Sunday, November 30, 2008

The waiting begins in earnest

"Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come." - Mark 13:33

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

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

Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with our culture. In a society where people are willing to trample a fellow human being to death in order to get a cheap digital camera or TV, it's pretty clear that we've kind of lost sight of the big picture and certainly the overriding message of this season. Advent becomes one big warm-up for the main event, and these days the main event seems more like a WWF throw down than the coming of the Prince of Peace.

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

This year I am in an Advent state of mind. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because the first dusting of snow set the scene for the start of the season. Maybe it's because a big work project is done and I feel a little less overwhelmed. Maybe it's because I really do love, love, love Christmas and can't hide my childlike excitement. Whatever the reason, I'm hoping I can find a way to go deeper in the true spirit of the season.

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

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

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

'The Lord travels in all directions at once.

'The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meet 'The Egg Lady'

Yesterday's pre-Thanksgiving post about our experience with Mary House Catholic Worker of Austin way back when sent us searching for the woman mentioned in the column, The Egg Lady, aka Lynn Goodman-Strauss. Dennis found this great little short film about The Egg's Lady's ministry on YouTube. Is there anything you can't find on YouTube? So here it is. I hope you'll take a few minutes to hear about Lynn and about her work because this is a woman who practices what everyone else preaches. She is out there living the Gospel every day. After watching this film, I realized how blessed I was to serve even one day in her presence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Thanksgiving blast from the past

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Raking: The Sequel

So the raking continues...What was I saying about it not being cold enough for me? Check that off the list. It is freezing. Like it's January, not November. The girls and I did a little raking and clearing yesterday afternoon. Despite my fear of Lyme ticks, I let them jump in the leaves and lay down in the leaves.

Might as well just roll out the red carpet for ticks and anything else looking for a warm host for the winter. We are just about done with the leaves. A little bit more on the side yards and stuff clinging to and stuck inside all the holly bushes, the least Zen-moment of the raking experience for me. That requires patience, patience, patience, which I lack in abundance. Can you lack something in abundance?

I will be signing off for the weekend. I am heading to New Jersey to give a presentation at a catechetical congress. Send some positive energy down the NJ way since public speaking is not my favorite thing in the world to do. I think it comes in right behind skydiving and being buried alive.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bringing kids to Mass? Help has arrived.

If you have small children and you bring them with you to Mass, you probably know all too well the challenges of not only keeping them quiet but of engaging them in something that is often beyond their understanding. We've tried everything, from snacks when the kids were very young to prayer books and books on the saints as they got a little older, to Sunday missals -- traditional or MagnifiKid-style -- when they reached First Communion year. It's not easy, is it? Even now, our 8-year-old needs help as she tries to understand the readings, and our 3-year-old, well, let's just say we have a ways to go there.

And that is why I am so happy to introduce and recommend to you a new book that is sure to be a help to all those weary parents trying to find a way to make the Scripture readings relevant to little ones. Jonathan Stampf's newly released book Hear My Voice: A Children's Translation of Gospel Readings of the Catholic Mass for 2009 is a perfect addition to any family's library. The Gospel readings are not watered down or sapped of meaning. They are simply written in a style that children can appreciate, with the actual Scriptural text in a box to the right. Parents and children can read the Gospel story together the night before Mass and talk about what it means, making the Mass experience that much more fulfilling for everyone involved, including the folks two pews away who might otherwise be trying to hear over the din of unhappy children.

What I especially like is the fact that the children's version of the Gospel would be perfect for our 8-year-old, but to the left of the reading on the pages with beautiful color illustrations by Robert Conrad, is a one-line synopsis of what's happening in the Gospel story. Those one-liners are perfect for our 3-year-old. She can look at the picture and try to absorb not the whole story but that one line. So I think this book can work on many levels with children of various ages. You can check out more by clicking HERE to see sample pages, or if you're ready to buy, you can click HERE. Better buy it quick since the new liturgical year starts Nov. 30, the first Sunday of Advent, which is just around the corner.

We need more books like this, books with contemporary artwork and simple but faithful translations of Scripture. Let's hope there's more to come from Prayer Press.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New columns to share

I just posted my two most recent Life Lines columns on my Web site. You can find "Different Retreats, Same Goal," my reflection on making three retreats in the span of six months, by clicking HERE.

And I continue to search for a way to make contemplation happen amid life's chaos in "Clearing the Counters in Search of God," which you can find by clicking HERE.

