Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Seize the day, or not

The New York Times ran an article this week about the human propensity to procrastinate. This wasn't about putting off dreaded yard work or laundry. This was about saving free airline tickets or gift certificates to restaurants or even a nice bottle of wine for "some day." You know that imaginary day that exists in your mind's eye -- the day that's worthy of a nice Merlot or the event that ranks high enough on the celebration meter to warrant a dinner out or maybe even a trip to some exotic place?

I know some of that feeling. Although I'm the type who wears or uses Christmas or birthday gifts in record time -- often the same day they are received -- I am also the type who deems certain things too special for just any old day. Take, for example, the bottle of champagne that has been sitting in our refrigerator for months. It was originally purchased by Dennis to celebrate the completion of my third book (which will be out in October), but we didn't open the bottle that day for one reason or another, and so I decided we'd save it for some other special occasion. Enter a big win for Dennis at work. But we ended up skipping it that day, too, so now it's on tap for tomorrow night, New Year's Eve. I still have my doubts as to whether this bottle -- which is not that extravagant to begin with -- will ever make it into a champagne flute.

From John Tierney's article "Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow" in the Times:

"When there is no immediate deadline, we’re liable to put off going to the zoo this weekend because we assume that we will be less busy next weekend — or the weekend after that, or next summer. This is the same sort of thinking that causes us to put the gift certificate in the drawer because we expect to have more time for shopping in the future.

"We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time lost versus the pleasure or money to be gained, but we’re not accurate in our estimates of 'resource slack,' as it is termed by Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch. These behavioral economists found that when people were asked to anticipate how much extra money and time they would have in the future, they realistically assumed that money would be tight, but they expected free time to magically materialize.

"Hence you’re more likely to agree to a commitment next year, like giving a speech, that you would turn down if asked to find time for it in the next month. This produces what researchers call the 'Yes ... Damn!' effect: when the speech comes due next year, you bitterly discover you’re still as busy as ever."

Boy, have I been there. Any time I agree to a speaking engagement, it seems like a fabulous idea -- precisely because it's usually six to nine months in the offing. But once I'm within one month of the date, I start wondering what I was thinking when I said yes.

As I pondered this strange phenomenon, it occurred to me that this misguided notion that tomorrow will be less hectic than today trickles down not only to our recreational lives but our spiritual lives as well. At least it does for me. Despite being admonished through Scripture on a fairly regular basis to be on watch, be vigilant, get ready since we know not the day or the hour, I manage to convince myself that there is always tomorrow. I don't need to pray now because I'll have more time when my work project is finished or when the kids are back in school. I don't need to meditate or spend time with Scripture or get my spiritual life in order now. I'm far too busy. I'll get to it next week, next month, next year.

"'People can become overly focused on an ideal,' Dr. Shu said. 'Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one,'” Tierney writes.

That's exactly it. I'm waiting for the ideal spiritual moment. That magical non-existent time when the house will be quiet, the office will be neat, the incense will be burning, the icon will be in place...Then, if and when that time ever arrives, I think I will sit down and begin the prayer life I've been longing for.

But, as we all know, those perfect moments don't come around very often. Or, looking at it another way, those manufactured moments we imagine don't come around very often. But the perfect moment? That's ours for the taking whenever we decide to stop and savor what we have right now, be it a dinner out at a fancy restaurant or a few minutes of silent prayer stolen between work deadlines and the laundry.

Carpe diem. Now.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas stories of love, loss and life

From my post at OSV Daily Take today:

One year ago the Catholic writing world lost a precious gift and friend, Emilie Lemmons. I didn't know Emilie personally but got to know her, as so many others did, through her moving and honest blog posts. As she faced the challenges of her illness and the reality of leaving behind her husband and sons, she made us all a little more aware of our own blessings, our own mortality, our own opportunities to create moments of joy even in times of strife. So I was thinking of Emilie this morning, because, as I wrote last year at the time of her death, she made a difference in my life even though we knew each other only through the blogosphere.

