Sunday, May 31, 2009

Come, Holy Spirit

I was wondering what I might post today, on the Feast of Pentecost. It seemed like it should be something special, something worthy of the gift of the Holy Spirit. I always used to struggle with that gift, didn't really get it. I remember when I was young and writing religious music, I composed a song for Pentecost Sunday, but it was a stretch for me, something I had to do to match up to the other feast days I'd celebrated in song. Now that I am older, the Spirit just seems to make more spiritual sense to me. I am more aware of the movement of the Spirit in my own life and in the lives of others. I am comforted by the fact that I am never alone, that God is always with me, surrounding me, blowing through me, hovering over me, whispering into my soul.

Last night, when I was at Mass listening to Father L. preach on Pentecost, he quoted a poem by Mexican poet and mystic Amado Nervo. When I heard it, I knew that this poem needed to be my Pentecost post, so here is the best translation I could find:

Alone we are only a spark,
But in the spirit we are a fire.
Alone we are only a string,
But in the spirit we are a lyre.
Alone we are only an anthill,
But in the spirit we are a mountain.
Alone we are only a drop,
But in the spirit we are a fountain.
Alone we are only a feather,
But in the spirit we are a wing.
Alone we are only a beggar,
But in the spirit we are a king.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A saint for all seasons

This essay ran in the May 24 issue of Our Sunday Visitor:

Out in my perennial garden, nestled among the bleeding hearts and hyacinths, 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 each spring.

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 who plant St. Francis in their gardens really know what the medieval saint was all about?

Today Francis’ concerns are often compartmentalized, separated from Franciscan spirituality 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 Oct. 4, 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 we see quite so many St. Francis lawn statues, if we stopped to reflect on the fact that 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”? Do we really look to Francis as a role model, or is he just a pretty face out among the hostas?

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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The proof is in the practical application

I received the following anonymous comment this week from someone who attended one of the workshops I gave at the "Living the Catholic Faith Conference" in Denver in February. I wanted to share it because it affirms what I've been saying when I take my little show on the road and talk about reaching out to "lost" adult Catholics. We have to reach parents through their children or we may never reach them at all. Here's what anonymous had to say about her experience:

"I just finished my first year of teaching 1st grade RE. I really like the idea of catechizing the parents through the children. I started making handouts for the kids each week for them to take home with the hope that it would 1) allow parents to reinforce what we taught and 2) teach the parents also. I did have a few of the parents tell me they were learning things they didn't know through it so felt it had some success. I also made a few pleas in the weekly note about setting a good example in the faith by taking their kids to Mass regularly, and seeing them receiving the sacraments, etc., as the kids would blurt out the fact that they weren't going to Mass.

"My strategy this year is to do the same in a little newsletter each week that also advertises opportunities for parents as well. Since I'm moving up to 2nd grade, which involves 1st communion/confession prep, I'm hoping to purchase materials like the little St. Joseph 1st Communion Catechism that the kids can keep and take home each week with a little assignment that can get the parents involved as well."

Thank you, anonymous, for the feedback. It helps tremendously to know that what I'm suggesting actually makes a difference when it's put into practice. I'll get to see how my ideas work on a practical level next fall when I start teaching fourth-grade faith formation.

To read more about my take on the "lost generation," read my earlier post by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An unexpected review...

I was surprised last week to find this lovely review of my first book, "Parenting a Grieving Child: Helping Children Find Faith, Hope and Healing After the Loss of a Loved One." It's been seven years since the book was published by Loyola Press, so a review at this point is an unexpected gift. Thank you, Ebeth at A Catholic Mom Climbing the Pillars, for making my day. Here's a taste, but please click and continue to read the rest on Ebeth's blog.

"February 2008, my father-in-law passed away which was very hard on my knight and our three kids. I blogged about it as the process of his suffering and death impacted our lives so deeply. One day I received a comment asking me if a book could be sent to me. It was like having a heartfelt prayer reach out through the computer monitor to my children. Mary DeTurris Poust, the author, and generous soul reached out to my children in her book, "Parenting a Grieving Child" signed and sent to my rescue immediately. What a treasure trove of ideas and points on the griefing process of a child that is very different than that of an adult... Continue reading."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chiara's 'birthday walk'

Today was a big day for Chiara. Even though her birthday is not until July 21, she celebrated her "birthday walk" at her Montessori preschool this morning. The "birthday walk" is a Blossoms tradition that each of my children have experienced, and it's something they remember long after the ice cream is served.

