November 15, 2017

Nothing Says Fall Like . . .

Nothing says Fall like pumpkins!

So orange and round; so full of possibilities!  They are the official mascot for Fall's first really Autumny holiday, Halloween.  Just cut holes in it and let it sit on your porch till it collapses of mold!  If you're too lazy (or smart?) for that, you can simply strew them on your front steps and leave them through the whole long season as decorations.

These pumpkins were grown in my best ever garden.  The vine sprouted in our compost area and they just grew with no work on my part whatsoever!

And not just decorations - you can eat them!!  Roasted pumpkin, toasted pumpkin seeds, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie!  Let's not forget the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte - which is really just a hot coffee and pumpkin pie smoothie.  If you like that sort of thing.  And many do!

Pumpkin pie works right through Thanksgiving and even into Christmas ("There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy, as we pass around the coffee and the PUMPkin pie.")  (Perhaps that's where the idea of the pumpkin spice latte originated)

Yup.  Nothing says Fall quite like pumpkins.

Except maybe falling leaves. When they're falling from all the trees after turning the bright hues of the sunset of the year.  Because, you know, isn't that where the season got that name?  They say Fall, by actual example.  How lovely!  I like how the tippety-tappety-tip of the leaves sounds like rain.  Forget all that stuff about pumpkins saying Fall.  Nothing really says Fall like leaves falling.  (What was I thinking?!)

Lots of people start speaking of Fall when school starts up again.  Not me!  It's still summer till that long day, right around September 22nd, when the day and night tip from lengthening to shortening.  That's what the calendar says.  And the earth gets to that point in its journey around the sun.  But, I am not an astronaut; I must trust the calendar.  And calendars do not rule my life.  Fall is when those leaves change color and fall.

Don't those falling, burnished leaves make you think of warm sweaters?  For a moment the world looks like Mother Nature crocheted an afghan of warm colors to lay over for the woods in preparation for the chill air.

It's true.  Nothing says Fall quite like the falling of leaves.

But you can't eat leaves falling from trees, however bright they are.  If something says Fall, I want it to be edible.  Apples!  Apples are both edible and fall from trees in the autumn!  Nothing says Fall like apples!  I didn't know what I was talking about before.  Cross out all that drivel about leaves.  Leaves.  Apples are what really does it.  They just shout Fall!  They have everything going for them!  They're pretty Fall colors, you can eat them, they fall from trees.  Perfect.

And no one associates them with having to go back to school.  You can give one to your teacher, which seems to be a tradition for some reason.  But you can give one to anybody to sweeten them up.  And, it's a scientific fact that eating one a day keeps the doctor away.

The eating of them spans the effort spectrum from more complex, like apple strudel (Look, I have no idea what apple strudel is, which is the only reason I chose it as my example), to no effort whatsoever – just take a bite of the apple.

People start posting pictures on social media of their families going apple picking and I know Autumn has arrived!  They tell you how many gallons of apple sauce they made that day.  They show you their latest apple pie creation.  So, that’s my cue to go to the store and buy a few Honey Crisps (who doesn’t want crisp honey?!), Fujis (which will bring you all the joy of a tropical island) or Galas (a party in every bite!). 

Sometimes my family cooperates and they eat them, sometimes they just grow lonely and shrivel up.  My personal favorite fall apple treat is warm, tasty and easy as pie.  Actually, it’s way easier than pie and that’s why it’s my favorite.  I like baked apples.  Here’s the recipe:  you basically turn on the oven and put them in.

Okay, it’s a little more involved than that, but that’s the gist of it.  You just bake them!  And then you put your mouth around theur warm sweetness, they bespeaks the best of the season of Fall.

Nothing says Fall like baked apples!

It's a comfort food, and not very attractive, even in a pretty bowl.  But what comfort food is?

My Baked Apple Recipe

The first thing to keep in mind is that you can get baked apples by shoving a stick into a whole apple and holding it over a fire.  With that in mind, follow as much or as little of these suggestions as appeal to you.

- Core the number of apples that will fit into your oven safe dish with a lid.
- Set them into the dish (I know, but if I didn’t say it . . .) 
- Put some raisins into the bottom of the hole in each apple. 
- Then fill the apples with the following in no particular order, but I tend to do it in this order. 
- Put a little granulated gelatin into each apple.  (This step is totally both optional and optimal.  It makes a sort of syrup at the bottom of the pan and adds a little nutrition.  Yum!)(It will still get syrupy without it)(I've included a link to my Amazon thing just so you can see what I'm talking about it and, if you ordered it from there, I might benefit financially, but I doubt it!)
- Stuff a bunch of butter into each apple.  (Don’t skimp.  It’s going to run out the bottom and add to the deliciousness of that syrup.)
- Sprinkle (or just pour) spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, allspice in the proportions you like.  (Think apple pie or pumpkin spice) 
- Add a little water to the pan. 
- Maybe sprinkle with chopped nuts.
- A little alcohol might be nice, too.  You decide. 
- Really, you get the idea.  You’re baking apples filled with pie flavors that will melt down into the moisture at the bottom and can be spooned back over the baked apples. 
- This is not rocket science. 
- Bake in the oven at a temperature determined by your level of patience (350 is they standard go-to temperature for baking, but you’ll get to eat them sooner if you set it at 400) 
- Bake them till they’re as soft as you think you’ll like them.  Personally, I like the skins to burst and the insides to be almost mushy.  Occasionally, I have forgotten them until they resemble applesauce in deflated apple skins.  Others say they like a little firmness.