Then this morning I opened my local paper and saw the story of another faith-filled woman, Laura Schonhiutt, whose strength throughout her own terminal illness inspired an entire community, people who had been total strangers to her before they decided to put aside their own worries in favor of helping someone in need. At this woman's funeral a couple of weeks ago, the women of her local community served as pallbearers, something that was symbolic of what they'd been doing all along. The article put it like this:

"'These women carried my sister and all of us through a very difficult time,' said her sister, Anne Skrebutenas. 'We couldn't have done it if it weren't for these amazing women who came out of the woodwork to help us.'

"In her eulogy, Skrebutenas said her sister spoke in her final days with gratitude about the circle of friends in her adopted town. She had searched unsuccessfully for that sense of community and connectedness in Ohio for many years.

"Laura asked me, 'Why do I have to go to heaven? I've found heaven right here in Niskayuna,' her sister said."

As we prepare for our Christmas celebrations and rejoice in our own sense of community and connectedness, it's good, I think, to remember how precious this time on earth is and how these preparations we've been making throughout Advent are not just about getting ready for a joyous party here on earth but about getting ready for a joyous eternity in heaven. And we never know when that day will come, as the tales of these two women remind us.

Please visit Emilie's blog, lemmondrops, which is as she left it, by clicking HERE. Read the inspiring story of Laura Schonhiutt by clicking HERE.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Resurfacing for the Advent finale

I was out of the Advent starting gate like a shot this year, with my book of daily Advent reflections tucked under my arm and the words of the prophets ringing in my ears. The Advent wreath was aglow, and so was my Advent heart. I was sure that this year would be an Advent for the ages. Things were moving along nicely until somewhere between weeks two and three I hit a wall. Not only wasn't I using my Advent reflection book; I couldn't even find my Advent reflection book, which was, in many ways, symbolic of my entire Advent spiritual experience. It was fading fast, lost beneath the rubble of the responsibilities of the season and work deadlines that threatened to overwhelm me. Where other offices slow down in the days before Christmas so that people can attend parties and trade Secret Santa gifts, my office of one speeds up, and the faster the work piles on, the faster my Advent spirit begins to whither. I could feel a sense of sadness setting in, not because there was anything going on in my life that was particularly sad but because I was feeling disconnected from God at a time when I most wanted to feel that connection burning brighter than ever.

So here we are at the start of week four. Our Gospel reading today brought together so many important figures and pieces of our faith story: Mary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist and Jesus. And although we didn't hear it read at Mass, what rounds out today's Gospel if you keep reading are the powerful and poignant words of the Magnificat.

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant.

"From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name..." (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary's words give substance to the awe and wonder that our spirits can sense as Christmas draws closer. We have just a few days left. Maybe our Advent didn't turn out exactly as we had hoped. Maybe our plans got sidetracked along the way. That's OK. There's still time to get ready, time to prepare, time to rejoice. As the four candles of the Advent wreath fill our homes with warmth and light, let us open our hearts to the Light that is ours not just on Christmas but every day.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

No-muss, no-fuss Christmas shopping ideas

If you are anything like me, right about now you're making a list and checking it twice and realizing that you have way too many Christmas gifts left to buy. Some of this has to do with very hard-to-buy-for loved ones. (You know who you are.) But more of it has to do with the fact that I hate shopping malls, hate shopping in general, to be honest. If I could get everything at our local bookstore, and, believe me, I've tried, I would do it in a heartbeat. But it would look a little odd if I gave every person a book, and beyond that we're talking about wind chimes, recycled stationery and some other cool but not-for-grandma kinds of gifts.

So...We need to get creative, right? Well, the good news is that I've got some alternative gift ideas that will not require you to leave home. In fact, you don't have to leave the chair you're in right now. How's that for easy? And the gifts are better than anything you'll find at some lame-o super store.

For the coffee lover, head over to Mystic Monk Coffee. As you NSS regulars know, this is a favorite of mine. They have sampler sets and value packs, mugs and sweatshirts. And there's a blend for every coffee lover on your list -- from the "light-bodied" Breakfast Blend for the coffee wimps, er, I mean, light-weights, um, never mind, to the Midnight Vigils Blend. If it can keep the Carmelite Monks of northern Wyoming awake for prayers in the middle of the night, it should keep you awake for the drive to work.

