Focusing on the Real Meaning of the Season

Adventbook

Advent Prayers every day, help with the true preparation.

Someone posted this video on Facebook today and it got me thinking; what am I doing to make sure we keep our focus on the real meaning of the season this Advent?

It is so easy to get caught up in the gifts and the cookies and the trimmings of Christmas and lose the reason for all the preparation in the hustle and bustle of all the, well, preparation.

I have three young kids who are all pretty excited about new toys and clothes and electronic gadgets. They are a little less excited about us dragging them (yes, dragging) to Mass every week, but drag them we do.

That’s the thing, when I asked myself what do I do to keep the real meaning of Christmas at the forefront, I realized I didn’t need to so much with my children as I probably do for myself. It seems that with our regular every day Catholic lives and then the added rituals of the Advent season, the kids are pretty well focused on the fact that the birth of Jesus is why we have Christmas, not Santa Clause.

We light our Advent wreath candle every night at dinner and say a short prayer, rather than opening a calendar window counting down to Presents Day. Rather than snowmen snow-globes, we have had a Fisher Price Nativity Scene in the center of our room,  since the kids were babies, and as you might imagine it has lead to much discussion over the years around Jesus’ story. We spend a good amount of our time and resources giving back to those less fortunate than we in equal proportion to what we may receive. We talk a lot about gratitude, even more than normal, which is already a lot.

So, no, my kids don’t need to shift their focus to what is important, as it is already there. It is I who needs to remind myself, almost daily, that the Advent season is one of preparedness of my soul, not my Santa stockpile. It seems I need to clarify my reason during this season. My job is not to solely be the  mom who must give all that is on the list but rather to be the daughter who must ready herself to receive.

Because, grace is coming and no amount of bargain shopping will help me be ready to have it as my best me.

That’s going to require much more than an extended Black Friday sale.

Knowing the Full Story

Decidedly NOT the Archbishop's House. Just a Microsoft file image.

Decidedly NOT the Archbishop’s House. Just a Microsoft file image.

This morning as we readied ourselves for the day, we were all struck silent by a news story about an Archbishop in Georgia who was buying a two million dollar home. I immediately got that sick feeling in my stomach that comes when my Church does something stupid and the media eats it up.

I turned off the television and continued with the business of the morning, hoping I didn’t have to explain to my children why greed seemed to be the Catholic lesson of the day. I struggled with the news story and with my own reaction, which was to instantly believe the worst. I need to spend some time with that as it troubles me. You would think that after nearly a year working in the Church I would have a better understanding that what you see in the news media is not always what you get. Instead what I found I still have, in large quantities, is skepticism in the human part of our Church. It seems my faith in God is strong, my faith in his followers is not.

When I got to work and began searching for daily news relevant to the teens I work with, I found Fr. James Martin, SJ, the man I often look to for clarity when it comes to Current Catholic Events, had posted a link to the letter written by Archbishop Wilton T. Gregory, the man at the center of the storm.

Of course I clicked, and what I found was a sincere and heartfelt apology and explanation for how we have arrived at this current problem on the news. I had heard snippets of this letter on the news, but out of context they sounded like exactly what they were, convenient sound bites like this:

“What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the Church have changed.” 

You could see how that might be misinterpreted as coming from a man who might not be thrilled with the changes. However, when taken as a whole, Archbishop Gregory’s letter was anything but convenient. It was honest, apologetic and humble-everything you would hope it would be.

Some lines that struck me had to do with basic human frailty, showing that even when we think we are doing all the right things, we just might miss the forest through the trees.

“I am disappointed that, while my advisors and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia.”

He goes on to list other failures, failures that he takes full responsibility for and for which I am certain he will seek forgiveness from God and man. Don’t we all deserve forgiveness if we are truly sorry for our sins?

” I fear that when I should have been consulting, I was really only reporting, and that is my failure. To those who may have hesitated to advise me against this direction perhaps out of deference or other concerns, I am profoundly sorry.”

My challenge as I read this letter was to stop thinking it was written as a PR ploy and start believing in the goodness of man, even Catholic man, maybe especially Catholic man. I had to put away my inner skeptic and take the Archbishop at his word. My challenge is to start expecting the best, rather than predict the worst out of the men of this Church. Faith in his followers, not just in Him? Let’s just say I’m trying it on for size thanks, in part to a two million dollar home.

Why I Believe

churchIn college I took a personality test that broke people down into types of questions. Supposedly this told you what type of information you needed to feel satisfied as a problem solver. Some people were what. This group did fine with surface information, and had no need to dig deeper. As long as they had the basic facts, this group was satisfied. Another group was who, and they of course needed a source behind the problem in order to get to the business of solving it.

