Thursday, March 31, 2011

Show your colon some love -- today

I'm cutting it close to the wire this year with my annual plug for National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which is celebrated in March. I thought about skipping it, but it's too important. So here I am, last day of the month, urging you to please consider your colon for a moment.

Every year around this time, I parade out that photo of my fine-looking colon. Yes, people, that is actually the inside of my colon. (Where else can you get this kind of entertainment?) Why am I so passionate about something that many people (wrongly) feel ashamed to talk about? Because I would rather talk about this disease and pay attention to this disease than die of it, which my mother did just about 23 years ago at the ripe old age of only 47.

If caught early, colon cancer is a curable disease. If not caught early, it will kill you. Sometimes very quickly. My mother had months not years, and not very good months considering what they did to try to save her. So, for your health, for your family, for anyone who cares about you, go get a colonoscopy as soon as you can if you are over 50 and have never had one, or if you are under 50 but have a family history of colon cancer or any diseases of the colon. For obvious reasons, I am an advocate of lowering that age-50 threshold, but I don't think the medical community is going to do anything about that any time soon. But if you can find a way to get the test earlier rather than later, do it. It is not as bad as you would imagine. Really. I've had two so far and the advances they've made in the prep work that needs to be done is remarkable. The two experiences were like night and day, and I can honestly say that I do not fear the next test, which will come up again in a few months. (I'm on a two-to-three year cycle of tests. Thanks, mom.)

In addition to getting a test to makes sure you don't already have colon cancer or the polyps that can lead to cancer, you can also take some steps to try to prevent colon cancer. Increase fiber, decrease meat. Yes, that's right. Cut down on meat. Do you think that's just some vegetarian propaganda? Think again, and then read this article. Red meat is no friend to the colon. Cut it out or at least cut it down. (See, there's a method to my madness with the whole vegetarian thing.) High fat diets aren't so great either. Click HERE to read about dietary suggestions for colon health.

If you want more information on the signs and symptoms of colon cancer, testing, prevention and more, go to the American Cancer Society by clicking HERE. Now, go call your doctor and make an appointment before I put up photos of someone's unhealthy colon just to scare you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Snow drops, bright stars and sore throats

A sure sign of spring in upstate New York is the arrival of the snow drops, the first tiny flowers to emerge from the cold, dark earth. I snapped that picture above more than a week ago, but -- because of an illness, which we'll get to later in this post -- I never did get around to posting it. So the snow drops have been here for about nine days, and have been battered and bruised by two minor snows. And still they remain standing strong. I think that's what I love about these little flowers. I look forward to seeing their bobbing white heads from my kitchen window every year around this time. It's a sign of hope, a reminder of what's to come -- eventually.

And while they look so delicate, so easily broken from the outside, they are, in reality, incredibly strong and ferociously tough. How else could they push through the winter-hardened ground and withstand freezing temperatures and snow and, often, the trampling of little feet. They are deceptively resilient. And that's why I love them. I can see them now, way out in the yard, only four inches off the ground but towering above all the other brown, withered plants.

As I mentioned, I've been sick for more than a week, a nasty sore throat that turned into abscesses, that turned into swollen tonsils and more. It left me unable to work, unable to move, unable to think. I just sat on the couch, like a zombie, staring forward. And so I did something I almost never do. I watched endless amounts of TV, mostly cooking channels but every so often a certifiable "chick flick." And my favorite of the week was "Bright Star," the story of the tragic love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

First let me say that Dennis should be thanking his lucky stars that I streamed this one from Netflix while he was at work. He would have fallen asleep in the first fifteen minutes, but I thought this film by Jane Campion was just beautiful. And it reminded me that I once spent an entire semester studying Keats and his Romantic counterparts -- Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge. Remember those days of spending an entire semester on one slice of something? No wonder I can't remember stuff anymore. Maybe if I had an entire semester to take notes and read commentaries on every novel I read, I'd remember more about the books I read nowadays. Or I'd at least remember I read them at all.