And then, of course, there are the Trappists. Yet another favorite of mine. You can go for the Trappist cheese (made by the monks of Gethsemani) or Trappist preserves (made by the monks at Spencer) or for any number of Trappist food items (like fudge) dipped and soaked and rolled in bourbon.

Close to my neck of the woods geographically but ever so slightly over the border theologically are the Orthodox Nuns of New Skete, who make kickin' cheesecake in oh so many flavors -- amaretto, chocolate, chocolate amaretto. You get the idea.

If you'd like something other than food, try the soaps and lotions made by the contemplative Dominican Nuns of Summit, N.J. They also sell Dominican books and medals, if you are so inclined.

If you're looking for something religious but you're not quite sure what, head to Monastery Greetings, where you'll find everything from the coffee and preserves mentioned above to prayer shawls, wind chimes, books, cds, incense and lots more.

Christmas shopping shouldn't be about checking off names on a list in record time. It should be about finding the perfect gift for someone special. Forget what all the sales flyers and commercials are telling you, and get something different and fun and meaningful. And if you can do it without fighting someone for a parking space, even better. Happy shopping.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Remembering Thomas Merton

I was first introduced to Thomas Merton's writings by my friend Ken when we were both working for Catholic New York newspaper many years ago. Ken's knowledge of and love for all things Trappist made him an excellent Merton mentor. That early introduction, when I was in my 20s, was the start of a lifelong love for the writings of the famed Trappist monk who died 41 years ago today when he was accidentally electrocuted while in Bangkok for a conference.

I haven't read everything that Merton wrote and sometimes even the stuff I've read feels ever so slightly beyond my grasp, like I'm trying to catch the wind. My head may not be able to make logical sense of everything he says, but my heart understands and responds. It is amazing to read his words and feel as though he is reading my mind, the heart.

Thomas Merton got it. He was flawed, as are we all, and yet he took his weakness and turned it into words that would inspire countless people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to pursue a deeper relationship with God and a better understanding of themselves.

As I've said in previous posts on Merton (HERE and HERE, to pick a couple), I couldn't choose one "favorite" Merton quote; there are too many. So I'll chose two of many favorites, ones that feel right for today. Because what I have found is that there is a Merton for every mood and every season.

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."
As someone who is starting to crave more solitude and silence as I get older, I take great comfort in the idea, the reality that solitude is not a physical place that I have to try to get away to. Instead it is right here, even in the midst of my crazy and chaotic life.

And here is one of the Merton quotes that I come back to over and over as I pray, one that I've posted here several times because it really speaks to me and I want to make sure no one misses out on it:

"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."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rediscovering married passion and joy

My latest 'Life Lines' column:

This morning I got up and hung a little sign on the window over my kitchen sink. It says: “Make a decision to love.” I taped one to the bathroom mirror and over my desk as well. What’s with the cryptic notes? They’re part of my re-entry into the real world after experiencing an eye-opening and life-changing Marriage Encounter (ME) weekend with Dennis.

This was our first ME experience, after years of hemming and hawing about whether we should go. I’d often suggest it, but we would always come up with a laundry list of excuses as to why it wasn’t possible. Mainly, how could we go away for an entire weekend when we couldn’t find a sitter for two hours on a Friday night?

And so we continued on our not-so-merry married way. We were still deeply in love, but it was a little less obvious with each passing crisis and every added responsibility. Our sacramental covenant was starting to look a lot more like a business partnership. What happened to the outward signs of love that used to make our inner commitment so apparent? If we continued to pile on things that pulled us apart, would our relationship eventually crack under pressure? We weren’t about to find out.

We decided to figure out a way to overcome the obstacles and put aside our fears and signed up for the November weekend at Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point. As we drove up to the center Friday night, Dennis and I both wondered aloud if this could be everything it was cracked up to be. Wouldn’t we be just as well off if we took time away at a hotel in New York City? How could a two-day experience transform our lives as promised?

