Friday, December 30, 2011

Skip resolutions. Go for 'goals' instead.

What new routines have you vowed to start and keep this year? A healthy eating plan? Exercise regimen? House re-organization effort? The new year offers the promise of a clean slate, a chance to begin again or try for the first time something that will improve our health, our home, our world.

I tend not to make typical resolutions, but I know plenty of people do. Every year, when the first week of January hits, our YMCA becomes a bit of a zoo. You can’t find a free treadmill or weight machine no matter what odd hour of the day you show up. I asked a trainer once, “How long will this go on?” He said, “Hang in there until the end of February and they’ll all be gone.”

We spend a lifetime – or at least a lot of years – acquiring the bad habits or out-of-shape bodies or lukewarm prayer lives that compel us to make resolutions, and yet we expect dramatic results in two months or less. We forget that undoing our habits is a one-day-at-time effort. One day at a time, one year at a time, one decade at a time.

Unfortunately, our society has brainwashed us into thinking we can find a quick-fix for everything. Pop a pill, drink a potion, buy a gadget, and you, too, will look like the plastic perfection staring out from a magazine cover. Of course, body and beauty resolutions are an easy target. They bear the brunt of the new year promises (both fulfilled and broken) because physical appearance is so important in our culture, but I know from experience that spiritual exercise routines and daily doses of prayer are no easier to stick to than that weekly abs class or low-fat diet. Spiritual renewal requires hard work.

At the start of each year, I tend to make a mental list of things I’d like to accomplish by the next year. Not anything like “lose five pounds” because that seems to be a perpetual resolution in my middle-aged life, but things that are broader, more about changing my overall perspective or approach to life than fine-tuning one small aspect.

When I looked back at last year’s list, I was happy to realize I’d accomplished most of what I set out to do without even realizing it. Go on silent retreat. Check. Get a spiritual director. Check. Learn more about Centering Prayer. Check. The one piece that still needs some work is my plan to declutter my office space, although even that isn’t a total washout. So I’m starting this new year with that one thing on my list of goals again plus a few new things: develop my own yoga practice for when I’m home and unable to get to a Y class; look into yoga teacher training programs; attempt regular or semi-regular silent meditation; smile more and stress less; spend more individual time with each of my children; and go on regular dates with my husband. No set time periods, amounts, limits or expectations. Just general hopes for this or some other year down the road.

I like the annual goals approach because it removes the one thing that tends to derail typical resolutions: the notion that if we screw up within a day or a week or a month we might as well give up completely. When we have an annual goal, we can continue to get back up every time we slip and know that there’s still time to make things right. And, if we don’t get to everything on our list by the end of the year, well, there’s always next year. But, it’s not likely that even our annual goals will prove successful if we approach them at breakneck speed, spinning in a hundred directions at once.

In one of my favorite books, A Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote: “With our pitchers, we attempt sometimes to water a field, not a garden. We throw ourselves indiscriminately into committees and causes. Not knowing how to feed the spirit, we try to muffle its demands in distractions. Instead of stilling the center, the axis of the wheel…”

What are the distractions that muffle your spirit? What can you do to still your center in order to achieve your resolutions and goals, whatever they may be?

Even just five minutes of silent stillness every day can begin to reshape our thinking and our lives, and give us strength to follow through on our plans. Five minutes. Can we do that? No formal resolutions, just an unspoken agreement that we will give ourselves five minutes every day to sit and wait for God. Not five minutes while we check email or five minutes while we stir soup or five minutes during TV commercial breaks. Five solid minutes of distraction-free silence away from everything and everyone else.
One small, shared goal to ring in the new year.

Foodie Friday: holiday edition

We've been bouncing around from state to state this Christmas holiday, so there hasn't been a ton of cooking going on here, but I thought I'd at least share this lovely photo of an appetizer I made on Christmas Eve. Truth be told, the photo is better than the actual food result, but I think with some tweaking it could be totally awesome.

Take a small wheel of brie or triple creme cheese and grill it lightly or put it in a panini press until it's warm and has light grill marks. (I opted for the panini press method since it was a little chilly for grilling at night.)
Meanwhile heat about 1/4 cup of honey over low heat with a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Turn it off when it gets near a boil and let it sit and steep a bit.
Slice up a few fresh figs (five or six)

Put the warm cheese on a platter, top with figs, drizzle with honey.

So I think our version could have benefited from better brie (I couldn't get true French brie. Well, I could -- and originally did -- but it's a long story.) I needed fresher thyme and more of it to infuse the honey. And it was my first time buying/serving figs, so I'm still not sure if I picked them at the right ripeness or if I should have done this when it was fig season. Anyway, I'll try it again at a later date. If you give it a shot, let us know what happens.

This recipe, by the way, originally came from the website Not Without Salt. Check it out.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The world in silent wonder waits...

It's Christmas Eve. The waiting is almost over, but not quite yet. Although the busyness of the holiday will probably push you from every direction today, try to find some time to sit in silent wonder of the One who was...and is...and is to come.

May your night and your Christmas be holy and happy and grace-filled. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The dark side of the moon

A perfect crescent moon was visible in the early morning sky today, ringing in the Winter Solstice with quiet but awesome fanfare. This was taken at about 6:30 a.m. from the end of our driveway, in between passing clouds that occasionally blocked the moon from view. What you can't see in this photo is the clearly visible dark side of the moon, my favorite part of a crescent.

We tend to think of this day as the shortest on light, but I think I'll focus instead on the longest night. Just think, more night than you know what to do with. Enjoy it. Put on some music you like. Sip a cup of cocoa while you stare at the night sky. Wrap presents by candlelight. Howl.