Every child gets his or her own day, none of that "summer birthdays" stuff where a whole bunch of kids have to have one big birthday celebration. It's all about making every child feel special for one day. So today we brought in our big poster filled with pictures representing all the different stages of Chiara's life (see photo above) and set it on a shelf for all the kids to see. Lots of oohs and aahs over baby photos and Halloween costumes and shots of Chiara jumping in the waves of North Wildwood. Then Chiara sat in a special chair with Dennis and me seated on either side of her. She picked the welcome song, "Hola," and everyone sang to her. Then they sang the traditional birthday song. Finally came the highlight of the day, the actual "birthday walk."

Her teacher lit a candle, which represents the sun. Chiara held a little globe. With our hands on her shoulders, we walked with her around the candle one time for every year of her life as we told a story from that year. I talked about her Italian name and that it means "light" and is "Clare" in Italian. Dennis talked about her first trip to the ocean and how she loved the sand and water. I talked about Five Rivers and how she adores the owl who lives at the nature center there and loves to hike and have picnic lunches. Dennis talked about how sad she was when our dog died and how thrilled she is now to have two new cats.

After the walk, we sat down again and each child in the class came up to give Chiara a birthday hug while everyone sang, "Love is something if you give it away." When all of that was finished, each child called out an individual birthday wish, and Chiara blew out the candle and called on a few students to put away the globe and mat and other birthday props. Then she tapped each remaining child on the shoulder and sent them back to "work." At the end of the day, she took home the birthday "scroll" the children and teachers made for her. (That's it below.) When she unrolled it at home, both Noah and Olivia immediately started talking about their own scrolls, which are tucked away for safe keeping in their rooms.

The birthday walk is a beautiful tradition, one that really highlights the respectful and holistic elements of Maria Montessori's learning-teaching theory. It's those kinds of touches that made us choose a Montessori program in the first place. If you could walk into Chiara's classroom, which is really a series of open rooms in an old house, you would be amazed to see 3- to 6-year-olds working independently, quietly, neatly and cooperatively. It's really something to behold. We are so blessed to have this little school just a mile or so from home, run by a loving Catholic couple who started the school 25 years ago when their own children reached preschool age. The school teaches basics, but thrown in are lessons in kindness, peace, generosity and love. I wish I could bottle what they do there because what they do is a lost art, in many ways. It is wholesome and simple, devoid of commercialism and high-tech gadgets, intellectually stimulating and emotionally uplifting. And I can see the results in Chiara's smile every time she walks through the school door.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More on the monastic life

A Facebook friend alerted me to another amazing BBC production, The Monastery, which follows the day-by-day experience of six lay men who become part of a Benedictine monastery for 40 days. None of the men are Catholic; some don't believe in God at all. It is an experiment for all of them, an opportunity to see if monastic life can change their minds about God, about themselves, about their secular lives.

The series is up on YouTube and is available in 18 10-minute segments. It's perfect viewing for a little meditative break from the usual computer stuff every once in a while, although I will admit that I became addicted and watched one segment after another until I was done. Took me just a couple of days. If you do decide to give it a try, see it through to the end because the transformation you witness will inspire you. The power and relevance of monastic life and Benedictine Rule in particular and prayer and silence in general is palpable in every episode.

For me, I really came away with a renewed appreciation for my own vocation and state in life, much the way I did after seeing Into Great Silence about the Carthusian monks a few years back. It made me want to pull out my books on living the Benedictine Rule at home and rethink how we can apply it to family life. When we think of monks and community, we tend to think -- at least I do -- of something apart from our own busy home lives. But the reality is that our families are our communities and our homes are our monasteries, and we can incorporate many good and life-affirming aspects of the Rule into our lives in ways that will strengthen our families and advance our spiritual journeys.

Above all, the emphasis of The Monastery was on silence -- listening, as St. Benedict wrote, "with the ear of your heart." Or maybe that's just what spoke to me because I know in my heart of hearts that until I make a silent space for God in my life each day I can't move forward. Why is it so hard to do that? Surely I can find five minutes of silence for God. I'm going to begin that challenge today and let you know how things progress. Stay tuned...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Who says dreary Mondays are dull?

