Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Top Ten!


Top ten things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving:

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ, for calling me out of darkness and into his marvelous light! (1 Peter 2:9)

2. The freedoms we enjoy in this country, especially the freedom to worship our God in peace and security.

3. My husband who works tirelessly to support, protect and care for us!  He is truly a reflection of God the Father to me and our children and I know I don't express my gratitude often enough.

4. My children whose presence brings me the greatest joy and reminds me every day of God's love, goodness and mercy.

5. My parents, grandparents, and my brother and sister who have taught me the meaning of family and have dealt with me during the good, the bad and the ugly. 

6. Books, books and more books. Oh how I love books!  Thank you Lord for the gift of books (and progressive eye-glasses which enable me to read all those books.)

7. Wine - one of the greatest pleasures God has ever created and the perfect remedy for long homeschooling days.

8. And speaking of homeschooling - I am grateful for other homeschooling families who walk this crazy walk with us and understand like no other the struggles and victories of this life.

9. 65 degree Thanksgiving days - praying they last long into winter. 

10. Thanksgiving and all its trimmings - how great is this holiday - no gifts, no decorations, a midweek day off and lots of food and family! 

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

7 Ways to Celebrate Advent With Your Family

Patient waiting.

These two little words most accurately describe the tone and theme of the season of Advent.

Patient waiting.

No two words in the English language are more incompatible with young children.

How do those of us with young children help them to celebrate the beautiful season of Advent without being overrun by the mad rush to Christmas morning?  Here are 7 ideas that our family has used to  make the celebration of the season of Advent a Christ-centered, prayerful and fun-filled family affair.

1. Advent Prayer Chain
As a child I loved making paper chains - I think they appealed to the independent streak in me as I liked the idea that I could assemble what I considered to be a beautiful garland all on my own. That appeal has crossed over into my adult life and one of my favorite Advent family traditions is the paper-prayer chain. The kids and I assemble our chain together. As we create the purple and pink chain links, we write the name of a person (living or deceased) or a particular prayer intention on the inside of each link. Once the chain is fully assembled we have a link for each day of Advent.Every day, we remove one link and remember the person or intention on that day's link in a special way in our prayers. Here is a picture of this year's prayer chain handing on our mantle:

2. Lighting the Advent Wreath
I have fond memories of lighting the Advent wreath each night at dinner as a child. It was so exciting as the weeks progressed and the purple candle from the first week grew shorter and shorter. Christmas was coming. Our family has continued the tradition. When the kids were small we lit the Advent wreath in the morning -  in fact, when they were toddlers, we sometimes lit the Advent wreath several times per day - they loved it so much. Now we have set aside time each evening before bed to light the Advent wreath, sing the first verse of O, Come O Come Emmanuel and read from our Advent devotional. This year we are reading Advent and Christmas With the Saints. Here's a picture of our Advent Wreath - we have been using this makeshift Advent wreath with pillar candles since before our children were born - at the rate we are going the candles will last for another 25 years!

3. Family Blessings Journal
I found the idea for a Family Blessings Journal in this book :Advent in the Home: Activities for Families. Using cardstock and some decorative stickers, I made a book for each week of Advent. For each day, every member of the family will share and write down the individual blessing we are most grateful for. I am looking forward to learning more about my husband and children and growing together as a family in gratitude towards the Lord. My prayer is that these journals will become a yearly tradition and a treasured keepsake that we can look back on each year. Here are some pictures of our newly minted Family Blessings Journals:

4. Advent Daily Read-Aloud
Jessica at Shower of Roses inspired me several years ago with her gorgeous Advent book basket -I imagined the joy my children would experience seeing a big basket of beautifully wrapped purple and pink books. The book basket did not disappoint and when my daughter saw this year's books all wrapped and ready to go - she jumped up and down and said "Mommy I can't wait for Advent!" The book basket consists of Advent and Christmas stories - both faith-based and secular. We unwrap the book of the day, snuggle on the couch and read it together every morning. Each year we add new books and weed out the ones that the kids have outgrown. Here's a picture of this year's book basket:

 For a listing of books in our Advent Book Basket click here.

5. Holy Heroes Advent Adventures
The Holy Heroes FREE Advent Adventures are videos delivered daily to your email. The kids (and I) love watching the Holy Heroes kids learn about Advent through reflections on the Sunday scriptures, the Jesse Tree, the rosary and more. This year we also bought the companion activity guide which we plan to use along with the video each day. For those of you fellow homeschoolers - we shelve our regular religion books during Advent and use our Advent devotions instead for our religious instruction.

6. Nativity Jigsaw Puzzle
Advent is all about patient waiting and what better way to combat the culture of instant gratification than through the assembly of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I see so many parallels to the discipline, patience and perseverance required to complete a jigsaw puzzle and the spiritual journey to Bethlehem we should all be taking during Advent. Advent is a season to slowly and patiently, with time and sometimes frustrating effort, prepare our hearts for the Nativity of the Lord.

Pick up your own No Room at The Inn 1000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle here.

7. Family Movie Night
Advent and Christmas can be a busy and hectic time and while we enjoy parties, celebrations and family gatherings, it is a pleasure to crash on the couch and relax in our pj's watching a Christmas movie (or 2).   Some faith-based selections in our queue this season are The Nativity StoryMary of Nazareth and The Star of Bethlehem.  Of course, we love revisiting some old favorites that capture the Spirit of Christmas such as It's a Wonderful Life  and  Miracle on 34th Street (honestly we enjoy both the original 1947 version and the 1994 version). 

