June 20, 2017

Four Simple Tools to Help Navigate Your Way From Sin to Sanctity

So, you’ve got a sin problem too?  It’s not uncommon.  In fact, it has plagued every living human since the first living humans.  It’s called Original Sin.  It is part of the human condition.  Darn it.

At first we just had to live with it, while God prepare us for the solution.  Even His favorite humans, the Hebrews, were not very well behaved.  That’s what this Original Sin problem looks like.  Just as two-year-olds given rules push their limits, the Hebrew people did things like make a big golden calf to worship just after the babysitter (Moses) told them God said to worship only Him.  Then when Moses came back and found them worshipping it, and asked, “What are you doing?!??!  I just left the room for 5 seconds?!?!?!  Your Dad just told you not to worship anything but HIM!!!” they shrugged, looking as surprised as Moses, and said “We just threw some gold into the fire and this calf came out!”

Does this sound familiar, parents and babysitters of naughty children?  Well, it should be familiar to all of us because, unless you’re well on your way to sanctity (and if you’re spending your time reading this, that’s unlikely), it’s probably how your soul, like mine, behaves in the face of God’s loving will.

Even after Christ’s Redemptive work opened the gates of heaven and turned on the tap of grace from which we can drink in God’s refreshing Life, it is still hard to stay the course sometimes.  At least we’re in good company, though.  Most saints have suffered difficulties and temptations en route to heaven.

Even when we want to do what God wants, it’s hard to do!  Not because he asks hard things of us – all He asks us is to  love Him – but because we’re just so scatter-hearted.  Like a slightly disoriented navigator, we only need veer from our charted course by one degree to completely miss our target destination!  Between our condition of concupiscence and Satan constantly thrusting alluring distractions and temptations into our path, we’re going to need a safe strategy to prevent our souls from becoming utterly shipwrecked.  

But, our loving Father knows this and has given us sure help.  Not only help, but He has given us many navigational tools that can actually turn our failings to good!  Here are four simple strategies we can use to help steer you back to His course for your life.

Pray a Morning Offering

Set your course by starting your day offering everything in it to God for His purposes.  Super easy.  God so wants to help us do The Good, even our intention made at the start of the day covers us if we forget, in the moment, to offer our prayers, works, joys and sufferings, big and small, to His Redemptive work.  We don’t do this because His work needs a boost from us, but because, parent-like, He wants us to learn to become like Him (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” Mt 5:48).  So all those little difficult moments - suddenly they're a benefit to the Kingdom of God.

Put God on His Throne of Mercy

When you get lost, find your bearings and recalibrate your course.  St. Francis de Sales wrote to one of his spiritual directees, that God’s favorite throne is His throne of Mercy (according to a little book called, How to Profit From One’s Faults by Tissot, which I can’t find now to quote directly.  I love this book, but I thought it was going to help me become rich!).  The only time He gets to sit on it is when we approach him seeking forgiveness and mercy.  If we reflect often on how tenderly He receives us when we seek His mercy, we should not hesitate through shame or embarrassment, but we should run to Him with our sins.

Far from encouraging us to sin more, in order to let Him sit there more often, the thought of His loving forgiveness will help us to love more, sin less.  Because as reassuring and refreshing as received forgiveness is, the prospect of deliberately withholding our love from one Whose being is the source of all love is absurd.  The sins we will no doubt fall into will provide more than ample occasions for God to sit upon His favorite throne.  

Use your habitual sins to become a saint

Surely I’m not alone in repeating the same sins time after time in confession.  There is probably a reason for this, besides that I’m a weak schmuck.  The reason may be that God has given us character strengths and talents that will help us fulfill His mission for us in our lives.  These are like the sails of our vessel.

As we know, in order to hit our destination, our trajectory has to be right on the mark.  Satan knows this too.  So, rather than expending a lot of energy tempting us to turn 180 degrees to commit sins that are completely out of character, he only needs to use our natural strengths and momentum, while distracting us from our course by a degree or two.  If he can get us to set our sails wrong, they will carry us forward, but not to our intended destination.  

The way I figure it, if we look closely at those habitual sins that divert us from our target of sanctity, we can figure out what strength or talent is being distorted.  Then, find a fitting use for your gift that will build up the kingdom of God and put it to work there!

What could be more satisfying than turning Satan’s own devious stumbling blocks into stepping stones to get to heaven?!  And, if we get good at this, maybe he’ll leave us alone for fear of filling heaven through his efforts.