I think back to my days at Pace University now and marvel at the fact that I could take an entire semester of Russian lit, Irish lit, Shakespeare (although I did at least two on Shakespeare) and still only scratch the surface. Remember those days? Weeks on end of Irish literature but still not enough time to handle Ulysses, which was a course unto itself. Anyway, Bright Star made me want to revisit those Romantic poets -- and some of my all-time college favs, like Anna Karenina -- from my more mature vantage point. What subject or book would you go back and revisit if you could return to your college days?

Finally, a little faith story to go with the sore throat nightmare. Friday night did not look good for me. After more than a week of illness, three different antibiotics, four doctor visits (including two that felt like something out of a horror movie thanks the procedures that were required), seven pounds lost in seven days due to my inability to eat, and endless amounts of pain and lost sleep, I thought I was going to the Emergency Room. My tonsil had swelled to the point that I felt as though my throat was closing up. I moved my head this way and that and found a way to avoid the ER. I slept sitting up in a recliner since laying down cut off my airway. Dennis checked on my breathing throughout the night. It was a little ridiculous.

When I woke up on Saturday, things didn't feel much better. Dennis and Noah had to work at our parish school all day, so I was alone with the girls. I had the phone in my hand in case I needed to call 9-1-1 at a moment's notice. It was that bad. I assumed that at some point I was going to the ER no matter how hard I tried to fight it.

Then I went upstairs, dug around my closet for a bag I brought back from Italy this fall, and pulled out a Miraculous Medal. It's not an expensive or fancy medal, just one of a few I purchased in time for the papal audience so it could be blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. But this medal is extra special for one reason: Later in my trip, I brought that medal to the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II and asked the guard to lay it on the tomb for me.

I took the medal from the bag and pinned it to my shirt as close to the my swollen tonsil as possible, and I prayed to John Paul II. About 90 minutes later, my throat felt clear. No difficulty breathing, and, for the first time in about eight days, no difficulty swallowing. I ate lunch. Lunch! I could talk without struggling. I kept waiting for the throat problems to return, but they never did. By afternoon I made a big tray of baked ziti and a giant salad and sat down to a feast for dinner. Dennis and the kids stared in amazement as I wolfed down cheesy pasta. Every other time I'd try to eat dinner with them for more than a week I would leave the table, unable to take more than one bite. And I usually cried through that from the pain.

When I went to bed last night, I figured that was the test. I would lay down and realize that I still couldn't breathe properly. Wrong. My head hit the pillow and I slept undisturbed for about eight hours straight. As I said on Facebook, I'm not saying all this is cause for canonization or anything, but, as far as I'm concerned, it's my own personal miracle. I was headed to the ER one minute and whipping up dinner the next. Thank you, John Paul II.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's about St. Patrick, not green beer

In my childhood home, St. Patrick's Day did not resemble the unfortunate drunken revelry we see on our TV screens every March 17. It wasn't about drinking too much or dying all our food green (although my mother did bake one batch of green cupcakes for dessert every year). It was about celebrating our ancestry and our faith.

I'm half-Irish (and half-Italian), and St. Patrick's Day was a time to be proud of our Irish heritage. Sure, we had the requisite "Kiss me, I'm Irish" buttons for fun, but we also had Irish music playing in the background and Irish soda bread baking in the oven. Our party was a dinner party, with corned beef and cabbage and boiled carrots and potatoes. Yes, an American-Irish meal, for sure, but that was our identity.

So on this Feast of St. Patrick -- and growing up in the New York Archdiocese, this day was always raised to the level of true "feast" -- I wanted to share a little history about the saint of the day. Here's an excerpt from my new book, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass, which includes a section on the saints, of course.

From page 136 of the Essential Guide:
Despite what's often popularly assumed, St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, was not born on the Emerald Isle. He was born in 385 in an unknown location, possibly Wales. He was taken to Ireland and sold into slavery at 16. During six years of slavery, he went through a religious transformation. He escaped to Europe, studied the faith, and became a bishop and missionary, returning to Ireland to bring Christianity to the pagans. He eventually brought about the conversion of the entire Irish people.

Legend has it he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. His feast day is March 17. He is the patron saint of Ireland and engineers and is invoked against snakes due to the legend that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland.

