Archive for Fostering Spirituality

Divine Mercy for Parents

Here’s an updated and revised version of my Divine Mercy reflection from 2014!

*****

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter.

What is “Divine Mercy” anyway? I think understanding Divine Mercy can help us in our parenting vocation. Father Ed Broom wrote a great summary of the main principles of the doctrine of Divine Mercy on Catholic Exchange that really helped me recognize the connection.

1. God Is Rich in Mercy

God’s greatest attribute/virtue is His mercy. No matter how grave and numerous our sins, God is always ready and willing to forgive us if we simply say: “Jesus I am sorry and forgive me!” In a heartbeat Jesus is ready to forgive even the worst of sinners.

The more I understand myself as a disciple of Christ, the more I am forced to shed habits that harm my relationship with my children and my husband. I have failed too often in my mothering: I failed to love, failed to be generous, failed to give. I have fallen as a wife, forgetting to give, refusing to forgive. It’s hard to face the truth of my own failure sometimes, but when I do I open myself up to conversion, to renewal, and to mercy.

Recognizing this reality of who I am, it would be human of me to give up, to despair. True conversion is about seeing the truth of our darkness and failure, but also our potential for goodness when we turn to God, when we commit ourselves to his path, to his will for us. True conversion is also about recognizing that mercy is total gift, nothing that I deserve or have earned.

2. We Must Be Merciful

If we want to receive the mercy of God, then this is a two-way street, we in turn must be willing to forgive those who have hurt us and be merciful. Jesus once again teaches us: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”

Catholic parents, no matter their views on parenting style, should treat their children with mercy. This takes two forms: we forgive their trespasses and we relieve their need or suffering. These two aspects of mercy are related to two of the 7 Building Blocks to a Joyful Catholic Home: gentle discipline and responding with empathy.

Merciful/Gentle Discipline: Doesn’t justice require a harsh consequence for harsh infractions? Shouldn’t kids get what they deserve when they do something wrong? Isn’t God a god of justice? Yes, but his justice is always balanced by loving mercy.

When justice isn’t tempered by mercy, cruelty can result. God takes everything into consideration and tries to reach our hearts. We should treat our children the same way. Extending mercy toward our child doesn’t mean we let him “get away with” things. It means we take everything into consideration: his state of mind, his maturity level, his perspective of a situation even if he is wrong on the facts.

When we respond with mercy, we really reach his heart because we have the big picture in mind. We aren’t focused on punishing him, but rather on the unfolding of his character and the strength of his trust in us and God. We shape his character through guidance and mentoring in the virtues. In particular, when he’s old enough, we explain which virtue was missing in his actions and how he can exercise those virtue muscles in similar situations in the future.

Empathy: Mercy is not only about forgiving others for their offenses; it’s also about relieving their needs and suffering. This kind of mercy requires empathy – the gift we use to know another person.

Sometimes as parents we assume we know what our child feels or needs, and we attempt to remedy the situation only to find we didn’t understand our child’s experience very well. We assumed what he needed based on our own perspective. Through empathy, we can understand and respond to our child’s needs and feelings better. Sometimes this amounts to asking him a few questions, learning a little about child development, or just doing our best to comfort him when we don’t have clear answers about why he’s sad or angry. Even without clear answers, we can mirror his experience for him: “I can tell you are angry. Should we sit down for a while in our quiet corner together?” or “Oh I am so sorry you’re feeling sad. When I’m sad I need a hug. Do you need a hug?” Children internalize this mirroring and affirmation and over time they’re able to regulate their own emotional experiences.

3. Confession

God’s mercy is manifested most abundantly upon our soul when we have recourse to the Sacrament of Confession which can also be called the Sacrament of God’s mercy. Jesus expresses mercy in the person of the priest. If you have not been to confession in years, return. Jesus the merciful Savior is gently and patiently waiting for you.

If you are queasy about the idea of Confession, just remember that it’s more an opportunity than an obligation. Scott Hahn penned a beautiful reflection on the Sacrament of Confession that I recommend highly. He helps us see how practicing Confession is meant to move us along in our spiritual development, not make us miserable.

I wrote a guest post over on Dr. Greg’s blog about how to raise children who love Confession. I offer three tips: 1) Use gentle discipline methods because “how we respond to our children when they fall short of our expectations or rules will create a model in their minds for how God responds to them when they seek his forgiveness.” 2) Focus on helping your child identify what kind of person he wants to become rather than what sins he should avoid (reaching for greater heights rather than just avoiding the gutter). 3) Help him develop greater spiritual awareness through a daily examination of conscience.

4. Daily Acts of Mercy

Divine Mercy Sunday was instituted by Pope John Paul II in honor of Saint Faustina who received visions of Jesus and had conversations with him throughout her life. She recorded many of their conversations in her diary. Christ stressed to her that understanding mercy intellectually is important, but we also need to practice mercy every day. He gave three specific daily practices: praying for others, offering words of kindness, and offering deeds of kindness.

Imagine what our homes would be like if we really put these suggestions into practice? These daily acts require no extra time in our day, but they set the tone for how we live together and treat others beyond our front door. This modeling so important for raising children who are naturally merciful and kind.