Picking up scattered fragments of peace

When I returned from my wonderful weekend retreat almost three weeks ago, the sense of peace surrounding my heart and penetrating my soul was almost palpable...


Kids did dopey things. I didn't yell. Work deadlines went from bad to worse. I didn't melt. The car bumper was bashed in by a hit-and-run meanie. I didn't explode.

It was clear evidence, at least in my mind, of the power of deep and intense prayer practiced over days, rather than short bursts of desperate cries shouted heavenward while sitting at stoplights or wiping the counter.

In the initial days after my retreat, I kept up some semblance of deep prayer and deep peace. I cleared the decks and sat down in silent meditation in my sacred space. I did yoga followed by more prayer. I got up early and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours in the twinkling glow of the Christmas tree set against a backdrop of winter darkness. I was on a holy roll.

But then bit by bit, day by day, the peace started to fragment...

I could almost see it happening.

Sharp shards of silence breaking off and flying away from me in every direction.

I knew enough to realize it was an unhappy development but felt powerless to stop it. The tension of the season, coupled with the crush of work, compounded by the frenzy of family life made me -- as it often does -- feel as if I should just wave my spiritual white flag and give up my quest for inner peace. Add my voice to the din.

Then I remembered something our teacher said on retreat, something that really jumped out at me as I sat cross-legged on the floor of the yoga studio at Kripalu. So often, when we think of Jesus in prayer, we think of him in the desert, in the garden, in silent solitude. But the truth is, Father Tom reminded us, that Jesus was more often than not surrounded by chaos -- people clamoring to get near him, touch his robe, lower a friend through a roof, climb a tree.

Follow, follow, follow. Ask, ask, ask.

And yet we see the way his peace and prayerfulness emerge amid the chaos. The quiet compassion given to the woman caught in adultery, the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of a soldier's servant, the forgiveness of a thief from the cross. Jesus did not become unloving, harsh and impatient because the conditions around him went from good to bad to abominable. He stayed true to his center, his Truth, bringing his peace into the noise and glare of an often unkind world.

Rather than letting it happen the other way around...

So as we wait just two more days to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, as I look at the absolute insanity that is sure to ensue in the coming hours, I'm picking up the scattered fragments of peace and fashioning them into something usable, something new. I imagine my peace looks a bit like a kaleidoscope now.

Pieces of peace...artfully arranged into something that will cast a brilliant and warm light on everything its shooting and darting rays touch as I turn it gently in my hands.

Chaos into calm. Panic into peace. Fragments into fullness.

All through him, who was...and is...and is to come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A new perspective on Christmas 'obligations'

As we started to map out the Christmas season, one thing became clear: There would be nothing remotely relaxing about this holy holiday. I'm not just talking about the shopping and wrapping and cooking. I'm talking about the driving from town to town and state to state, the weather worries, the hotel stay, the kids asking, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

For many of us, the holidays mean zigzagging the state or region or even the country in an effort to visit family members. I've done each of those variations at one time or another, and I can tell you first hand that it can take a little of the merriment out of Merry Christmas.

Earlier this week, after Dennis and I had declared that this would surely be a "lousy" Christmas because of all the driving and time spent in a frantic race from one place to the next rather than in front of our own tree with a glass of nog, I stopped and asked if maybe we should just bag the plans and stay put. If we are preemptively declaring our favorite holiday "lousy," maybe we need to rethink the plans.

So this is how I decided to evaluate the situation: If I knew this was going to be my last Christmas, how would I spend it? And I realized that if I had only this Christmas left, I wouldn't want to spend it in isolation up north but with family. Yes, I'd want to get in the car and drive to see my dad and step-mom, my grandmother and aunts, my cousins and in-laws. Because what fun is Christmas if it isn't shared? Do I wish my family lived closer so we could be together during the day and still return to our own beds at night? Absolutely. But that's not an option for those of us who no longer live in our hometowns or whose parents and siblings have moved on.

Although I'm still kind of dreading the time spent in the car tossing juice boxes and snack bags to the back rows as the kids stare zombie-like at the various screens playing different age-appropriate movies, I have to admit that contemplating Christmas from a somewhat dark place has actually made me more merry.

How are you spending your Christmas? Is it the way you would spend it if it were your last?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Manic Monday: Closing in on Christmas

We're in the homestretch. My kids, especially my tween, are practically hyperventilating with excitement. Okay, not the teen. He's keeping the excitement close to the vest. I've been too busy with work to even realize Christmas is so close, which could be bad news for those expecting presents.

That's our Christmas tree, over there on the left. Fred the Cat is standing guard. I tried to remove him from the picture, but he jumped back in every time I got set up. So, clearly, he was meant to be in the shot. Oh, and that's one of my Nativity sets -- my main Nativity set -- in the header at the top of the blog. I collect them. Nativity set, not blogs.

So, here's our Manic Monday rundown for the week...

Bookshelf: I'm reading too many books to list here, most of them as research for the book I'm writing. What I'm reading for fun, inspiration, enjoyment when I have time is a magazine I discovered on the shelf at Sam's Club: The Soul Body Connection, a special annual publication of the monthly Spirituality & Health. If you are into meditation, centering prayer, mindful eating, breathing exercises, prayer in general, check it out. It's wall-to-wall articles, and what I really love is the fact that this Eastern-leaning publication includes lots of Christian information, including a Q&A with Trappist Father Thomas Keating, a leader of the centering prayer/contemplative living movement.

Soundtrack: Christmas music, of course. Here's one of my favorites, a rocking version of Angels We Have Heard on High by Relient K, a very cool band.

Viewfinder: While other people were out shopping this weekend, or baking Christmas cookies, I was with the nine girls in our Daisy troop, along with four other moms, for an OUTDOOR winter discovery day. Who thought that was a good idea in upstate New York in mid-December? Actually, it was a really fun day. And a warm-up for our January winter camping trip.