They will be quite hot when you take them out, so for heaven sake, don’t burn your tongue!!  Consider serving with vanilla ice cream or a little heavy cream or half and half poured over.


November 11, 2017

The Homeschool Teaching Crisis

There are many kinds of homeschooling parents.  There are those who incline toward structure and order, whose days appear to run seamlessly.  They make it look so easy.  I'm not one of those.  I am inclined toward crises of purpose and procedure.  Structure is not my best friend, though I long for it.  I have waves of wailing and gnashing my teeth about this impossible task I have brought upon myself - but have no plan to escape.  I suppose you could call my educational style "The Hopeful Masochist Homeschooler".

A totally staged picture of me pretending to get a headache teaching my daughter something and her pretending to learn it.  She didn't want to actually write one of those cursive letters for the picture because it's Saturday.

I'll have to write this quickly while I'm still on an upswing from my most recent existential crisis of homeschooling despair.  I want to share some of my more helpful thoughts to sort of send down a rope to those of you who are currently wallowing in the pit of self-doubt.  Please do not use it to hang yourself, but rather, to try to climb out.

(If you’re someone who has it all figured out and makes it look easy, you probably won't want to waste your time reading further, so you might as well go back and help your second grader construct the life size replica of the Globe Theatre, in which your family of eight geniuses will perform the Shakespeare works they have memorized.)

What is this thing we're doing?  Educating our children.  And what does that actually mean?  What is our goal?  For some it's getting them into college.  For some it's launching them into a lucrative job or career path.  For some it's keeping up with the state’s educational requirements.  For some it's making sure they're ahead of the standard.  For some it's providing a liberal or classical education to free their minds.  For some it's being faithful to homeschooling at any cost.  For some it's keeping them safe from the world.  And, I confess, some find one of the extremely attractive goal to be avoiding having to get them up and dressed before the sun comes up.

In pursuing these goals and meeting these standards, often set by someone else, we go through our days with our children pushing and fretting, yelling and regretting.  Someone else’s standards.  But these are my children to raise.  I am their parent and no one cares more about them and their future than I do.  When I stand back and look at the big picture, what difference does it really make if they go to college as long as they find a path they love, by which they can make a living?  Who cares if they’re geniuses or three grades ahead?  Not everyone can be a prodigy or it would lose its meaning.

So, how do I know what curriculum to use, what philosophy to follow, when to worry about their progress?

I'm currently looking into the method of "not worrying too much about it" for continuing our homeschooling.  I have already overachieved my quota for worrying and that’s not paying off with peace.  There is so much time - even though it seems so short.  I'm wondering why we think our kids need (as kids) the absolute “best” education out there.  And, I doubt very much that there is one.  And the other question that must be asked is, “Best education for what?”

I think it depends on the kid.  And the parents.  And the timing.  And the weather.  I'm pretty sure if they learn to read and you have a happy, loving relationship with them and do interesting things now and then, they'll turn out fine.  You’ll be amazed. There simply can’t be only one recipe for well educated people.  What is this education for?

I guess that's the question I should be asking when I fret about finding the right, best or perfect curriculum or materials to use.  What difference will it make (now or later) if we do this or that thing?  What's at stake?  Is it the kind of living my kid will be able to make?  The snob factor of the college she attends?  (Who cares?)  Will it be the difference between getting A's or B's or C's in a college class?  (Big deal).  Will she have even better conversations with even “better” people?  Will her mind be bigger - and what for?

I’m on board with the idea of a liberal arts education, which provides “a means of teaching the student to be happy by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. God is the Origin of all goodness, truth, and beauty—and that means loving Him and ordering one’s life accordingly.”* (See Karen Landry’s whole article here, for more on the purpose of education)  But, even pursuing this ought not be at the cost of stressed out relationships that turn them into liberally-educated neurotics.  It’s not like there is just one package that will deliver this.

If I look at my own life so far and ask what I wish had been different, so little of it involves what I learned at what age.  I think it would have been helpful if history had been presented more as a framework in which everything happened in an inter-related way, rather than as a subject.  But I doubt very much my life would have been drastically different even if that had happened.

I think I'm doing pretty well myself, in terms of can-hold-a-conversation-without-sounding-too-stupid and I had virtually no real, methodical education to boast of.  We moved a lot and changed schools a lot, so it was all hit or miss.  I wasn't even really into reading.  Even through grad school writing papers made me feel like dying.  I doubt I could actually diagram a sentence even now.  Nevertheless, here I am loving to learn and pass on interesting things.  I love to live in this fascinating world with so many mysteries to solve.

I'm really trying to de-stress the whole deal.  And to thereby actually love the processes of teaching and learning.  I'm now trying to shake off all the extraneous expectations of other people's standards, so we can get down to enjoying learning and developing better relationships and a happy homeschool.

Here are some basic tips I offer for those in the homeschooling pit of despair:

  • §  Seek like-minded friends.  My friends are a wealth of ideas, encouragement and discussion about education.  If you lack a social group, find one on Facebook devoted to homeschooling in several styles you like.  They abound!