5. Divine Mercy Devotional Practices

Father Broom explains several Divine Mercy practices that I had never known about or understood (I may not understand them clearly yet; let me know if I goof!). Here’s a summary:

  • Divine Mercy Image: In one of her visions, St. Faustina saw Jesus with two rays of light coming forth from his heart — one ray was red, the other blue. He instructed her to have a painting made of this image and promised to protect those who venerated it.

divine mercy

  • Prayer at 3:00. 3:00 is the hour of mercy because our merciful Savior died at that hour. Perhaps we busy parents can say a short prayer at 3:00 no matter where we are, asking for God’s mercy and searching our hearts for any resentments or anger toward others we are holding on to that day. An Our Father or the Divine Mercy chaplet, perhaps?
  • Divine Mercy Chaplet: This is a beautiful, stirring chaplet; some of the prayers come from Saint Faustina’s diary. Here’s a link to instructions on praying the chaplet.
  • Divine Mercy Novena: This Novena was established through the instructions Jesus gave to Saint Faustina; there are different intentions for each day of the Novena. Here’s a link to instructions and all nine intentions.

You can find lots of ideas for crafts and food for Divine Mercy Sunday on the internet. Catholic Icing has a darling idea for a “Divine Mercy Sundae”. In addition to reading St. Faustina’s diary, don’t forget that Pope Francis wrote a book on mercy. I highly recommend it!

St. Joseph’s Feast Day: A Reprieve from Lent

Simon of Cyrene.  Veronica.  Mary.  Even Jesus needed a little help along the way.  Even He found strength from the temporal care of others.  So, too, does His Church offer relief along the sacrificial way of Lent.  The saints’ feast days are always reason to celebrate, and St. Joseph’s is no exception–even though it falls on March 19, during Lent.

Recognized as the great intercessor who saved the city of Sicily, Italy, from famine many centuries ago, St. Joseph is traditionally honored with feasting and festivity in Italy on his feast day.  Great tables, called St. Joseph’s Table, are laid in three tiers representing the Holy Trinity.  The top tier holds a statue of St. Joseph and flowers or greenery.  The other tiers hold an assortment of meatless food:  minestras, or thick bean and vegetable soups, breads and pastries in the shapes of chalices, carpentry tools, lilies, fish, monstrances, etc., wine for the miracle at Cana, 12 fish for the twelve apostles, pineapple for hospitality, lemons for “luck”, and pasta with seasoned bread crumbs, or “carpenter’s dust”, instead of cheese.  The fava bean carries special significance since it was the one crop that thrived during the famine in Italy so long ago.

an example of a St. Joseph's table at Mount Carmel Church in Denver, CO

an example of a St. Joseph’s table at Mount Carmel Church in Denver, CO

Decor on the tables’ tiers includes candles in green, brown, and deep yellow to represent the colors of St. Joseph’s clothing, as well as lilies and white carnations to match the white linen table coverings.  There might also be a basket for prayer petitions and pictures of the dead.  These great tables are laid for celebration either in homes, or in public squares where the wealthy can provide food to share with the poor.

Take a break from your Lenten fast and honor the great man who stood by Jesus’ side as His earthly father and humble servant.

cream-puff-1166737_960_720

St. Joseph’s cream puffs

Adapt the huge Italian celebrations to your own family.  Prepare a festive meal of minestrone soup, fish, and/or pasta, hearty breads, and pastries.  Lay your table with white and pick up some fresh lilies or carnations to place beside a statue or picture of St. Joseph.  Try your hand at making fava beans or a traditional dessert for the feast day, Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Cream Puffs).  And consider imitating the gesture of Italy’s public square tables by making an extra donation to your local food pantry.

Gather strength by uniting your family with St. Joseph in celebration, and enter into Holy Week renewed to embrace the Cross.

Image credit: Cream Puff by Romi (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

The Domestic Confessional

domestic confessional

I dropped to my knees and began mopping up the mess, grumbling as I worked.  “You have to be more careful!  Especially when it’s a full gallon of milk!  Ask Mommy for help next time so you won’t make a mess!”

I looked up at my daughter and stopped.  A look of surprise mingled with remorse was fixed on her face.

“Sorry,” she whispered with downcast eyes.

My heart dropped to my feet and my tone softened.  I tried to salvage the mess I had poured on top of hers. “It’s okay. Just ask me for help next time.”  She walked away, and I finished cleaning, by now more frustrated with myself than with the spill.

The image of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son flashed through my mind.   The father who didn’t scold.  The father who didn’t ask any questions.  The son who leaned with relief into a loving embrace of perfect mercy.  And this was a son who had intentionally spent his father’s inheritance on gambling and prostitutes!

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Yet his father greeted him with genuine love and joy.

The father must have seen instantly the remorse on his son’s face.  He must have recognized the hardships his son had already endured, and understood that his son was disappointed with himself.

Their exchange wasn’t as much about the words that were spoken, as it was about the tone of their encounter.

One of the most healing moments I’ve experienced after a recent miscarriage was in the confessional.  A flood of emotions had been washing over me since the day I lost my baby: anger, despair, bitterness, envy, resentment, self-doubt, longing, and even a little joy.  I had never experienced a loss like this before, and wasn’t sure what to do with all of those feelings.  As I prayed and asked God to show me the way, I felt pulled to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And as I knelt in church, trying to decipher my sins through a cloud of grief, I knew God wanted me to receive the sacrament face-to-face–to experience the mercy of confession in a way that I hadn’t in many years.

After confessing my sins through a screen for so long, it was a surprising relief to sit down and visit with our parish priest like I would a friend.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to confess; I just laid bare how I’d been feeling, and the most wonderful thing happened.  I can’t remember exactly what he said, but my priest made me feel as if all of my shortcomings, all of my confusion, and all of my worries were no big deal.  Because, at that point, they weren’t.  I was there, I was sorry, and I was open to guidance.  I was the prodigal son returning, and God not only had mercy on my sins, but mercy on my grief as well.