Take that, father of lies (and bad directions)!!  Ha ha!

Keep your Eye on the Star

Lastly, every navigator knows to look to the stars to get their bearing and know the direction to go.  We too can look to the star, Stella Maris - Mary Star of the Sea.  Look to Mary, she exists to point the way to Jesus, our Savior.

Prayer to Mary, Star of the Sea
Hail, O Star of the ocean, God's own Mother blest, ever sinless Virgin, gate of heav'nly rest.  Taking that sweet Ave, which from Gabriel came, peace confirm within us, changing Eve's name.
Break the sinners' fetters, make our blindness day, chase all evils from us, for all blessings pray.  Show thyself a Mother, may the Word divine born for us thine Infant hear our 
prayers through thine.  Virgin all excelling, mildest of the mild, free from guilt preserve us meek and undefiled.  Keep our life all spotless, make our way secure till we find in Jesus, joy for evermore.  Praise to God the Father, honor to the Son, in the Holy Spirit, be the glory one.  Amen.

These four simple navigational tools can make the difference between shipwreck and smooth sailing in our daily spiritual journey.

June 16, 2017

A (Baker's) Dozen Book Series To Read to Kids (or Yourself!)

Who doesn't love a list of books?  I know I do, so I decided to make my own list.  For you!  This list is mostly of books that you’ll enjoy reading to children.  Children may even enjoy hearing them read, too!  In fact, they might enjoy reading them themselves.  It is far from exhaustive, as it only contains those that we have actually read to (or listened to with) our kid between the ages of three and nine.  I haven't included some that are on everybody's list - because they're already on everyone's list.  I had never even heard of some of these until I had kids and sought out good books.  It is my goal to prevent this in the lives of other book lovers!

As I was compiling my list, I realized it was getting way too long!  So, this installment (there will be another!) only contains books that come in a series.  The list is numbered only to thirteen, but gives you over 120 titles!  The great thing about a series is that you don’t have to say goodbye to the characters you have come to know and love when the first book ends.  Another benefit is that you can also appreciate the writers’ skill developing through the subsequent stories. 

A few are, sadly, out of print.  But that’s what the library is for, right?  This ought to keep you reading for a good long time!
    by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    Published 1932 – 1943
    8 books

Believe it or not, I was a grown up before I knew Little House on the Prairie was a book before it was a TV show!  That's the kind of childhood I had.  (I was not a voracious reader.)  I began reading these to my three-year-old daughter and we both loved them!  We have since dated historical figures and events by Laura's life (e.g. "That happened when Laura was ten.").  We raced through the books, becoming friends with the Ingalls family and learning so much about the building of our country and it’s westward development.  I was so enraptured by the author and the character of her childhood self that I have since read everything I have found written by her!  My favorite of these is the collection of her columns for the Missouri Ruralist between 1911 and 1924, titled, Laura Ingalls Wilder: FarmJournalist.  I mention it for your enjoyment, though it is not officially on my list.

2.  Five for Victory    
     by Hilda Van Stockum    
     Published 1945
     3 books (CanadianSummer ‘48, Friendly Gables ’58)

We first meet with the Mitchell family while their father is away, fighting in the war.  It mostly deals with the children's doings, while the thread running subtly through the story involves the inadvertent acquisition of various pets, contrary to Father's explicit prohibition of their getting a pet while he's away.  There is a tenderness shown toward the inner feelings of the various children that truly brings them to life.  I was not surprised to learn that the author based these stories on her own children.  It is a pleasure to follow them as they move to Canada in the next two volumes.

     also by Hilda Van Stockum
     Published 1938
     3 books (Francie On the Run ‘39, Pegeen ’41)

Three more books by the same author are set in Ireland.  Reading aloud gives you a chance to exercise your best Irish accent!  I was so impressed by the author's ability to draw out the depths of personality of the characters and their history of place.  Her stories are engaging for children, while not just entertaining for adults, but full of texture and depth.  She has written other books as well, but those are still on my "to be read" list.

     by Sydney Taylor
  Published 1951

I came to love this sweet family of five daughters.  The story is told through their little daily moments, big illness, holidays, lived in pre-World War I New York City.  We have only read the first two of the series, so we still have some to look forward to! 

5. The Moffats  

    by Eleanor Estes
    Published 1941
    4 books (The Middle Moffat ’42, Rufas M. ’43, The Moffat Museum ’83)

You'll love this family and enjoy seeing the author's writing about them (based on her family) develop to a beautifully sensitive level.  They are adorable, quirky and pull together to help their widowed mother keep the family going.  Despite their difficult circumstances, there are more moments of happiness than anguish.