  • §  Avoid those people who believe there is only one way (generally, it’s their way).

  • §  Be open to completely different things than you’ve been trying – even enrolling in a school.  No option must be a permanent commitment.  I have a friend who homeschools when it works for them and just as easily enrolls her kids in school when that works better, even for only part of a year.  She is my inspiration of non-commitment!

  • §  Ask grown-ups you admire about their education.  You may be surprised how varied their experiences were.  I know a brilliant man, who heads an educational organization, has a degree in architecture and designed his own stunning house, travels the world helping families with children with disabilities, whom, I discovered, could not read until he was in fourth grade.  How’s that for giving you hope?

  • Look at your actual child.  Are you proud of that child out there in public?  Other people can tell you how you are doing.  Believe them!

  • §  Remember they are just kids.  They’re not finished.  They’re supposed to act like that at that age.  Remember what you were like then.  You may not see the output yet, but all the stuff you’re putting in will eventually be manifest.

There is more than one path to excellence – and there are even more paths to goodness.  If educating your children is stressing you our and you find yourself feeling like a slave to other people’s standards, step back and remind yourself what this education thing really is and what it’s for.  Take a deep breath.  These are your children to love, raise and educate.  Your peace and enjoyment will pass along to them, just like your weird habits and family quirks.  They’ll be fine.  You’re probably doing a better job than you realize.

·         Follow this link to read the article by Karen Landry in the Cardinal Newman Society Journal, from which this quote was taken:  article

October 9, 2017

Soul's Hearth

As I walked into the church for Mass last Sunday, I noticed right away the candles had been trimmed too long.  They looked like a half dozen lit bottle rockets lined up on the reredos, in anticipation of the dazzling finale in a Fourth of July pyrotechnic display.  My mind filled with strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.  Smoke was billowing upward from each candle, competing with the incense in sending super-spiritual smoke signals to heaven.  I became curious about how and who would have to clean the layer of soot that was accumulating on the overhanging decorative cornice of white marble.

This is a picture of the sanctuary of our church.  The picture was not taken on the Sunday in question, but on the Easter Sunday when the quantity of incense used set off the fire alarms, resulting in the response of the local fire department.

Obviously, I had not yet succeeded in reaching the appropriate level of recollection for the great miracle of Mass that would be commencing imminently.  I was, instead, trying to suppress thoughts of the creme brulee that could be finished by the power of those blow torches adorning the tabernacle!  What a display!  Almost as powerfully flaming were the six candles upon the altar - but they lacked the benefit of the glossy white marble background with stripes of gold mosaic tiles inlaid.

It happened that the weather enhanced the spectacle, by providing an overcast dim to the Fall sunlight.  In fact, as the Mass progressed, the clouds gathered and the rain burst down in what seemed to my imagination Biblical proportions (Old Testament, naturally).  It turns out this storm even produced tornadoes in neighboring regions.

Around the time of the consecration the darkness and noise outside was surely noticed even by the most attentive and holy in the congregation.  Our church has very large sections of clear, floor to ceiling windows at the back of the transept arms where our family sits - not for the view, I might add, but the view of the sky is rather unavoidable when sitting there.  This made for a dramatic moment, the darkened world illuminated by the glow within the sanctuary.

I know it sounds like I was missing the point of the Sunday obligation, but I promise these thoughts took mere minutes, interspersed through the liturgy.  My kids were far more distracting than the candles, as my worshiping neighbors can attest.  (Sorry folks!!)

Nevertheless, some meandering thoughts during Mass can be tamed enough to help raise one's mind and heart to God in earnest and these were no exception.

By Morgan Weistling
While the wind roared outside and the rain whipped the windows, the warming glow of the blazing candles within the sanctuary brought to my mind the coziness of a fire in a hearth, good for light, heat and transformation of simple ingredients into nourishing and sustaining food.  I thought of generations of people gathered around a tended fire, for life, for companionship.

I thought of He who is the Light of the world, the life giver, who by His burning love transforms himself into nourishing and soul sustaining food.  He who transforms us, the tongues of fire descending upon us, at our invitation, that we may go out and warm the world by His flame.

Lord, trim my wick long.

September 23, 2017

Excuse Me, God, Is There a Family Discount?

It's not easy to become a saint while raising a family.  Especially for some of us.  Me, for instance.  And I could use a little help.  I heard a priest recommend that we read about and seek the intercession of saints who shared the same vocation as us.  Priests should get to know the lives of holy priests, religious sisters should study saints who were religious sisters and parents should seek the intercession of saints who lived their vocation as parents, etc.

Quick!  Think of saints who were parents!  Now, eliminate those who were martyred with their young children, because that's not the same as becoming a saint while parenting those same children through the years.  You can also eliminate those who were royalty or otherwise had someone on staff helping keep house and raise the children.  There goes St. Margaret of Scotland, patron of mothers.  She was a queen.  Also, there goes St. Gianna Berreta Mola, darn it!  She is a prime example of a modern woman who was very holy and a mother.  But, she's doesn't exactly represent me, because, though she had decided to stop her full-time work after the birth of her fourth child, she died heroically from complications of her fourth pregnancy.  She did not spend all her days at home attempting to educate her kids (though I suspect she would have been great at it if she had!).