I realized that this is real mercy: a guiding hand as gentle as our tenderest desires, eyes that recognize our remorse before our mistakes, ears that are open to our perspective rather than closed by judgement, and a heart that is so overcome with joy by our return that it instantly forgets our transgressions.

As my children go about their days, making mistakes and learning to follow God’s will, I hope that our domestic confessional can be as merciful as the church confessional–that the tone of every teaching moment is one of gentle guidance and joy in the return.  And that as I drop to my knees to clean up their messes, I take the time to look at them before the mess and say, “You are loved.”

Image credit: Baby in parent’s arms, Rotaru Florin (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

Paying Attention During Lent: Encouragement for Exhausted Parents

paying attention during lent

In this terrific reflection over on God In All Things, Tony Krzmarzick reflects on how busy he is and how this affects him spiritually. He works intensively as a campus minister all day, then he returns home to face chores, cooking, and other duties. It seems unending to him:

Between work and home, I could spend all my time working on something. All of this work wearies me and leaves me exhausted.”

That’s how I feel sometimes. Between teaching my own children, teaching other folks’ children, engaging in volunteer work in my community and parish and attending to sick family, scraped knees, dirty dishes, and piles of laundry, I could work non-stop 24 hours a day. And I’d still have tasks left over!  Then let’s throw in updating our kitchen, family outings, fun sewing projects, and the many other things that make life delicious but also busier.

Lately I’ve been tired. Sometimes tired and grumpy.  I don’t like it.  I wonder if I am over-committed but everything I do is important; I can’t imagine what I would give up without hurting somebody. But if I’m hurting myself, I won’t be much good to anybody. In my gentle parenting ministry, I often urge parents to find balance and to carve out moments of peace every, single day. I wonder if I’m doing a poor job of following my own advice.

I’m really truly wondering, considering, and praying about this during Lent. Yes, it’s Lent. This is a time when I should be slowing down, taking a Great Pause, to reflect and pray, yet I feel like I’m struggling more than ever to find time for sincere, focused prayer. Lent seems to have got sucked into my lungs and I can’t breathe out. I want my Lent to be meaningful and full of epiphanies, but I’m still waiting. Waiting and a little tired.

Krzmarzick says he finds comfort in the Scripture passage “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt.11:28)” but he wonders why he has to hit a wall before he can turn to Christ for rest.

And God wants to give us rest because it is good and holy and necessary, not just when we are tired and weary from our labor, and not just when we need it and can’t go on without taking a break. We need regular rest because when we stop to rest we remember our blessings, and when we feel blessed, we turn to God in praise.

We need rest not just to recover from all that hard work we’re doing, but so that we can pay attention. When we are crazy busy it’s certainly harder to pay attention, especially when we work ourselves into the ground. God needs our attention to reveal himself. Krzmarzick shares that he gives God that attention through quiet meditation. He takes ten minutes to close his eyes, calm his mind, settle his heart, and rest so that he can notice God holding him in his hands.

While I agree with him, two things come to mind.  First, sometimes busy-ness is unavoidable, even the busy-ness that brings us to our knees. Parents with young babies who parent responsively and with great generosity are demonstrating extraordinary courage, patience, and fortitude. It’s hard. Sometimes we don’t sleep enough. Our bodies hurt. But we are doing the right thing. This is very different from the parent who is exhausted because they don’t know how to say “no” or they are over-committed because of pride or greed, however subtle.

Whether our exhaustion is a sign of spiritual trouble depends on several things, especially our motivations. Why are we doing what we’re doing? That’s what we need to ask ourselves if we are nearing an empty tank. Are our choices motivated by love or fear? Are our choices making it easier or harder to love God, others, and ourselves?

Second, we can encounter God’s grace and mercy even amidst the chaos and noise of a house full of kids. Hopefully we can carve out some time every day for contemplative, restful, engaged prayer, but some days that’s a tall order. For some parents, closing their eyes for ten minutes seems unthinkable because they have several little ones crawling on their lap and hugging their legs. But we can still tap into those graces. We can pay attention not just during a ten-minute quiet time on the couch in the morning, but even during our ordinary tasks, even when we are feeling drawn away from God by our busy-ness.

In many ways, God is most evident to me in these real, messy, loud moments. In ordinary exchanges with my children, through the give and take of living together, every now and then grace breaks in and I am surprised, astonished by some small truth, and I realize what a gift my life is, what a gift each moment is with my family. If I can practice looking for God in these moments and preparing my heart for such encounters, I know they will come. Even when I’m running on empty, I can feel God holding me in his hand right there while the kids are wrestling on the sofa or riding their bikes on my lawn or putting beetles on the kitchen counter. I don’t always need complete quiet in order to find rest. To find peace-amidst-chaos, I do have to pay attention, to be fully present in the moment. Sometimes we can be physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. Our kids can draw us out of this funk.

But the fact remains, we do need rest. Even the very busiest of parents. As Krzmarzick points out, we are made for rest, we do indeed find God in rest. Even Jesus rested. As I consider my Lent so far, I am looking at my calendar and I’m examining my motivations and deep desires. I think my motivations are good, but sometimes I take on tasks because I fear what somebody will think of me if I refuse a request for help. Worse, sometimes I am seeking admiration or approval when I take on a commitment. Sometimes – maybe usually – the good and bad motivations are there at the same time. This is part of my psychological makeup and it stinks. These habits are improving over time with the grace of God, but I will probably always tend to do too much for the wrong reasons at times.