It didn’t take long for us to see that this weekend did indeed have the potential to give us something a vacation away could never give us: the tools we need to traverse the sometimes rocky road of married life with trust, love and anticipation. With every hour that passed, we peeled back another layer, revealing the couple we had been when we first fell in love. By Sunday night we realized that we now had within our grasp the ability to experience the passion, joy and excitement we once felt as newlyweds every single day for the rest of our lives.

The weekend isn’t a magic potion, of course. It’s not like getting an immunization that will protect our relationship from all the outside forces that threaten to tear it down. But it does lay the foundation for helping us live our love in positive, life-affirming ways. And, in case you’re wondering, there is no required group sharing. This isn’t about confessing your deepest feelings to strangers or about rehashing old hurts. This is about looking forward as a couple – just the two of you alone in your room – and finding ways to communicate so that the love you have inside radiates from you both and warms everyone around you. Sounds impossible, but it’s for real.

Sitting there with 18 other couples (and one priest participant) and listening to the stories of our presenting couples and priest, I felt lifted up by their honesty and their commitment to their vocations. I felt surrounded by hope and faith.

As Dennis and I headed home, with the kids talking endlessly about their own adventures away from mom and dad, our renewed zeal for our marriage burned bright between us. Although darkness and fog enveloped the van as we drove north, dawn was breaking in our hearts because we had made a conscious and deliberate decision to love.

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent 2: When weather and wonder collide

I can't think of a better way to start the second week of Advent than with the first real snow of the season. A perfect, light snow that coated everything with just enough white to make the yard look like a wonderland. (The photo above is from our back deck.) Now, with the sun shining brightly and glinting off everything in site, with ice and show melting slowly to give an extra layer of shine to grass and trees and railings, it's more than perfect. It's poetic. And that, to me, is just the right touch for this Sunday in Advent, when we hear, in the poetic language of the Prophet Isaiah, about John the Baptist, the "voice of one" crying out in the desert, telling us of the One who is to come, the One who will make crooked paths straight and mountains low.

As we continue our journey toward Christmas, careful not to pay too much attention to all those flashy Christmas decorations and nostalgic carols that threaten to rob us of this waiting time and rush us into a moment that is not yet here, we need to stop and reflect on the desert time of Advent. Unlike Lent, where the desert is obvious and clear, Advent beckons us to seek out a hidden desert, our interior desert, the dry places in our spiritual lives that need to be worked out and made lush before the coming of Jesus Christ -- both in celebration on Christmas Day and again at the end of all time.

John the Baptist didn't mince words. Repent. Get ready. Prepare. The kinds of Christmas preparations that John challenges us to tackle have nothing to do with finding the perfect gift or getting all our presents wrapped early or making enough cookies to feed the neighborhood. These preparations won't result in some fabulous holiday display but in an interior calm, a heart set on Jesus not on a date on the calendar. "Make ready the way of the Lord." Luke 3:4

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Flair: An Advent post too good not to share

Needing a little encouragement as you journey through these early days of Advent? Here's just what the doctor ordered. A beautiful post from The Advent Door. (Thanks, Maria, for the heads up on this one.) This blog is a two-fer: amazing artwork and powerful prose. I'm a big fan of this coming Sunday's Gospel about John the Baptist, but this post has allowed me to look at those familiar words with new eyes. Don't skip this one.

Click HERE to read "Advent 2: The Mystery of Approach."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A new take on the Nativity

Every year at this time, I take out the Playmobil Nativity set, which has always been a big hit in our house since we bought it for Noah years ago. I think it has something to do with the fact that it's out for only one month of the year, so it is eternally new. Chiara, however, has given us an exciting new twist on how to make the most of this toy.

As she plays with the pieces to the set, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the rest of the gang often find themselves in very un-Nativity-like moments -- careening through the house on the back of a flying camel, traversing over the the couch accompanied by My Pretty Pony, joining forces with other toy characters, like Buzz Lightyear.

Yesterday, as I was trying to gather all the tiny pieces -- halos, myrrh, lanterns, stray beards lost by majestic magi -- I asked Chiara to find the halo that belongs to one particular angel. She told me that the angel doesn't always use the halo, that sometimes Jesus uses the halo as a hoola hoop.