Here's Chiara working on an animal track rubbing:

The whole gang:

Olivia decided she really wanted pomegranate seeds for lunch. So there I was, working the seeds out of the pomegranate below at 7 a.m. Whatever happened to PB&J?

Since I had about three million seeds after I finished, I decided to throw a few on top of my usual bowl of oatmeal (below). Added a nice crunch. Doesn't it look lovely? Yes, that's a candle beside my oatmeal. Truth be told, the absolute best prayer time I have every day is when I sit down to my silent, mindful breakfast and pray before I dig in. It's become an almost-daily prayer practice for me, one I really miss when I can't find the time, or the silence. Which is often in this house.

So, onward, as we celebrate the fourth week of Advent and pray the O Antiphons each evening as we light the candles on our wreath. Enjoy these last days before the feast. Shop, bake, party, but remember to breathe deep and find a few minutes each day to sit in silence and contemplate the reason for this season.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Testifying to the Light: Merton, Gaudete and More

It's always right around this time each Advent season that I move into high holiday spirit. I take that pink candle very seriously. Gaudete! Rejoice! And with that I break out Christmas boxes and begin to decorate the house. My kids, having been not-so-patiently waiting for a couple of weeks by now, finally get to light the lights and string the ornaments and push the buttons that play Christmas carols on endless loops.

I like the waiting time of Advent. I'm not a patient person, but in this season I tend to find my stride, enjoying the slowness of preparing for the feast, stepping out of character and trying not to rush things, knowing it will all be here and gone soon enough. But it won't be gone, will it? Only the external trappings will be gone. If this season does what this season is meant to do, we will be left with the internal light that shines long after the ornaments and singing Santas are put away for another year.

This weekend at Mass, one line from the Gospel kept ringing in my ears:

"He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."

That role isn't reserved for John the Baptist. We are all called to testify to the light so that others might believe. But how do we do that? It's not always easy in this frantic world, where people steal our parking spots at the mall and smash into our cars without leaving a note (both of which happened to me this week).

I recently had an experience of light that jumped out and grabbed me. I was at Kripalu yoga center, attending a workshop called "Pray All Ways" by Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (which I posted about briefly last week). At the end of the weekend, Father Tom asked us to do a lectio divina exercise, using the weekend itself as the point of reflection. We were to find the thing that stood out to us, pray on it and share with the group. Although there were many, many gifts received that weekend, one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, from the very first session of our workshop. Here's what I shared with my group (more or less):

As I sat in this circle, sharing faith stories and prayer with a group of strangers, my mind kept returning to the famous Thomas Merton story, where he's standing on a street corner in Kentucky and looks around at the people surrounding him and feels complete love for and unity with them. I never really "got" that story because most of the time I'm standing on the street corner feeling frustration and wondering when all those people are just going to cross the street, for goodness sake. But here, at Kripalu, from almost the first instant, I knew exactly what Merton meant. I looked around and felt complete love for complete strangers, people from all different walks of life who are searching for the same thing -- a deeper connection to God. Being in this place gives me hope. And Merton's words keep echoing in my heart: There's no way to tell people they are walking around shining like the sun.

When I returned to "real" life later that same day, I tried to bring that light back home with me. The truth is, I often withdraw to my sacred space to pray or do yoga or both and then emerge only to jump right back into the chaos without letting my prayer reverberate in my words and actions. But the point of the weekend workshop and the focus of my prayer life these days is to take what happens in that sacred space and let it influence everything else, because my children and husband and friends will never understand the power of God's love in my life if I don't let that love come out through me, if I don't walk around shining like the sun, or Son.

It's hard to keep that light shining through all the difficulties and frustrations and annoyances of life. It's much easier to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up my poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why everyone can't make it easier for me to be prayerful. Sigh. It's not supposed to be easy. What merit is there in being prayerful if it only sticks when times are good?

And then I went to Mass on Saturday evening, and my pastor hit the nail on the head with a homily focused on that same theme. He reminded us that to rejoice isn't to be "up" all the time, outwardly bouncing around happily from one thing to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard because our joy isn't in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us. Amen.

When I was at Kripalu, Father Tom led us in many Taize chants at the start of each session. One of my favorites was this one:

"Our darkness is never darkness
in your sight.
The deepest night is clear
as the daylight."

The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the darkness outside. I am often all too aware of the darkness, sometimes even seeking it out when there's light all around me. But once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.

So rejoice! Testify to the Light that can never be extinguished.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Celebrating old St. Nick. For real.

My post from OSV Daily Take today:

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas! This day has become a favorite at our house, ever since I began the tradition years ago of leaving little gifts in the kids' shoes the night before. This morning when they came downstairs, they didn't even remember it was St. Nicholas Day until they saw the chocolates and little items lined up in shoes by the front door. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces as they came down for school one by one. And, let me tell you, getting a smile out of the almost-15-year-old is not an easy feat.

It's not too late to celebrate this feast day, which has come to mark a deepening of the Advent season for me. I'm not one of those early shoppers or early decorators. I like to wait -- longer than my family likes to wait. But I have to admit that this feast usually puts me in the mood to start making the physical preparations for Christmas.

If you want to know more about St. Nicholas or would like some activities to share with children of all ages, check out the St. Nicholas Center, an awesome website chock full of resources, stories, coloring pages, games, history, and more. The image above is from the site.

And if you didn't get to put a little something in the kids' shoes this morning, leave a little chocolate, an orange or some small gift item for them to find when they come home this afternoon. If your house is anything like my house, there's no shortage of shoes lying around just waiting to be filled.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Mellow Monday: Reverberations from my weekend yoga prayer retreat

Technically it's Manic Monday in these parts, but after a weekend yoga-prayer retreat at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Mass., I'm really quite mellow. Certainly not manic, despite the truly frightening number of deadlines mounting on the dry erase board in my office.