This Lent, I need to breathe out and I feel I can’t quite do it. I’m stuck on inhale. Sometimes this kind of unrest occurs when we are in a state of spiritual expectation and transition. I’m trying to find a Lenten release, but whether that feels like I’m suffocating or just waiting in expectation depends entirely on my motivations and my relationship with God.  Am I avoiding him or moving toward him? Am I seeking him or self-seeking? God is working on my heart, asking me to look at my choices and my assumptions about what I need and what my family needs to thrive.

I will continue to wait, to consider these things, and to pay attention with God’s assistance. And, of course, part of that journey should include the rest that Krzmarzick is talking about.

Meeting Christ in Our Mess

adoration2

Last Friday at noon, I finally accomplished the unthinkable: I sat with Jesus for an hour at Adoration.

Now, it wasn’t the peaceful hour I’d hoped for. I’d envisioned that my one-year-old daughter, who had to accompany me, would take her nap during that hour. That I would be able to hold my sleeping baby girl in my arms as I gazed at Jesus and did nothing but contemplate him. That, as sometimes happened at visits I made to Adoration before I had children, I would feel graces pour upon me in that hour.

Maybe grace did fall upon me, but if so, I surely didn’t have a chance to feel it. Because my daughter didn’t sleep. At all. Despite being tired, and despite it being her normal naptime, she stayed awake. Wide awake. And I entered the chapel wide-eyed myself. Only my wide eyes were from fear. Instead of contemplating thoughts of our Lord, I contemplated a more pressing thought at that moment: How would we get through this hour?

Maybe you’re wondering why I decided we had to stay a full hour. Couldn’t I have put less pressure on myself? Commit to staying only as long as my daughter could last? Jesus would understand, after all, if I had to exit the room with a screaming toddler in tow.

What led up to that moment of entering the chapel was another unthinkable act I’d done a few days prior. In making a move toward Perpetual Adoration, my parish increased its hours of Eucharistic Adoration and was looking for people to help out by dedicating an hour each week to sit with the Lord. When I saw the notice in the bulletin, I felt called. Ludicrously (since I’d have to take my daughter with me), I called the parish and committed myself to an entire hour…every week.

“How will you do it?” family members asked. My mother offered to send my dad to relieve me for the second half hour. I thought, however, of my sister-in-law, who has five kids and who, with her husband, has towed all of them to an hour of Adoration on more than one occasion.

“I can do this,” I answered those concerned. After all, if other moms could do it with half a dozen kids, I surely could do it with one.

So, as I approached the chapel with a wide-awake toddler, I prayed, “Dear Jesus, I want lots of people to spend time with you in the Blessed Sacrament, but, umm, today, could it just be me? Please?” I was sure he’d be so grateful for my commitment to be with him, that he’d answer my prayer.

And then I opened the door to a room full of adorers. People kneeling in deep, silent prayer. People sitting quietly, reading. And me, pushing in a stroller full of books and dolls and coloring pages and markers, and one eager, bright-eyed (and potentially loud) little girl.

I took a deep breath and pushed forward, making my way to the back corner of the room, where I could unload my daughter onto the floor with a slew of items I hoped would keep her quietly entertained for an entire sixty minutes.

The amazing thing is that though my request for an empty room wasn’t granted, another, unspoken prayer was. My daughter was good. Really good. Sure, I had to color with her (so much for cracking open my copy of Divine Intimacy), and silently play dolls with her, and show her pictures in books, and fill her with food and drinks when she began to get noisy, but we did it. We lasted our full hour until the next committed adorer arrived.

My pride in making it through, however, waned when an hour after arriving I packed up and looked around the room. People were still kneeling in silence. They were still reading. They were still sitting, engaged in silent conversation with our Lord.

I’m sorry, I silently told Jesus on my way out. I came to be with you but spent the entire time engaged with my daughter. Did this do any good?

See, in my plan, this was a time to draw closer to my Savior. In my plan, I would do all the things that my busy life as a mom didn’t allow me to do. I would read books I had chosen to bring along, books that would inspire me in my faith. I would talk to Jesus about all sorts of things that had been on my mind. I would pray a rosary, or at least a decade. I would do so much to show Jesus just how much I love him because, often, in the busy-ness of life, I feel like I don’t get to prove that to him. And I would be able to do this because, in my plan, my daughter would nap and I would make the time fruitful.

Instead, I did none of that. The thought crossed my mind that once again I’d neglected to really make strides in my relationship with Christ.

But then another thought came to me. You did nurture this relationship. After all, though I didn’t busy myself with doing for Jesus, I did busy myself with being in his real presence. And in his presence, I busied myself with caring for the child he gifted me. He did tell us to “let the little ones come to” him, which I assuredly did that day (Mt 19:14).

I thought, too, about the fact that Jesus longs to be intimate with us, even more intimate than we are with our spouse and children. And some of the most intimate moments in my relationship with my husband occur when we don’t talk. When we just exist together, side by side, living our daily lives. When doing things like playing with our children, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner beside each other. There’s a comfort in being at a point in a relationship where you don’t have to talk, where you can just be content existing in the same space.

And if our familial relationships are meant to image our relationship with God, then surely being directly in Jesus’ presence was enough to draw us closer. A shared experience of witnessing the beauty of my daughter playing, coloring and, at times, looking up at the monstrance and gleefully saying, “Jee-suh!”

And perhaps there existed the greatest fruit of my hour with Christ: that I’d exposed my daughter to her exposed Lord. Right there in the middle of her mess. The way he wants us all to come to him.

