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.

Caught by surprise at holy hour

From my post today on OSV Daily Take:

I was recently drafted onto my parish's Vocations Committee and decided to join the group for its monthly holy hour for vocations. As we prayed the Rosary in our parish chapel, with various people leading each decade as in the norm, something far outside the norm occurred. I have to admit that I was taken aback by it and still find myself replaying it in my head trying to figure it out.

As we got around to the fifth decade, an older woman a few rows ahead took the lead. I found myself silently startled as she prayed the Hail Mary using the wrong words. I shook it off, attributing it to some sort of brain freeze on her part, and figured we'd resume the normal praying with the next Hail Mary. Wrong. If this was a brain freeze, it was a decade-long freeze. Either that or it was a conscious decision to rewrite this beloved prayer and force the rest of us to come along for the ride.

Here's how her version of the Hail Mary went:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with US.
Blessed is the fruit of your woman, Jesus.

Is it my imagination or did she just demote Mary? In her version of the prayer, Mary no longer has the Lord with her and she is no longer blessed among women.

Now, I have a hard enough time praying the Rosary without this kind of distraction. I found myself trying to race through the correct version of the prayer in my head in time to join the group at the half. Out of the corner of my eye I could see several other women in the back rows looking around for a ref to call a foul. It really was one of the strangest prayer experiences I've had in recent memory. It amazes me when someone decides to use a moment of public prayer to make a personal statement, causing an entire chapel full of people to lose sight of what they were doing -- praying the Rosary for vocations -- and focus instead on the actions of a single person.

So what do you think? Have you heard someone mangle the Hail Mary repeatedly in this fashion before? Is it a slip of the tongue or a not-so-hidden agenda?