Likewise, Zelie Martin, the mother of St. Therese (and four other daughters who became nuns) died young.  I'm not young anymore and I need a patron for this job!  I know all the saints give an example of holiness that can apply to us all.  I am a great appreciator of the saints, many of whom I consider dear friends.

 So, what’s so different about being a mom than other vocations that makes it so hard to grow in holiness?  Well, first of all, you’re never really alone in a quiet, prayerful setting.  Even church isn’t a quiet, prayerful setting when I go with my kids.  Why do you think there’s so much discussion about whether young children should be taken into the church or stuffed into the cry room?  They call it the “cry room” for a reason.  One might argue it could just as well have been called the “whine room.”

If you don’t spend quality time speaking and listening to God, how can you cultivate a relationship with him?  Right?

And, let’s face it, St. Paul was right.
“An unmarried woman . . . is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.  A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband."        (1 Corinthians 7:34) 

As much as I argued with him that, surely after gaining attending a graduate program in theology from an institution faithful to the Church, surrounded by others who want to be saints, I would be able to balance spiritual life and family life!  Why would I suddenly be more concerned with things of the world just because I got married?  What did he know?

Well, these “things of the world” keep my children fed, which, if I didn’t concern myself with, they would perish.  I guess he knew something after all.

But still, I’m going to argue that while each vocation and individual life is fraught with its own difficulties and distractions, having children living about you daily, per se, makes it a bit harder to practice those virtues you need to become a saint.  Oh, sure, there are many more opportunities to practice these virtues (patience, prudence, fortitude, justice, charity, etc.), for me, this somehow always seems to translate into more occasions when I actually fail at these virtues.

I wonder, then, if God gives parents sort of a family discount for holiness.  Sort of like a golf handicap.

Let’s see, you entered the cloister early and died young?  You need to gain 5000 virtue points to be a saint.  You can earn those by praying for families.  Your family was wealthy, your every need was met and you lived through an era of peace?  That’ll take 7300 points, but you can get a discount for giving away half your fortune without a tax deduction.  You’re a pastor who maintained a prayer life, exemplified virtue, said the Mass reverently, settled quarrels and evangelized your flock?  Congratulations!  Here’s your “Get Out of Purgatory Free” card!  Your people should bring forward your cause for canonization!

You’re a homeschooling mom?  You get a coupon book containing 40,000 coupons redeemable for unfinished Rosaries, weekday Mass you wanted to go to, but someone threw up, taking your kids to the grocery store without using bad language in public and many more!  We don’t expect much from you, under the circumstances.

Getting to heaven is a lot of work!

Now before you get all panicky that I think we need to work our way into heaven, of course I don’t.  It’s enough to “accept Jesus Christ into our heart as our Lord and Savior” to gain eternal life.  (And, if you want to get all technical, be baptized.  Matt 28:19).  But, my love for Him is what He wants and what I want to give Him.  Love is shown by going the extra mile, by putting our words into action.  To just believe and call it “done” seems a little like saying, “That’s enough for Him!  The rest is all for me.”

While it is enough, Our Lord wants for us ever so much more.  He wants to dwell in us, so we may have and become all He gives us.

Think of the rich, young man in Matthew’s Gospel.  He asked Jesus what he ought to do to gain eternal life.  Jesus answered simply “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  That was enough.  But the young man pushed his question to another level.  “All of these I have observed.  What do I still lack?”  To which Jesus, seeing he wanted more than to just slip in to the kingdom, gave him the course to the next level of love, “If you wish to be perfect; go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.” (cf Matthew 19:16-21)

A few chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus sum up his sermon on the mount with the words, “So, be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:48).  Jesus invites us to be perfect; He wants us to be perfect.

He wants us to aspire to the higher level, to holiness!  He gives us the grace to do so.  But, He also knows we are weak and we each live in different circumstances and so, there is a level of commitment that is “enough,” but not “perfect.”  He knows the lights we each have been given and the weight of the burdens we carry.  Only He knows these.

And yet, He calls us each to a higher level of love than we can know we are capable of.

It is in this that His “discount” lies.  His Love is our discount.  We must avail ourselves of it, whatever our circumstances, whatever our vocation.  And, those peaceful prayers of those cloistered nuns?  Many of them are for those of us living in the world and in families.  And they carry us along more than we will know in this life.  They help convey His love to the world.

So, I guess that means that I’ve got to step it up not only in my parenting, but in all my relationships, if I want to love God perfectly – to become a saint.  I don’t get to figure in my own handicap.  I’ve got to take up my cross and follow Him each day, not concerning myself with my abilities.  He calls me to do the best I can, not worrying about how poor that is, because He Himself, will apply the discount of His mercy.

September 6, 2017

A "Strong Catholic" Adrift

One of the things I most enjoy during visits with my family in Southern California, is visiting the little beach town nearby.  Main Street lies between Pacific Coast Highway and the pier and is lined with restaurants, cafes, pubs, boutiques, ice cream parlors and art galleries.  The shops are all individually owned and have a low profile, preserving the small town community feel of the place.

One of our favorite cafes on Main Street

On a recent visit, my little girl and I turned in to a shop that sold art and nick knacks all about angels.  I noticed a good many statues and pictures of St. Francis and the Blessed Mother as well, and wondered if the owner might be Catholic.  I asked the lady behind the counter.  She was the owner and said, "Yes, I'm a strong Catholic!"