Read related posts here:
Keeping Christ in Advent: 7 Ways to a Peaceful December
Christmas Gift Ideas For Kids: Catholic Style

I'm participating in #/WorthRevisit Wednesday's with this post. 
For more awesome #WorthRevisit posts, head over to the lovely hostesses' Allison Gingras at Reconciled to You and Elizabeth Reardon at Theology is a Verb.

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Please note that this post contains Affiliate Links - which basically means that if you click and shop
through any of the Amazon or Lighthouse links, my domestic church will receive a small commission.
Woo-hoo! We greatly appreciate the support!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Our Advent Book List

Years ago, Jessica at Shower of Roses inspired me with her gorgeous Advent book basket -I imagined the joy my children would experience seeing a big basket of beautifully wrapped purple and pink books. The book basket did not disappoint and when my daughter saw this year's books all wrapped and ready to go - she jumped up and down and said "Mommy I can't wait for Advent!"  We unwrap the book of the day, snuggle on the couch and read it together every morning. Each year we add new books and weed out the ones that the kids have outgrown. Here's a picture our book basket:

Although Advent begins on November 29 - we begin reading from our book list on December 1:
December 1: While not an overt Christmas book, Neal Lozano's beautiful book Will You Bless Me? recounts the story of the Annunciation through the Epiphany as told by the Blessed Mother to the Child Jesus. It is a beautiful introduction to the gift of blessing your children. 
December 2: In honor of the lighting of the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center, we read The Carpenter's Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree
December 3: Written in 1957, The Story of Holly and Ivy, is a classic Christmas tale of hope and miracles. It is a favorite of mine and one that brings me to tears everytime I read it (much to my children's chagrin).
December 4: Who doesn't love "All the Who's in Whoville" and the slimy green Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!   - a family fav indeed.
December 5: The True Story of Santa Claus contains the story of St. Nicholas as told by "Santa Claus" as well as a few pages of facts at the end of the book about the life this special saint who's feast we celebrate on December 6.
December 6: The Miracle of St. Nicholas   is a moving story of the faith and devotion of a Russian village who kept the fires of faith burning during 60 long years without the celebration of the Eucharist.
December 7: There are very few Christmas books which focus on St. Joseph and so we have really enjoyed this relatively new addition to our reading list: Father and Son: A Nativity Story
December 8: I love the beautiful, heart warming depiction of the Nativity Scene in Max Lucado's The Crippled Lamb, and the encouraging message that each of us has a role to play in God's plan.
December 9: Another non-traditional Christmas book that has been a favorite of ours for years is The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale
December 10: The Christmas Candle reminds me so much of Dicken's A Christmas Carol - in the total transformation of its protagonist from a bitter miser into a generous giver. Powerful, but may be a little on the dark side for very young children. 
December 11: Gearing up for the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we enjoy this classic Mexican tale:The Legend of the Poinsettia
December 12: Tomie de Paola's The Lady of Guadalupe is our Go-to book to celebrate her Feast Day.
December 13: Lucia: Saint of Light explains not only the story of St. Lucy, whose feast is celebrated on the 13th of December, but also the traditional Swedish celebrations which accompany her feast day.
December 14:The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree is a tale of love, fidelity and sacrifice - another tear-jerker for me.
December 15: We typically put up our Christmas Tree in mid-December, making it the perfect day to read more about the history of the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas inThe Legend of the Christmas Tree
December 16: Our multi-cultural parish is hosting a traditional Las Posadas procession this Advent and we are so excited to participate in something we have only read about before in Tomie de Paola's book: The Night of Las Posadas
December 17: Since they were born, we have always limited the amount of gifts we give our children to three - the same as Jesus received.  Jennie Bishop, the author of The Princess and the Kiss: A Story of God's Gift of Purity really oudid herself with the exquisite book: The Three Gifts of Christmas.   The book provides a timeless lesson on the axiom "It is better to give than to receive."
December 18: I fear our children are outgrowing Tomie De Paola's Story of the Three Wise Kings and this may be the last year it makes its way into our book basket, but I still enjoy the story of the Epiphany. 
December 19: In keeping with the theme of the Epiphany, we really enjoy this sweet story: Small Camel Follows the Star
December 20: The Gift of the Magi is another tear-jerker and a lovely story not only about the true meaning of giving gifts at Christmas, but also a testament to type of sacrifices loving husbands and wives make for each other.

December 21: Another heartwarming story about the transformation that can be wrought by Christmas love is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. A little on the long side - this book can easily be stretched out over two - three days. 

December 22: A fictional book loosely based on the actual Christmas Truce of 1914,Christmas in the Trenches is a story about a moment unity and peace, in the midst of division and war.

December 23:The Polar Express  is still running after 30 years and we are still loving riding on it each year!

December 24: The classic Christmas Eve book:The Night Before Christmas  completes our book list - and while it is not a religious book, we enjoy the poem and the anticipation of the festivities of Christmas Even dinner with family and the celebration of  Midnight Mass at our Parish. 

What are your favorite Christmas read-alouds?  Share them in the Comments below!

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Home to Me

Memories of my Grandmother's house powerfully evoke all five of my senses. I can still hear the creak of the linoleum steps beneath my feet as I would ascend to her second floor apartment, the smell of simmering marinara sauce or some other Italian comfort food wafting to meet my nose.  Her greeting was always the same: a tight, warm embrace in her sturdy Sicilian arms followed by the lilt of her broken English: "'s my beautiful granddaughter".  And the tastes... Dinner at Grandma's was always a feast for the palate.  She could transform a head of iceburg lettuce, a slab of mozzarella and a dash of oil and vinegar into the most magically delicious salad I have ever eaten.

This hung above my Grandmother's stove and now hangs above mine.