Image courtesy of catholicireland.net

Lenten Sacrifices: How Do We Explain Them to Our Kids?

crucifixion of jesus

As we begin Lent, I’m thinking this week about Lenten sacrifices. What is the purpose of our Lenten sacrifices and how do we communicate to our children about that purpose?

When I returned to the Church many years ago, I had very gloomy image of Lent.  I saw Lenten sacrifices as something very negative, something to dread. I am grateful that my spiritual director helped me understand Lenten sacrifices in a relational way.  He explained that quite often our attachments to things or behaviors are getting in the way of our relationship with others, including God. So we make a special effort during Lent to put aside these attachments so they don’t distract us from caring for ourselves and our relationships.  This dying to the self is a practice that we will continue for our entire lives, but Lent is a good time for a special “house cleaning”; we can pause and really look at where we are with God.

Of course, Lenten sacrifices are also a means to charitable giving.  Traditionally, Christians abstained from meat during Lent partly so that they could use the money they saved on meat to give to the poor, to those who couldn’t afford meat.  I think we’ve lost this original meaning in Catholic culture, so that others see us as a self-punishing, masochistic bunch.

So, with my own kids, I try to remind them of this deeper meaning of Lenten sacrifices. We sacrifice things that are hurting our relationships or are preventing us from growing closer to God. We can also use the money we save on desserts or toys to meet a need in our community.  If our kids are too young to understand this concept, I wonder why we are encouraging them to give up desserts or their toys.  My concern: If our primary explanation to our kids for Lenten sacrifices goes something like “Jesus suffered, so we want to suffer with him,” I wonder if we are sending an unfortunate message to them. Are we saying that Jesus wants them to suffer because he suffered? I think I had this impression as a young woman and that is why my first Lent after returning to the Church was not liberating in the way it is for some folks.

 When my friend Kathryn’s mom had cancer, Kathryn was going to shave her hair off as her mom faced chemotherapy. All her hair – gone! She was doing this to walk in solidarity with her mom when her hair began to fall out.  She was willing to suffer with her mom not for the suffering’s sake, but because she loved her mother and wanted to support her in her time of need.  She didn’t want to suffer so that she would love her mom more; she was willing to suffer because she already loved her mom so much that she couldn’t help but make this offering. Kathryn’s mom ended up seeking alternative cancer treatment and never had chemotherapy after all, but Kathryn’s love for her mom and her willingness to shave off her hair to show her mom that “we’re in this together” is very different from Kathryn wanting to suffer or to get cancer herself so that she could know and love her mom better. She already knew and loved her mom, and the offering of sacrifice was a mature and extraordinary way of showing it.

Some of you will disagree with me here, and I welcome your engagement on this issue. (But please be respectful and civil. My feelings can be hurt like everyone else’s.) Maybe Kathryn’s sacrifice is exactly like giving up candy or beer or computer games. Maybe giving up these things is precisely the kind of solidarity Kathryn wanted to show to her mother and that Jesus wants from us. But it seems different to me.  I, as a grown-up, am still moving to that place spiritually where I want to identify fully with the suffering Christ. That is at the top of the spiritual maturity ladder and I’m nowhere near that.

My goal as the spiritual director of my kids is to help them love Jesus more, to draw closer to him, to want to know him as a real person who cares about them. Yes, I hope they eventually love Jesus enough to die for him on their own cross, but they are still so young. First I need to lead them to love and to mercy, and then to a willingness to live in pain for Jesus. But I guess don’t want to start with the pain. I don’t think the pain will make them love Jesus more.  The fact is, life brings with it suffering. Ordinary life gives me plenty of opportunity to teach my kids about offering their sufferings to God. I don’t want them to seek out suffering or to think in some way that they need to want suffering in order to be a good Christian.

Perhaps I can do with my own little directees as my spiritual director did with me when I returned to the Church: I can talk to them about the things in their lives that are making it harder for them to love themselves, other people, and God. I can lead them in love, with gentleness, to practice little sacrifices in these areas. But I would still want to teach this in the context of their growing affection for Jesus.

 What do you think?

The 12 Days of Christmas (Catholic Style!)

12 days of christmasHappy Christmastide! Did you know the “Christmas season” for Catholics is not the weeks prior to Christmas (as advertisements would have us believe) ending on Christmas Day? Nope, we’re just getting started with the celebration!

Christmas Season in the Church begins on Christmas Day and lasts for 40 days, ending on February 2 (“Candlemas”). “Christmastide” is the 12 days following Christmas, including the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on the Octave of January 1 and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (traditionally anyway; in some countries Epiphany is observed on the Sunday nearest to January 6). Over on our sister site, Intentional Catholic Parenting, I’ve posted some great links to help your family celebrate the Solemnity of Mary and Epiphany, so check it out.

And for those of you who love trivia, here’s a fun little key to the 18th century song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with suggestions for how the song teaches Catholic doctrine (from Ann Ball’s Catholic Sacramentals).

Partridge in a pear tree        Jesus Christ, symbolized as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from helpless nestlings.

Two turtle doves                    Old & New Testaments

Three French Hens               Faith, hope, charity

Four Calling birds                 The Four Gospels

Five Golden Rings                 The Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy)

Six geese a laying                   Six days of creation

Seven Swans a swimming     7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Eight maids a-milking           8 Beatitudes

Nine Ladies Dancing             Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

Ten Lords a-leaping              10 Commandments

Eleven pipers piping             The 11 faithful disciples

12 drummers drumming      12 articles of the Apostles Creed

Live Like a Saint: Saint Nicholas!