From St. Patrick's Breastplate

Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ be after me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right hand, Christ at my left,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in the hearts of all who love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Erin go bragh.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Irene's Irish Soda Bread

Every year I run this post because so many people want my mother's Irish Soda Bread recipe. Here it is again, in time for tomorrow's breakfast in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Keep in mind that this bread must be slathered in butter. Not butter substitute, but real, artery-clogging butter. Enjoy!

4 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup seedless raisins
1 Tbs. caraway seeds (optional)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk (more if it feels too dry)
1/4 cup Crisco (I've experimented with other shortening but came back to this)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda into bowl.
Stir in raisins and caraway seeds, if using.
Add buttermilk and Crisco. Mix. Knead just enough to moisten dry ingredients. Shape into two mounds and place on a greased cookie sheet. Cut an X into the top of each loaf. Makes two loaves.
Bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Cut into wedges to serve.

Hint: Do not try “adapting” this recipe. I have tried bread flour. I have tried whole wheat flour. Nothing comes close to the real deal.

Monday, March 14, 2011

'Every day is a gift.' Do we believe that?

My latest "Life Lines" column is now up at Catholic New York. I'll start you off here:

When I went to my local YMCA this week, I ran into a man from my parish, a deacon who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. His wife recently insisted on a Y membership for him in hopes that the physical exercise would help his mental state, but he is quick to admit that his memory is fading fast.

A deacon for 30 years, he can no longer assist at Mass without a cheat sheet. At home, if his wife asks him to get something from upstairs, he has to write it down. Although he keeps his mind active by reading and doing crossword puzzles, he knows that this is just the beginning of what is likely to be a long decline into a place none of us wants to imagine we might go, a place where we can’t find our way home, don’t know our own child’s name.

And yet, as we stood talking, this man was smiling and complimenting the trainers at the gym for being willing to re-train him every time he comes in since he can’t remember their instructions from one day to the next. He talked about the seniors he visits at a local nursing home, and praised his wife for being his “angel.” Not one negative word came out of his mouth; no fear or self-pity flickered in his eyes.

As our conversation wrapped up, he smiled at me and said, “God is good.” I walked away amazed at the way some people are able to meet life’s greatest challenges with grace and trust. Instead of asking, “Why me?” people like this understand at their core that the real question is “Why not me?”

Continue reading HERE.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You've got...ashes. Archbishop Dolan talks about Lent on AOL

If you click on the AOL homepage today, you'll find Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York giving web visitors a great explanation of what this season of Lent is all about. He calls it a 40-day "spring training" that gets Catholics ready for the high holy days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. And he puts it into the context of other great religions. It's worth checking out this short video.

Ash Wednesday: The start of something beautiful

I am going to admit right up front that I am a huge fan of Lent, always have been. It's my kind of season. Perhaps that makes me weird, but it's true. For me Ash Wednesday is a new beginning and Lent a time of possibilities.

From the moment the ashes are smeared on my forehead -- "Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return" -- I feel renewed. Does that sound odd considering the penitential nature of this season? For me it makes perfect sense. I like the idea of focusing on where I've fallen down, where I could do better, where I need to strip away the unnecessary stuff to get to the heart of the matter: God.

Sure, my fasting often involves giving up sweets -- which doesn't seem all that significant to some -- but it's about so much more than that. It's about changing habits, removing obstacles, getting down to our spiritual core in hopes of changing our lives for the better not for 40 days but forever.

I know that's putting an awful lot of pressure on Lent -- and myself -- to perform, and maybe that's why I often struggle with my Lenten promises (see my previous post, "Lowering My Lenten Expectations" HERE), but I really believe each and every time Lent rolls around that this year can be different. And one of these years I'm going to be right. I also firmly believe that even if I don't make monumental changes in my life over the course of the 40 days, I probably do make minor changes that go unnoticed but strengthen my faith life in subtle ways.

So...I start today. I am filled with high hopes for the journey we have just begun, hope that by Lent's end I might find myself at least a few steps closer to God. But I'm going to need all the support I can get, so I'm looking around for resources and hoping to share them with you along the way.