I have the greatest memories of the days and nights spent as a child at her home: from sleepovers when I was allowed to stay up late and watch episodes of the Love Boat and Fantasy Island while she snored on the couch next to me to the sounds and smells of her frying meatballs on Sunday mornings. As a teen, when my parents drove me nuts for no other reason than they were my parents, I would escape to my Grandmother's house. All my fittings for my wedding dress were done with me perched precariously atop her kitchen table, and her adept seamstress hands pinning and repining. When I finally had my own children, I soaked up her parenting wisdom (my favorite quote: "The mother is the doctor.")  and delighted in the love she showered on her great-grandchildren. 

Nothing in my Grandmother's house ever changed. Growing up on a small, remote island off the coast of Sicily and arriving in the United States as an immigrant in the midst of the Great Depression gave her a natural detachment from material things. It wasn't that she didn't like nice things - her home was meticulously, albeit simply, furnished. It was just that she saw no reason to replace something that was still perfectly useful. The result was that her home remained exactly the same year after year, until she passed away at nearly 99 years old. It was that unchanging quality that I missed the most after her death. Life at Grandma's house was like her love- stable, steady, rock-solid and unchanging.

I was well into my forties when she died, but her death rocked me as if I were a child. Reminders from well-meaning friends of the length and beauty of her life offered me little consolation. I missed her presence in my life: I missed her hugs, I missed her voice, I missed her meatballs and I missed the home that I considered one of the happiest places on earth.

A few months after her death I sat in my Spiritual Director's office and cried my heart out to him. He patiently listened as I sobbed though my grief. When he finally spoke, he gently suggested that I was looking for my grandmother in all the wrong places. Instead of longing for her presence in the past, in the flesh, in her home - he proposed that I seek her instead where she was to be found: in the Lord, in the Spirit, in heaven. He asked me to pray for the grace to release her in this life, so that I might discover her in a new way.  Finally, he gave me this quote, which has sustained and consoled me ever since: "Those who die in grace go no further from us than God, and God is very near."

I turned over that quote in my mind for many months. I have come to appreciate the truth in its words. I thought that what I missed the most about my Grandmother was the permanence of her home and all that represented to me. What I have discovered is that her home was just a dwelling for her love, and that remains alive, well and exactly as it always was: stable, steady, rock-solid and unchanging.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Keeping Christ in Advent: 7 Ways to Prepare for a Peaceful December

After reading this post where I lamented my inability in previous years to stay focused spiritually during Advent, a dear friend of mine suggested that I compile a list of practical ways to get ahead of the busywork that needs to happen in order to prepare for Christmas, so that we have the time to be free to really enter fully into the Season of Advent. I am so grateful for her suggestion, because it has given me a good reason to get all these things on my list done - nothing like a little accountability to get the ball rolling! My goal is to have these tasks completed before the first Sunday of Advent, which will be celebrated this year on November 30.

1. Prepare for Advent first. 
For the past several years, the order of my planning and preparation goes like this: Thanksgiving, December festivities (all those parties, concerts, shopping trips and other things happen in December), Christmas, Advent.  See anything wrong with this picture?  I sure do. In my world, Advent has become an afterthought - something that I scramble to focus on around the time we light the pink candle. Here's a few ideas to prepare, in advance, for Advent. 
  • Get out your Advent wreath and make sure that you have fresh candles - If you need them you can get some here...Mega Candles - Unscented 10" Advent Taper Candle, Set of 4.
  • Have on hand a daily devotional that you can use for prayer during the Advent Season. I am planning to use Advent and Christmas With the Saints (Advent and Christmas Wisdom). I love this series, which contains volumes for Advent from St. Padre Pio, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, GK Chesterton, St. Augustine and more. 
  • Make a plan with your family to set aside time each day to light the Advent Wreath and spend time together in prayer. Pick a time that works for all of you - it could be dinnertime, or first thing in the morning, or right before bedtime. Advent is a penitential season, so this may require a sacrifice to fit in. However, as with all sacrifices, God will not be outdone in generosity and the blessings will flow. 

2. Purge.
One of the things I dread most about Christmas is the influx of new stuff that invades my house. While I am immensely grateful for the generosity of friends and family, I stress every year about where to put new toys, new clothes, new ornaments and that new 17 Piece Nativity Cookie Cutter Bake Set that I just had to buy.....

This year I am resolving to spend the next few weeks of November purging the house of old toys, clothes which have been outgrown or worn-out, kitchen gadgets that never get used, broken ornaments, used books, dusty trinkets and more. You name it -it's going. Advent begins the new year in the Church and I am aiming for it to begin a new, tidier, more organized year in my home. 

3. Make a list, check it twice and get it done.
As a wife and Mom, the list of things that need to get done to prepare for Christmas seems endless and seriously overwhelming - especially when you have left the majority of it until mid-December.  Here's a Christmas to-do list that I am aiming to finish prior to the first Sunday of Advent. Everyone's list is unique, so I encourage you to make your own and knock the items off as early as possible!
  • Buy, write, address, stamp and seal Christmas cards - I won't mail them till Dec. 20 but I sure don't want to be addressing envelopes that day. 
  • Send Christmas wish lists to grandparents and family of the kids sizes, likes and dislikes and any banned gift items (please Auntie, no Electronic Voice Transformer this year)
  • Pick up Christmas outfits and pj's for the kids and for yourself and hubby too! 
  • Buy all Christmas gifts - including a few spare gifts (I am thinking of mugs stuffed with Hershey kisses) for those unexpected, unplanned, or (heaven forbid) forgotten people. 
  • Stock up on wrapping paper, labels, tape and bows. 
  • Wrap a few gifts each day, as opposed to power-wrapping for 8 hours straight. 
  • Plan ahead for Christmas cooking and baking - making as few trips to the grocery store as possible - better yet, find a grocery store which delivers and save yourself the trip. 
  • Cook and freeze as many healthy meals as possible. 