Note from the editor: Charisse put together this lovely spread for our winter issue of Tender Tidings, but we are still putting together the issue and St. Nicholas’ feast day is on Sunday. So we wanted to release her spread here so you would have time to use her ideas. God bless!

st nick

St. Nicholas, the patron and protector of children, is known for his generous spirit, compassionate heart, and natural humility. Born during the third century on what is now the southern coast of Turkey, Nicholas spent the early years of his life enjoying the temporal and spiritual blessings of his wealthy and devoutly Christian parents. After his parents’ death, the young Nicholas took Jesus’ words “sell what you own and give the money to the poor” to heart and used his whole inheritance to help the poor and suffering. Create a St. Nicholas gift box and mail it to a grandchild or godchild — or place some of the suggested items in your own children’s shoes to be found on the morning of December 6, St. Nicholas’ feast day.

Here are some ways your family can honor St. Nicholas in your home:

1. St. Nicholas card with candy “crozier” and hot chocolate

While still a young man, Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra. As bishop, he was known for his concern for children, the poor and needy, and sailors. He also suffered for his faith under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Stir up a cup of hot chocolate with Bishop Nicholas’ candy cane “crozier” and reflect on the love and sacrifice of this heroic saint. Card image found at www.catholictradition.org.

2. Small toy and virtue card

Many legends surround St. Nicholas that attest to his love for children. Miraculous stories of boys being restored to life after a brutal attack, a kidnapped child being whisked back home, and children saved from an evil butcher highlight Nicholas’ concern for these small souls. Present each of your children with a small toy and corresponding “virtue card” to help care for their souls. (e.g. a small toy airplane with a card that reads “Charity: May you always lift others up with your words. ‘Your words have upheld the stumbler; you have strengthened his faltering knees.’ Job 4:4”)

3. Gold coins and/or orange

One story attributed to St. Nicholas’ generous heart tells of a man with three daughters. Unable to afford dowries for his daughters, the man worried that they would never marry. But, mysteriously, three bags of gold (or three gold balls) appeared, apparently tossed through an open window during the night. They landed inside shoes that were drying by the fire. Place oranges or chocolate coins in your children’s shoes to remind them of St. Nicholas’ secret and humble generosity.

Visit www.stnicholascenter.org for more ideas for celebrating St Nicholas Day.

Grateful Parent, Happy Parent

gratitude

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmastime. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” — G.K. Chesterton

All parents want to be happy and God wants that for us, too.  There are obstacles to our happiness, though.  We can fall into the trap of believing that once our baby sleeps through the night we will be happy. Or when we move into that larger home. Or when our toddler matures and stops throwing tantrums. We wait and hope for that moment when we will have the right house, the right job, the right behavior in our child. Of course this is an illusion.

One of the best ways to thrive as a parent has nothing to do with anything in our external environment. It boils down to our attitude, our perspective, our deepest beliefs about our life as parents. In particular, the happiest parents are those who cultivate gratitude, who recognize the many gifts they receive as parents – gifts they never expected, asked for, or deserved.

1. Why being grateful makes us happier

Scientists only really began to study gratitude in the last 10 to 20 years, but their findings are pretty startling. Many psychologists once believed that humans are born with a “set point” for happiness and that nothing we do can change it much. But the research on gratitude contradicts this viewpoint. People who cultivate gratitude in their lives experience measurable increased happiness, decreased depressions and anxiety, and better interpersonal relationships. Here’s a great article over at Psychology Today that provides a nice overview of gratitude research.

Apparently Americans express gratitude less readily than people in other cultures. Perhaps we struggle with gratitude because we so value independence and self-sufficiency while gratitude by definition requires us to recognize that somebody has given something to us that we have not earned, that we owe somebody a debt of thanks for a gift received. Gratitude is always other-directed. You can be proud of yourself, angry at yourself, or love yourself, but you can’t really be grateful to yourself.

I think this is why gratitude is so powerful in transforming us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. God made human beings for communion and connection, and a grateful spirit allows us to move more easily outside our little shells to acknowledge one another, to embrace some other. We, for a moment at least, acknowledge that we are better off because of another person, that we get by only because of the work, generosity, and gifts of others. Gratitude feels good and leads to a better life because it allows us to be more human.

2. Gratitude 101: Recognizing and acknowledging gifts

We all have habits that make it hard for us develop real gratitude in our parenting. One of the big ones is viewing ourselves as victims of our children’s choices and habits. We may also have an unconscious sense of entitlement: we think we deserve a particular life or child we don’t have! Or perhaps we are not willing to see our own part in the struggles we have with our children. Are we inconsistent with rules, boundaries, and expectations? Do we yell too much? Shop or drink too much?

We can change these habits. Cultivating gratitude is a choice, not just an emotion. We can choose to become more grateful parents: we can cultivate the habit of gratitude and before we know it, we will be happier parents, able to recognize the spectacular gift we have received in each of our children, more alert to the graces of God in ordinary moments with our kids.

Being grateful requires us to recognize a gift and then to acknowledge it. How does this work for parents? Here are some practical tips for becoming a more grateful parent:

Journaling: Consider keeping gratitude a journal. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to write about five that occurred during the day that you are grateful for. I think this is a great idea for developing a heightened awareness of the good things of life that might go unnoticed because we are distracted or inattentive.

Prayer: Spiritual directors often tell their directees that the first step in spiritual growth is to foster a grateful heart. When I learned about the practice of the Ignatian daily examen prayer, I was told that the first step in the prayer is simply a gesture of gratitude. Megs Blackie over at Ignatius Spirituality explains:

“Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying ‘thank you.’ Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.”