Chiara, who is off from preschool this morning, is dressed to the nines and creating her own indoor version of hopscotch, while I work nearby at the computer. Here she is in action. If you could hear the audio on this, it would be far more entertaining:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Taking my message to the streets

Sorry for the long absence. I've got a couple of good excuses. It's been a crazy week in the Not Strictly Spiritual household. The cats, of course, have added quite a bit of drama. Last night was the first night in a week that one or both of the cats did not wander around the house crying and jumping from dresser to dresser all night. So I guess that's progress. Actually, Fred the Cat and Mirabella the Kitten are a sweet little pair. In just a few days, they have adapted to a house filled with noise and general craziness and to each other. Now it's not uncommon to find Fred curled up with Mirabella, giving her little licks.

And then, on top of all that, there was work craziness as well. I taught a two-hour workshop on Wednesday for the Diocese of Albany's annual Spring Enrichment program. My topic was "The Lost Generation: Reconnecting with Adult Catholics." This is the fourth time I've presented this workshop, although never for two solid hours, and each time it's different yet fascinating. It's certainly a subject that gets people talking. How do we reach out to adult Catholics who feel cut off from their faith? How do we coax them back into the fold in unintimidating ways that will make them feel part of a faith community? There are no easy answers, but it absolutely has to begin with community first and catechesis second.

We can't expect people to show up for classes or meetings if they don't feel like they are part of something, if they have no stake in their parish or church. We have to give them ownership, welcome them, talk to them, answer their questions, and drop our preconceived notions about why they may or may not attend Mass, why they send their kids to faith formation but don't practice the faith at home. As I say in my talk, if they have any connection to the church at all -- no matter how tenuous -- it's a sign that they are within our grasp and may be hungry for something more. So many people who were born and raised Catholic feel isolated and abandoned today because they never really got the basics of their faith and because they feel like strangers in their own home. It's time to find a way to heal those divisions and reach out to those who are searching for deeper meaning in this superficial world of ours.

I could go on and on about this, but for now I'll just say that we need to begin first with the parents of all those children in faith formation programs. We need to reach the parents through the kids, educate the parents by involving them in the faith education of their children, connect with the parents not through mandatory meetings but through acts of solidarity and subtle, even hidden, catechesis. In other words, by making our faith real to them through our words and actions.

We are all living harried and overscheduled lives. We need to show people that their spiritual community can be a refuge in the midst of the chaos. But that means that parishes need to be truly welcoming, truly community-minded, truly open to new people and new ideas. It is no longer enough to simply pump children full of random Catholic facts and then send them on their way. It is time to incorporate families into the larger family of faith, to put those random facts into context so that people understand how all the individual threads of various teachings are woven together to form the beautiful tapestry that is the Catholic faith. We cannot demand discipleship. Instead we must extend an invitation that is so meaningful and so enticing that it simply cannot be refused.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

My best St. Francis impersonation

No, I didn't give away all of my possessions. But I did adopt not one but two cats from the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society last night. Crazy, I know. When our dog died last November, Dennis and I swore we'd never again have a pet (we've had two dogs and a cat prior to our newest additions). But Olivia began a cat campaign a while back and I guess she just wore us down. Every day she would come home from school and visit the MHRHS website and read me all the vital stats about every single cat awaiting adoption. Finally, she honed in on a cat named Fred (that's him with Chiara in the photo above). His rap sheet said he was friendly with people of all ages, mellow, a real buddy who would head butt you or even kiss you. We told her maybe after summer vacation, but we knew Fred would likely be long gone by then.

So late yesterday afternoon I took Noah and Olivia up to the Humane Society and asked to see Fred, who was curled up in bed under a shelf fast asleep. We couldn't even see his face. If Olivia hadn't spotted him on the website, we never would have picked him. But after about 10 seconds in the petting cage with the kids, they were begging to take Fred home. Then (because Dennis and I are insane) I asked them to put a two-month old kitten, Mirabella, in the cage with the kids. Of course, they loved her too. So I offered to get both Mirabella and Fred. Off we went with our two boxed up cats complete with microchips between their shoulder blades in case they get lost and turned in somewhere.

I wish we'd had the video camera rolling when Chiara first saw Mirabella in the bottom of her crate. She just started giggling and smiling. She could barely contain herself. Fred fell right in line chasing strings and balls, jumping on furniture and even knocking out a screen in a mad dash to chase down some critters in the backyard. Fortunately, I caught him before he could go not so gently into that good night.

Mirabella (that's her above with Olivia) spent the entire night until 5 a.m. sleeping curled up next to Olivia. Fred, on the other hand, prowled the house, crying now and then, walking across nightstands and pillows and anything else he could find. By 5 a.m. I was downstairs with him. That's when he jumped on top of the refrigerator and then attempted to jump on top of our cabinets. Except our cabinets don't have any open space on top, so Fred hit the ceiling full force, leaving a swath of black fur on the ceiling and falling to the counter top below. We'll see if this is just first-night jitters or if Fred is insane on a regular basis.