As was the case with my silent retreat in September, I'm not really ready to wax poetic about what happened at Kripalu so soon after. Too much to absorb, so many gifts, so much to process before I can put it in writing in this space. But I wanted to share some little snippets of my wonderful weekend, which centered on a workshop called "Pray All Ways," offered by Paulist Father Tom Ryan, who is also a certified yoga instructor and whose sense of peace and prayerfulness is so palpable he practically glows or floats. You cannot help but sit in his presence and think, "I want that." In the best Christian, yogic, loving, non-jealous way, of course.

The photo above is a view of Kripalu from the road below. The former Jesuit seminary sits on land that is just beautiful, even during this in-between time when trees are bare but the ground is not yet blanketed in white. Still breathtaking.

When I first arrived on Friday afternoon, I was in my more manic mode. I rushed inside, worried that my car might not be parked in the right place, nervous about how the weekend would unfold, sure that something would go wrong. (Glass half-empty person, remember.) So I got inside and was asked to fill out of a form with my license plate number, which is new and not committed to memory. Immediately I felt frustration -- at not having thought of this need, at not knowing my number by heart, at needing the number at all. So back out to the parking lot I trudged with pen and paper.

And as I stepped outside, another retreatant was standing there staring, and she pointed me to the top of a tree. There, in what was a rather small tree comparatively, was an enormous hawk. I mean enormous. I'm including his photo below even though it's a little blurry (I didn't have my good camera with me) because I just needed to give you a glimpse. He sat there for the longest time, unfazed by the people coming and going with their roller-suitcases and cars and chatter. Here he is:

You'll notice that branch is bending under his weight. He was just majestic. At another point during the weekend, the same hawk was flying overhead, his wingspan inspiring others to stare up at the sky in awe. I never would have known about this resident hawk (the greeter, as he was referred to by the smiling people at the front desk) if I hadn't forgotten my license plate number. So there you go. I was rushed headlong into the fact that this weekend would be about awareness, about gratitude, about slowing down, about the practice of the presence of God.

The hawk wasn't the only over-sized animal to cross my path. This giant rabbit, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, let me get within two feet of him to take a picture. On top of that he was surrounded by people enjoying the late autumn sunshine at picnic tables all around him. Even the animals are mellow here.

After a solid day of praying and sitting and absorbing so much wonderful food for thought (and wonderful food in general), my retreat partner, Michelle, and I decided to skip Yoga Dance, which was a little much even for this adventurous soul, and go for a little hike to the lake. So worth it.

First we stopped at the small labyrinth. The entrance is in the photo below. I will admit that perhaps this wasn't the best labyrinth, as I got "lost," which I didn't think was supposed to be possible in this walking meditation. I'm guessing it's much more effective when all the plants are high and in bloom and provide a clear marker of the path. It was still fun.

Here's a photo of the lake and one of me with Michelle:

And finally, here's the statue at the front entrance. Lots of Hindu and Buddhist statues here and there, as you would expect at a yoga center, but our weekend was so focused on Christian prayer and Jesus Christ that it was easy to forget at times that this is no longer a Catholic facility. As we prayed lectio divina, did the Examen, spent long periods on intercessory prayer, and even had Mass while sitting on the floor of the yoga studio Saturday night, I felt so grateful for the experience and so alive with prayerful possibility.

I will be back later this week with some further reflections. Till then, I'll just share one pearl of wisdom that Father Tom shared with us: Contemplation isn't always about retreating from the world in silence and solitude; it's about "taking a long, loving look at the real."

Look around you today. Right now. Look deeply into the eyes of the next person you meet. Listen attentively to the person on the phone or at the door or in the next office. Drink in the wonder of creation as you drive or walk or run to your next appointment. You just might be amazed to find God right under your nose. Namaste.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent awakening. Finally.

I felt a sense of panic last night as I realized we were already a few days into Advent and I had not been to this space to offer any words of encourage- ment or any observations or even any recipes.

The days leading up to Advent were packed to overflowing. Between the Thanksgiving holiday and my four-day trip with Noah to the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indiana (not to mention visits from family and friends and our first 5K race) things just felt totally out of hand. There was none of the quiet slowness that should herald the onset of this beautiful season.

Then this morning, as I felt the panic heighten due to a mounting number of work deadlines, I just stopped in my tracks. I closed the laptop, dumped the newspapers into recycling, cleared the table, made my oatmeal, and lit a candle. I sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" all by myself at my kitchen table as the steam from my breakfast cereal rose to the sky like incense. And suddenly Advent had begun.

I'd like to think that those few minutes of total silence and stillness are going to be more the norm than the rarity this Advent season, but I'm not that naive. December usually moves at full tilt, with shopping and planning and concerts and parties. I have no illusions of what's to come, especially since I am currently working on two books on tight deadlines. And yet, still, I feel a settling now where a few days ago I felt only unrest.

I think we often forget that the peace and calm that prayer brings to our lives doesn't come without some effort on our part. We can't move through life at breakneck speed, sending a shout out to God along the way, and expect to become centered and balanced and serene. That only comes from the occasional silence we actively create in our lives.

As I told a group of teens earlier this month during a talk on prayer, if we give God just five minutes of silence a day (which will feel like five hours the first few times you do it), we will begin to see subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in our lives in short order. Five minutes a day of total silence. That means turning off everything -- phones, computer speakers, Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts, TVs and stereos. Tune out every sound you possibly can. And then just sit and wait for God.