I fell into the group of why, which my professor explained was the hardest group to satisfy. As a why, I need explanations, logical ones, or I have a tough time proceeding. I need as many details and as much background as humanly possible before I am satisfied with the puzzle. I am the theater teacher who wants to know your motivation. My incessant need for why can lead  to very well put together arguments and also drives my husband crazy.

It would stand to reason then, that as a why I would have a hard time reconciling myself with faith. I mean, most of the time, there is no why. Why (or the inability to answer the question) is what often brings people to their knees or sends them running the opposite direction of a higher power. For me, the why is something I have decided to leave to religion-not faith. I have plenty of Why questions for my Catholic religion, and I am not sure I will ever be totally satisfied with those answers. But, I choose to forget asking for the whys when it comes to my faith. Faith, I don’t question. After all, faith is belief without proof, right? Here is the only answer I need to satisfy me when it comes to faith:  quite simply, I need my faith to live.

I need an afterlife.

Call it heaven or the underworld or whatever you believe; I just need to know that my mother and father are dancing there. I need to know my mom and Ginny are laughing together and my mom and Gege are sharing a cocktail and catching up. I NEED to know that all the turmoil and heartbreak and sacrifice my mom weathered while she was here on earth all with a smile on her face and gratitude in her heart, was worth it because now her soul knows endless joy. I need that. Perhaps that makes me weak or naive. So be it. I believe.
I need my faith to keep my ego in check.

Children are wonderful ego-checkers. Working with teens, even more so. Oh, how deliciously self-absorbed was I as a young woman?  I thought the most important things in the world were my job, my apartment, and what my husband and I would do on vacation. Then I had kids and some days I forget I am even part of life’s equation. In reality though, children can have you so wrapped up in them and their impact on your life that you actually aren’t any less self-centered than before.

My faith helps me remember that we are all here for others.

It is my job as woman of faith to teach the kids around me to look outside and figure out their place as servants of the world. Had I no faith, had I no belief that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, I might only focus on winning soccer games and class officer elections. Or, worse, I might only focus on all the bad that has happened and will happen to me and everyone else in the world.

Without faith, I might only question why storms happen instead of figuring out how to help those who were there. I might choose to focus on the sadness and grief that comes from losing two parents to cancer, rather than finding ways to fight the disease so that other people don’t suffer the same. Some people can act this way without relying on a higher power.  Good for them. I need a holy reminder and a little grace. Without my faith, I might let my ego win.
Having faith keeps me humble.

Sometimes, in the thick of the day to day, my life may seem ultra-important and all consuming. My faith reminds me I am a citizen of this world and a servant to the next. My faith reminds me I am a small part of a large picture. Some people say they have this without believing in a higher power. More power to them. These believers say their faith is in humanity or in just being good. Call it what you will-but faith is faith. Dig a little deeper and they just might find there is a source they aren’t yet willing to acknowledge. Either way, does it benefit anyone for either of us to work to discredit the other? No.

My faith brings humility while also providing me a sense of worth that I am not sure I would have otherwise. I am able to feel confident in my efforts because I know that I was created in purity. Therefore, at my core I am good. My mistakes and my decisions and my actions, as a human, might look the opposite of good. I may cause damage. I will make mistakes. But I can forgive myself and try again to do better because of the confidence and peace my faith provides. It is not an easy journey.

I will stumble and fall and experience disappointment on life’s journey. I am not chosen any more than the next to be on it. I do not compare my life to others’ because their journey and decisions are theirs alone. Faith is a private relationship. I make no claim to know mine is the right one. But I have chosen to accept it and to accept others for their own journey, no matter how alike or different it is than mine.

 

Five Plus Apps For Catholics

CoverApps

Since buying my very first smart phone ( a Palm Treo, a million years ago!) I’ve slowly but surely transferred most of my life to mobile devices. As a mom and freelancer and now youth minister, I’m always on the go and seemingly always in need of connectivity. I’ll admit, I hate “stuff” so the less I can carry, the happier I am. Which would explain why my little phone is chock full o’ goodies and makes me exceedingly happy.

InnerMonk

As everything from store cards to calendars to notebooks moved to my phone or table, there was one stubborn area that lagged behind. The last paper hold outs were those that involved my church life. It seemed everywhere I traveled, I always had a rosary or a prayer-book of some sort in a pocket or purse and I wondered if, in the name of efficiency,  I could change that. Luckily, I found some perfect apps that have made carrying anything but phone and keys a thing of the past. Also, quite surprisingly, these have enhanced my prayer life. It’s hard to forget when to pray if a little phone-bird chirps to remind you! I’ll share some of my favorites with you and feel free to leave any you love in the comments below.

