look what that's gotten us so far. But I digress...

A clip from the story, with the voice of reason coming from the editor of Vogue:

Indeed, there is much to suggest that women who aspire to office continue to dress defensively. Frightened, even terrified, of committing a wardrobe gaffe on national airwaves, most adhere to a rigid, patently dated style that has all the allure of a milk carton.

The prevailing look, modeled on corporate executives, with an occasional nod to the astringent style of female news anchors, is anathema to professional style-watchers. When, during her presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton declined an invitation to appear in Vogue magazine for fear, her handlers said, of appearing “too feminine,” Anna Wintour fired off a scathing editor’s letter.

“The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously is frankly dismaying,” Ms. Wintour chided. “I do think Americans have moved on from the power suit mentality. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.”

Thank you, Anna Wintour, for saying what needs to be said. Is anyone listening? Are any man-tailored suits being packed into Hefty bags and put out by the curb?

I just don't get it. Then again, when I was managing editor of Catholic New York, my work "uniform" of choice was this: Pier One dresses imported from India, men's black cowboy boots transported from Texas, and a vintage military jacket purchased at the closest second-hand shop. That might explain why I'm not a CEO -- or a politician. Or why I've chosen to work in my basement where it's always casual Friday.

I'm voting for the first person to show up in a tie-dye skirt and a fringed leather jacket. I happen to have one you can borrow if you're running for office.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Remembering the North American Martyrs


By Mary DeTurris Poust

One of my favorite places in upstate New York, just 45 minutes from my home, is the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, whose feast we celebrate today. Those three crosses in the photo above mark the entrance to the shrine with the names of three martyrs: Jesuit missionaries Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil and Jean La Lande.

The shrine in Auriesville, which is also the birthplace of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, is not just a beautiful location in the Mohawk Valley but a truly sacred spot, steeped in the history and blood of the martyrs who suffered there. You can walk the ravine and read St. Isaac Jogues' own words explaining the prolonged torture and terrifying death St. Rene Goupil suffered at the hands of the Iroquois. It was a hatchet blow to the head while Rene Goupil was teaching the Sign of the Cross to children that finally sealed his fate in 1642. Isaac Jogues didn't fare any better, having survived years of torture and enslavement and having his fingers chewed or burned off. He was killed and decapitated in 1646.

The other Jesuits martyred in North America are Antony Daniel, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel, Gabriel Lalemant, and John de Brebeuf.

I didn't really know much about Jean de Brebeuf until I read Jesuit Father James Martin's post over on America magazine's In All Things blog today. From Father Martin's wonderful (if a bit gruesome) post:

Jean's first journey to the Huron homeland, 800 miles from Quebec, was grueling. Jean tied his shoes around his neck, hiked up his cassock and climbed into the bark canoe. This passage, from Donnelly's biography, Jean de Brébeuf, first published in 1975, made a lasting impression on me when I read it as a novice:
On a journey the Indians spoke little, saving their energy for paddling their average of ten leagues, about thirty miles a day. Squatted on their haunches, immobile for hours on end, except for the swing of their arms and shoulders wielding the paddle, they generally had no small talk. Rising at dawn the Hurons heated water into which they dropped a portion of coarsely pounded corn….[After] their scanty meal, the Hurons launched the canoes and began another day of silent travel. In the evening, when the light began to fail the Indians, making camp for the night, ate their [corn meal] and stretched out on the bare ground to sleep. The swarms of mosquitoes, deer flies, and other insects…seemed not to bother the Indians….Then at dawn the whole painful process began again.
Read the full post HERE, and, if you can, make a pilgrimage to the shrine. I have posted multiple times about Auriesville because once you've been there, it stays with you and you want to go back. I've even had the opportunity to camp in a tent on the shrine grounds during a Boy Scout retreat. You can read about my previous visits by clicking HERE, or by clicking on the "Auriesville" tag below. I'll leave you with a few parting images of the shrine from my most recent visit:




Thursday, October 14, 2010

My conversation with Archbishop Dolan


You can tune into my conversation with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York on the Catholic Channel (Sirius 159 and XM 117) today at 1 p.m. EST. We'll be talking about my newest book, "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship" (Ave Maria Press).

The show will be repeated at 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, and at 9 a.m and 6 p.m. ET on Sunday.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A saint for all seasons



In honor of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I thought I'd re-run a column I wrote about one of my favorite saints:

Out in my perennial garden, nestled among the stonecrop and candytuft, stands a well-worn clay statue of St. Francis of Assisi made by an artisan in Mexico. The unusual characteristics of the statue make it a conversation piece as well as a spiritual touchstone that helps keep me centered as I dig and weed and plant.

Of course, I’m not alone. Drive down any street and you’re likely to find St. Francis peeking out from both well-manicured lawns and wildflower gardens run amuck. He is just as likely to share a garden with a statue of Buddha as he is to share one with a statue of the Blessed Mother. He is a saint of the people – all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His broad appeal is fascinating, but at the same time it begs the question: Do those of us who plant St. Francis in our gardens really know what the medieval saint was all about?