For starters, here are some places you might like to look:

-- Busted Halo has a high-tech Lenten calendar posted HERE. You can click on each day as it arrives (no clicking ahead allowed) for suggested practices related to fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Today, in addition to reminding us to fast and abstain from meat, the calendar suggests giving some time to someone you know who is lonely. An added bonus of using the Fast Pray Give calendar at Busted Halo? You'll have a chance to enter a contest to win an iPad, in addition to smaller prizes, like today's "The Spirituality of Fasting" by Msgr. Charles Murphy. Great book, by the way.

-- Catholic Relief Services has an email service connected to its Operation Rice Bowl project, with reflections to help us remember those who have less and to focus our own Lenten fasting on something bigger than ourselves. If you're not doing Operation Rice Bowl this year, try to pick up a bowl and calendar at your parish and join in.

-- Mike Hayes over at Googling God is hosting a 50-Day Give Away. A few days before Lent, he started giving away one of his possessions every day. I had hoped to join him in this inspiring endeavor, but, as I told him, I realized that my effort would have had to be the 40-Day THROW Away because no one would want the stuff I need to shed from my life. Still, I plan to follow his lead, at least in part, and find some things I can strip out of my life and offer to someone else. You've been warned.

-- Of course, you can follow my other blog posts over at OSV Daily Take, where today I'm taking a survey on whether people include Sundays in their Lenten fast. Head over there and voice your opinion on this critical issue. (For the record, I don't count Sundays in my Lenten fast, although I try not to overdo it on the stuff I gave up.)

-- Finally, I'll be reading daily reflections in my Magnificat Lenten Companion 2011, which is sold out online, I believe, but may still be available at your local Catholic bookstore.

I had actually considered giving up some element of Facebook use as part of my Lenten fast. I couldn't give it up completely because it is part of my job to be there (and here). But, as I reflected on that possibility, I realized something big: Facebook has become a really important part of my spiritual life. Does that sound crazy? It's true. I am blessed to be FB friends with so many wonderful people, so many wonderful writers, and they continually amaze me with their own blog posts and the links they provide to other powerful spiritual writers. As some of those posts and links come up, I'll share them here.

Today, for example Brother Dan Horan, O.F.M., over at Dating God has a wonderful Ash Wednesday post, courtesy of Thomas Merton. Check that out HERE.

And Elizabeth Scalia has a great post full of Lenten links over at The Anchoress on Patheos. She also posted her Ash Wednesday "homily" at the Catholic portal of Patheos. She had me at "Moonstruck." Go HERE and you'll see what I mean.

Much more to come in the days ahead. Enter the desert joyfully. Wear your ashes full of hope. It is a new day, a new season, a time of new possibilities.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Archbishop Dolan and me

I was thrilled to get a chance to present my new book, "The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass," to Archbishop Timothy Dolan today, when he was in town for the New York State Catholic Conference's annual Public Policy Day. Here we are just before Mass at the beautiful and newly refurbished Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

Archbishop Dolan has kindly endorsed my book:

"In her engaging new book, Mary DeTurris Poust lovingly walks us through many of the Church’s rich and diverse traditions of prayer, breathing new life into ancient, beloved devotions, and pointing the way toward more modern methods of prayer as well."

You can read his full endorsement in my earlier post HERE. He has also invited me to be a guest on his radio show again, so I'll let you know as soon as I have a date for that.

From the recessional procession at Mass today:

A glimpse of one of the amazing Stations of the Cross at the cathedral:

For more on the day's event, including the archbishop's message about faith in the public square, see my post at OSV Daily Take by clicking HERE.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lowering my Lenten expectations

Lent is one of those seasons that always begins with the best of intentions and rapidly goes downhill, at least that’s how it usually plays out for me.

I plan to pray more and eat less and find creative ways to make my favorite time in the Church year meaningful for my children. Unfortunately, the ashes hardly have time to settle into the wrinkles on my forehead before I’m feeling like I’ve already failed.

I think maybe part of the reason is because I tend to set my sights too high, forgetting that, like a baby learning to walk, I’m going to have to take a lot of wobbly first steps before I can run full steam ahead. Lent is a time to put one foot in front of the other as I hesitatingly toddle toward the rich spiritual experiences I know are waiting to be had.