"Perfect!” I thought.  I asked if she happened to know if there was a Saturday evening Mass at the church, which is just one street over (we had only been there for Sunday morning Masses in the past).  She said she did not know the schedule, as it was not her parish; she went to the church a few towns down the coast, though her mother is a parishioner at this one.  Well, as I love her church as well, I asked if hers has a Saturday evening Mass.  She did not know.

You see, she only went to Mass on Christmas.  I don't remember exactly how the conversation went from there, but it must have involved my mouth hanging open or something, because she assured me several times that she is "a strong Catholic."  I mean, she must be, right, because she has a shop just for things about angels?

Everyone’s favorite line from the movie, The Princess Bride, passed through my mind: “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  But I refrained from letting it pass by my lips.

I'm sure I urged her to consider more frequently availing herself of the source and summit of her Faith - because that's the kind of person I am (i.e. one who spurts out things on any occasion).  But, she has to keep her shop running and that takes most of her time.  She must be very busy, because she admitted she doesn't even always have time for yoga!!

We walked out and uttered a prayer that this lady would grow in her faith and feel a longing to return to the Sacraments.

I'm sure we all know or come across people who grew up Catholic and still identify with the Church, but don't seem to know or do a thing about it.  They haven't left the Church, but they're not in it.  It's like they have fallen overboard from a ship and are floating along in a life preserver.  The name of the ship is printed on the life preserver, so they still feel connected.  And they have no idea what they are missing or at what peril they are drifting out to sea.

It was so astonishing to me and I still think about her (and pray for her).  How can someone be so sure and proud of her affiliation with the Catholic Faith, but simply refuse to respond to the invitation Jesus issues to live it?

Somewhere something went wrong with the catechesis people like her received.  Probably, they were never evangelized.  I’m not the first person to consider the cause.  Who knows?  But what can we do for them now?  There may be many answers to this (start discussions about the Faith, give a good example, challenge them) and they differ for each person.  But the one thing we can do for every person we meet in this situation is to pray for them.

And yet, though this is a sad state of things, it is also a sign of great hope.  The angel lady has not left the Church.  She still sees herself as connected in a “strong” way.  She feels she has a relationship with God through His Church.  And she does.  She has surely neglected it and is missing out on the riches He offers.  But hope knows that there is a rope connecting her life preserver to the ship, the bark of Peter.  And she will be drawn in, unless she herself cuts this line.

This is illustrated through Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited.  As her father lies on his deathbed, resisting reconciliation with God, Julia explains to Charles how G.K. Chesterton shows this theme in his Father Brown mystery (I know, I’m trying to explain someone in a novel explaining a novel to illustrate my point!):
“Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

In Brideshead, her father did, ultimately reconcile (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s still well worth reading).  This is not merely fiction.  It happens in real life again and again.  We can count on it when we pray and trust in God’s mercy.  Our heavenly Father, more than anyone else, desires that these stray sheep return to His fold.  In the context of the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Our Lord says, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day.”(Jn. 6;39)

You see, we were made for union with God and are attracted to Him.  Why do you think the angel lady’s shop is devoted to angels and contains statues of the Mother of Our Lord?  Her heart is yearning for God, but she has been distracted by other things at present.  A twitch upon the thread will bring her back.

It is as St. Augustine famously said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee.”

The entirety of the quotation from Augustine’s Confessions is too beautiful not to put down here.  And as you read it, I ask that you make it a prayer, a twitch upon the thread, for all those who are drifting about in the lukewarm sea in life preservers with the name of the Church indelibly stamped on them.  That they may not be lost, but shall rise again on the last day.

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”

August 13, 2017

When Someone Falls From Grace, Help Them Up!

I once heard someone say, “When a person has fallen from grace, don’t kick him down.  Help him up!”

It sounds so obvious, but we really do need to be reminded.  We see it all around us.  “Did you hear what she did???”  Shock and outrage are often our response to accounts we see on the internet, hear on the news, discus with gossips.  It’s all gossip, really.  And how do we respond?  “I’m shocked!”  “How terrible!”  “He should be locked up!”

Even when it is someone in our own circles or family, we want to believe we would never do likewise.  We’re better than that!  And it’s easier to continue believing so when the gap between us and them remains large.  So, we kick them down.  “You see, he’ll never learn.”

Don’t we like to see prisoners treated harshly?  Don’t we root for the bully to get some of his own back?  Don’t we love it when the movie bad guy not only gets caught, but is annihilated by the hero?

What is the matter with us?!?

But I think most of us also love – and I mean really love - when the hero shows mercy beyond the desserts of the villain.  It makes the hero better.  Occasionally it even makes the villain better as well. Isn’t that part of what makes us love The Lord of the Rings, the recently released Wonder Woman film, dare I mention the Gospels??  Talk about stooping down to lift others up! And Our Lord uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I cringe whenever I see the meme that says, “Everything happens for a reason . . . sometimes the reason is that you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  Okay, I cringe after I laugh, but I cringe.  It might be true, but it hardly gives us superiority!  If we’re smarter and able to make better decisions than another person, that actually puts us in a position to help them.  What does it say about a person who criticizes someone for not doing what they aren’t able to do?