So there you have it. The photo above does not show Jesus actually using the halo hoola hoop (he doesn't have the hips for it), but you get the basic idea. Despite the silliness of the play, I continue to love the fact that my kids think there is nothing strange about sitting down and playing an imaginative game with Jesus and his family... I actually had to interrupt the writing of this post to chase down the cats who just ran off with the shepherd's turban. I am not making that up. Everyone is in on the Nativity action in our house. If you have kids, this set is a great addition to the Advent and Christmas festivities.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The waiting begins...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'The Lord travels in all directions at once.

'The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Advent ideas for families, classrooms

From my OSV Daily Take post today:

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A close Encounter of the best kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The up side of a glass 'half empty'

Here's my latest Life Lines column:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Prayers without words, without ceasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday night slow down

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

When one door closes...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

From God's dreams to our house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

A view of purgatory on All Souls' Day

My post at OSV Daily Take today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seeing the saints behind the stained glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween happenings

That's my crew before trick or treating. I should have taken an after shot. They were completely soaked. A very soggy Halloween night.

Mindful eating update: I crashed and burned with a Kit Kat, a Reese's peanut butter cup and an entire bowl of popcorn. For my dinner. Oy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Flare: Blog posts too good not to share

I am starting a new weekly (I hope) blog event where I'll use every Friday to link to an outstanding post on someone else's blog. So often I read great stuff on other blogs but don't always have the opportunity to write about it. So, instead, I'll let the other bloggers speak for themselves.

Brian Caulfield over at Fathers For Good offers some food for thought in his excellent post "My (Brief) Brush with Death." Click HERE to read it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Finding serenity in a bowl of oatmeal

In the last year or so I have become very much aware, perhaps painfully aware, of the things that hinder my spiritual life. And, as I mentioned in my last post about my laundry stand-off, many of those things appear minor on the surface. Taken individually, any one of them would be considered fairly insignificant, but when I look at them all together, I start to get the feeling that maybe I'm overlooking something much bigger, something that lies at the heart of all those little obstacles I throw in my own way.

What kind of "minor" stuff am I talking about? Mindless eating, mindless chatter, mindless multi-tasking, mindless computer time, mindless busyness in general. I complain, complain, complain that I don't have time to pray, don't have time for God, don't have time for myself, and then I proceed to fill up any free minute that does come along with time-wasting, energy-depleting activities that don't really improve anyone's life -- mine or my family's. Just looking at the time I spend checking email and Facebook alone is enough to make me cringe.

It really dawned on me in a big way yesterday morning, when I made myself my usual bowl of oatmeal and, as I set it on the table, immediately began looking for a newspaper or magazine or laptop or phone. No sense wasting valuable eating time not getting something else done, right? And then I stopped. And listened. Quiet. Something that is so rare at our house. I could hear the tap tapping of rain on the fallen leaves. I could hear the cats batting a toy around the basement. I could hear myself think. And I wondered, what exactly am I trying to drown out when I insist on multi-tasking even while eating a meal in peace. It's one thing if the kids are home and I've got my mommy hat on. But when I have time to eat breakfast alone, why would I want to clutter it up with meaningless stuff? Because eating mindlessly is one of the ways I avoid thinking, one of the ways I avoid listening to God, one of the ways I get out of living in the moment. I'm much better at living in the next moment or the next year.

So I put away the newspapers. In fact, I removed them from sight. I cleared the space around my seat of any clutter. I put the phone in the other room. And I sat down and slowly and quietly ate my oatmeal with walnuts and dried cranberries, tasting every bite. I found, as I did on my silent retreat last year, that eating in silence is a lot like praying in silence. I had to keep bringing myself back to that spoon of oatmeal every time my mind wanted to work on an imaginary blog post or think about what's up next on our family calendar.

Of course, the mindless eating is certainly not limited to those times when I'm home alone with my work. It's everywhere. I often find myself standing at the counter simultaneously answering emails, helping with homework, prepping for dinner and scarfing down Cheez-It Party Mix without even tasting it. It's no longer enough for me to do one or two things at a time; now I need all of the senses firing at once. It's all just too much. And I firmly believe that for me it is a way to avoid the thing I most want to work on: my spiritual life.

