Author Archives: Knowloveserve

Life in Plan B

No one ever chooses to stand outside of Time. It’s only in moments of tremendous grief or personal upheaval that time itself serves an abrupt eviction. And standing there in a cosmic void of uncertainty, you can only examine the wreckage of expectations with a primal instinct. And lacking any cues to survival, the best that can be done is to begin searching through the rubble for any fragments of ‘normal’ that can be found. And so begins the long, hard work of rebuilding an identity.

* * *

I am a single mother of seven children now. I am not a widow. I am not a divorcee. And I am sacramentally bound to my husband until death do us part. But the process of legal separation has been a brutal reality check on a life that I thought I had all figured out. An identity I thought I had all figured out. I have been with this man for half of my life and on our 15th wedding anniversary this past December, barely a word was spoken between us.  When we started dating, he was my world. I looked to him to show me and tell me who I was, for better or worse. When the ring was on my finger, I delighted in being “his” wife and the Mrs. in front of his name. When the children were born, I thought we were complete and that hand-in-hand we’d let the fire of our love ignite and evangelize the world through the raising of good, wholesome children. I knew there’d be trials… but never, ever dreamed that I’d have to come up with a Plan B.

Yet here I am. 35 years old and navigating how to make sense of Plan B as best as I can. I have to provide for my family for the first time so I work in a restaurant to supplement the child support in order to make ends meet. I am not a stay-at-home wife anymore. The lives of my children have been thrown into extraordinary trauma, so they’ve all been enrolled in school. I am not the home educator anymore. Years of tending babies throughout the night now leave me restless and awake at all hours, haunted by the silence.  And my breasts ache to nurse the baby who is denied his mother’s embrace. I am not an attachment parent anymore. I do not go out on dates. I do not enjoy Valentine’s Day. I do not feel the complete happiness and satisfaction I once knew hanging out with our married friends, but I have no place among the young singles either.

* * *

What is most bewildering is the forgetting that happens outside of time. Faces you know and love may come to visit. And they will offer some comfort: a breaking of the bread or companions in the search for artifacts of consolation. “A sorrow shared is a half joy.” But the faces know what the native can’t seem to remember: life goes on. Elsewhere. Inside the proper laws of time and space and a reasonable continuum of normal.  A place where babies are born, brides are kissed and dogs are played with at the park. So a choice has to be made. Build a bridge to this Elsewhere. Or stay longer and continue to water seeds of bitterness that can never bear fruit. Keep trying to warm the dead body with a torn up blanket or take the blanket to a friend and have her help you stitch it back together.

* * *

Plan B is a no-man’s land in the world of devout Catholicism. While broken families are the norm in the larger culture, being separated with children makes you a demographic ghost in my particular community. People aren’t quite sure how to make sense of what happened to our family and without cutting through what fragile threads of privacy I imagine to remain, I am forced to live with question marks tattooed on my face and speculation following me around like a personal rain cloud. It’s not my job to correct misunderstandings about how the public perceives my situation. It is only my job to be who I am and be that well.

My identity now is the same as it’s always been; I’m  just seeing it for the first time. My self-worth and character are not in the context of another person and should never have been. I am the daughter of a good, royal Father who wants nothing but the best for His children. So He gives us the Cross. Married, single, religious, or ghost… it doesn’t matter, He gives us the Cross that becomes our identity. If we can drain our ego enough to fill up on the Blood and Water that gives us life, we won’t just “accept” our cross, but we will long for it and kiss the beloved wood that will carry us to Heaven.

I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know how much more I will have to lean on the extraordinary charity of all my friends—my myriad of Simons— to help me carry this Cross. I don’t know how much longer I’ll vacillate wildly between laughter and tears, hope and grief. I don’t know if my husband will ever be open to reconciliation. I don’t know how God plans to shield and save my children through this. I don’t know the end to my story. But I am trying to be patient and faithful in living it. For some people, it’s not even so much that He’s exactly authoring our story… but that He’s ripping pages away from the book we thought we had all written out already, The Divine Editor if you will. When all is said and done, we do know that He promised to work all things for the good of those who love Him.  His ways are mysterious— to be sure. But I know that I love Him the most that a broken, little fool can and thankfully… that is enough.