Now Fred is sleeping upstairs and Mirabella is sunbathing near an open family room window. I hope we all get some sleep tonight, but from the photo of Fred below it's pretty obvious that he's probably got other plans...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Maybe we don't have to do it all

If you regularly berate yourself for not exercising enough, not printing and organizing your photos, not reading all the bestsellers on the New York Times book list, you need to stop what you're doing right now and and click HERE to read a great column by Judith Warner. As I was reading it, I felt as though I was listening to the story of my life, a blow-by-blow description of my very own unrealistic expectations.

It's only recently -- as I find I simply do not have the motivation to get up for 5:45 a.m. yoga class or run through rain or sleet outside -- that I'm starting to wonder if maybe I should cut myself a break. Maybe I don't have to make homemade cupcakes for every bake sale or school function. Maybe I don't have to fly into a panic if I gain two pounds. Maybe I don't have to do every single thing that is suggested or that pops into my head. Maybe I'd be happier if I just slowed down and enjoyed a few quiet moments now and then and just brought a store-bought cake to the bake sale. It's taken me almost 47 years to get to that point, but I think at some point you realize life is too important to waste so much time and effort of stuff that really doesn't matter in the long run.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Take a mini-retreat right at your computer

If you need to get away from it all and spend some quiet time reflecting on your prayer life and your relationship with God, have I got a plan for you. You need one hour. OK, don't bail on me already. This hour will be worth your time. You will feel as though you have had some serious retreat time without ever leaving your desk.

Imagine being transported to the desert to experience a little taste of what St. Antony of Egypt lived each day 1,800 years ago. That's what you'll find if you take the time to watch the BBC documentary (Extreme Pilgrim) on the life of a desert hermit. It's the third part of a series on spirituality. In it, Anglican Vicar Pete Owen Jones heads to a silent and isolated cave in Egypt for three weeks to wrestle with his demons a la Antony the Abbott and the Desert Fathers. The result is a powerful TV experience that will make you think and leave you longing for a little quiet spiritual time of your own.

Once at the cave, Father Pete meets Father Lazarus, a Coptic Christian priest who lives in a cliffside cave day after day, year after year. Father Lazarus asks Father Pete if he is aware of his own sinfulness, explaining that the silence and loneliness of the cave is a life of penitence. "This is like hell. This is like a war," he says, talking about Satan's seductions and banishing any romantic notions of spiritual ecstasy amid the desert sands.

Father Lazaraus tells Father Pete that by being awake in his spirit, awake in his soul, he will bless the world through his prayers. He points to the narrow door of the prayer cave and the wider door of the "kitchen" and says that the narrow door leads to heaven, but once you get a bird's eye view of what's behind narrow door #1 it becomes painfully obvious that this three-week experiment is going to be a trial that tests physical, mental and spiritual strength.

One of my favorite lines in the documentary is when Father Pete wonders aloud why the path to God has to be so difficult. "Why can't the road to God be eating tomato basil soup and getting up and having a lovely day?" Then he trudges up the cliffs to face the unknown. After a difficult start, we see Father Pete emerge from self-doubt, frustration and sleeplessness. By the end of the three weeks, he likens his experience to being born, saying that he is "coming alive again." As he departs for England, Father Lazaraus challenges him to carry the "full emptiness" of the desert back with him to life in the world. But we all know how difficult that will be when "regular" life is anything but empty.

By the time the final credits rolled, I really felt as though I'd experienced my only little spiritual respite. I highly recommend it. Hat tip to Conversion Diary for this one. It's a gem. I just hope some day they make a sequel that will give us a glimpse of how Father Pete wove that desert emptiness into his busy life back home. I know I sure could use some pointers.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Spirit-filled connections

Yesterday was one of those days. It started out bad and seemed to get worse. It wasn't anything terrible, more a mood or funk inspired by the weather and work deadlines and family schedules. I tried to begin the day by lighting my prayer candle and sitting in silence, but all I felt was emptiness. So I turned to work.

In the middle of a project, I had to stop to find the source of a Thomas Merton quote I wanted to use. My Internet search proved fruitless, and it seemed like such a waste of valuable work time to start perusing libraries or book stores. I didn't even know where to begin. Then I decided to send an email to my "Merton in the Mountains" retreat director, figuring if anyone could put his finger on this quote quickly, it would be him. So I sent my plea out there into the ether, not expecting too much too soon.