I experienced that kind of silent waiting, believe it or not, in a stadium of 23,000 teenagers a couple of weeks ago. One of the MCs at NCYC had the audacity to lead that giant, noisy group of excitable kids in lectio divina. When she started out, I thought she was nuts. By the time we were sitting in absolute silence, I was in awe. Imagine that many teenagers just sitting in silence, longing for a connection with God. If that don't get you some religion, I don't know what will. (I plan to write more about the NCYC experience in days to come. Sorry for the delay.)

Yesterday day, during Morning Prayer, this verse from the Book of Tobit jumped out at me:

"When you turn back to him with all your heart,
to do what is right before him,
then he will turn back to you,
and no longer hide his face from you."

So this Advent I plan to try to turn back to God with all my heart, not an easy task by any means. I know how quickly and easily I get thrown off course, but try I will. I'll have the added benefit of some intense spiritual time this weekend, when I head to Kripalu yoga center for a workshop with Paulist Father Tom Ryan, a certified yoga teacher, called "Pray All Ways."

In addition to the workshop, Father Tom will celebrate Mass late Saturday evening for those who want a Sunday Eucharistic celebration. He told me we would sit in a circle, chant, and have an interactive homily. I am beyond excited to experience all that is in store for me. (And my friend Michelle D., who bravely decided to join me for the workshop and share a room with me. Thank you, Michelle!)

I'll be back with tales from the journey. In the meantime, slow down, breathe, be silent, if only for five short minutes.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Embracing life, with death in sight

My latest 'Life Lines' column, which is running in the current issue of Catholic New York.

By Mary DeTurris Poust

Some people know how to live, even as they’re dying. I have a friend who is just that kind of person, and I am continually awed by her strength, her faith, and her grace as she journeys through each day knowing full well that what’s left of her life on this earth is coming to an end. Quickly.

When I saw Maureen this week, she told me the last thing on her Bucket List – now that she’s checked off a trip to the Cape with her husband– is to live long enough to see her newborn twin grandchildren when they visit in December. “I think I can make it,” she told me, and I believe her.

It was not that long ago that I sat in her living room and she told me her daughter-in-law was pregnant but she didn’t know if she’d be alive for the birth in September. Now September has come and gone and she has her sights set on a new goal, all the while managing her life and her pain from home, thanks to Hospice care and a devoted husband.

Maureen has been battling ovarian cancer for years. Long before she became ill, however, I saw her as an inspiration and a role model. Hers is a peaceful, prayerful presence. She’s quick with a smile and an offer to help in whatever way she can. Cancer has only increased those wonderful qualities, it seems.

When someone needs prayers, I email Maureen. I know without question she will remember my friends and loved ones in prayer, even as I often forget. Just this past week, she asked me about a little girl I had asked her to add to her prayer list. To be honest, I haven’t remembered that little girl in prayer in quite some time, but Maureen prays for her every morning, along with a laundry list of other people and problems I’ve asked her to remember. I have come to believe that her prayers – coming from a place of such deep faith amid such incredible suffering – are especially powerful.

Although she no longer receives any treatment, she mentioned that when she did have to sit through those difficult appointments, she’d pray for all those people who had much worse things to bear. And I found myself wondering, even as she spoke to me, who could have much worse things to bear than a woman dying of cancer before her time? But Maureen doesn’t seem to see it that way. As I sit with her, spinning tales of my kids’ latest escapades or my own spiritual struggles, I get the sense that I am in the presence of someone who is at an advanced and somewhat rare spot on the spiritual journey.

So often it’s not until someone is gone that we realize the impact they’ve had on our lives. I feel blessed to recognize right now the impact Maureen is having, and will continue to have, on my life even after she’s gone. Her example of courage and determination and faith will not fade, nor will her peaceful acceptance – when it was clear there were no more treatment options -- of what life had handed her.

None of us know the day or the hour. Logically I realize I could die before Maureen, but I still can’t seem to wrap my brain – or my everyday attitude – around that reality. Life doesn’t always go according to plan, at least not according to our plan. Life goes according to His plan, and we can either embrace the journey or be dragged along kicking and screaming. Too often I choose the latter, but Maureen is teaching me another way, the only Way.

Life isn’t always pretty or easy, and sometimes the lessons are learned the hard way. We can either stay stuck in regret or move forward with grace. Choose grace.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My Dinner With Chiara

Chiara and I ended up home alone this evening, sort of unexpectedly. Dennis and Noah are in New York City for a class trip (eating at Carmine's as I write this), and Olivia was invited to dinner and a sleepover at a friend's house. Although she was a little disappointed not to have anywhere special to go, Chiara was happy to have me to herself for a little while.

And so over a quiet, candlelight dinner of soup and salad (her choice), we had a chance to talk. She raised a couple of pretty insightful questions over the course of 30 minutes or so, things that make me sure she'll go far in this life, or at least in the world of entertainment.

Question #1: If Goofy is a dog, and Goofy can talk, why can't Pluto talk? Ah, this is an age old question, one that has confounded Disney fans for generations. It is, as we say in Catholic lingo, a mystery.

Question #2: If the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz knows she can be melted by water, why would she keep a big bucket of water out where anyone can grab it? And her follow-up question: I wonder if she can drink the water? Excellent question. I wonder...

Now it's time to play a board game. Then it's popcorn and a movie. I believe her pick is Peter Pan. It's certainly not how I intended tonight to work out, but in the end it turned out to be exactly what I wanted.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Manic Monday: Halloween edition

It's a Manic Halloween Monday. Boo! Guess I should go out and buy some candy, not that any trick-or-treaters ever ring our doorbell. Seriously. Not. One. Kid. Still, I feel woefully unprepared if I don't have some real candy on hand -- Kit Kats, Hershey bars. The real deal. Our former pastor gave us a bag of Tootsie Rolls and Dots, which would do in a pinch, but we all know that those can't hold a candle to chocolate.