* * *

Time won’t wait. And time won’t promise to never toss you out again. He is cruel. But there is a way to beat him. At least, I hear it’s so.  Bury down deep, into the beating, bleeding heart of the One who beat time at his own game. And time will roll over you, high above searching for his victim, thrashing and gnashing about, like a storm inciting the ocean to a boil.  But beneath the waves,  inside The Heart, you can’t get tossed.  Time will call your number but the Heart has already called you by name.
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Pride: A Self-Inventory

Have you ever been tired of your tummy pudge and after consulting Dr. Google, found out that the idea of “spot toning” is really not a viable one?  Depressing isn’t it? When you realize that you can’t just do 50 sit-ups a day and poof! the spare tire will disappear.  The reality is that, any physical trainer worth their salt will recommend a much more holistic approach and be sure to  include cardio and strength training along with healthy eating in order to combat excess weight.  There are no magic short-cuts for long-term changes.

So it is with the spiritual life. Some people recognize how much they struggle with gossip, so they start to shut their mouths and ears just a little bit more and hope to beat it.  Others have a short temper… so they practice deep breathing techniques and maybe invest in a punching bag.  And these things will help.  Every isolated struggle we face can be addressed and combatted head on and small changes (with varying degrees of success) can be expected.

But it won’t work for the long haul. There will be backsliding. You’ll wonder why your list of sins sounds like a tired old record player, even though you feel true contrition and have true amendment to change. To be forged by fire into who we are called to be, I.e. saints, there’s only one painful path:  taking a shotgun and firing a heavy round of buckshot into your ego.  As pride is the father of all sins, humility is the mother of all virtues.

I have loved praying the Litany of Humility ever since I first heard about it… but it’s alway been a struggle to pray it with sincere enthusiasm.  Over the years, and after logging a little more time in at the Range of Life Humiliations, the prayer has become a comforting salve to me, healing and protecting me from the inevitable defects that set me back. But I keep returning to it, so prone I am to the inflammation of pride. And it does its job on some level—reawakens in me the desire to be grounded in my identity as nothing other than a fool for God. Indeed I only grit my teeth a tiny bit now, toward the end of the prayer… I’m still a work in progress.

Anyway, one of the things that has taken me many years to learn is just how interwoven pride is in so many of my character defects.  I’ve never had to uproot it so thoroughly from my heart as I have lately and turns out that pride is a nasty weed that has a quite the complicated root system.  (As an aside, if a gardener could do his weeding with a shotgun, I’m sure he would, but the rest of us will have to labor through my awkward, mixed metaphors here with patience.) Something like ‘being a control freak’… is a form of pride.  Obsessing over your imperfect looks… a form of pride. Wanting to divulge others’ secrets… a form of pride.  I was stunned when I learned that even the horrible feeling of “self hate” is a mutated form of pride (Fr. Jacque Philippe said so, okay!  And that means it’s Gospel.  The two cent version of this concept is that if we loathe ourselves, it’s because we have created a false idea of who we are supposed to be and rely on our powers—rather than God— to be that way… despairing when we fall short. More or less anyway.)

I thought it might be useful to make a corollary list for sinners like me to go through.  I got all excited thinking how useful it would be to my readers and how great of an idea it was before I found out that St. Josemaria Escriva (and probably hundreds of others) have already been there, done that, and I’m only a couple hundred years late to the ball game.  So. I will only distil some of what far smarter people have already conceptualized for us (and before I forget, the chapter called “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity is an absolute must read for all Christians. Read that chapter every other month or so, in fact.)  Please don’t use this list as a prompting to scupulosity. Most of these aren’t sins per se, but warts on our character that just need to be filed off to really maximize the efforts we are making to truly grow in virtue.  As with all the vices, the way to beat pride isn’t to just try and eliminate it… but to replace it by practicing the opposite virtue.

Self-inventory for the Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.


From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

  • Do I enjoy being considered pious, virtuous or holy and try to demonstrate what that “looks like” outwardly?

From the desire of being loved…

  • Do I try to make myself seem interesting or unique to win the esteem of others?

From the desire of being extolled …

  • Do I bat away compliments in an effort to hear them emphasized or repeated?
  • Do I forget that all the gifts, talents or blessings I have are simply on loan to me, and not my own?

From the desire of being honored …

  • Do I make a point to name drop so others will be impressed by my associations?
  • Do I get annoyed when I feel like someone is patronizing me?

From the desire of being praised …

  • Do I purposefully put myself down in an underhanded attempt to get people to contradict and praise me?