  1. IMYay!(Honor your) Inner Monk- iOS & Android, Free: This charming  app is a way to be sure you’re including daily prayer in your life. It offers a morning and afternoon prayer that are both quick enough to complete waiting for a train or brushing your teeth. The designers of this app know that we regular people don’t  have time to pray like monks, but we should still be talking to God every day. I love this because the prayers are often so timely I’m not entirely sure someone isn’t reading my mind. They get right to the heart of what I need to hear to focus my energy on doing good work each morning and continuing that work, often in spite of the events of the day, each afternoon.  The app was designed by the monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine community in Indiana. Not only are the prayers short and easy to incorporate, the app is so beautifully designed, with incense smoke and chanting amens, you can’t help but want to open it up twice a day. It also tracks your progress and celebrates you at the end of each month. See that picture above? Who wouldn’t want that?
  2. magnificatMagnificat-iOS, Android, Free- This Magnificat app offers prayers for daily, evening and night based on the Liturgy of the Hours complete with reminders so you stop to pray even if you’ve lost track of time. There are daily Mass reading, daily meditations taken from the best the Church has to offer and essays on the Saint of the day. That’s just SOME of what’s packed into this powerful little app. You can increase your faith and learn more about the church on your commute home. (Trains, only please.)Laudate
  3. Laudate- iOS, Android, Free– The Laudate app is billed as the “most popular and most comprehensive” on its iTunes review. I can’t vouch for popular, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one  more comprehensive. This app has:
  • Daily Mass readings and Saint of the Day
  • The order of the mass (helpful for those of us who STILL can’t get the Creed right-ugh!)
  • Stations of the Cross
  • Examination of Conscience and other Confession prep tools
  • The complete NAB and Douay-Rheims Bibles
  • An interactive Rosary (along with about 10 other options for saying the Rosary)
  • Links to Catholic media outlets, Catechism and Vatican documents
  • And more! Seriously, you need to see for yourself. missio

 

     4. Missio iOS, Android, Free– Did you think you’d ever see a day when a Pope                      “launches an app worldwide”? Well, that’s what happened here. Missio was created            by The Pontifical Mission Societies as a way to allow everyone to find out about the              latest news with the global Catholic church. It’s essentially a Catholic  news                          aggregator, with a Papal stamp of approval. saint

     5. Saints 4 Kids iOs, $2.99- This app and the Child’s prayer app offer a great                     alternative to kids or adults who aren’t ready for all the text in the above mentioned             “daily” apps. There are daily prayers and daily Saint bios perfect for kids’ eyes and              ears. There are also features like printing, where you can actual color in the picture of          the Saint of the day. These are a great way to get children involved in a daily dialogue          with God.

So there you have it. My “Deus” folder on the iPhone. I’m also anxious to check out Catholic Cheat Sheet for more help with my Creed problem. Just promise not to give me the stink eye if I have my phone out during Mass. Now you know why! For an even broader list of Catholic apps, you can visit the websites CatholicApps or Catholicapps.wordpress. Happy Mobile Faith!

 

 

 

 

 

Advent Waiting

advent-wreathI remember as a little kid Advent seemed as if it was at least 6 months long. There were torturously long days in between lighting each of those candles, and I would sit in church each week counting the days until the 25th. Those first three candles burned so slowly,  I was certain Christmas would never arrive.

As I grew up, the Advent season got busier and busier so that now it seems to pass in a blur of shopping, wrapping, baking and watching our checkbook like a hawk, hoping for some miracle to stretch our money just a bit further this month. I often sit on my couch on December 26th, staring at the rubble of the last two days, and wonder where the weeks have gone?

It is easy to forget the reason for this season. We are to ready ourselves for the coming of the Lord but not by stringing lights or hanging mistletoe. Instead, we should spend quiet time with ourselves and examine whether our hearts are ready to take in the miracle of Jesus.

That sounds nice doesn’t it? But I can bet  you’re all sighing in wonder or rolling your eyes in frustration after reading that last part. It’s easy to say Advent should be a time of quiet contemplation but it is quite another to figure out how to live it.

