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.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Silence speaks volumes

My latest Life Lines column:

If your house is anything like our house (and I’m kind of selfishly hoping it is), the noise hovers just below earsplitting. I’m not just referring to the usual kid noises—talking, singing, whistling, whining. I’m talking about noise that rises to a whole new level, driven higher and higher by a culture totally ill at ease with silence.

Think about what you hear during a typical one-hour period. Phone, TV, computer, doorbell, even washers and dryers that “sing” when the cycle is complete. If you take it a step further, you can find noise of an entirely different—but no less distracting—kind. Facebook, instant messaging, Twitter and other online communication may be silent on the surface but it is noise just the same.

Not long ago, when our family was uncharacteristically silent as we puttered around the kitchen making dinner and completing homework, my teenager blurted out: “Somebody say something. It’s too quiet.” Can it ever be too quiet? Our society would like us to think so. Like frantic symphony conductors, we are challenged to make the many different parts of our lives play all at once and in harmony, but mostly all we get from that is a lot of mental and spiritual dissonance.

I find I crave slowness and silence more with each passing year. I work at home, so I actually do get a heavy dose of silence on a regular basis. Other than the occasional phone call and my sporadic “conversations” with our two cats, I’m silent for about six hours a day, but it’s not the kind of silence that heals the soul and leaves me refreshed for whatever life throws my way. It helps, for sure, but healing silence comes only through extended periods of quiet and solitude.

Enter the silent retreat, something few of us get to experience nowadays but so worth the time it takes to drive to the monastery or retreat center. Because no matter how silent we may try to be at home now and then, nothing can prepare you for the deep but difficult work of real silence.

This is where we confront ourselves and many of the things we try to hide amid the noise of our daily lives. With no iPods or social networking, no televisions or telephones, we come face to face with our true selves, and, if we really make good use of our silent time through prayer, face to face with God.

From what I’ve experienced on silent retreat, I think of it as a kind of spiritual detox. First there’s denial, as in, why am I even here? I should go home and do the laundry and clean the bathrooms. Then the anger phase: What’s the point? I don’t hear God. I don’t think my prayers are working.

With each passing hour, however, things begin to shift. Walls go down and emotions surface. I begin to recognize how much I fear real silence and how easy it is to drown out the Spirit. It is not unusual, on silent retreat, to see people crying, apparently for no reason at all. Except when you’re on silent retreat, you know very well that there is a reason, or many reasons. By the time I leave, I am clinging to every last second of silence, already looking forward to the next time I can come back to a place that is so elusive no matter how hard I try to recreate it at home.

When I returned from my last retreat, my teenager—the same one who couldn’t bear a moment of silence—asked if he could come with me the next time I head to the Trappist abbey. Silence speaks volumes, it seems. It echoes in our words and actions, long after we’ve left it behind. Its scent lingers on us, giving others a taste of what’s possible when we listen, as St. Benedict taught, with the “ear of our heart.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Manic Monday: Pumpkins and other fall fun

So I've been rather scarce around these parts lately. Sorry about that. Typically that means one of two things: Too much work or too much kid-related stuff. In recent days, the two have converged to make life totally crazy.

Between deadlines, soccer practice, soccer games, dance classes, meetings and fund-raisers for our big youth ministry trip to Indiana next month, plus the usual school events, it's been more than hectic. And, truth be told, I've got two big projects in the offing. Shhhh....can't say much about them now. But if both come through, the next year should be the craziest year ever for me in terms of work. I'll keep you posted as that situation develops. Until then, please be patient with me and keep checking back here. I promise to show up as often as I can.

Without further ado, here's this week's Manic Monday...

Soundtrack: It's been quieter than usual around here. The kids haven't been blasting much music this week. I guess because we're just not here enough to be singing and dancing. As for me, I've been keeping Pandora on my work computer tuned to my Gregorian chant channel. I needed music to soothe and inspire while not tempting me to sing along. So a little chant and a lot of incense have kept me in line while I write.

Bookshelf: Believe it or not, I am just finishing up Genesee Diary. I've been reading a little before bed each night. Usually I find some pearl of wisdom to contemplate as I drift off to sleep. I did dip my toes into Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, but I'm not sure I should undertake such a heavy book when I know I'll have so little time for luxury reading in the weeks and months to come.

Viewfinder: Well, first of all, let's talk viewfinder in general. I finally started shooting with my new Nikon 3100 SLR digital camera. Dennis and the kids gave it to me for my birthday last month -- after years of listening to me whine about our point-and-shoot while constantly mentioning how much I wanted this particular camera. Then, once I got it, I said I was going to bring it back. I didn't think I could justify the expense. I didn't think I deserved the extravagance. I let it sit unopened next to the door in our family room for more than a week. Finally, tentatively, I opened the box and peered inside, thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could find a way to keep that camera. And I did.

I took it out this weekend for some pumpkin picking shots and other random outdoor photos. Here are a few photos from the new camera. Still haven't given the zoom lens much of a workout. Maybe you'll see those next week. Click on any photo to see it enlarged.

A bumble bee taken with the macro setting.

Chiara in mid-jump thanks to the sport setting.

Olivia taken with the portrait setting.

Cross in the garden with toad lilies.

Chiara trying to catch a yellow butterfly.

Pumpkins galore, on landscape setting.

The great pumpkin?

Menu: The menu around here as been dullsville. Hence, no Foodie Friday posts lately. I'm joining Dennis for a bout of Weight Watchers. I didn't officially join, but I'm tracking those stupid points and not very happy about it. Lots of fruits and veggies, which now cost no points, but not much else worth mentioning. Oatmeal and brown rice might as well be cheesecake on this new point system, which I hate. If I was going to write about food, I'd tell you about the hot cider donuts we bought at the farm yesterday. The kids said they were the best they've ever tasted. Not surprising since we got them within minutes of them coming out of the farmhouse kitchen. Two weeks in a row we've bought cider donuts and I've yet to have one. So if you're out at a farm in the coming weeks, eat a cider donut for me, please.

Appointment book: Busy week ahead. Again. Faith formation, dance, ice skating, soccer, parent meeting for high school. Oh yeah, and I'm speaking at St. Thomas on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood. I'll be discussing spiritual friendship.