I'm guest blogging today

Head on over to the Festival of Hope at The Tail End today by clicking HERE to read what I have to say about true and lasting hope in a cynical world. You also have a chance to win a signed copy of my book if you leave a comment. (Look for the post that includes the photo of my book cover. That's where you should comment. It's after my hope post.)

Thank you to Barry Michaels for inviting me to participate in the Festival of Hope, which is running throughout the month of November. It's a great idea, and much needed during these uncertain times.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Zen of Raking

I just finished cutting down all my perennials and raking our front lawn. Quite a job, but one I actually enjoy. I find raking to be calming, almost prayerful, although the wet leaves made it more of a challenge today.

Raking to me is very Zen. Slow and deliberate, a moving meditation. I clear the leaves, all the while knowing that more are falling from the sky and littering the ground behind me, making the raking an effort in futility. It's a little like those Tibetan monks who make sand mandalas and then blow them away. OK, not exactly as labor intensive as that, but if those monks had three kids following them around they'd probably settle for raking over sand mandalas too.

Dennis sees the leaves from a different perspective. He's all about the leaf blower, and quite a leaf blower it is. It requires ear muffs to prevent hearing loss and can blow away not only leaves but small children in its path. That is his preferred mode of leaf clearing. I'll take raking any day. The only thing that really dampened the experience today were the balmy temperatures. Too warm for me. I attempted a jean jacket, but even that had to go. When you're raking leaves in upstate New York in mid-November without so much as a sweatshirt, something is terribly wrong. I'm hoping tomorrow the temperatures will cool, as promised, before I attack the backyard. It's that time of year -- clear everything out, batten down the hatches, take St. Francis and Our Lady of Guadalupe in for the long cold winter. They're not used to New York temps. They winter in our sun porch, saintly snowbirds.

So I'm waiting for the weather to catch up with the season here, a season that, despite the drab skies and warning signs of winter, is incredibly beautiful to me. There's something sacred about this season, this dying time. I love watching the trees shed their leaves, the plants die back to the ground. Everything retreats, waiting for rebirth in a few months. Spring is wonderful with all its bright green and new life but late fall has a wonder all its own. It's like a deep sigh, a spiritual shrug. All things must pass, the visible worlds says. And we nod our heads and hunker down.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tag, I'm it!

OK, I received my first blog "tag." I feel as though I have arrived! What happens -- in case you don't already know -- is that I am "tagged" by another blogger and given a set of rules and a set of questions. So here we go...

Here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. That would be Roxane Salonen at Peace Garden Mama, who is already listed in my "Blogs worth a visit or two" in the left-hand column of this page.
2. Post these rules on your blog (Voila!).
3. Tell about your six quirks (Check the list below. I'm cringing already).
4. Tag six bloggers to do the same. Let's see...Roxane already tagged one of my favorites, so I'll have to work extra hard. I'll be tagging Lemmondrops, Conversion Diary, The Tail End, From the Field of Blue Children, Sustainable Mom, and Happy Catholic.
5. Leave them a comment to let them know you've tagged them.
6. No tag backs.

So...six quirks...I'm sure the people who live with me would find it hard to believe that I could possibly have six quirks, but I'll see if I can surprise them:

1. I like my hot beverages extremely hot. I mean, burn the inside of your throat hot. I have finally found a coffee maker that can produce coffee hot enough for my taste, and I do have taste. It's not just about the heat. Gotta have taste and heat.

2. I have a giant stack of magazines -- Health, Fitness, Vegetarian Times -- on the stereo speaker next to my favorite spot on the couch. If I sit near them, I'm sure to get some benefits, right?

3. I refuse to enter church from the front side entrance. I must enter from the back and walk up the aisle, not down the aisle, much to my family's chagrin.

4. I have a habit of yelling, "Come on, Grandpa," when I'm driving behind someone particularly slow. So much so that Chiara often thinks that her grandfather is actually in the car ahead of us.

5. For the life of me I cannot remember the stations I need to know on TV. Drives Dennis crazy. But even worse, apparently, is the fact that I will sit there watching a show in standard definition when it is available in high def elsewhere. Oh the humanity.

6. I am the rare woman who hates shoe shopping. I have been known to spend an hour in LL Bean, trying on four different hiking boots, climbing their pretend mountain, only to walk out dissatisfied. Duck feet. It's a curse. I buy most of my shoes at Payless, I'm afraid to say.

