Monday, February 28, 2011

A bowl of oatmeal as spiritual practice

A favorite from the Not Strictly Spiritual archives. I'm running it again today because I'm in the same place mentally, physically, spiritually:

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.

Friday, February 25, 2011

From where I'm sitting...

Here's the view from my "office" today. The snow may be coming down like crazy, but the temperatures are warm enough that I can get the three-season sun porch to a comfortable temp with an electric "stove" and space heater. Not a bad way to have to work. (And the kids are in the basement, apparently unaware of my temporary relocation.)

The view above is from my workspace on the couch. Below are some shots of the scenery.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bono on grace, Jesus, and the power of the cross

My post from OSV Daily Take today:

My spiritual reading this morning was taken from none other than U2 frontman Bono. I wanted to pull one great quote for you to ponder, but, to be honest, the whole interview was one great quote -- about God, about grace, about Jesus as Messiah. I sat at my kitchen table and read it aloud to my 14-year-old son. It was that good.

Don't believe me? Here are a few select quotes from Bono: In Conversation With Michka Assayas, which is being excerpted over on a Christian apologetics site called The Poached Egg.

Bono on Scripture, and God as love personified:

Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that's not so easy.

Bono on grace over karma:

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.

Assayas: I'd be interested to hear that.

Bono: That's between me and God. But I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep s---. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

Bono on Jesus as Messiah:

Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled . It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

Assayas: That's a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it's close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world's great thinkers. But Son of God, isn't that farfetched?

Bono: No, it's not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher, don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying: "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You're a bit eccentric. We've had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he's gonna keep saying this. So what you're left with is: either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we've been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had "King of the Jews" on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I'm not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's farfetched.

Go read more excerpts (including his comments about meeting Pope John Paul II) HERE. To have a rock star of this caliber talking about his relationship with Jesus Christ is so powerful. It's certainly not the first time he's done it, but I think it's the most honest and detailed and significant of his comments on his Christian faith. Regardless of whether you like his music or his specific take on Christianity, this is huge.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On St. Scholastica's feast, a view from Subiaco

When I was in Italy this past September, the final full day of the trip included a daylong visit to the Monastery of St. Benedict and the Monastery of St. Scholastica in Subiaco, just an hour's bus ride from Rome. It was a beautiful day, filled with awesome sights and spiritual inspiration. So today, on the Feast of St. Scholastica, I thought I'd share some photos from the monastery that bears her name.

The entrance to the monastery, which is still a working monastery, is marked by the words that remain at the heart of the Benedictine mission: "Pax," which means peace, and "Ora et Labora," which means "work and pray," part of the Rule that Benedictines live by.

The bell tower:
Inside the Gothic cloister:

Inside the Comatesque cloister:

A fresco of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica during their last visit, shortly before St. Scholastica died:

Outside view:

The start of an amazing meal served at the monastery:

In the gift shop. Jellies and grappa and limoncello, oh my:

One last look:

Friday, February 4, 2011

The 'lost generation' everyone seems to miss

This is my post from OSV Daily Take today. I thought it was too important not to share here as well...

By Mary DeTurris Poust

About three years ago, I started giving workshops entitled: "The Lost Generation: Reaching Out to Adult Catholics Disconnected from the Faith." The workshop grew out of emails, letters and in-person pleas I received in response to my book The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism. People kept coming up to me, telling me they'd never learned what was in my book, and sharing the stories of why and how they fell away from the faith of their birth.

And so I began to explore what I labeled the "lost generation," those Catholics -- like myself -- who came of age immediately after Vatican II and missed out on some of the basic teachings of the Church. (HERE is a story I did on this subject in the July 6, 2008 issue of OSV.)

As I say in my workshop, I was raised in the "era of the collage." The intentions were good but the lessons weren't always solid. Fortunately, I had a mom who was determined to make sure I got a good grounding in my faith no matter what was -- or was not -- being taught in CCD class. Not everyone was so lucky.

So, it was with great interest that I read stories about a recent conference at Fordham University that was focusing on a "lost generation," only the generation in question is the 20-something generation of today. The follow-up stories shared the good news that this generation isn't really lost at all.

Here's a quote from CNS:

"Catholic young adults aren’t as attached to the church as their counterparts from the 1940s and 1950s, but they are hardly a lost generation and have not abandoned the faith, according to speakers at a two-day forum at Jesuit-run Fordham University."

Notice who they're looking at: Catholic young adults and their "counterparts" from the 1940s and 50s. What about their counterparts from the 1960s and 70s? Their parents? That is the original lost generation, my generation, the folks who were lost along the way as the Church changed the methods and content of catechesis.

I have heard from these people. They are hungry for a closer connection to their Church. They are pained by their inability to get the basics they need so they can re-enter in a meaningful way. They feel lost, abandoned, let down. And now we can see why. They are completely missing from the discussions on how to reach adult Catholics, still lost between their own parents and their children.

As I have said in workshops from the Archdiocese of Denver to the Archdiocese of Newark, if we do not recognize this truly lost generation of Catholics, we will not be able to recapture the not-lost, but drifting generation that's coming along behind them. And the generations after that.

I see it in my own parish. I hear about every time I go out and speak on this topic. Here's a snippet from a post I wrote on this subject two years ago after giving a two-hour workshop in the Diocese of Albany:

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.

...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 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...We cannot demand discipleship. Instead we must extend an invitation that is so meaningful and so enticing that it simply cannot be refused.