Today Francis’ concerns are often compartmentalized by well-meaning folks who want to claim him for their own. And who can blame them? He is certainly a challenging but endearing saint for the ages.

Environmentalists tune into Francis’ love for creation, his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” his diligence in protecting trees and even “brother” fire, and find in him a kindred spirit. Animal lovers hear stories of him preaching to birds and taming a wolf and see in Francis the kind of saint who has rightly earned his status as patron of animals. His popularity comes into full view every year at this time, when adults and children alike line up outside churches with everything from goldfish swimming in glass bowls to German shepherds straining at leather leashes just for a chance to get their pets a blessing on Francis’ feast day.

Peace activists, interreligious leaders, social justice organizers -- the St. Francis fan club goes on and on. It seems everyone can find a piece of Francis to suit their cause. But, if you put all of those individual causes into the Gospel context that was at the heart of Francis’ rule and spirituality, you come away with a very different picture of our lovable saint, one that is not so easily shaped and molded by the latest trends or causes.

Would those St. Francis lawn statues be as popular if we really stopped to reflect on what they stand for? Francis’ life was one centered on his love of Christ, his commitment to a radical living out of the Gospel, and his “marriage” to the bride he dubbed “Lady Poverty”? The path that St. Francis chose was not an easy one. He was ridiculed and mocked as a madman during his own lifetime for what appeared to be an extreme response to his conversion experience.

He renounced his family’s fortune, fasted for days on end, heard the Lord speak to him from a cross in San Damiano, bore the stigmata. He lived and died for Christ. It would be a disservice to him and all he stood for to try to slip a politically correct mask over the spiritually devout saint who did not do anything halfway.

Sometimes I wonder how I can possibly weave Francis’ difficult and often uncomfortable lessons into my exceedingly comfortable existence. How do those of us with warm homes and busy jobs and nice clothes make St. Francis into something more than a decoration or a mascot? It’s not easy, but maybe, just maybe, seeing St. Francis from the kitchen window as we wash dishes or raking leaves from around his feet as we clean the yard will call us back to our spiritual center and remind us that what we do here on this earth cannot be separated from what we long for in heaven.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Signs of the Season


Well, autumn is definitely upon us. Here are shots from the yard just to prove it:

Plague of acorns. I am not kidding. Acorns are dropping in epic proportions. Walking around the yard is like walking on ball bearings. The clatter of acorns dropping on the roof and deck from our very tall and mighty oak trees makes it sound like a war zone. Come by and visit, if you like, but wear a hard hat.


Inching along. This fuzzy little fellow almost ended up on the curb in a barrel full of acorns, but I rescued him at the last minute and moved him to higher ground. Someone out there may be able to look at his stripes and give us a winter weather forecast. Although I'm thinking the plethora of acorns is probably all the forecast we need. Prepare for snow.



Toad lilies. These delicate little flowers are autumn-blooming lilies. And the best part? Deer don't like them. Don't ask me why, but even with all those acorns to feast on the deer are still decimating the rest of my garden.



Autumn rose. This little beauty surprised me yesterday.



Last blooms. The stonecrop (or sedum) are among the last of our flowers on the scene each season. Pumpkins and Indian corn can't be far behind when these beauties show their heads.


Still waiting for the trees to turn, but that will come soon enough...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rome Moment: Wrong Turn, Right Location

Throughout my Roman adventure, I found that the most moving moments were often the hidden ones, the moments when I met someone or ended up somewhere that I hadn't planned or expected. So I thought I'd begin to share some of those moments that make for my most lasting memories of Rome.

On my second full day in Rome, I struck out on my own to try to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible before the "Church Up Close" program began the next day. So after a delicious breakfast of cappuccino and cornetti, I went to Mass at the Gesu, the Jesuit church near my hotel, and visited the rooms of St. Ignatius. Then I made my way to the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, the Imperial Way, the Colosseum, and, eventually, the Roman Forum. And although I could clearly see the Roman Forum from where I stood outside the Colosseum, getting inside the gates wasn't so simple. I began walking up a hill, only to find an entry point closed with an arrow pointing me toward another hill, where I assumed I'd find the correct entry gate.

So, on this 90 degree afternoon when I was hot and hungry from wandering all over and skipping lunch, I began the long slow climb up Palatine Hill. And I climbed. And I climbed. And I wondered, Am I going in the right direction? But it was beautiful and there were some others making the same climb, so I trudged on, passing the beautiful cloistered monastery of San Sebastiano on the way up. Finally, I got to the top. A dead end. Wrong turn.

But there in front of me was the simple but stunning Chiesa di San Bonaventura al Palatino, as seen in the photo above. And it was open, despite the fact that it was siesta time. So I went in and found a little oasis in the desert. In that lonely, darkened church, a lone voice sang Gregorian chant, and as I knelt there, grateful for the mistake that led me to this place, I was reminded again that pilgrimage is not about checking off a list of destinations visited but a journey meant to take us to places we have never imagined.