Words of hope

The Festival of Hope continues over at The Tail End with a very moving reflection by Regina Doman. Click HERE to read "The Story's Loose Ends." I was reading Regina's beautiful essay surrounded by my three children -- one home from school with a sinus infection, one home from school with a pulled neck muscle, and one crying from her upstairs bedroom because she didn't want to nap. I was at my wit's ends, and then I read Regina's story and remembered how blessed I am and how quickly life can change. Suddenly it doesn't seem so stressful having my three children at home with me on a November afternoon asking for hot chocolate and grilled cheese and biscotti and television and monopoly and and and....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rest in peace, Greta

This has been a very emotional day. We had to put down our beloved dog, Greta, who was 10 1/2 years old and had become very ill very quickly. After a weekend that included a midnight run to an emergency animal clinic and a rapid deterioration of the lovable chow-shepherd who was still often mistaken for a puppy despite her advanced years, today's news was not a surprise. But that doesn't make it any easier, does it?

The kids have been beside themselves with grief all day. They left for school this morning, running to catch the bus with tears streaming down their faces because they had just said good-bye to their dog, something we suggested they do "just in case" because we did not know how the vet visit would unfold. Chiara said good-bye and patted Greta's head before heading off to her nap. When she awoke, the first thing she said was, "Is Greta gone?" The afternoon has been pretty rough -- lots of tears but also lots of reminiscing about our dog, who was very gentle, very friendly, and very patient with children. Everybody loved Greta.

Noah is convinced that there must be dogs in heaven because paradise wouldn't be paradise if something you loved wasn't there. He's got a good point. So we say good-bye to Greta, who sometimes drove us crazy with her barking at the back door but who never failed to be loyal and protective and everything a good dog should be.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Remember those leaves I mentioned...

In yesterday's post I said that the oak leaves had yet to fall. Well, apparently a memo went out last night informing the oak leaves that they should fall at once. Maybe they read the blog. This morning our backyard was ankle deep in oak leaves. Look at the photo at the top of this page and then look at the photo below. That's a difference of about 15 hours and 15,000 leaves.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday free for all

Well, after a couple of contentious days in the comment section of NSS, I thought we'd take it down a notch and talk about something other than politics. So here we are. It's Friday afternoon, and I'm just going to let my mind wander:

First. Pet peeves. It really irks me when the person on the arc trainer next to me at the YMCA doesn't have headphones on. This means a. they can hear me huffing and puffing as I struggle to make it to 45 minutes at a cardio-pumping speed and b. they probably hear me singing under my breath to Matchbox 20 or U2 or whatever else I'm blasting into my ears. Of course, I'm guessing that guy next to me today might have a pet peeve about people who insist on singing under their breath when working out in public.

Second. November observations. Look at the photo at the top of this page. Those are the trees in my backyard, looking very mid-November. The oaks are always the last to lose their leaves. The steely gray sky (that's a color photo), the semi-barren branches. So why am I wearing a T-shirt? I feel like I'm back in Austin. So much for a light topic. I have a feeling a global warming debate is about to break out in the comment section any minute.

Third. Prayer update. Remember last week when I asked you to pray for Constance, the 5-year-old with kidney failure? Well, keep those prayers coming. Constance is doing much better than expected. And, while you're at it, I have a few other folks who could use a few good words. Please remember Charlie, a friend of the family who was diagnosed with colon cancer, and Bridget, a young girl who was rushed to the hospital today with an undiagnosed problem. Also keep those prayers coming for Emilie, Kathleen and Maureen, three courageous women who are battling cancer and inspiring us all.

Fourth. The weekend. Go do something fun. Tomorrow I will be with 100 Girl Scouts between the ages of 6 and 14, making Christmas ornaments for a nursing home and other locations. Does this fall into the "do something fun" category? That remains to be seen. Based on past years' experience, I would have to lean toward "no." Imagine six tables of very complicated ornaments that require gluing and stringing beads. Now imagine that every time you are halfway done with your ornament, someone rings a bell and tells you to move to the next station. I wonder if that's what it's like for Santa's elves.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What an awesome system

Whether you voted for Barack Obama or not, you have to admit that it was a pretty powerful thing to watch democracy at work yesterday. Seeing the long lines of voters in other parts of the country, the cheering throngs at rallies last night, the peaceful transition of a people from one president to another is so moving to me. I feel that way almost every Election Day. Every year it's a reminder that this is one awesome system of government we've got here. This year the emotions ran a lot higher imagining what this decision much have meant to African-Americans who wondered if and when they'd ever see this day.