From the desire of being preferred to others…

  • Do I get jealous of the attention others get from people I admire?

From the desire of being consulted …

  • Do I like to be considered an expert in any area (cooking, web design, babywearing, fantasy football, etc.)?
  • Do I regularly offer my opinions when they are not asked?

From the desire of being approved …

  • Do I make a point to demonstrate how witty, knowledgeable, or special I am by inserting my anecdotes into conversations?
  • Do I try and serve only the best food or wear only the most fashionable clothing or drive only the nicest cars?

From the fear of being humiliated …

  • Do I hide or make excuses for my flaws or bad decisions?
  • Do I refuse to accept help or charity even when needed?

From the fear of being despised…

  • Do I avoid controversial situations or debates because I don’t want people to think badly of me?

From the fear of suffering rebukes …

  • Do I have the need to get the last word in an argument… even if I’m right?
  • Do I refuse to back down on a position even if I’m wrong?
  • Do I resist apologizing to others, especially under the reasoning of ‘they don’t deserve it.’?

From the fear of being calumniated …

  • Do I have to clear my name whenever I perceive it to be sullied?

From the fear of being forgotten …

  • Do I always have a story to share in group conversations?
  • Do I like to be in the know regarding the details of everyone’s personal lives?

From the fear of being ridiculed …

  • Am I embarrassed by doing menial jobs or not having certain possessions or lifestyles?

From the fear of being wronged …

From the fear of being suspected …

  • Do I act defensively or deny wrongdoing rather than sometimes, bearing wrongs patiently?

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

  • Am I envious of the happiness in others’ close friendships and/or romances?

That others may be esteemed more than I …

  • Do I think my ideas are always the right or best ones?
  • Do I resist taking the advice of others?

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease …

  • Do I want to be considered the “life of the party”, the “brains behind the operation”, the “deep thinker” or “the fantastic host” etc. ?
  • Do I insist on having my own way?

That others may be chosen and I set aside…

  • Do I put myself in position to be recommended or chosen in some way?

That others may be praised and I unnoticed …

  • Do I get hurt or annoyed when I hear others being complimented or praised, even if they don’t deserve it?
  • Do I make sure people see me being generous or doing good works?

That others may be preferred to me in everything…

  • Do I get upset if I’ve not been invited to social events, chosen for a leadership position or selected for promotion?
  • Do I compare myself to others all the time?

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

  • Do I have ‘spiritual envy’?
  • Do I get discouraged when I sin and dwell on my shortcomings?
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Springtime with Kevin Henkes

In the same way that Jan Brett shines best in winter, Kevin Henkes was made for springtime.  While he is now a prolific picture book author/illustrator, it seems that all his best works embody spring somehow. Maybe it’s his color palette… simple but strong colors in very restrained but delightful shapes. Whatever the case may be, his books are always strong favorites in my house for the younger set… so I wanted to highlight his best of spring themes. I’ve always thought it would be fun to gift a certain THEME of books among my children— I’m thinking Easter baskets here; certain author themes would fit this well too!

Brand new this year and nearly wordless… four eggs hatch and an unexpected friendship ensues.

Last year, this book stole my heart for its burst of color and sweet text. A wonderful primary-age celebration of spring.

The sweet little “Mama loves you” story… also available as a board book!

Let the birding season begin! This is my very favorite *early* bird book.

A board book perfect for a toddler’s Easter basket… an ode to candy basically. 😀

A potentially bad day… reframed. Not just for kids.

Gardening season is beginnning! Kick it off with this imaginative girl…

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Spiritual Direction for Each Temperament

Ever been too intimidated to try reading the Summa? Or found little, pithy lessons on Proverbs to be “fluff”?  It’s probably just the type of person you are…

Well, I found something genius.  I’ve read so much on the temperaments over the years that I tend to gloss over the details nowadays. But I read that entire file and soaked up every word.  Honing in on the right kind of spiritual path for each person is really an excellent way to grow in virtue.  And what works for a Sanguine will not work for a Phlegmatic necessarily… so knowing the base tendencies we are sort of born with can really help us figure out the best way to stretch our hearts and grow in faith.