There were so many moments like that on my Rome trip, moments I hope to share with you in the days ahead. And it makes me wonder, how many of those moments do I miss in my everyday pilgrimage through life here at home?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Day by Day with St. Ignatius



When I opened up my Word of God Everyday email this morning and saw the quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola, I have to admit I was surprised:
Lord,
grant that I may see you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
follow you more nearly.
Do you know how many times I sang those words back in the 1970s at folk Mass? We were pretty regularly doing the songs from Godspell in those days, and 'Day By Bay' was one of the all-time favorites among teens and parents alike. But back then I didn't realize the words of that song were taken from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

I think I'll break out my guitar and give this one a reprise. Does anyone have a tambourine?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Join me for an online retreat


Through the recommendation of a friend (Thanks, Deacon Al), I am beginning an online retreat sponsored by Creighton University. It's a free, 34-week program designed to help busy people fit sacred, silent time into daily life. Although you can start it at any point, if you'd like to follow the liturgical calendar throughout the retreat, you should start this week. It's the official first week of the retreat. You can easily jump in now. I did just that today.

It's quite lovely. There are online guides, prayers, Scripture readings, and even a weekly photo that can be used as a screen saver if you want to immerse yourself in the message. The retreat takes its cues from Ignatian spirituality, which makes sense since Creighton is a Jesuit institution.

The retreat starts this week with "Our Life Story." It's a very un-intimidating way to enter into a retreat mindset, starting with what you know. If you're interested, click HERE to go to the main online retreat page. From there you'll see links on how to get started. If you prefer to read hard copy instead of a screen, all of the guides are available in a printer-friendly format. And there's even a book form of the retreat if that's more your style.

If you decide to do the retreat, please email me or let me know in the comment section so we can touch base and share stories. And so we can pray for one another. Blessings as you begin!

Being catholic with both a big and small "c"


My recent post on experiencing Mass from a new perspective, garnered (as expected) some comments both here and on OSV Daily Take, and it got me thinking. So much so that I decided I needed to write another post, not just another comment.

Some of the reaction to my positive experience of attending Mass with the priest facing away from me suggested that I was looking for a return to the old ways, to the days of Latin Mass. Which is kind of funny because even as some -- particularly on the OSV blog -- were reacting to what appeared to be my traditionalism or conservatism, others were reacting on a completely different matter to what appeared to be my progressivism or liberalism. And all of it just made me chuckle.

I seem to confound people because I cannot be defined. I cannot be pigeon-holed. Not as a Catholic. Not as a political being. Not as a person. I do not -- and will not -- fit into someone else's mold of what they think I am or should be. But it's a little frightening how quickly people want to slap a label on someone, to create another person in their own image, or -- as is too often the case -- in the image of the thing they dislike or oppose. Can't we all just get along?

What I find most beautiful about the Catholic faith is its diversity, its ability to include so many different styles and traditions and cultures and spiritualities under one roof. And my spiritual life reflects that diversity. I am as at home listening to Gregorian Chant as I am the St. Louis Jesuits or Christian pop music. I can see the beauty in attending a Mass where the priest is facing away from me or a Mass where I've helped make the Communion bread. I can just as easily fall in step beside people from Opus Dei as I can people from Sant'Egidio. My faith is not in any way limited by a certain style or tradition or a feeling that I must or must not do something in order to stay true to a particular vein of Catholicism. I am Catholic and I am catholic, with a small "c," which, as you know, is part of our creed and reminds us of our call to be "universal."

But, in this age of political -- and I guess spiritual -- purity, the middle road is often the one less traveled. I don't fit in anywhere, really. My way is a blend of what I see as all the very best things of this amazing Catholic faith, as taught by our Church and practiced by our people. I am not afraid to venture into new territory to hear about or experience a new perspective, an old tradition, or a cutting-edge philosophy. I can pick up a set of Rosary beads or pray before an icon just the same. I can recite the foundational prayers of our faith or sit in the silence of centering prayer. All of it leads me to Jesus.

I would love to hear from others who find themselves in this middle ground, who appreciate and bask in the many different traditions of our faith, regardless of what "side" they fall on. There should be no sides here. Just the never-ending circle of God's all-powerful love. Can I get an "Amen"?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The first review of 'Walking Together'

Catholic columnist Therese Borchard wrote a review of my new book, "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship," which has been published in various Catholic newspapers.

Here it is:
By Therese J. Borchard
9/8/10

I've long known the truth of Martin Buber's line: "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them."

It's the same message that Jesus speaks in Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them."

I have always been intrigued and fascinated by the classic stories of spiritual friendship, especially in the Catholic tradition: Francis of Assisi and Clare, Thérèse of Lisieux and Maurice Bellière, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and Peter Abelard and Heloise.

It was with great interest, then, that I read Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship, by journalist Mary DeTurris Poust. Her text examines examples of spiritual friendship from well-known saints, writers and modern religious leaders and gives instructions on how to cultivate meaningful relationships in a world where people feel increasingly isolated despite all the technology and social networking tools designed to keep us connected.

Why are spiritual friendships important?

Poust explains, "Spiritual friendship(s) (are) connected to our God-given mission, our calling to live out our faith in the everyday world. ... They are not about possession but about transformation."

However, these bonds aren't entirely up to us to form. Poust quotes Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who reminds us that God chooses our companions for us. Lewis asserts, "The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others...Continue reading HERE.