There is a lost generation, a group of middle-aged Catholics who were left behind in the 1960s and 70s and remain so completely lost to us that no one even seems to notice they're gone. If we don't find a way to bring them back into the fold, we are in danger of losing the generations that follow. Then there won't be a lost generation but two or three lost generations.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A nice surprise in my inbox today

I love it when I open an email only to find an unexpected and wonderful surprise. That's what happened today when I was sent the link to this review of "Walking Together" by Sarah Reinhard over at just another day of Catholic pondering. Thank you, Sarah.

Here's what she had to say:

I remember, years ago, being shocked to silence when my boyfriend (who’s now my husband) told me that his best friend was his older brother. He said it so matter-of-factly, in such an “of COURSE he is” way.

I didn’t yet consider any of my siblings friends, and couldn’t quite picture what he meant. Now, many years later, I have a glimpse of it. I’ve become friends with some of my siblings and some of his.

It’s a wonderful thing, this siblings-as-friends experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I’ve come to realize, over time, that I have quite a few different kinds of friends. There are friends who are with me for a season, friends who I know through social media, and friends who I have the joy of being related to. There are friends who are more like acquaintances and friends who are more like family.

One of my favorite recent reads, Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship, by Mary DeTurris Poust, which I received as a review copy, has made me consider another kind of friendship that’s essential: spiritual friendship.

And you know what? After reading this, I realized something wonderful: I have a spiritual friend! I do! (Actually, I think I may have more than one, but one came to mind right away.)

This book is a gem of wisdom and insight, especially in an age of digital isolation. We need true spiritual friends now more than ever, when information is instant and feedback is constant. We need to be able to tap into the holy and sacred in other people, and this book will guide you.

You might find yourself nodding and recognizing those spiritual friends who already exist in your life. You might, on the other hand, find yourself longing for a spiritual friend after reading Walking Together.

DeTurris Poust offers suggestions that will strengthen existing friendships and help you take them to the “next level” and perhaps transform what began as “BFF” into “BFF…eternally.” She taps into both the ancient stories of saints and current lives of living Catholics to build what I’ve come to think of as a manual for growing into a better Christian.

I highly recommend this book, whatever your state in life.

Now, go visit Sarah's blog. She's got lots of great stuff there. Click HERE.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Our Lady of Guadalupe did not see her shadow

Looks like Our Lady of Guadalupe will not disappear under the snow, as previously expected, due to a winter storm that turned out to be more of a dud than a monster, at least here. The kids so could have gone to school today. Snow and sleet stopped a while ago. Now it's quite lovely out. Looks like it will be an early spring based on Our Lady's predictions.

Here's what Our Lady of Guadalupe looks like right now:

Here's where she was yesterday around this time:

So there's been some significant snow build-up but nothing to make us upstate New Yorkers slow down. Plus I think her snow totals are benefiting from some drifting, or possibly the intervention of a Higher Power.

In other news at the Poust house. Here's the teenager getting a lesson in how to use the snow thrower:

Here are the girls making the requisite snow angels and going down the slide:

Here's a view of our sun porch, which is heating up right now so I can enjoy the snow from the warmth of the cozy house.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our Lady of Guadalupe's latest snow report

Okay, things are not looking good for Our Lady of Guadalupe as she stands vigil over our backyard as the snow encroaches. (That's her out there right at the bottom of the big tree.) We are using her as a barometer of the storm.

Here's where she was around 10 a.m.:

Here's where she is now:

Check back tomorrow to see how she fares...

The Zen of snow shoveling

I just finished shoveling out our driveway. It started as an effort simply to get through the icy snow bank left by the plow at the end of the driveway so I could get the van out and pick up Noah from school. (I was afraid he'd get hit by a car or plow while walking home from the bus stop.) When I got home, I decided to continue where I left off and just kept shoveling.

We have a gas-powered snow thrower, although I have to admit that I've never used it. Dennis does all the snow throwing, and leaf blowing. I prefer the old-fashioned way -- shoveling and raking. There is something very meditative about both chores. They are, in a sense, very zen. You shovel snow while snowflakes fall covering up the space you just cleared with more snow. Same thing with autumn leaves. If you've ever raked a yard in the northeast, you know that raking can be an exercise in futility. Your efforts are quickly lost in a swirl of brown and orange and red.

Noah was not so charmed by this zen twist on shoveling. He just stared at me with that 14-year-old look. So I tried another approach, as he struggled to help with the snow removal. I suggested that knowing how to shovel a driveway might come in handy if ever he had his own place and no snow thrower to get the job done. Still not impressed. Finally I gave him some pointers on the art of shoveling and told him he should take pride in his work. "In shoveling snow," he asked, incredulous. Yes, even in shoveling snow. Or maybe, especially in shoveling snow.

So the driveway is clear. For now. It was a nice little exercise -- mental and physical -- on this day when I couldn't get to the Y. But it's even nicer to know that Dennis will be around to handle that big snow tomorrow.

Weather not fit for squirrels nor statues

I don't know what Our Lady of Guadalupe did to deserve such treatment. Normally she winters inside with St. Francis of Assisi. But this year, while St. Francis is snug and dry and relatively warm in our garage, Our Lady has been left to fend for herself in the backyard. And she's not used to this kind of weather where she comes from.

It is snowing like crazy here, but the kids are at school and Dennis is on the way to work. Things promise to get worse by tomorrow. I thought we could use Our Lady of Guadalupe as a barometer of the storm here. We'll check back in tomorrow to see if she's up to her ears yet.

Here's the long view of her location:

Here's one of her backyard partners, digging out acorns from a snowbank on our deck:

Here are the pines behind our house. Let's hope the storm doesn't break their branches, which hang precariously over our power lines.