4. Plan to try a new Christ-centered activity.
Advent is a special time in the life of the church and most parishes offer wonderful opportunities for spiritual growth during this season including Advent missions, penance services, concerts of sacred music, evenings of lessons and carols and more. Before Advent even begins, scout out an event sponsored by your parish, a neighboring parish or Diocese that you believe will help you focus on spiritually preparing yourself and your family for Christmas and put it on the calendar.

5. Just say no.
December brings with it a flood of invitations and opportunities for celebrations. While those are generally all fun and festive times, they can also easily and quickly lead to burnout, exhaustion and in some cases, depression. It really is OK to say no to holiday events and even to certain "traditions." Pick an evening in November and sit down with your spouse, a calendar and a glass of wine if you think it will help and plan out what events you will attend and what you will not. Having a united front, well in advance, is essential to winning the battle for time in the month of December and will help to eliminate a lot of stress, hurt feelings and arguments.

6. Keep it Healthy
My December diet consists of the following 5 food groups:
  1. Cookies
  2. Eggnog
  3. Wine
  4. Holiday dinners - Italian style 
  5. Holiday leftovers - Italian style
If I graphed my December sleep and exercise schedule, in comparison with my stress levels, you would see one soar while the other two plummet.  Folks, this is not good news. This year I am determined to be kind to myself by making a concerted effort to eat right, exercise, sleep and stay sane. How will I accomplish such an amazing feat? I have no clue. I certainly can't give up the eggnog or the cookies.... In all seriousness, like everything else, my plan is to schedule in time for exercise and to cook ahead as many healthy meals as possible. As for the lack of sleep, I am hoping that keeping our schedule manageable and completing the majority of Christmas errands ahead of time will minimize the late nights. 

7. Offer it up.
December stress happens - to some extent it is unavoidable. By the time Christmas Eve rolled around last year my behavior more closely resembled Attila the Hun than any great saint. If you find yourself getting tired, grouchy and just plain Scroogeish, take a deep breath, find a quiet spot, meditate on the blessed peace and silence that must have accompanied the Lord's birth and offer all your struggles up to Him. Pray for those who do not yet know the name of Jesus; pray for the person who is bugging you the most at that moment; pray that the world experiences the peace that the Savior brings. In the end, there is no such thing as the perfect Christmas celebration - only the perfect Christ. Let's all keep calm and focus on Him this Advent.

Read related posts here:
7 Ways to Celebrate Advent With Your Family
Our Advent Book List
Christmas Gift Ideas For Kids: Catholic Style

Head on over to This Ain't the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Inviting Christ to Be King of Our Hearts

This article originally appeared on Catholic 365.

In 1925, in an encyclical entitled Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI instituted the Solemnity of Christ the King and decreed that it should be celebrated as an annual feast by the entire church on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, as “the crowning glory upon the mysteries of the life of Christ.”
In the encyclical Pope Pius XI stated his hopes that the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King would serve as an “excellent remedy for the plaque which now infects society.”  He goes on to list the various ills that had befallen society in the early 20th century:

…”the insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundation and on the way to ruin.” 

A cursory reading of the Holy Father’s list, written nearly a century ago, reveal that little has changed in the world.  The maladies that blighted mankind in 1925 appear to have only grown more intense and widespread – setting mankind on a course far from God, and further and further into the relentless pursuit of power, possessions and pleasure at any cost.

What is the solution to mankind’s woes? It remains the same as it was in 1925. Only a radical conversion and acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as King of the universe will solve the world’s problems. How does this conversion happen? It happens one soul at a time, deep in the hearts of each individual person.

Pope Pius XI explains that in order for Jesus to be enthroned as King, he must first reign in the minds, wills and hearts of each person.  Jesus reigns as Lord of our minds when we “assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ.” He reigns in our wills when we “obey the laws and precepts of God.” He reigns in our hearts when we “spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.”

As a 21st century lay woman who serves the Lord in my domestic church as a wife and a Mom, I am personally convicted by this encyclical. It is far too easy for me to read the news and despair over the future – pointing the finger at others for the causes of the troubles in the world. What Pope Pius XI’s encyclical challenged me to do is to examine my own conscience and ask the questions:  Is Jesus Christ the King of my mind, will and heart? Have I submitted everything I am and everything I have to his Lordship?  Through reading and meditating on the Holy Father’s words I have come to understand that I cannot expect Christ to be King of my home, my family, my town or my nation, if he is not first reigning as Lord and sovereign in my own heart.

As we celebrate the great Solemnity of Christ the King this year, I once again repent and ask the Lord Jesus to reign in my life. I resolve to submit to his Lordship in the minute by minute minutiae of the trenches of everyday life: choosing virtue over vice; prayer over social media; kind words over a harsh tone; charity over mindless spending; and faith, hope and love over skepticism, despair and criticism. In this way I hope to one day be enjoy “eternal bliss and glory with Him in His heavenly kingdom.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

7 Lessons from Max Lucado's "You Are Special"

Max Lucado's children's book You Are Special is a favorite of mine and a beautiful story with many
facets to it and much to be learned from it. It is a sad story of judgment; of pride and slavery; of sin and brokenness.  It is also a beautiful story of witness and hope - a story of intercession and prayer. Ultimately it is a story of love and the heart of God.

Below are 7 lessons from the story that I shared a few years back with a women's group at our parish. Please note that I will include the main plot line as I go, so you should be able to follow along even if you have not read the book.  I do highly recommend that you pick up a copy for yourself  - it is a story whose message is ageless and timeless.