I suggest we challenge ourselves to rise above the petty feeling of superiority we get standing atop a heap of failures, by reaching down to give them a hand up.  Are we afraid they will fail again?  They will – just like we do, too.  Seven times seventy!  Are we afraid they will succeed – and then we’ll look worse than we did in comparison to them?  Well, that’s just silly!  Would we think a teacher is smarter if all his students failed?  On the contrary.

Can you imagine a father bringing his four-year-old son out to play basketball and sneering at the little fellow because he couldn’t get the ball into the basket?  Most of us would not think him a very good father.  We wouldn’t make fun of the little fellow as a failure for being unable to reach the hoop as well as his tall father.  Rather, we would admire the sort of father who lifts his little boy up to the hoop so he can learn to play basketball and have fun with his daddy.

Isn’t it the same when we hear of a heroic person who lowers herself to help even strangers?  Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta) is still one of the most universally recognized and admired figures for giving her whole life to just that work: serving the poorest of the poor.  And her religious order still attracts many young women to this life of dramatic mercy.

You may not be called to such a community, but there are many opportunities all around us to extend mercy to those who have fallen from grace.  Often, that means giving tangible help, a kind word, good advice.  Always it means praying for them.  But first, it means seeing who we are to them – and who we are to those who have shown us mercy.  Foremost among these is God, of course.  If we have received God’s mercy, it will be harder on us if we fail to extend mercy to our neighbor.  Remember the parable Jesus told about the servant whose debt was forgiven, who then had his own debtor thrown into prison until he paid the debt (I always wonder just how they’re supposed to do it from there anyway).  When the master learned of that servant’s harsh treatment of the other, he again held him accountable for the original debt, withdrawing his mercy.  We invite this response when we pray the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In her short story “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Willa Cather poignantly illustrates the life crushing pettiness of those who revel in the failure of others.  The nothing men of a nothing town gathered at a funeral to malign and criticize the every failure of the young man brought back in his coffin – as they did everyone who left the town to better himself.  The crushing speech bringing to light their snivelly evil was given by a man they had previously brought down to their level and was now a drunk, corrupt lawyer who did their dirty legal wangling.  He knew from experience and observation that it was they themselves who planted the seeds of failure in the young men they enjoyed criticizing when the failure bloomed.  The story leaves the reader with a creepy feeling of disgust toward those men who kicked down those who had not only fallen from grace, but their falls were the result of being tripped by those very men.

It is a good exercise to think a moment before uttering our shock, our distain, our judgement on those who are pathetic, who are sinful, who have fallen from grace.  Hold back our accusation, our ridicule, our kick.  Won’t it make us all not only feel better, but to be better to lift them up instead?  If we need inspiration to do so, we need only to look up and see the hand of divine grace reaching into the depths to raise us up again. 

August 7, 2017

Eight Ways to Be a Better Godparent

It is an honor to be asked to be a godparent.  But choosing a godparent is not merely a way to honor a friend or relative after the birth of a child; it is an invitation to take on a big responsibility in the child’s life.  No, you are not expected to raise the child in the event of the parents' early demise.  That is taken care of by their will.  The role of the godparents is more on the spiritual side.  As my nine-year-old daughter put it, "The parents help the whole child grow up and the godparents help the child's soul grow up."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “Baptism is the sacrament of faith.  But faith needs the community of believers.  It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe.” (CCC 1253)  The godmother and godfather will ideally be fixed points in the spiritual life of the child.  They are a small, chosen church community for that particular child, regardless of changes of parish and location.  They hold the great responsibility of assisting the parents to help the child to grow spiritually.

So, if you have been honored by an invitation to be a godparent, you’ll want to take your responsibility seriously and be faithful to the promises you made when that baby was baptized.  Here are a few practical ways you can ensure you assist in the spiritual growth of that child and represent the Church community to him or her, whether you live close by or not.

1.   Actually pray daily for your godchild

If you aren't already in the practice of daily prayer, this would be a good time to start!  A routine time will make it easier to remember and be consistent.  Perhaps first thing in the morning (by which I mean, after you've had your coffee!) or before dinner at the end of your grace before meals.  When you are at Mass, be sure to remember your godchild when you receive communion.

2.   Remember your godchild's baptismal day

This is a date you really ought to know.  Chances are, you were there and dressed up for it.  If you don't recall the date, ask the child's parents.  They may have to look it up or call the parish where the child was baptized, but this is a date you should celebrate with your godchild.  For the godparent, the anniversary of the child's baptism is an even more important date to commemorate than their birthday.  Celebrate both, by all means, but if you're going to forget one, let it be the birthday.

Some simple things you can do to observe the day would be to have a Mass said for the child's intentions and send a Mass card.  A nice letter reminding them of the momentous event that happened that day and encouraging them in living the Faith will go a long way toward building your relationship.  At the very least, a phone call can be made.  If the child is still too young to care about any of this, his parents will appreciate it.  If you're close enough to visit, you could have a little party.  Cake and even a gift related to the Faith are a wonderful way to celebrate.

If your godchild is no longer a baby, it’s not too late to begin a tradition of remembering them on this special day.  They might love to get to know you or it could be a way to help them back to living their baptismal promises if they have strayed.

3.   Teach them to renew their baptismal vows

Their baptismal anniversary would be a good time for you to teach your godchild to renew their baptismal vows.   Just as we do at Mass on Easter, everyone present renews their baptismal promises at the same time.  Here are the questions for you to print out.