So, other than Halloween, here's what's going on...

Bookshelf: I just finished Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, What an awesome and inspiring book. I could not put it down. Well, I had to put it down, but I grabbed it every chance I got. If you have not read this book yet, go get it and start reading. Now. The power of the human spirit to survive in the face of the most unbelievable treatment and torture is beyond comprehension.

Soundtrack: We've been kind of busy, so it's been kind of quiet. Olivia just got her new iPod Touch, so she's been testing it out with her favorites. But every night, as I go to bed, I can hear Mozart softly playing on continuous loop from her bedroom. That's been her routine for months, maybe a full year. I wonder if that's contributing to those stellar grades she's getting in every subject.


From a distance, our front porch looks lovely, with the cornstalk and hay bale decorations. Pumpkins and gourds and corn, oh my.

On closer inspection, we see the damage the squirrels have been doing to the pumpkins. So much for pie.

Then there's the Indian corn, completely decimated by the chipmunks, who hang there in plain sight, nibbling to their hearts' content. That last ear of corn is just about finished at this point.

Friday night was the Costume Ball for Olivia the Vampiress,
and Halloween Happenings for Rapunzel.

Look up. It's fall.

Look down. It's winter. Although we were spared the worst.

Odds and Ends: This will be the first year Noah doesn't don a costume and go out on Halloween night. Makes me feel old. Although he did dress up as Maximilian Kolbe at our parish youth ministry's All Saints party last night.

Tomorrow I get to participate in Parent Reader Theater in Chiara's classroom. I'll be reading Falling for Rapunzel, which not only ties in with Chiara's Halloween theme but is also a really funny children's book. A favorite of mine.

On Saturday, Nov. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., I will be signing/selling all four of my books at the St. Thomas Craft Fair in St. Thomas School, Delmar. Look for me to the left of the entrance when you walk into the gymansium. Tell your friends. Walking Together, my book on spiritual friendship, makes a great Christmas gift. My Essential Guide to Prayer and the Mass is a great resource as we change over to the new translation of the Roman Missal. And then there's my Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism, which walks you through the entire catechism in plain English, and Parenting a Grieving Child, which focuses on how to help children deal with death and loss. Look over on the left of this page for Amazon links for all of these books. Or contact me directly for signed copies.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Four tips for adapting to the "new" Mass

We're going on a field trip again today, over to the Huffington Post. Do you have your signed slip permission slip? I'm over there trying to help people adapt to the new language of the Mass. I'll start you here and link you there:

By Mary DeTurris Poust
Having come of age in the years after Vatican II, I never knew the Catholic Mass in Latin. In fact, the only version I know is the one that's been celebrated for the past 40 years. So I didn't take too kindly to the idea that the words and responses of the Mass would be changing, and I'd have to look at a written guide to get me through the prayers that have rolled off my tongue since childhood.

The impending changes to the English translation of the universal Roman Missal have sparked controversy among Catholics, to be sure. Some wonder why we need a new translation when the old one seemed to be working just fine. They see the new language--which brings the English more closely in line with the original Latin--as a return to a harsher time, a past that no longer fits our modern way of thinking. Others see the changes as a long time coming, a correction of a translation that was always slightly "off." Whatever side of the fence you're on, the changes are less than one month away. It's time to adapt and move forward. The new translation of the Roman Missal will go into effect on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, which is the beginning of the Church year for Catholics.

So what will these changes mean for you? They will probably feel somewhat strange at first, and no doubt there will be some things that may never feel right. I'm not going to try to convince anyone that referring to Jesus as "consubstantial with the Father" in the Nicene Creed where we once had the almost-lilting "one in being with the Father" is ever going to feel normal, let alone be an improvement. But, if we approach the changes with an open mind and, more importantly, an open heart, we just might find our connection to the Mass reinvigorated for the first time in years, something Catholics in this country could sorely use.

Here are four basic guidelines for making the new Mass your own:

Get to know the Scriptural references behind some of the changes. When I first heard that the short prayer said before Communion was changing, I balked. Continue reading HERE.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Prayer lessons: From the mouths of babes

I was saying bedtime prayers with 6-year-old Chiara the other night, when she stumbled over a line in the Our Father. Although she's got the standards pretty much down pat at this point -- Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be -- every once in a while she switches a word, or looks at us quizzically when she comes upon something that's just not in her first-grade vocabulary. Trespasses and temptation, for example.

But on this particular night, the slip-up was something much more basic, and something that, oddly enough, caused me to reflect on how I pray the same prayer. So here's how it went.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
MY kingdom come,
MY will be done...

Whoa, there sweetie. That's supposed to be THY, not MY. And then it hit me. How often do I say that very same prayer with the right words but the wrong spirit? How often do I really want MY will to be done, not God's will. God's will after all can be so, well, difficult to deal with, and He's not always on the same page.

So I learned something new about this old prayer and about myself. Every time I say the Our Father now, that line jumps out at me, and I stop for a second to think about whether I really mean what I'm saying. Am I willing to turn it all over to God, or do I say "thy will" while secretly thinking I'll have it my way?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We are all meant to walk 'The Way,' even if we never leave home

I rarely go to the movies and almost never with Dennis, but last weekend I decided we were going to find the time -- make the time -- to see The Way with Martin Sheen. In recent years, pilgrimage has become an important part of my spiritual journey. And not just because I finally got the chance to go to Rome last year. Nope. In fact, my focus on pilgrimage began long before I'd ever renewed my passport, and that, as it turns out, is as it should be. We are all on a pilgrimage, whether we walk the 800 kilometers of the famed Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or never get past our neighborhood church.