6. Ginger Pie, Pinky Pie     
    also by Eleanor Estes
    Published 1951 and 1958)
    2 books

Two more stories by Eleanor Estes, these stories take place in the same town where the Moffats live, but feature a different family.  The Moffats make an appearance, but the books have a very different feel. 

7. Betsy Tacy     
    by Maud Hart Lovelace
    Published 1940 – 1955
    10 books                                                                                                           

Again, I can not believe I had never heard of these marvelous books!  They are set in the early twentieth century.  The first four feature two and then three very little girls and the later ones begin when the girls are in high school.  They really bring to life a time not really that distant, when the town marveled at the first “horseless carriage” to enter the scene.  The author has other books too, so you don’t have to be sad when you finish these lovelies!

8. The Saturdays    
     by Elizabeth Enright
     Published 1941
     4 books (The Four Story Mistake ‘42, And Then There Were Five '44, Spider Web For Two ’51)

These peculiar books follow another peculiar family.  The first book, The Saturdays, details the interesting ways the four children of the Melendy family each spends a Saturday in New York City, when they decide to pool their allowance money each week for the use of just one sibling.  Clever and insightful!

9.  Freddy the Pig Series  
       by Walter R. Brooks
       Published 1927 -1958
       26 books

How is it possible I have never heard anyone mention these books ever before I found one on the shelf in audio book section of the public library??  Why are these not as ubiquitous on reading lists as the Little House books and the Chronicles of Narnia?  These are some of the funniest, cleverest, vocabulary enriching, snappy dialoguing stories I have encountered.  Brooks is like an American P.G. Wodehouse.  The stories concern the Bean Farm's animals who are able to talk (to the great discomfort of Farmer Bean).  They are not your typical personified animal stories, as they are talking animals functioning within the real world, where they gain some notoriety for this ability.  The very first story relates the adventures that hilariously ensue when some of the animals, let by Freddy the Pig, decide to migrate to Florida.  I'm not even sure Mr. Brooks intended them for children, but as there is nothing untoward in them and plenty of good writing and humor, I highly endorse them!  My nine-year-old may be truly addicted to them!

10. The Famous Five   
      By Enid Blyton
      Published 1942 - 1963
      21 books

I was assured that this series was a must read as they have been popular children’s books in the UK since their publication.  We have been greatly disappointed by the Famous Five, but I include them nevertheless, because they have their good points and – there are 21 of them!  The stories are based on four cousins who manage to get into serious adventures every time they get together on their holidays from boarding school. Who is the fifth member of the famous five?  The dog, of course.  They are quite formulaic, the children are unbearable snobs and as soon as they return from boarding school, the parents go off without them!  So, why would I continue reading these miserable books to my nine-year-old?  Because we have come to enjoy laughing at them.  I had no idea there were so very many secret passageways under England!!  It’s good fun to see how arrogant and bad tempered these kids can be and still be portrayed as the heroes of the stories.  It is a great lesson in the class system and what’s wrong with it.  They’re like the boxcar children, but rude.  We’re only on the eighth book (we got tired of them and have taken a break), but it should be interesting to see how the author managed to keep English kids hungering for more for over twenty years!  (However tempting the low cost edition published by Birch Tree Publishing is, avoid it.  It is the worst example of publishing I have ever encountered!)

11. Swallows and Amazons Series   
       By Arthur Ransome
       Published 1930 – 1947
       12 books

Following the adventures of two families of children, the Swallows and Amazons series is everything that The Famous Five are not!  Beautifully written, adventures that could actually take place in the real world England, nice - but natural - children whose parents make a showing and an interest in them.  The twelve books are quite long, but enjoyable from beginning to end.  They usually involve boating adventures, as that is what brought these children together on their school holidays in the Lake District.

12.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle   
        By Betty MacDonald
        Published 1947, 1949, 1954, 1957, 2007
        5 books

We happened upon the audio book in the library and it quickly became one of my daughter’s favorites!  And it’s handy, too.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a lovable lady to whom all the children flock.  Their parents seek her out to help find “cures” for typical childhood behavioral difficulties.  Children love this silliness of these families!  In addition to being wholesomely entertaining, it gives you, the parent, an arsenal of humorous examples to toss out to your kid, to mortify them out of a bad attitude!  I have been known to mention to my daughter on an occasion of disrespect, “You’re being a bit like Mary O’Toole!!!”  Point made, behavior improved!