Like most things in life, there is magic in the action. Just do something, anything this Advent season to take back Christmas. Start each morning with a short prayer. Setting your day on the foundation of quiet conversation with God goes far toward readying your heart for Jesus. It might even make all the holiday parking lots a bit more bearable. Then, end your day with five minutes of reflection on all that was good. It is easy, especially this time of year, to fall into the vortex of chaos and stress. If you purposely decide to focus on what went well instead of what flopped, or worse, what never got done, you just might surprise yourself with how many things you have to be thankful for.

Every day, take some time to focus on the wonder of the season instead of the worry. You just might find your heart full instead of your soul depleted when you’re on the couch amidst the rubble on December 26th.

Faith for Smart People

Books 001Sometimes, when traveling in “intellectual circles” (or at least circles that call themselves intellectual) faith can be used interchangeably with naivete. Sometimes, this turns my normally easy-going demeanor a little on its head. I have written over on another blog about this very topic. Head on over there to take a gander at my defending my faith and see what you think.

Gratitude as a Practice

ThanksgivingCornucopiaIt’s that time of year again. The time when you are inundated with Christmas decorations at every turn, even though the Halloween pumpkins are still on your front porch. We all complain about it and wish it were different, but are we really doing anything to fix it in our own lives?

It is so easy to just be overwhelmed at this time of year with all the “doing”. There are meals to cook, travel arrangements to make, presents to buy. And if you’re still in school? Well, there are SATs, college applications, homecoming dances and championship games to prepare for. Let’s not forget semester exams and quarterly reports to navigate.

Somehow, in all the planning and doing, we miss the importance of that day in November when we’re supposed to just slow down and say thanks. Sure, we may stop for a moment that day and give thanks, but I would challenge that we need to do more.

Sure, the history of Thanksgiving is Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a meal, but isn’t the sentiment of the day more important now than ever? Shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to what we are thankful for, instead of just swimming in the piles of all there is to do?

Gratitude isn’t something that just happens. Gratitude should be an active practice and not just one day a year.

When my babies were little, I pulled them from their cribs every morning singing Psalm 118, “This is the day the lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Quite honestly, this was not some lovely maternal moment where I was trying to bring joy into their little lives. Rather, if I’m being honest, it was an attempt to shake off my tired, bad mood. I am not a morning person anyway, so being woken by a screaming baby, no matter how cute, usually left me a bit grouchy. I sang that Psalm in an attempt to not cloud my child’s day with my own bad mood.

You know what? It worked, for all of us. Most babies stop crying when their cooky mom arrives singing a song and what mom can stay in a bad mood when met with a toothless baby grin? That was my first glimpse into the active practice of gratitude. Starting each day with the reminder to be grateful about a new day set a powerful path for us to continue to follow as my kids grew.

Now, we all make sure to take time every week to reflect on what we’re grateful for. When praying, we try to add in thanksgiving as often as we ask for help or guidance. In the month of November especially, I try to stop every day, even for just a moment and find something to be grateful for.

It’s hard sometimes, but if you think about it, sometimes even the early Christmas Carols aren’t so bad with the right attitude.

 

What Comes With an Open Heart?

Look Up, the Signs Are All Around.

Look Up, the Signs Are All Around.

If you had told me a few years ago I would be starting a blog to write about my work in The Catholic Church, I’d have either taken your temperature or asked if you had had too much to drink. See, back then I was just a freelance writer questioning my way through my religion.

I am a cradle Catholic who was one of the few kids I knew who rarely complained about church or Catholic school. I loved the ritual of mass as a kid and as a teenager, I was an active member of a youth group and countless retreat teams. I went to church, was married in that church and as a young married woman even brought my envelopes every week to the various parishes we joined every time we moved.

When I became a mother and it was time to pass on religion to my kids, I began digging deeper into Catholicism and I wasn’t sure I liked what I was seeing. I questioned. I contemplated. I challenged. I doubted, and I nearly gave up the fight. But something kept me tethered and though I never could intellectually reconcile why, I knew in my heart this was the church where I belonged.

Then one day, on a train home from work in New York City, I read on twitter about a new Pope and I wept. Right there on the train, I wept with promise and joy and most importantly hope. I wept with hope for a different future; hope that the call I heard was indeed the right one. I had hope that the path I had chosen was being validated by God. For in all that time of questioning, I kept my heart open.

I asked for answers and then waited patiently to hear them. I never stopped communicating with God, and time and time again, I was sent the people, the stories and the experiences that lead me to where I am today- sitting here writing about my work in The Church.

A year ago if you had told me this would be the end result, I might have been a skeptic. By keeping an open heart, I was able to drown out my inner skeptic with God’s call, and for that I am ever grateful.