I've been aware of the connection between mindless eating and mindless living for a while. Again, it goes back to my silent retreat where I ate all my meals in silence even as I sat across the table from someone else. There, peering into my soup bowl in silence, I began to realize the fact that the way to God is paved, at least in part, with more mindful eating, more mindful talking, more mindful living. Of course, that lovely idea didn't last long after I returned to the real world and the insanity of home life where even Grace Before Meals is fit for a circus tent.

On and off I struggle with this desire to bring a sense of the spiritual to my daily meals, not just the ones eaten in silence but even the ones eaten in between jumping up and down for milk and paper towels and whatever else the kids need. When Dennis and Noah went away for a Scout weekend recently, I tried my hand at more mindful eating by making a big pot of "Hermit Soup" from the From a Monastery Kitchen cookbook. I tried to chop the vegetables mindfully. I tried to stir my soup and attend to my children with a monastic sense of serenity. But when all was said and done, the soup had nothing to do with my ability or inability to maintain my spiritual composure. Yes, eating simply can certainly aid the spiritual journey, but it's not about the ingredients.

So, as you can see, I'm still struggling with this, the first of many minor obstacles we will explore in the coming days and weeks. My plan is to make myself much more aware of how I eat, when I eat, why I eat. Not because I want to lose weight but because I want to gain peace. I want to be come more aware of the connection between the fast-paced, non-thinking eating that I do and the fast-paced non-thinking living that I do -- and the praying that I don't do. If I want to pray, why not just stop and pray? Because it's easier to do a dozen other things at once than sit down and just wait for God. Sure, a quiet mealtime could be a kind of meditation in and of itself, but it's far less messy to battle the New York Times crossword puzzle than it is to battle my personal demons.

I'll keep you posted on how my experiment goes and whether I am able to make any real change from mindless to mindful eating. I'm two days in and counting on the bowl of oatmeal with a side of peace and quiet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Learning to let go, starting with the laundry

A lot of things -- big and small -- get in the way of my spiritual growth. And although I typically tend to focus on the large-scale obstacles -- pride, envy and other deadly sin type stuff -- I recently discovered a small but vexing thorn in my spiritual side. Laundry. I know, I know. Everyone has laundry. Why is my laundry so special that it could cause me spiritual angst? Well, it's not and it can't. It's how I responded to my laundry that was causing me problems. That is, until I took a long, hard look into my laundry basket and saw the light.

I do laundry for an active family of five, so mixed in with the regular socks and towels, jeans and pjs are soccer uniforms, school uniforms, dance leotards and more. It's constant, never-ending, relentless. You get the picture. But it wasn't really the washing and drying that always got to me in the past. It wasn't even the folding that took its toll. It was the putting away. Don't ask me why I drew the line at putting away. I would sort and wash and dry and fold. Then I would cart the baskets up to my bedroom and wait. And wait. And wait. And the longer I waited, the more the tension and resentment would rise up in me.

Why won't anyone put away their clothes, I would wonder. What would happen if I disappeared? Would they all go naked? It became a silent battle of wills, although I was the only one aware of the battle. I'm not going to empty that basket, I'd threaten in the dark, quiet recesses of my stony heart.

The funny thing is that in the midst of my laundry loathing, I would be reading various spiritual books on doing small acts of kindness with love, of looking at my daily tasks as opportunities to fulfill my vocation not with a chip on my shoulder but with a smile on my face. And so I decided to let go of the laundry, to stop fighting the piles of underwear and socks that mocked me from their stronghold across the room as I tried to block them from view with a book of reflections by Christian mystics.

I decided about six weeks ago to win this war not in a battle to the death but by bending toward the thing I most dreaded. I started a new routine. As soon as I fold the laundry now, I take it upstairs and immediately put it away. All of it. I hang shirts with a smile. I put pants away as I hum a tune. I am a veritable Snow White these days. I am this close to whistling while I work. And what has happened is amazing. I have gone from screaming and steaming about the piled up laundry to trying to surprise everyone by putting it all away before they realize it's even missing. I imagine my brood opening their dresser drawers and realizing that the pile of underwear is never depleted.