To savor and to celebrate. That is the heart of gratitude. Sin often begins with a failure to recognize God’s gifts, a failure to give thanks. So the first step of the examen prayer is to reflect back over our day almost like a movie being replayed. We pause and meditate on any interactions or struggles that really stand out. We pause and reflect on these moments, look for and acknowledge God’s grace at work.

Visual reminders: Gratitude mentors encourage us to place visual reminders of gratitude around our homes. These might be little plaques or word clouds about gratitude, or perhaps something tangible that symbolizes some gift we want to honor. My youngest daughter Lydia likes to give my wee flowers that are so tiny I can hardly place them in a bud vase without drowning them. When I place these on the window sill above our kitchen sink, it is a reminder of my gratitude for her sweet gestures of affection. I am currently planning a quilt made from some of my children’s old clothing, particularly their baby clothes. If I ever manage to finish it, it will be a visible, cuddly reminder to be grateful for the unfolding of my children’s lives. My older daughter Claire made several painted river rocks over the summer. I think placing a painted gratitude rock on a tray on a nightstand would be a simple, lovely reminder to count our blessings.

3. Gratitude even on bad days?

What about really horrible, frustrating days? Can we find gratitude on these days? Absolutely. Here’s a great reminder from Henri Nouwen:

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart responds with bitterness . . . I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and grimaces of hatred.”

The fun, sweet times with our kids are easy to spot as graces we can be grateful for, but even the crummy stuff holds special graces. Maybe you had a flat tire and your van was filled with hungry, tired kids. While inconvenient, upon reflection you may remember that the tow truck guy was pleasant and humorous and made you smile. This is a grace for which we can be grateful. An argument with a child might lead to greater understanding between the two of you or you perhaps recognize some habit in yourself that isn’t working in your relationship. We can be grateful for these insights despite the discomfort of the argument.

Our perspective shapes our experience of parenting. When you’re a parent, inevitable frustrations and challenges arise, but how you perceive the situation can change your physical and emotional reaction to your children. When you perceive yourself as a victim, as not getting something you earned or deserve as a parent, you can become resentful. Before long your whole experience of parenting has soured and you have a hard time recognizing how privileged you are to be a mom or dad.

Recognizing the many things we have to be grateful for as we raise our particular children, in our particular home, on this particular day will make us happier parents no matter the challenges we encounter. Gratitude is the greatest enemy of resentment, period. Developing a habit of looking for graces and offering our gratitude increases our awareness of the way God is always active in our lives, how he always accompanies us on our parenting journey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Resources for Your Gratitude Practice

Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons. The science of gratitude and how to practice it.

Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer by David Steindl-Rast. “Waking up to the surprise that we live in a given world means coming alive. Awareness of this surprise is the beginning of gratefulness.”

Of Medal of Honors and Saints by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM

Editors note: A reflection by Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, with permission of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

veterans day

Military heroes move me. At Baltimore–Washington International Airport I’ve cried. Once it was when I stood with others at attention as a fallen hero in a flag-draped coffin was carried to his final flight home.

Another time was when I met veterans in red tee-shirts and blue baseball caps in wheelchairs, in town to visit the World War II memorial.

Heroes came to mind most recently when I learned that five military chaplains since the Civil War awarded the Medal of Honor were Catholic priests. One of them, Fr. Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Kansas, died as a prisoner of war in Korea. Another, Fr. Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest from Staten Island, New York, died when, despite his own war injuries, he tended injured Marines during battle in Vietnam. The Navy named the USS Capodanno after him. The Church has named both “Servants of God,” a step toward becoming an officially recognized saint. That’s achievement on two fronts.

The three other Medal of Honor winners have dramatic stories too. Fr. Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest and Navy chaplain in World War II, ministered to injured sailors on a ship hit by two bombs. He worked to jettison bombs close to exploding and led a group on a dangerous mission to water down other ammunition hot enough to explode. The Navy named the USS O’Callahan after him.

Fr. Charles J. Watters, from New Jersey, served in Vietnam. He rescued wounded men at the Battle of Dak To. He ran through intense gunfire to help wounded soldiers. He carried one man to safety. Once though, injured himself, he moved about war zone to apply bandages and give food and water to other wounded. He died in the worst “friendly-fire” incident in Vietnam when he and 41 others were hit by shrapnel when a 500-pound bomb dropped by a Marine fighter hit a tree over the US command post.

Fr. Angelo Liteky, who later changed his first name to “Charles,” won his medal for carrying 20 wounded soldiers to safety during intense fighting on a search and destroy mission in Vietnam. Afterward, he became a peace activist, left the priesthood in 1975, and renounced his medal in 1986. It’s on display at the National Museum of American History.

Veterans Day, November 11, prompted me to touch base with seminarians who hope to emulate chaplain heroes.

James Hinkle, at North American College, Rome, comes from a Navy family and was Navy ROTC at the University of Notre Dame. He served in several positions in the Navy but the call to the priesthood dogged him.

“It was my absolute privilege to serve in the US Navy. Now I look forward to rejoining the fleet as a chaplain,” he said. He spoke of Fathers Kapaun and Capodanno, and the priest who baptized him as an infant, Fr. Jake Francis Laboon. “None of them lived for themselves,” he said. “Instead, in Jesus’ name, they chose to pick up not just their own crosses, but also the crosses of the men and women in their care.”