--- 1 ---
This is a story of judgement.
The story opens with us witnessing a typical day in the life of  the wooden Wemmicks. These gangly wooden people spend all their time furiously giving each other grey dots or golden stars. The grey dots are placed on Wemmicks who are perceived to be "bad" and the golden stars are placed on those Wemmicks perceived to be "good". The judgement about who is to receive dots and who is to receive stars are made purely at the whim of other Wemmicks.

We are told that the one thing all the Wemmicks share in common is that they have all been made by the Woodcarver, Eli, who lives in his shop on a hill at the top of the town. Most of the Wemmick's hardly acknowledgement their maker's existence, as they busily go about their daily lives. The Wemmicks are far to preoccupied with passing judgments on others than on looking to their maker to find out who they really are. Their identity and self worth are derived exclusively from the dots and the stars that they wore – much to their detriment.

Sound familiar?  It doesn’t take much more than a cursory glace around our world to figure out that we live pretty much like the Wemmicks do.  Your average person is almost totally defined by what other people tell them they are and the words used to describe most people have very little to do with their true identity in the Lord.  Adjectives like funny, smart, pretty, successful, dumb, lazy, arrogant, nasty give very little thought to the reality of most people’s hearts.  And yet, they are the words that we use to define ourselves and others.

What does the Lord say about that?  In Jeremiah 1:5 the Lord tells Jeremiah these words that he speaks to all of us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you – before you were born I dedicated you.”  He goes on in Jeremiah 29:11 to say “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you says the Lord; plans for your welfare not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.”

The Lord has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and we should actively seek it out. Until we encounter the Lord personally and commit ourselves to a relationship with Him, we will continue on in the rat race similar to the  Wemmick’s existence, both on the receiving and giving end of whatever "stars" and "dots" we use to measure the value of ourselves and those around us.

This is a story of sin and brokenness.
The main character in the story is a Wemmick called Punchinello. Poor Punchinello – he has had a rough life. He can't seem to do anything right. He isn't very beautiful or talented and he has nothing about him that suggests that he is anything "special" at all. In fact, he was told, and he believed, that he was a pretty bad Wemmick.  Grey dots covered his person and everytime another Wemmick saw him, they added a new dot to him, just because they assumed he deserved it. .

What are the dots?  They are our faults, real and imagined; they are the damage caused by our own sins and the sins of others; they are our wounds, our weaknesses, our brokenness, our addictions, our neuroses, our fears, our insecurities.  But they ARE not us.  St. Paul in Romans 8, starting in verse 14 boldly proclaims who we are:  “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption by which we cry Abba, Father!  The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” 

Jesus came and died to save us from our sins, from our brokenness and from our DOTS, but like Punchinello, we too need to come to the realization of the fact that we are broken and do need Him to save us and then we need to seek him.

This is a story of pride and slavery.
We might originally think that life was probably pretty good for those Wemmick’s that had stars.  After all, they got the stars from all the wonderful things that did – from all their talents and beauty.  I would submit that those Wemmicks who were proudly robed in stars weren’t much better off than those covered with dots. There are more subtle, but no less damaging forms of slavery that can take place in our lives when we have lots of stars.  The stars are earthly treasures – and having them presents a real temptation to pride and self-reliance.  In Matthew’s gospel 6:19 Jesus warns: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy and thieves break in and steal…but store up treasures in heaven.”

The stars are external to who the Wemmicks really are – they are the earthly “prize” for “doing good” and it can be really difficult for a star bearer to root their identity in the Lord as opposed to their stars.

I have experienced the slavery that this can lead to in my own life.  If I were a Wemmick – I would have a lot of stars. I don’t say that pridefully – only factually. There was a  time in my life when I didn’t go to see the Woodcarver daily, and the stars stuck. Trust me, they are just as hard to get rid of as the dots are.  I grew up as a straight A student – I was very successful in my career – people were and still do tell me what a good “job” I am doing. I have heard comments like “Oh Debbie couldn’t possibly struggle – she’s so HOOOLLLLYYY”  HA! If they only knew....The reality is that we are all in need of a Savior and his love and mercy – it's just that when we have a lot of stars we can find it very difficult to face that reality.

 A few years back I was seriously reluctant to face the areas of sin and brokenness in my life that the Lord was leading me to face.  How could I possibly live without my stars – where would my identity come from?  Would anyone love me if they knew the reality in my soul – the stuggle, the sin, the pride?    My very wise confessor told me to read Psalm 139 and really meditate on its truth. The Psalm begins like this:  “Lord you probe me and you know me – you know where I sit and where I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.  My travels and my rest you mark – with all my ways you are familiar.  Even before a word is on my tongue Lord, you know it all.”

The first time I tried to read it it went like this “ Lord, you probe me and you know me.” SLAM- I shut my Bible and stopped reading. The next time was not much better.  It took nearly 3 years for me to actually read through the whole thing without seriously cringing.  I,m not kidding. Why?  Because I was terrified of the fact that the Lord already knew my heart, mind and soul.  All I wanted him to see were the stars.  I thought by not admitting it to myself I was hiding it from Him – which is patently not true.  The psalmist says – “Where can I run from your love?”  Why would I even want to run or hide from the Lord’s love?  Because that love required a surrender – it required allowing him to remove the stars and the dots and all the other things I used to define myself and protect myself and allow him to show me his unique design for my life.  It is scary.  It isn’t easy.  It doesn’t happen over night.   But it is worth it – freedom in Christ is worth the struggle.