Here's how I put it in the pilgrimage section of my latest book, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass:

"When we think of pilgrimage, it's likely we imagine a journey to some far-off land. It's true that a pilgrimage in the traditional sense is a long journey, but our entire lives are meant to be a pilgrimage -- both physical and spiritual -- leading us ever closer to God.

"...The goal of pilgrimage is not to reach a physical destination but rather a spiritual one. Without leaving home, we can make a pilgrimage of the heart, an interior journey where we hope to meet God. Through our various methods of prayer -- vocal and silent, communal and private -- we make this pilgrimage with countless others around the world. We simply have to look at our very lives as pilgrim journeys, guided by the Spirit, our destination being the heart of God. It's a pilgrimage that often takes the better part of a lifetime."

Where are you now on your pilgrim journey? Perhaps an actual, physical pilgrimage might jump start things. You don't have to travel to France and Spain a la Martin Sheen's character to begin. A pilgrimage can be as simple as a visit to a new or historic church in your area, a shrine you've always wanted to see, the birthplace of a saint, or any other sacred place that leads you deeper into prayer. For me, I felt the first strong stirrings of pilgrimage when I went to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs (which you can read about HERE and HERE) a few years ago. As I camped in a tent on the beautiful grounds with my son's Boy Scout troop, I began to realize the significance of walking in sacred footsteps, of joining other believers in a literal journey toward holiness.

In the movie The Way, we get a wonderful up-close view of what the Camino is like. I certainly came away from it with a new appreciation for the courage and determination of those who undertake this level of pilgrimage. It is not for the faint of heart. And yet I know two people who have made this journey, and, in the back of my mind, I wonder if, perhaps, some day I will walk the Camino, either on my own or with Dennis or one of our children. Even seeing the rigorous terrain, the often-crowded sleeping conditions, and the many difficulties of the Way was not enough to make me cross the possibility off my list of potential pilgrim journeys. Quite the contrary. Seeing the film reminded me that pilgrimage is about leaving our comfort zones. Yes, physical comfort zones but also spiritual comfort zones. Pilgrimage -- as we see through the central characters of The Way -- is about looking at things we want to ignore, seeing in others what we've never seen before, exploring uncharted territory in our own hearts, healing our brokenness, finding our Truth.

Every time I go out on some spiritual adventure (my most recent being my private silent retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee), I experience the unexpected, explore new spiritual places, discover something about myself I didn't know before, and feel a kinship with strangers that doesn't seem as easy or comfortable when I'm just tooling around town racing from one appointment to another. On pilgrimage, when we step outside our routine, outside our "normal" life, we get to experience what life can be like when we drop some of our barriers and let God and other people into our hearts in new and sometimes scary ways.

One of the most distinct moments of my recent silent retreat was when I was sitting on the deck of the retreat house, reading a book on prayer and writing in a spiritual journal as I watched the sun go down. An older man sat at the other end of the picnic table, sobbing desperately. I didn't know him. I wasn't supposed to talk to him, and yet I ached for him. And I felt love for him, a stranger whose only connection to me was the fact that he'd picked the same retreat center on the same weekend. So I did the only thing I could do in that moment, I prayed for him. I poured out all my love through prayer and asked God to hear this man's desperate cries, for Mary to hold him in her spiritual arms and give him the comfort he needed. I'd like to say I'd have that same reaction to any other stranger who passed my way back in my "normal" life, but I know I am too busy, too guarded, too cynical to react that way all the time.

Pilgrimage takes us out of that guarded place, and when it drops us back into normal life, we are changed forever. Even if it's only a little bit at first. We come home and, without even realizing it, something has shifted. We may feel we've lost our pilgrim mojo as we navigate the busyness of daily life, but it's in the background, coloring how we react, how we speak, how we pray. Little by little, as we venture into more pilgrim experiences -- near and far -- we bring that pilgrim spirit to the everyday, and, before you know it, even a trip to the store can be a pilgrim moment, one where we experience others with love in our hearts and joy in our souls.

Am I there yet? No way. But I keep trying. I take a few steps forward on my pilgrim journey and then get sidetracked by work and responsibilities and life-as-usual. But then the Spirit prods me back onto the path in obvious and subtle ways, and I'm moving forward again.

All of life is a pilgrimage. And as one of the characters explains in the film, no one walks The Way by accident. That's true of our interior journey as well. So, wherever your pilgrimage takes you next, Buen Camino.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Foodie Friday: Autumn-inspired Israeli couscous

I was recently looking for a way to use the very large container of Israeli couscous I'd picked up in the bulk section of Honest Weight Food Co-op. A quick search of the Internet turned up this recipe by Giada De Laurentis, one of my favorite Food Network chefs.

What I especially love is that this recipe is perfect for the autumn season, combining cranberries, apples and almonds, all of which I happened to have on hand. Well, I was a little short on dried cranberries, so I added some raisins to make up the difference. The result was a truly delicious room temperature or cool couscous side dish. I even had the chance to use some of the fresh rosemary and thyme growing in pots on the deck before a frost finishes them off. And see how pretty it is? I snapped that photo before digging in.

Here's Giada's recipe:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Israeli couscous (or barley or orzo)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 medium green apple, diced
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted, see Cook's Note

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

For the couscous: In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the couscous and cook, stirring occasionally until slightly browned and aromatic, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 to12 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated. Transfer the cooked couscous to a large bowl and set aside to cool. Add the parsley, rosemary, thyme, apple, dried cranberries, and almonds.

For the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, maple syrup, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil until smooth. Pour the vinaigrette over the couscous and toss to coat evenly.