Paul Shovelain, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a prospective Army chaplain, thinks of Fr. Kapaun. “When I fast,” he said in a blog post, “I think of the small amounts of food he survived on.”

Christopher Christensen, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is a prospective Navy chaplain. He was a Navy man before, but this new position finds him “humbled by the prospect of serving God and country in such a unique ministry.”

Veterans Day is a day for heroes and saints in uniform. They do us proud.

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh was the former director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sr. Mary Ann, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and life-long contributor to Catholic media, died earlier this year on April 28, 2015, after struggling with cancer.

 

Recommended: Feast Day Celebration Book for Gluten-Free Families

I’ve been saying for ages that somebody should write a liturgical feast celebration book with gluten-free recipes.  Well, it turns out somebody did it!

Haley Stewart and her hubby over at Carrots for Michaelmas have written FEAST: Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year. They put together several real food, gluten-free recipes to help you observe:

  • the Christian year,
  • the lives of the saints and martyrs,
  • the global Church,
  • the earth’s bounty, and
  • the goodness of creation.

They avoid white sugar and gluten in their recipes. I appreciate their effort to adapt the ingredients in traditional recipes to what we’ll actually find in our local market. No need to order an obscure spice for $20 off the internet!  When choosing the saints they cover in the book, they tried to think globally, so you will find ideas for honoring many saints rarely covered in saints’ books.

FEAST cover

In addition to food ideas, they offer non-culinary suggestions for observing the liturgical year very simply and realistically no matter how many pitter pattering feet you have in your home.

I would say that if your family can only afford one liturgical feast book and you are not super sensitive to gluten, purchase A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge.  Birge’s book is a treasure of history and the recipes are ones that have been enjoyed by Catholics for centuries in the west.  But when you’re ready for more culinary adventures, the Stewarts’ book would make a great supplement to A Continual Feast.  You can buy Feast here (plus their second book with even more recipes). PDF is $7.99; print version is $21.99.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day Remind Us to Be Saints, Not Stars

“What if we took all the money and time we put into tutors and coaches and private lessons, and invested instead in making our children holy? Not well-known and praised and celebrated for what they do, but humble and meek and truly holy in who they are?”

halloween image

The other day, after volunteering in our son’s kindergarten classroom, my husband came home more anxious than when he’d left.

I expected to hear about the challenging craft he’d been directed to help with, or about the stress of leading five kindergarteners at once, or even about scissors or glue mishaps. But, no. My husband’s unease stemmed from none of this. It was, rather, the result of reading.

As a high school English teacher, leading a reading center should have been in my husband’s wheelhouse. And it was. What left him perturbed was what he witnessed.

“Did you know how well some of the kids in that class can read?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Well, they can, some of them,” he answered.

I saw where this was going. It was headed down the road of concern about the fact that other kids were succeeding at something and our son was lagging slightly behind. It was aiming in the direction of talks we’d had about the successes our son’s peers had enjoyed in a variety of sports while we’d not yet signed our child up for even a single organized activity (because he didn’t want to).

The worry my husband was experiencing wasn’t unique to him. It is, I fear, an anxiety most parents today share: the need to have our kids succeed. And not just to succeed but to stand out in even the most successful crowds. To be stars.

We see it in the flourishing tutoring industry, with education centers popping up on nearly every street corner. We see it in the need for more sports centers, recreational teams, and travel leagues, increasingly sought out when our kids are still at remarkably young ages. We see it in the popularity of reality entertainment shows like American Idol and The Voice, where contestants give up nearly everything in their lives for a chance at fame and financial freedom.

But, while we see and hear a lot about encouraging our kids’ academic, athletic and artistic prowess, we hardly hear much about their spiritual growth. While we hear a lot of concern for our children’s bodily wellness and financial security, we hear very little about the wellness and security of their souls.

Oh, sure, we say, of course I want that, too. But, it comes as an afterthought. As a runner-up desire to the first place hope of forming our kids in the way of fame and fortune.

And that’s what worries me. I am deeply concerned about the tremendous importance we, as a society, place on our children’s earthly glory and what little importance we place on their eternal glory. The priorities we have for our children couldn’t be more backwards, and for me this came to light as I participated in the Halloween weekend.

For the past two years, my parish has hosted a Back from the Dead cemetery walk. Along the graveyard path, attendees “meet” saints like Edith Stein, St. Gianna and St. Therese of Lisieux. They also “meet” souls who are in Purgatory. This single walk brings together Halloween (graveyards, the dead), All Saints’ Day (the saints we meet on the walk), and All Souls’ Day (the stories of the souls in Purgatory). And this year, on the walk, I met the faults of my own soul and began to think deeply (or more deeply than usual) about the souls of my children.

Because I’d been slowly starting to veer from the narrow way. The start of my son’s elementary school years saw me stepping out on the popular path of worrying about earthly gain and successes. (My husband wasn’t the only one sizing our son’s skills up to those of his peers). We were in danger, I realized as I listened to the stories of saints and sinners, of taking our kids along for this ride.

As I meandered through the graveyard, I pondered more deeply on a question my pastor had just posed in the day’s homily: what would happen if we sacrificed and suffered for our children’s eternal glory instead of their earthly glory? If we took all the money and time we put into tutors and coaches and private lessons, and invested instead in making our children holy? Not well-known and praised and celebrated for what they do, but humble and meek and truly holy in who they are?

I left the walk grateful that we have a time of year such as Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to remind us of our mortality and the afterlife. To call us to meditate not on the things of this world but to meditate on those of another, more permanent world. For by thinking of the next world, we can better live in this one.