I have turned an obligation into an act of love. Really. And it surprises me. I find myself putting away clothes without resentment or annoyance, without feeling unappreciated. And all the while I am aware that I have been able to do this only by seeing it as a spiritual act, not a household chore. I am not putting away socks for the thousandth time; I am loving my children and husband as they deserve to be loved. I've read about this sort of thing from the likes of saints and sages but I never thought I could make it happen in my own stressed-out, frustration-filled life.

Who'd have thought that I'd find God at the bottom of a laundry basket? I wonder if He's hiding in the ironing board as well.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.

I have to admit that today's Gospel about blind Bartimaeus has never been one that registered on my radar screen. When it came to Jesus giving sight to the blind, I was pretty much in the Man Born Blind camp. But now that I teach fourth-grade faith formation, I not only spend a lot of advance time thinking about the Gospel each week, I also have to figure out how to explain it in a way that makes sense to a 9-year-old. And that, in turn, ends up forcing me to dive into readings I might otherwise overlook. (My faith formation teaching experience is a post in itself for another day.)

So this past week I spent some quality time with Bartimaeus. On Wednesday, I read the Gospel to my class and talked to the kids about how this story is meant to remind us that if we have faith, God will light the way for us and give us what we need to see things clearly. It was a quicker-than-usual discussion of the Gospel because we were due in the school gym for the recitation of the Rosary. As I hurried my class and our second-grade buddies down the hall toward the gym, the school principal saw me walk by. Quite unexpectedly (in fact I wasn't even sure I'd heard him right at first), he called out, "Take courage. Get up, Jesus is calling you." And suddenly, in an instant, the story of Bartimaeus became mine in a totally new way.

For the first time since I'd begun reading that Gospel over and over, I really heard that line as it relates to me: "Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you. " It turns out that I am very much like blind Bartimaeus, begging again and again for God to have pity on me and to help me see. My eyes are clouded by things of the external world -- the busyness of life, the responsibilities of work and family, the pull of all the addictive time-drains (Twitter and Facebook and email and more) that get too much of my attention each day. But unlike Bartimaeus, I don't always hear the God's call, drop everything and run to Jesus. Sometimes I can't hear him over the din of everyday life. Other times I've got my fingers in my ears because I'm afraid of what I might hear. And still other times I'm sure that my prayer life is too neglected and too erratic to warrant a response from God.

But Bartimaeus reminds us that we just have to keep praying and asking, not because we are worthy and not because we've mastered our prayers, but because we believe. A while back I posted (HERE) about the fact that God doesn't answer our prayers because we say them perfectly but because we are "shameless" in our persistence. Like Bartimaeus, we have to keep yelling out, " Jesus, have pity on me." We have to have faith and trust that he is listening and that if we make the time to slow down and be quiet, we will get the answer and the sight we've been begging for. The question is, will we be ready and willing to take the call?

"Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Back on track, with a modified plan

When I blogged about my unofficial hiatus back in early September, I had hoped it would last no more than a week or two. But here we are, nearing the end of October, and the writing at Not Strictly Spiritual is still sporadic at best. More than a few friends and colleagues have suggested that perhaps it's time to call it quits on NSS officially. After all, I'm blogging almost daily at OSV Daily Take, and NSS is not "productive" in the worldly sense -- it doesn't bring in money, doesn't add to my professional portfolio, doesn't sell my books. But the truth is that NSS is productive, at least for me, in so many other ways.

I can't give up NSS because I really love being here, talking with you, sharing my spiritual journey (and sometimes my family photos), and hearing about your own faith experiences. I don't want to give up this blog because, to be quite honest and somewhat selfish, my own spiritual life would suffer for it. Talking about my struggles and my questions and my occasional spiritual "successes," if we can call them that, is in some ways a form of contemplation for me. I sit and ponder all the things going on in my heart so that I can share something with you. In doing that, I usually discover something about myself and the path I'm meant to be walking. the suggestion of another blogger-mom-friend Roxane Salonen over at Peace Garden Mama, I am going to take up a regular but not daily blogging routine. I plan to blog here at Not Strictly Spiritual on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. (Roxane blogs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so if you bookmark us both we'll get you through almost the entire week!)