V. Do you reject Satan?
R. I do.
V. And all his works?
R. I do.
V. And all his empty promises?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
R. I do.
V. God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May he also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
R. Amen.
(This is a family service that is directed by one of the parents. The family members renew their baptismal vows and sprinkle themselves with holy water,)

4.   Light their baptismal candle 

If it hasn't been long since the baptism, the parents may still know where the baptismal candle is.  Their baptismal birthday celebration is the time to bring out the candle and light it, ideally when the baptismal vows are being renewed.  If you no longer know where the candle is, just order a new one to use for their anniversary celebration.  Order one for yourself, while you're at it!

5.   Remember your godchild's Name Day

Get to know your child's patron saint and help celebrate their name day!  You can ask the parents if they were named for a particular saint.  A quick Google search will turn up that saint's feast day.  That is the “Name Day” of all those named for that saint.  It's possible that the parents their baby a traditional name, but didn't have a particular saint in mind.  Encourage them to choose one that they think will be a good example for their child.  If the name is one that is made up or doesn't have a saint associated with it at all, just choose a patron saint who seems appropriate for some reason.  Celebrate that saint’s feast as the child's Name Day.

Again, having a Mass said for the child is the greatest of gifts.  It may seem boring to a child now, but its value is immeasurable!  Go ahead and get them a treat or a gift!  Have a little celebration for their Name Day.  Catholics have so much to celebrate!

6.   Faith related gifts

Now that you know their patron saint, you may find books, statues or holy cards about that saint.  Why not surprise your godchild with them sometime?  It is another way to stay in touch and build a relationship with them, as well as bolster their faith.  If the child is small, here there are some really cute toys and books that will help instill a love for holy things.

7.   Refer to yourself as their Godparent

Be sure your godchild actually knows who you are as they grow up!    It is not unusual for parents to choose a godparent for their child who they are close with at one time in their life, but who then become separated by distance.  Do stay in touch as you can.  Try to cultivate a relationship with the child that outlives the one you have with their parents.  Point out the reason for your special relationship with them when you are together or through letters.  If you're a close relative, you may always be remembered as Aunt Carol and the godparent/godchild relationship may go by the wayside.  Be sure to set yourself apart as a sure companion along their spiritual journey.

8.   Attend their reception of first Sacraments

First reception of the Eucharist is a very special day for most Catholics.  Be sure to be there for your godchild to show that you are with them along this journey.  But also find out how you might help prepare them for important sacramental firsts.  Ask their parents when they will be preparing for their first confession (also an important event, but seldom celebrated with panache), first Holy Communion, and Confirmation and ask how you might aid them.

Pick the suggestions that will work for you and your impact as a godparent will be multiplied!  If you pick all of them, then your godchild may well become the envy of all his siblings.  But, more likely, his parents will adopt some of these beautiful practices into their family observance of their Faith.  And all will be richer for it.

[Disclaimer:  These are simply suggestions.  Even I don't do all these things and I only have one godchild!!  Please add them to your life as your personality and level of overwhelm allow.]

August 1, 2017

Beyond St. Francis: More Saints for Animal Lovers

Did someone accidentally eat your pet?  There's a saint for that!

When we think of a patron saint for animals and animal lovers, St. Francis usually comes immediately to mind.  He's probably pretty busy.  There are several other saints who will pop up when you do a search for patrons for animals and animal keepers, too.  I discovered that some of these have their patronage due to events in their lives that simply involved animals (like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to fish).

Even more remotely, a saint’s symbolism might include animals for other reasons and they then they became patron of that animal.  St. Ambrose of Milan, for instance, was known as “the honey tongued doctor” because of his eloquent preaching, which led to the beehive appearing in his iconography, which led to him being known as a patron of bees, beekeepers, and candle makers.  That seems like a stretch to me.

I have put together this list of saints who actually liked, loved and even kept animals as pets.  Some are even known for their kindness to wild animals.  Many have healed and even restored life to animals that had died!  When your pet needs healing or a behavior adjustment – or if you need help convincing someone to let you get a pet, these are saints who will understand when you ask their intercession.

st. Anthon Abbot

St. Anthony Abbot  
Pigs, Domesticated Animals
(4th century, Egypt, Feast day: January 17)

Officially a patron saint of domesticated animals, Saint Anthony is often depicted standing next to a pig.  The story goes that he cured a pig, which thereafter followed him everywhere.  His feast day is often celebrated with a festival and blessing of animals to ensure the good health and fertility of the animals.

St. Blaise

St. Blaise
Wild Animals
(Second century, Armenia, Feast day: February 3)

St. Blaise was known to have cured diseased wild animals that came to him of their own accord for healing, but never disturbed him in prayer.


St. Brigid
Cattle, Chickens, Boar, Fox, Cow All Animals
(Died 523, Ireland, Feast day: February 1)

Loved animals, gave sanctuary to a wild boar, turned a fox into a loving pet for the king, was kind to dogs, was followed by a cow.  Under her care, her master’s dairy prospered, even though she constantly gave away his produce.  She is a patron of cattle and poultry farmers.

St. Colette

St. Colette
All Animals, Lamb, Birds
(Died 1447, France, Feast day: February 7)

St. Colette loved and cared for all animals.  And they loved her, too.  She had a pet lamb that followed her everywhere, including to church.  Birds flew about her and she is said to have understood their communication.