This is a story of witness and hope. 
Enter Lucia.  The story says – “she had no dots or stars.  It wasn’t that people didn’t try to give her stickers– it’s just that the stickers didn’t stick.”  Nothing stuck to Lucia and that was visibly evident in her demeanor.  Without Lucia having to say a word, she was immediately a witness to Punchinello. He desperately wanted what she had – or, as it were, what she didn’t have.  In her silent witness, Lucia offered Punchinello something great – she offered him the gift of hope.

When Punchinello finally asked her why the dots and the stars didn’t stick to her, she told him: “It’s easy...Every day I go see Eli!” In 1 Peter 15:16, St. Peter writes: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.”  Lucia didn’t give a sermon to poor Punchinello.  She didn’t give him a theological discourse. She didn’t snub him because he had so many dots, nor did she try to analyze why he had so many dots.  She just simply told him why she didn’t have any stickers and gently invited him to go and find out for himself.

We have all met Lucia’s in our journeys – you can sense the presence of the Lord in them from far away.  They have a peace and a joy about them that is obvious.  We want what they have.  Likewise, we are all called to be Lucia to others –not only by the silent witness of our lives, but also by the willingness to share with others the reason for our hope.

--- 5 --- 
This is a story of intercession.
When Punchinello finally arrived at Eli’s shop, Eli said ‘Lucia told me you would be coming.”  Lucia was an intercessor.  She had interceded for Punchinello with Eli. Unlike the other Wemmicks who spent their time passing judgement on others, Lucia spent her time interceding for the Wemmicks.

Like Lucia, we too are called to intercede for our brothers and sisters who struggle under the weight of their dots and stars.  We can be especially powerful intercessors when we pray for those who struggle or suffer in ways similar to us. IN those situations, we pray from our experience and our prayer of intercession takes on a new depth and fervor.

This is a story of prayer. 
Punchinello comes to Eli as a beaten down Wemmick and the first thing he hears is something that shocks him:  Eli calls him by name.  Punchinello is literally stopped dead in his tracks by this.  For us too, it is often shocking when we first come to the realization in the depths of our heart that the Lord knows us by name. In Isaiah 43:1, the Lord says:  "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  We belong to the Lord; we are his because he both made us and redeemed us. This is our truest identity.

Punchinello cannot  even understand Eli’s words of love and hope and trust, but Eli is patient with him. The Woodcarver doesn’t browbeat him; he doesn’t demand Punchinello’s total trust immediately. He understands where Punchinello is at and reassures him saying “You will understand, but it will take time. You’ve got a lot of marks.”

When I first read the story, this was the one line that stuck me to the heart.  I had a false expectation that once I had a relationship with the Lord all my sins, my brokenness, my addictions and my struggles were going to vanish as the Lord waved his magic wand over me. Why, I wailed in my heart, doesn’t Eli just take all of Punchinello’s dots off of him!  Reflecting on the story, I am not certain that Punchinello would attain the “Teflon” factor that Lucia had if Eli had done that.  Nor do I think he would continue to go and spend time with Eli if all his dots had been removed in an instant. As tempting as it is to want the Lord to magically make things perfect in our lives, that is not the path to real, lasting spiritual growth.  Growth in our spiritual life takes time, and often takes struggle.  It is in the moments of struggle that we experience the most growth.   Yes, the Lord is sovereign and can do anything in an instant.  However, he most often he lets us work through our struggles with his grace and mercy. In the process, we come to discover Him in his greatness and in his love.

Eli goes on: “For now, just come to see me every day and let me remind you how much I care”.  Eli instructs Punchinello to pray – every day; to spend time with him – every day.  We too need to spend quality time with the Lord.  It is essential for us to set aside this tiime spent in intimacy with the Lord where we are not only speaking to him, but also listening for his response. Through prayer we come to understand who God is and who we truly are.

As Catholics, we can experience this intimate prayer in a special way at Mass after we receive the Eucharist and when we pray before our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration. St. John Vianney says this: "How sweet and full of comfort are the moments spent before the Blessed Sacrament! Are you in any trouble? Come and throw yourself at his feet...Do people speak badly of you? Come to him and you will find a good friend who will never fail you."

There are whole books and teachings devoted to the subject of prayer, but the  bottom line is this: if we are tired of being Punchinello and we want to be Lucia, we need to go see the Woodcarver daily and let Him tell us how much he loves us.

This is a story of love and the heart of God.
When Punchinello finally musters up the courage to face his dots,  he goes to visit Eli and he is both shocked and overwhelmed by the love that he finds in Eli.  For one thing, Eli knows his name.  More than that, Eli think Punchinello is special.  Eli was HOPING that Punchinello would come.  When we initially encounter the Lord’s love, we are often as overwhelmed as Punchinello – it can be so hard for us to believe that he loves us, dots, stars and all.  It is mind-boggling for us to believe that he WAITS for us to come and see him. When we do go to him, though, we too can experience the miracle that Punchinello experienced at the end of his first visit with Eli - a dot fell from his person. 

The journey of discovering the unconditional love of God and his divine plan for our lives is one that will take a lifetime.  In that process of discovering who God is, we come to fully discover who we are as his beloved children.  St. Augustine beautifully describes this journey saying: “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romance — to seek Him the greatest of all adventures, to find Him the greatest human achievement.”

Please join me in this prayer: 

Lord Jesus, I invite you into my heart and acknowledge you as my Lord, maker and redeemer. I come, responding to your invitation: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”  Lord Jesus, I am seeking to be free of all the burdens that I carry, of all of my stars and all of my dots.  