That being said, I am deeply concerned about what will happen to the unborn in the years ahead. As we sat and watched the election returns and it became clear that Obama would win, Noah turned to me and said, "But soon our federal tax money will pay for abortions. What do we do now?" We reminded him that, unfortunately, our state tax dollars are already being used to take the lives of the unborn. It was a poignant moment, one when I tried to walk a delicate balance of explaining our family's unwavering support of human life from conception until natural death no matter what and of explaining that our president is our president and we respect the office and the man no matter what and pray that he will do the right thing when the time comes, although I'm not too hopeful considering Obama'a extremist record when it comes to abortion. If, as Obama has promised, he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act as his first order of business, it will mean completely unrestricted abortion at every stage of pregnancy with absolutely no limitations, no ability for those who are morally opposed to keep their tax dollars from paying for abortions, and no way for doctors and nurses to opt out of performing what they view as tantamount to murder. I won't get into his position on partial-birth and born alive, and don't tell me he didn't do what he did, because he did and it counted and it mattered. Anyone who votes against giving care to a newborn who survives abortion -- no matter what the legalistic reasoning -- is wrong, wrong, wrong.

So...there you have it. I can appreciate the magnitude of what happened yesterday. I can tear up with emotion over what it means that this country elected its first African-American president. But I cannot check my conscience at the door just to try to make history. This was a tough election for me, but in the end I had to stand on the side of life, and I will continue to do so even if our president and our Congress do not.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Don't forget to vote!

I don't know how you could possibly forget, but you never know. I just returned from what must be the quietest polling place in America. It was so deserted, in fact, that when I pulled into the empty parking lot I stopped for a moment to consider whether they might have changed my polling place without giving me the forwarding address. Nope. The little American flag at the door caught my eye. I was the only person voting. It took me all of 30 seconds. As I was leaving, another woman with a toddler in tow was looking around questioningly as she got out of her car. I assured her that the polling place was open despite the lack of crowds.

Just think, it will all be over in a few short hours. Make sure you don't miss your chance to be heard. Vote. Now.

And, if you've got an Election Day story to share, or a prediction, please do so in the comment section.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Have you made your choice?

Tomorrow is the big day. Before you walk into that voting booth, take a few minutes to watch this powerful video from Thanks to my friend Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda for the heads up on this one.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the dead

Today is the day we remember the dead -- All Souls' Day, or, in Mexican tradition, Dia de los Muertos. And despite sounding somewhat morbid to this death-denying society of ours, this day is anything but sad. It is about connection to the family and friends who have died but live on eternally. It is about resurrection. It is about hope.

When I was waiting for Mass to begin this morning, I was reading my Magnificat and came upon Pope Benedict XVI's moving explanation of purgatory, which of course ties in directly to this day when we pray for those who have died and are perhaps waiting for that moment in eternity when they will finally see the face of God:

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

As usual, the pope manages to put in simple but eloquent terms a concept that most non-Catholics and many Catholics find difficult to understand. I have always loved the teaching on purgatory. To me it is such a hopeful and common-sense belief. What could be more hopeful and comforting than the knowledge that even after death all is not lost. We can continue to grow toward perfection, toward the time when we are ready to meet our Maker.

Head on over to my own Catechism Corner by clicking HERE to read my take on purgatory from The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism.

And, if you want to know more about Dia de los Muertos, I must defer to the late Ann Ball, a wonderful Catholic writer who died earlier this year. Click HERE to go to Ann's Web site, which is still up and running and providing all of us with much-needed information and inspiration on so many Catholic traditions.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Join the Festival of Hope

Today marks the beginning of the Festival of Hope over at The Tail End. A big shout out to author Barry Michaels, who has invited Christian writers -- including yours truly -- to serve as guest bloggers throughout the month of November. Every day you'll get another serving of hope, something we could all use a little more of these days. To top it off, Barry will be giving away a whole slew of books (including my Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism) from now until the festival ends on Nov. 30, the first day of Advent.

In case you're wondering how Barry came up with this theme and why now, it's simple, really. Barry's latest book, Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope, serves as a companion to Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi, which will mark its one-year anniversary on the last day of the festival. It's one big circle of hope.

So join us by clicking HERE now.