13.  Redwall  
        By Brian Jacques
        Published 1986 – 2010
        21 books

The Redwall series is a little more mature.  Redwall is a peaceful abbey.  Peaceful until the happy mice are intruded upon by the evil rat and his thugs.  Adventure, prophecy, mystery, battles, virtue, heroes - Redwall is filled with action.

You don’t really need kids to enjoy any of these books.  If you missed any in your childhood, get yourself to the library and get reading!

(If you would rather buy them to keep in your home library and do so through my Amazon Affiliate links, I might gain some financial benefit – though it has yet to be seen)

June 4, 2017

Cultivating the Fruits of the Holy Spirit

I could use a lot more fruit in my life.  I'm not talking about dietary fiber, either.  I'm talking about the fruits of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22 - 23.  Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  And I'm going to need some help to grow these fruits.  Sure, I have some of each naturally, but, like growing a really good garden, my personal fruit generation would benefit from a hefty application of compost and fertilizer.

It’s not hard to love.  It’s just hard to really love.  It’s hard to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me.  It’s hard not to complain at the prospect of suffering – by which I mean inconvenience and not getting my way – in order to put another first.

Joy is really great – when things are going great and good things are happening in our lives.  It sort of springs forth from the good things that happen. I have Christmas decorations proclaiming it!  But really?  I’m supposed to exude joy during rough times?  Ummmmmm.

I want peace.  I want World peace.  Peace and quiet.  Peace, man.  It makes me so mad when there’s war and injustice, incessant demands on my time and concentration, people who just don’t understand how to chill out.

I’m willing to offer up my suffering for the good of another person or my own soul.  No problem!  I do it voluntarily every Lent, right?  I go without some totally unnecessary goodies – sweets, coffee, something.  I got this one.  It’s a snap!  Well, for the first hour or so.  I’m telling you, though, that Thursday following Ash Wednesday’s fast and abstinence I feel so accomplished having gone without, you’d think it was already Easter.  And then the realization sets in that that was only the first day of the six week season.  Yeah, I think I could use a little help with long suffering, too.

Kindness.  Surely I can claim kindness, right?  I would never kick a puppy!  I might say a few critical words about really bad people, but even a kindergarten teacher would fall there, right?  And, okay, maybe it’s not just “really bad” people, but sometimes even I succumb to the “us” and “them” mentality that permeates our society these days.

Goodness.  Okay, no argument here.  The lack of this keeps me going to confession.  Let’s just move along.

Aha!  I’ve got this one, right?  I have faith!  Yes, I do!  I go to church at least weekly, I believe all the stuff – probably better than some people.  Wait, you mean there’s more to faithfulness than just believing it?  I have to be faithful to it – to Him – too?  It’s not just about doubting Him, but two-timing Him with my own selfishness?  Drat!

Gentleness?  I don’t even know how that differs from kindness.  This is getting embarrassing!

Last one – and I think we have hit on the problem: self control.  If I only had some of this, the others would just fall into place domino-like, right?  So, where am I going to get it, because, this is seriously lacking in me.  I’m in good company, though.  Even Saint Paul did what he did not want to do and didn’t do what he wanted to!

These fruits are not to be found in their fullness within me.  Fortunately, I’m not expected to just practice till they’re perfect.  These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  So, having been baptized and confirmed, all I need really do is ask for them in greater abundance and get out of the way!

A little further on, in Galatians 5:25, St. Paul writes, “If we live in the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”  Some translations render it “let us walk in the Spirit,” but keep in step suggests a dance.  When dancing, the most important skill of the following partner is to follow and not constantly try to lead.  It’s much more enjoyable and beautiful for everyone that way, too.

But I began with a gardening image for these fruits and I’m going to stick with it.  You can dance if you want to.  What I need is some compost to amend the soil of my soul.

Compost makes us think of decomposition – Eww, yuck!  And there’s something to that for my needs.  I need to be broken down a bit.  But it’s not really just about dying and falling apart.  Compost happens because the matter is, in fact being acted on by living things – by insects, bacteria, fungus – to transform something dying into living soil!

The Holy Spirit is the source of life and is Living Love.  I must ask the Holy Spirit to keep working on those areas in me that are just dead matter so that I shall put forth the fruits I was meant to.  And not only will I become more myself, but I can better feed and nourish others as well.  I must ask for the fruits then let the Holy Spirit amend my soul.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.  And You shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.