The Merton quote I was using is something I've seen numerous times, but never with a footnote:
"Thich Nhat Hanh is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things in exactly the same way."

Thich Nhat Hanh is an internationally known Zen master, whom I have had the privilege of hearing during an address at Riverside Church in New York City years ago and whose books I have read numerous times.

In less than 15 minutes, I had a return email from my retreat director, giving me not only the title of the source material but the publisher and page number as well. I had struck gold. He also went on to discuss some other spiritual things that began to lift my spirits a bit. Then, before I even had time to digest his first email, another came right behind it. The subject was "Providential Post."

It turns out that my retreat director had just opened an email from his friend Jim Forest, who knew Thomas Merton and is one of his biographers. The email contained a link to Forest's blog post on none other than Thich Nhat Hanh. The connections and timing truly were providential and gave me goosebumps, to be honest. The blog post, which you can read by clicking HERE, included an excerpt from Forest's book, Living With Wisdom, regarding Merton's 1965 meeting with Thich Nhat Hanh.

I read the post and felt my shoulders start to relax. To me it was obvious the Spirit was at work, connecting me with the right person and the right message exactly when I needed it. Then, just when I thought it couldn't get any better, I received one more email from my retreat director and it said this:

"Remember: Emptiness is possibility!"

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A gift on my doorstep

When the doorbell rang the other afternoon, my first inclination was to pretend no one was home. Surely someone was selling something I didn't want. But I caught a glimpse of a little old lady on my doorstep and figured I should see what it was all about. When I got closer, I immediately recognized her as the woman who came by last year collecting for the annual CROP walk. I remembered her not only because she was very old and very slow and yet very determined in her efforts to raise money for Church World Service but because she has Alzheimer's and she seemed confused and lost as she wandered down our street.

Her condition had clearly worsened over the past 12 months. Dressed in a bright red windbreaker about five sizes too big with a tan canvas hat pulled down over her white hair, she stood there and held out a piece of paper with her name and address on one side and the name of Church World Service on other. She couldn't even remember why she was standing at my door. When I asked if she was collecting for the CROP walk, she looked relieved that she didn't need to remember her sales pitch. I took her "card" and asked if I could drive her home, but she insisted that she needed to finish the street and get rid of all her sponsorship cards. So I said good-bye and told her to be careful, explaining which houses she should skip so she didn't waste precious steps just to find no one at home.

When I went to pull the car out of the garage about 15 minutes later to take Chiara to dance class, Jeanne was standing at the front door of the house across the street that I had told her to skip. She looked around, confused, and then started heading back to our house. I got out of the car and reminded her that she had already been to my house, begging her to please let me drive her home. But, no, she wouldn't hear of it. So I once again turned her around and aimed her in the direction of two houses with retirees at home, hoping that they, too, would make sure she kept moving in the right direction.

I brought Chiara to dance class a mile or so away but couldn't get Jeanne out of my head. I kept imagining her taking a wrong turn or walking out in front of a car. So I left the dance studio and retraced my steps, looking for signs of the bright red coat. Sure enough, only two houses down from ours, she was standing silently on another front porch, waiting for someone, anyone to answer. I pulled my van up next to the house and called to her. I told her that I wasn't leaving until she let me drive her home since I was going her way anyway (I only knew her address because of the little slip of paper she'd handed me earlier). She finally agreed and I got out to help her into the car, buckling her frail body into the seat. We drove a few blocks to her street and she asked me to let her out on the corner, but I wanted to be sure she made it to her driveway. As we pulled up near her house, she said, "My husband is going to be so mad if he knows I was lost again." So I told her we'd just tell him that she was done with her fund-raising and I was going her way anyway.

But, as soon as her husband saw her get out of the van, it was clear this wasn't an unusual event. He thanked me for bringing her home, saying, "She doesn't listen," and smiling at Jeanne as she started toward him. I told Jeanne to have a good day, and she said, "My day is already good because I met you." And that right there -- those few simple words -- had me smiling for the rest of the afternoon. I promised Jeanne I'd stop by the next time I was out for a walk past her house, and she encouraged me to do just that. But I know that if I see Jeanne tomorrow or next week or next year, she won't have any idea that we've ever met before. To Jeanne, I will always be someone new, a friendly stranger. And to me, Jeanne will always be the lovely little woman with a will of steel and a heart of gold. I hope I have even half her courage and determination if I find myself walking a similarly daunting and confusing path one day.