If you don’t know your temperament, I recommend this test. I think it is the most credible one you’ll find on the web and the same one found in the excellent book, Temperament God Gave You. Remember, we can’t use our temperaments to excuse bad behavior or make stodgy claims like “Well, that’s just the way I am!” Christ Himself is said to be the perfect embodiment of all the temperaments. And many saints worked on their characters so hard as to mitigate the negative side of their inborn tendencies while simultaneously cultivating characteristics that may not come naturally to them.

Once you’ve got a pretty good idea of what your base tendencies are, you can begin looking at what *type* of spiritual direction is ideal for you… assuming you don’t have a real, live, holy human at your ready.

I used Fr. Christian Kappes’ analysis of the temperaments to make a suggested reading list for each type of person.  I recommend reading the entire analysis to “know thyself” but here are just a few book ideas for each type to get you started:

Melancholic:

(“The melancholic needs to experience tenderness and love of her soul created and cherished by God. Thus the melancholic must refrain from literature that exacerbates despair and a sense of guilt that already (for the melancholic) penetrates to the bone.”)

Introduction to the Devout Life
Finding God’s Will for You
I Believe in Love
Searching for and Maintaining Peace
In the School of the Holy Spirit
The Reed of God
Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us

Choleric:

(“She needs to hear and acknowledge her defects and pride as personal sins to be attributed to her own volition. The devil is usually the scapegoat for the choleric.”)

The Twelve Steps to Holiness and Salvation
The Imitation of Christ
The Spiritual Combat
The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for our Lives Today
Humility of Heart
The Way, Furrow, the Forge
Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and the Gospel on Prayer

Sanguine:

(“…because of her weakness for immediate and gratifying pleasures, short, pithy say- ings and stories will speak to her temperament. Lengthy biographies and tomes on the spiritual life are often lost in distractions and overwhelming spiritual lethargy.”)

Way to Happiness: An Inspiring Guide to Peace, Hope and Contentment
Peace of Soul
Called to Be Holy
Reflections on the Psalms
Mother Angelica’s Private and Pithy Lessons from Scripture
Anima Christi: Soul of Christ
Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems

Phlegmatic:

(“Recommended are the more passionate and less intellectual and ideational works.”)

Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas
The Life of Christ
Abandonment to Divine Providence
The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Divine Intimacy
The Joy in Loving: a Guide to Daily Living
Interior Castle

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An Open Letter To Vestibule Mothers

*** originally published in Soul Gardening Journal in 2013 ***

Dear Vestibule Mothers,

IMG_4050     Your arms are tired, your blood sugar is getting low and poor baby Oswald just can’t stop squirming/screaming. So there you are in the vestibule at Mass. As usual. You’d invite others to your self-pity party but frankly, everyone is rather relieved you left with your whining child so besides a couple other long-suffering parents, you’re on your own. You sigh with the resignation of a reluctant saint, “Well, at least I’m here, right.”  And you wonder just how far away is the day of a peaceful Mass in your life. You can just imagine how wonderful it will be; you can hear the bells of Consecration; you can even smell the incense if you’re lucky. But for now, you wait in the vestibule, gritting your teeth in disbelief or shame at just how naughty your child is acting.

     Don’t lose heart! Those peaceful days of quiet worship will come before we know it. But in the meantime, the attitude of “at least I showed up” can be so much greater. In truth, the sacrifices given to us that we accept lovingly, are worth a thousand times more than any self-imposed sacrifices. So don’t squander this Cross! The graces of Mass are real and vibrant and present even in the narthex or cry room of the building. We may not “feel” them but thank God our religion isn’t one based on subjective feelings anyway! Jesus promised our lives would be hard; the sweet glory of a peaceful Mass would really be just an extra consolation. The vestibule is like Purgatory fellow sojourners. Devote your time there for those forgotten souls in Purgatory. Every time you walk to the back of the church with an unruly one, think of it as a gift and smile on the inside for the offering you get to present to Jesus on behalf of these poor souls. For they are like you: waiting and suffering just outside the doors of the Heavenly Banquet.  