Lord, I ask you to remove my dots and to heal any scars that they may have left on me.  Jesus, I ask you to remove the dot of inferiority, the dot of insecurity, the dot of fear, the dot of unworthiness, and the dot of unforgiveness.  For those times when I have been snubbed, excluded, gossiped about, or misunderstood, I ask you to remove those dots. I beg you to remove the dots that were placed on me by those who told me that I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, or capable enough.  I ask you to take away the dots that were placed on me as I watched my dreams die due to someone else’s words or actions. In particular I ask you to remove the dots placed on me by those closest to me, dots I received through insults, put downs, criticisms and even by careless or thoughtless comments from my  husband, children, parents and friends.  Lord, I ask you to remove and pour your healing love over the dots of addictions, violence, and abuse. Finally, I ask you to remove the dots I may not even realize are there – wounds that I have received and carried for so long that I no longer recognize them as wounds.  I know that your love can heal me and I place all my trust in you.  

Lord Jesus, I now ask you to show me the damage done by the stars I wear.  I ask for your mercy and forgiveness for the times when those stars caused me to feel superior to others, to place dots on others, to criticize, condemn or wound others with my words or my actions.  I ask you to remove the stars of pride, of self-sufficiency and self-reliance that cause me to try to live independently of you.  Free me from the desire to accumulate more and more stars at the expense of living the life that you have planned for me.  I surrender the burden that the stars have given me, and I renounce any perfectionism; any unhealthy desire to be a people pleaser, and any false pretenses that I make in front of others.  I desire to live the life that you have planned for me and I place all my trust in you.  
I'm participating in #/WorthRevisit Wednesday's with this post. 
For more awesome #WorthRevisit posts, head over to the lovely hostesses' Allison Gingras at Reconciled to You and Elizabeth Reardon at Theology is a Verb.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

What's On Your Catholic Bucket List?

Bucket lists.  You know what I'm talking about right?  Bucket lists are those wish lists that we have tucked away in the back of our minds of all the crazy things we want to accomplish before we die.  Things like climbing Mount Everest, winning the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest, and going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Anyone out there have those items on their short list?   Don't worry -  I don't want to do any of those things either. 

To be honest, most of my bucket list items are pretty simple - making memories with my family and friends and living a life worthy enough to earn me the heavenly welcome of "Well done, good and faithful servant" when I die. (Mt 25:21)

I do however, have a pretty specific Catholic bucket list that I would like to do and experience before I die. 

I am blessed to have already checked off a few items on my Catholic bucket list - including a ten day trip to Rome which resulted in my conversion during the Jubilee Year of 2000 at a Mass celebrated by Saint John Paul II (really doesn't get much better than that).  More recently, my husband and I had the privilege of venerating the relics of my favorite saint, St. Maria Goretti on the  tour of her major relics to the United States.  Seeing her relics had been a dream of mine for many years!

1. Read the scriptures and the catechism. Oh sure, I have read most of the Scriptures and the catechism over the years, but I have never read them both straight through - end to end.  Maybe it's just my slightly over-organized personality, but I really like finishing books from beginning to end.  Of all the things on my bucket list, this is the one that is most easily achievable (I think).
2. Learn Latin. I'm not talking about memorizing the Salve Regina in Latin - I'm talking about learning enough Latin to go back and read ancient church documents that are only written in Latin. (Can anyone say Catholic geek?) Ah well, tempus fugit, and this is going to take a lot more time than #1. 
3. Pray a daily Rosary. This sounds almost too easy to be on a bucket list, but honestly, it is something I can't seem to ever get off the ground on a regular basis.  I so want to be a daily rosary prayer, but know that I need God's help in sustaining this most worthy habit. 
4. Take a Pilgrimage to Mexico. Of all the Marian apparitions, the one of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego has captured both my mind and heart.  Having been involved in parish and diocesan evangelization work for over a dozen years, I am awed by how Our Lady's appearances led to the conversion of millions of pagan Aztecs - something that the Franciscan missionaries had been unsuccessfully toiling at for many years prior. 
I love the tenderness and compassion which our Lady showed to Juan Diego and I especially love how the image on the miraculous tilma depicts her as pregnant with the Son of God.  The fact that she is Patroness of the Americas and that I LOVE Mexican food makes this bucket list item a win all around! 
5. Go on a week long silent retreat. Parenthood, teaching, writing, studying - my daily activities leave me little time for silence - both mentally and physically.  For years now I have longed to go on a week long silent retreat, with no speaking (and no noisy internet), except the responses at Daily Mass and the Rosary. Honestly, I'm sure that entering into that degree of silence would be a shock to my frentic-paced mind, but I believe that after a few hours (ok, maybe days) of adjustment it would be a welcome relief.  
6. Take a JPII Pilgrimage. Saint John Paul II holds a special place in my heart - he was instrumental in my conversion and his writings continue to be a source of spiritual nourishment for my soul.  I would love to visit the town where he was born, the convent where he prayed for hours, prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, upon being told he was made a Bishop, and the universities where he studied and taught at.  However, the highlight of walking in the footsteps of our beloved Papa, would be to return to Rome and venerate his tomb. 

 7.Walk the Camino,  I first learned about about the 500 mile pilgrim walk known as the Camino del Santiago, in Spain, at a conference during which I heard Father Dave Pivonka share the story of his own walk (Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles With Jesus).  I was moved by the spiritual lessons Father Dave recounted from his journey and the whole idea of undertaking such an intense physical and prayerful pilgrimage has intrigued me ever since.  Honestly, this item on my bucket list is probably the furthest out of my reach, but hey, that is what bucket lists are for! 
What's on your Catholic bucket list? 

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

7 Ideas for Giving Your Children a Vocations' Mindset

Fostering vocations in one's Domestic Church can feel like a daunting task for many Catholic families.  Here are a few simple ideas that our family has used to build of vocations' mindset in the lives of our children.