I actually have so much to share with you and often craft posts in my head but never find the time to write them down in this space. I'm hoping that will all change now with the new schedule. I am still plodding along on my spiritual journey, moving one step forward and two steps back. I'm doing great in the spiritual reading department, not so great in the daily prayer department, and that's backwards, so I need to flip it around. I have become much more aware of the various things that tug me away from a prayerful attitude and leave me feeling spiritually unfulfilled. Hopefully we'll get to all that in the coming days and weeks. For now I'll leave you with a reflection I read before bed last night. It sure hit home for me.
"Resentments cast a cloud over your prayers. This is why Christ told us to leave our offering before the altar and first go to be reconciled with an enemy. If you collect injuries and resentments and think you can still pray, you would probably put water in a bucket full of holes!

"Learn patience, and your prayers will be joyful. Sometimes, even in prayer, something will occur to you that will seem worthy of anger. But anger helps nothing. Think of ways to avoid displaying it.

"...You are crazy if you love prayer and give in to anger or resentment. This is as ridiculous as one who wants to see clearly scratching his eyes. If you desire to pray, stay away from everything that harms prayer. This will clear the path and allow God to walk with you.

"...Much of the time, however, we struggle between prayer and disturbing thoughts. Our emotions get in the way of our prayers. Keep trying. If we knock on the door hard enough, it will be opened." -- Evagrius Ponticus: Chapters on Prayer
Wow, it's good to be back. That felt good. Stay tuned...I'll be back with another original post on Sunday (although you may see re-posts of my OSV Daily Take writings in this space on the "off" days.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Remembering the North American Martyrs

From my post on OSV Daily Take today:

My 12-year-old son had to choose a saint to study for a school project in anticipation of All Saints Day. When I first heard about the assignment, I immediately wanted to suggest St. Isaac Jogues, but I held back and waited to see what Noah came up with on his own. When he came home from school, I asked him which saint he had selected: St. Isaac Jogues. Now, that syncronicity might be remarkable in many circumstances, but Noah has spent two camping retreat weekends on the grounds where St. Isaac Jogues was martyred, so the choice made perfect sense to him, and to me.

When you are a Catholic in upstate New York, only 45 minutes as we are from the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, Jesuit missionaries St. Isaac Jogues and St. Rene Goupil are part of the landscape. We hear their stories, we walk the ground they walked, we marvel at their courage. Today we celebrate the Feast of the North American Martyrs, remembering those missionaries who died brutal deaths because of their commitment to the Good News.

When you go to the national shrine in Auriesville, which is also the birthplace of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, 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, John Lalande, John de Brebeuf, and Gabriel Lalemant.

If you walk the grounds of Auriesville (which I posted about HERE), you can feel a holy presence, a sense that something awful but awesome happened in that place. It is sacred, to be sure. And beautiful.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Anne Rice's journey from darkness to light

I recently had the privilege of talking with author Anne Rice for an OSV In Focus section on the current vampire craze. Rice's penchant for all things undead has given way to a very different focus: Christ, redemption, salvation. Check out my interview with Rice in the current issue of OSV, now online. Here's a taste:

OSV: In an essay on your website, you talk about your work -- from "The Vampire Chronicles" through the "Christ the Lord" series -- as reflecting your journey through atheism back to God. How is your earlier work part of that spiritual journey?

Rice: As I was writing "Interview with the Vampire," I knew that I identified with Louis the vampire and that I felt like a creature of the night and a creature who was separated from God and a creature who was lost and pretty miserable. The book is really a meditation on misery, on the misery of being separated from God. I felt very comfortable writing it because it allowed me to express my sorrow. It's only years later that I realized the book is about the loss of my Catholic faith. It's about a fall from grace, about leaving the Church, about roaming in the darkness of atheism for many years and feeling as obsessed with God as ever.

Click HERE to read the full interview. And, if you're interested in the pop culture fascination with vampires, from Dracula to Edward Cullen, click HERE to read what the experts have to say in "Drawn to the Undead."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Will the real St. Francis please stand up?

In honor of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I thought I'd run a recent 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 jump on 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 in activism.

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.