St. Francis of Paola

St. Francis of Paola
Fish, Lamb, All Creatures
(Early 16th century, Calabria, Italy, Feast day: April 2)

Well, you’ve got to love St. Francis of Paola!  He so loved animals that he was known to resurrect at least three.  This story is amazing.  He had a pet trout, called Antonella, that swam in a pool.  It seems that a visiting priest, unaware that the fish was a pet, caught it and took it home to eat.  He had begun frying poor Antonella!  Fortunately, St. Francis noticed Antonella’s absence and sent a brother to get it back.  Alas, Antonella was about to be eaten and the unawares priest, annoyed that his lunch was being reclaimed, threw the cooked fish to the ground, whereupon it broke to pieces.  Upon receiving the cooked and broken pieces of his pet, St. Francis put them in the pool and prayed, “Antonella, in the Name of Charity, return to life!” – and it did!  The fish began to swim happily about again.  This miracle was witnessed by several people.

Oddly enough, this was not the only time an animal St. Francis Paola loved was rescued from mistaken diners.  He had a pet lamb, Matrinello, that was not only cooked, but consumed by nearby workmen.  Upon discovering the tragedy, St. Francis raised up his lamb from the bones and fleece, which had been flung into an oven.

So, if someone cooks your canary, St. Francis Paola is who you should call on!

St. Isidore the Farmer

St. Isidore the Farmer
Birds, Animals
(Died 1130, Spain, Feast day: May 15)

St. Isadore was often moved by pity for the suffering of others and his generosity rewarded with miraculous multiplications of food.  His care extended even to the birds of the air.  On a cold winter day, he came upon a flock of starving wood pigeons on his way to the mill with his master’s grain.  He emptied half the sack of grain for the birds, but when he arrived at the mill, the sack was again full and was ground into a double portion of flour.

St. John Mecias

St. John Macias  (Also spelled Masias)
All Animals
(Died 1645, Peru, Feast day: September 18)

It was reading Mary Fabyan Windeatt’s book about St. John Masias that I learned of his compassion and tenderness toward animals, including healing their injuries and disease.  Since then, he has become my go-to saint for intercession regarding animals.  Here is another story about his care for creatures.  While John was filling a trough with water he had drawn from a deep well, the sheep he was caring for fell into the well!  He could not reach the animal to help, so he prayed the Rosary that God might provide a miracle to save it.  The water began to rise until John could lift the sheep out and then again receded.  Again John knelt in a prayer of thanksgiving.

St. Kevin of Glendalough

St. Kevin of Glendalough 
(Died C. 618, Ireland, Feast day: June 3rd)

There is a story of a blackbird building a nest in St. Kevin’s hand.  The kind saint held his hand out until the eggs hatched and the fledglings left the nest.  As they say, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush!

St. Martin de Porres

St. Martin de Porres 
All animals, Cats, Dogs, even Vermin
(Died: 1639, Peru, Feast day: November 3rd)

St. Martin’s compassion toward the poor extended to all animals.  He was known to find homes for stray animals, healed ill ones and even preferred to make a deal with the vermin that were gnawing the altar cloths.  He asked them to stay out of the sacristy and kitchen and live across the garden where he would feed them daily.  Both parties kept their end of the deal.

Bl. Mary Bartholomea de Bagnesi
Cats, Song birds
(Died 1577, Italy, Feast day: May 28)

Blessed Mary Bartholomea de Bagnesi could be called an early cat lady.  She loved cats and they loved her back.  In addition to the people who sought out the Dominican tertiary for her room, cats also visited this holy, bedridden woman.  They even guarded her pet songbirds and were known to bring her cheese when she was hungry!

St. Philip Neri

St. Philip Neri
(Died 1595, Italy, Feast day: May 26)

St. Philip is said to have had an affection for all creatures and kept a pet cat, Jeoffery, which he carried around Rome with him.  When he sent word from out of town, he would ask after his pet.

St. Roch

St. Roch (Also known as Rocca)
(Died 1327, France, August 16)

Again we see that the saints’ love for God is manifest in their compassion toward people, made in God’s image, as well as toward animals, God’s creations.  As a pilgrim, St. Roch came across and cared for victims of the plague.  He himself contracted the disease and took to a forest to die, but was cared for by a dog that brought him food.  He eventually recovered and is now the patron saint for dogs.

Pope St. Sylvester

Pope St. Sylvester 
Domestic Animals, Bulls
(Fourth century, Rome, Feast day: December 31)

As icons of this early pope show, he is known to have resurrected a bull and is a patron of domestic animals.

St. Veridiana

St. Veridiana
(Died 1242, Italy, Feast day: February 1)

St. Veridiana shared her hermitage cell with two snakes, which she fed from her own meager rations.  I'm sure this will endear her so someone!

St. Vitus

St. Vitus (Also known as St. Guy)
Horses, Horned animals, Dogs
(Died 1012, Belgium, Feast day: June 18)

Because the site of his forgotten grave was revealed by a horse, St. Vitus is invoked for protection of horses, stables, horned animals.  On his feast day, a festival and procession was held at which horses were blessed.  He also happens to be patron of oversleeping, so if you have an animal that gets up late, St. Vitus may be able to help!