1. Talk. talk. talk.
In our family, talk of vocations, and the idea of God having a plan for our lives comes up regularly. Whenever we have discussions with our children about their futures, we always add the disclaimer:..."if that is God's plan for your life."

Our lives are not our own and every baptized Christian is called to a vocation. We pray that by constantly keeping the "vocation conversation" open that our children will not view a vocation as a foreign concept or a way of life that is "for someone else". Our desire above all else is to teach them to seek God's will in their life - wherever he leads them.

2. Pray. pray. pray.
Vocations are part of our family's daily prayer life in many ways.  We pray for our priests, and for an increase in vocations to the priesthood daily. In listing the intentions for our family rosary, my husband and I pray for our children - that they may follow the path God leads them on, whether it is marriage, priesthood or religious life. Above all, we pray that they would be faithful to the Lord every day of their lives.

It is important the our children hear us, as parents, praying this prayer out loud. Our parish is blessed at every Mass to pray for vocations during the prayer of the faithful. Finally, we take our children regularly to confession and Adoration and we encourage them to journal and ask the Lord for his guidance in their lives. Prayer is powerful!

3. Utilize resources about vocations to teach your children.
There are so many wonderful resources to expose children to the possibility of a call to priesthood or religious life.  Here are a few or my favorites:

  • Our family really enjoyed the book by Elizabeth Fiocelli:  Where Do Priests Come From?. This book, and its companion books: Where Do Sisters Come From? provide a wonderful description of how vocations are drawn from ordinary people who grew up in ordinary families.  These books are perfect for a read-aloud in a classroom setting at CCD or during a children's ministry and are a great introduction to vocations for children who have had little personal contact with a priest or sister.

  • Purchase a Mass kit for your sons - a dear friend of mine bought one for my son when he was two years old and he regularly "said Mass" for us for many years. This one, My Mass Kit, available at Amazon, is just adorable and a great way to give your sons the opportunity to pretend to be a priest.  I cannot tell you how many priests our family has met who have shared stories of pretending to say Mass when they were children.

  • I love the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist's Facebook page - the joy on these sister's faces as they go about their daily work is so evident and contagious that viewing their daily updates always give me a shot in the arm and a conviction that the joy of the Lord needs to be my strength as well! Let your kids view their status updates as well!

  • Father Robert Barrron's video "Heroic Priesthood" is a powerful short video highlighting the experience of the seminarians at Mundelein Seminary through the lens of a basketball game. I recently played it for a group of 11 year olds at our homeschool co-op and I can tell you that the kids were absolutely riveted - you could have heart a pin drop. Many of the children went home and ask their parents to watch the video again.

4. Encourage an attitude of service in your children.
Every Christian vocation, whether it is to the priesthood, religious life or marriage demands and attitude of self-giving and service. In a world that is extremely self-centered, where pleasure and instant gratification is the name of the game, it can  be a challenge to foster an attitude of service in our children. However, our family has found that the more we encourage our children to serve others, the greater their desire to serve becomes. It truly does feel good to do good.

An attitude of service does not require remarkable feats of heroism - we don't need to go off to the mission fields to cultivate selfless giving in our kids - simply encouraging them to help out around the house, be aware of a friend or family member in need, and to be open to service opportunities in our parish is probably enough to begin to sow the seeds of a service-oriented life. We have found that when asking our children to serve others, it is necessary for us to vocally make the connection about why we are serving to them - out of love of God and love of neighbor. It is important that children are taught that our service flows from our love of the Lord.

5. Get to know your parish priest.
My brother is a diocesan priest and both my husband and I work for the church, so having priests at the dinner table is something my children have experienced to from birth. This exposure to the clergy in a "non-church" atmosphere give them the opportunity to see that God calls real people to the priesthood - Mets' fans, golfers, motorcycle riders (much to my chagrin), budding chefs, guitarists, intellectuals are more. Having clergy involved in our day to day lives allows the children to ask questions about their vocations, and other religious topics. It also gives us an appreciation of some of the struggles and challenges our priests face.

Don't be intimidated to invite your parish priest over to dinner and get to know them.  Every priest - dinner guest we have ever had has been immensely grateful for the invitation. I often worry that we are bothering Father, but the reality is, most priests we know are delighted to share a meal as well as their stories and their faith with an interested family.

6. Attend Ordinations.
Attending family weddings was one of the highlights of my childhood - I loved all the festivities that went with these joyous occasions and they served to highlight the importance of marriage for me. I did not, however, have an opportunity to attend an Ordination until my own brother was ordained a priest when I was 33 years old.  My brother's ordination to priesthood was a powerful and joyous occasion for my family and I have never forgotten the sense of awe that I had at the gift and mystery of the priesthood after witnessing his ordination.

My husband and I have been blessed to take our children to two transitional diaconate ordinations and one priesthood ordination. The beautiful rite of Ordination and the sense of camaraderie among the priests present provides a great opportunity plant the seeds of vocations in our children.

Many dioceses encourage the faithful to attend Ordinations to the priesthood, transitional diaconate and permanent diaconate - check your Diocese's website or give them a call to find out if you are able to attend - not only will your family be blessed by the experience - it is a great encouragement to the men being ordained to see the support of the community.

7. Enlist the help of the saints.
Last, but certainly not least, ask for the intercession of the saints to foster vocations in your children. Some of our family favorites are St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of all priests; St. Padre Pio, whose tireless ministry in the confessional is a great testimony to the power of the priesthood; St. Teresa of Avila, whose commitment to prayer and the interior life is so key for any vocation; and St. Therese of Lisieux, whose "little way" of love and service is a goal that can be understood and lived out by even the smallest child.