Cook's Note: To toast the almonds, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely before using.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

An embarrassment of prayer riches

Okay, so here's the deal. About a week ago, I was in a weird place. Due to a confluence of events, I found myself wondering -- seriously -- if perhaps I'd said all I had to say, in terms of my Catholic writing. I was thinking maybe it was time to hang it up. I actually suggested to Dennis that perhaps I would go over to Hewitt's (our local gardening place) and see about a job there, as I have no other skills beyond writing, talking, writing, talking.

So, as I pondered all this and made Dennis absolutely crazy, I prayed. I asked God for some sort of sign that my writing wasn't in vain, that I was supposed to keep going, that the people in my life aren't just some figment of my imagination but really, truly have an interest in and care about my work and, well, in me as a person. I even emailed one friend asking for prayers and said that I wished God would write me a letter, spelling it all out in black and white so there would be no mistaking the message. That was last Wednesday and Thursday.

Fast forward to Friday. A letter arrived. From a religious sister I once worked with at my first job in the communications office of the Diocese of Metuchen. I haven't seen or heard from this sister in about 25 years. She keeps up with my life through my Life Lines column, which runs her diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit. Here's a snippet of what Sister Michaelita wrote: "Your efforts to lead a prayerful life amidst all your responsibilities and the demands that are made upon your time have truly impressed and encouraged me."

I "encouraged" her? I was somewhat stunned, but so happy to hear from this long, lost person from my past. I really didn't think anything more of it, beyond deciding to send her a copy of Walking Together.

On Saturday, I opened the mailbox and found a card from a fellow Catholic blogger, someone known for her knack for personal note-writing, but, still. Today? Right now? Fran thanked me for all I do and for my life "as a sign of Christ." Wow. The card included a quote from St. Francis de Sales (one of my all-time favorites) about entering into silence (one of my most recent quests). Perfect.

I still wasn't catching on...

No mail Sunday, but then came Monday. Two, count 'em, two personal letters arrived. One was a note from my friend Maureen, which, among other things, offered encouragement as I embark on two big writing projects. The other was from Brother Christian, the Trappist monk I met on retreat last month. "See Jesus and Mary everywhere and adore their wills lovingly, and you will be a saint," he wrote, in a handwritten card that also included a 1973 clipping about him and his monastic life and a page from a book on St. Therese.

As if that wasn't enough, I received two email notes from spiritual friends I'd included in my book on friendship -- one encouraging me in my work, the other offering prayers as he headed to a five-day hermit retreat where he would be in total silence and solitude.

Now I was getting suspicious. I had prayed for a sign, I had wished for a letter, and suddenly there were letters coming every day. And not just any letters. Letters that offered encouragement, prayers, friendship, inspiration. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by what God was doing for me in the most obvious and concrete ways. So often I whine about not knowing what God wants, never being truly sure if I'm doing His will or my own in disguise. This didn't leave much room for doubt.

I thought that was the end of it, but Tuesday came along and the phone rang. I almost didn't pick it up because I didn't recognize the name, but I went ahead anyway. The woman on the other end had made a Cornerstone retreat with me several years ago, and we see each other once in a while after Mass. She'd never called my house before, so I wasn't sure what she could possibly want or need.

She called, she said, to let me know how much she enjoys and appreciates my work. She apologized for not getting to a recent talk I gave at my parish and then stressed again the importance of my work. What are the odds? That call was really the icing on the cake. I felt humbled by the embarrassment of riches God was showering down on me. All I could do was say thank you and decide that maybe, just maybe, I am already doing what I'm meant to be doing, struggles and all.

All I can say is "thank you" -- to God, for sure, but to all those people who, without even realizing it, gave me the answer I was desperately seeking. Not only the people who sent me letters or made phone calls, but all those friends who constantly but quietly support my work and encourage me on my spiritual journey. You are blessings in my life, each and every one of you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Manic Monday: It may not be pretty, but it's life

It really is a manic Monday, no way around it. It was a pretty manic Saturday and Sunday to be honest. Just one thing after another. So as I ponder my usual Manic Monday posting topics, I realize life has simply taken over everything else that I normally squeeze into a week.

As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." And life is definitely happening these days.

Bookshelf: (See photo of my office below) As you can see in the very scary shot of my office, or half of my office, most of my bookshelf is on my floor. Not a whole lot of reading getting done here lately, at least not novel-type reading. Bits and pieces of all sorts of other stuff related to cooking, eating, praying, exercising, writing. Which is really not a bad combo now that I look at it. I guess I'm pretty lucky that even my work involves such fun topics. If you were to zoom in on some of those books on the floor, you'd find The Rule of St. Benedict, the Sivenanda Companion to Yoga, and the Artist's Way, among other things.

Soundtrack: Hmmm...In the car, I'm tuned to K-LOVE, which is Christian music. At home, it's mainly Gregorian Chant, with some occasional forays into jazz during the day. On the family soundtrack this weekend, we had Frank Sinatra, U2, and some selections from Guys & Dolls (for Olivia's audition this week). Quite an eclectic mix, no?


Olivia takes to the ice at YMCA.

No fear.

Only Chiara's second time on ice skates.


What greeted me when I went to the basement to do laundry this morning. Apparently this crew is headed to the airport for their flight to Paris. Barbie is living the good life.

And then there's real life. My office, which does not usually look this bad. It's a sign of things to come. Many, many months of intensity. I'll fill you in as we go along. But, no matter how crazy it's going to be, in the end it's all good. Right? RIGHT!?!?!

Appointment Book: We break up the usual meetings, deadlines, and general insanity with a Daisy trip to Five Rivers this evening. In other words, a very specific type of insanity. Nine 6-year-olds on a nature trail near a big pond. No problem.