I guess I need to think about Lent the way I tell Noah to think about piano: You don’t get to be an expert by simply sitting close to the lesson books. You have to work at it a little every day in order to see true progress. And so it is with God. We can read books about God, even write books about God, but until we put everything away and spend regular quiet time with God, we’re going to have a hard time getting out of the starting gate.

Somehow that concept seems a lot easier to understand when I’m explaining it to my children. As they face their own Lenten challenges, I remind them that if they fail one day, they can just get up, dust themselves off, and start over. I remind them that Lenten sacrifices and promises are not about making us feel bad but about clearing out a space in our lives where God can squeeze in. Big rewards can often spring from small actions.

I remember going to a birthday lunch with some friends during Lent a few of years ago. When it came time for dessert, I quietly ignored the chocolate cake sitting in front of me, hoping that no one would notice. Someone asked me if I wasn’t eating the cake because it was Lent, never mind that half the women present were skipping dessert because of various diets. My friend went on to say how silly it is to give up insignificant things like sweets for Lent when there are so many important things I could be doing to make a difference in the world.

Point taken, even if it was through gritted but smiling teeth. And yet, as I mentioned to my lunch companion that day, while we are called to pray and help the poor during Lent, we are also most assuredly called to fast and sacrifice. That is not some antiquated notion without meaning in our modern lives. Giving up a daily bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream or a nightly glass of wine might not seem like much of a sacrifice on the surface, but if those small actions inspire us to contemplate Jesus’ own sacrifice for even one moment, if they make us empathize with those who have less than us, then what may appear silly to others is in reality spiritually significant to us.

As I contemplate what I'll do for Lent this year, my promise is simple: Make the sacrifices and the actions meaningful even if they are not monumental. And if, as in year’s past, we get to the end of Lent and realize there are only a few lonely quarters clanking around in our Rice Bowl because we forgot to make regular donations throughout the 40 days, we’ll write a last-minute check to make up the difference and bring it with us to church on Holy Thursday, taking one more wobbly baby step in the right direction.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A job that became a journey: my newest book on prayer and the Mass

My fourth book, "The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass," was released today by Alpha/Penguin with an endorsement from Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and an imprimatur from Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, N.J.

Here's Archbishop Dolan's endorsement:

"We Catholics believe in the power of prayer to change lives and the world. In her engaging new book, Mary DeTurris Poust lovingly walks us through many of the Church’s rich and diverse traditions of prayer, breathing new life into ancient, beloved devotions, and pointing the way toward more modern methods of prayer as well. Perhaps most valuable of all, Mary breaks down the parts of the Mass – the ultimate prayer – to enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of this Sunday banquet at which we are all called to gather regularly as a family, united with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As Saint Paul confessed, 'none of us know how to pray as we ought.' This book is sure a help."

What will you find in this book? Everything you want or need to know about prayer: vocal prayer, silent prayer, communal prayer, private prayer. Rosary, novenas, chaplets, litanies, meditation, contemplation, praying with icons, examples from saints. You name it, and I tried to include it. It is not just a book about prayer, but a prayer book. It can be used either way.

Want to know how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours? I take you through step by step, sharing some of my own struggles along the way. Want to know how to create a sacred space at home? I'll give you pointers that have helped in my own prayer life. Want to understand the Jesus Prayer or the Divine Mercy Chaplet or the purpose of pilgrimage? It's all there.

Of course, half of the title is devoted to the Mass, the pivotal prayer of Catholic life. In addition to walking you through the Mass part by part, I explain the new translation of the Mass and include all of the prayers -- with the new changes -- you'll need to know when we start using this translation in Advent of this year.

This book wasn't just a job. It was a journey. I loved each section, from the prayers that are as familiar to me as breathing to the prayers or styles of prayer that were foreign to me when I started. I hope reading my Essential Guide will be a journey for you, too.

Throughout the coming weeks, I'll post short excerpts here to give you a taste of what you'll find. If you want to buy it right now, in print or Kindle editions, click HERE to go to Amazon.