Yours Truly,

Ellie

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Catching up with 2016, Christmas and Otherwise


So it’s been an off and on year with blog writing for me. But I finally took a morning and traipsed through the bookstore grabbing a large stack of new picture books to settle down and preview. Coupled with a flurry of library holds, I feel adequately qualified in my investigative research now!  My finger has not been on the pulse of all immediate releases this year until now and I thought I’d share what I’ve discovered:

jefFirst of all, the rather depressing news.  There are no brand new Christmas themed books that really blow my dress up this year.  I mean sure, Gingerbread Christmas will get Jan Brett’s typical cult following.  If one is an accomplished enough artist, customers are willing to overlook a weak story.  And well, I just felt like it was a bit contrived. I liked Gingerbread Baby as a fresh spin on the old tale but kind of thought the mischievous whimsy should’ve stopped there. Incidentally, last year’s re-release of Gingerbread Man, illustrated by Richard Scarry is still one of my favorite renditions of the folktale and at less than $4, it’s a bargain.  And then there’s the one that’s getting the biggest press from publishers: Christmas Boot.  But while Pinkney never disappoints in his illustrations, I personally felt like the story was kind of a tired sort of regurgitation of a dozen other Christmas stories. That’s not to say it’s bad… but after reviewing hundreds of Christmas stories, I am looking for novel stories at this point. Christmas Crocodile was somewhat novel… and I always appreciate a good humorous break from the saccharine, emotional stories.  So that was pretty fun…

Honestly, I think the best Christmas-specific book released this year is actually another Golden Book by Richard Scarry… that of The Animals’ Merry Christmas. These vintage tales never go out of style and they stand head and shoulders above some of the newer fare that tries to force a Christmas SOMETHING down our throats.  Other than that, Christmas Fox is the only other title that peaked my interest but I’ve not had a chance to see it in person yet. And the Ephipany book The Christmas Horse and the Three Wise Men looks really lovely but not particularly novel. Epiphany suffers from the Thanksgiving syndrome… where it seems like the majority of picture books related to those holidays get in the rut of just rehashing the same story in different words each time.  This is why The Third Gift was the best thing to happen to Epiphany books since… well… ever. I consider it a must-have.

So let’s dive into some of the more exciting titles of the year…

 Before Morning is the only book in this post that I haven’t actually seen yet, great! Saw it! Love it. A contemporary story with just a working mother shown (no explanation of dad’s absence which I like) but with very classic illustrations. Beautiful! but illustrator Beth Krommes has never disappointed me yet. It looks absolutely glorious and seems to have that magical, lyrical perfection down of text matching illustrations…My very favorite book (so far) illustrated by Krommes is Blue on Blue but Grandmother Winter is a close second!

 

 And check it out!  Marla Frazee was able to nail an excellent, equally delightful sequel to Boss Baby about the new baby sister.  Bossier Baby is just as much fun and Frazee still stands out as my favorite baby illustrator of all time!

 

 

 Coupled with ABC Dream, Kim Trans has created a beautiful duo with 123 Dream.  Her artwork is stunning and the subtlety with which she illustrates her point is so appreciated.  These books would make a wonderful gift for a toddler… a gift that the adult would appreciate too.

 

 

 Circle is a living book that any curious child would be lucky to stumble upon.  Collage artist/writer Jeannie Baker first made her mark on me with the innovative book Mirror and she continues her excellence here. The story follows the migration of the world’s farthest traveling animal, the godwit.  And the spreads that show the curve of the earth are exquisite…

 

 Fun, bright, fold-out pages make Hocus Pocus, it’s Fall! a charming addition to any autumn book basket. There’s nothing profound here, just magical words on each page and rich, vibrant colors to get you in the mood for the season.  The first book here was Abracadabra, it’s Spring, which I thought equally gorgeous. I hope they end up doing a title for Summer and Winter also… they’d all make a lovely gifting set.

 

 Donkey-Donkey is an old title from 1940 that was reprinted this year much to the delight of Roger Duvoisin fans like myself.  It’s the classic tale of an animal unhappy with his lot who tries to be like everyone else before realizing that he’s just fine being himself.  It’s the modern theme of “celebrate your unique self” done with natural taste and charm.  I love how Duvoisin speaks occasionally to the reader, similar to Beatrix Potter and other children’s authors who don’t take themselves too seriously.

“But pigs have slow minds. Donkey-Donkey waited a long time. He counted up to one hundred but Rosa was still thinking. I suspect in fact that she just went to sleep.”

* Intermission Nota Bene…*

Unlike a lot of other picture book reviewers, I’m skipping over several other 2016 titles that  have made news lately. There is a large movement from publishers to produce books that are excellent in graphic design lately. Seems like all the ‘cool, new, hip’ picture books are ones that feature a particular flavor of simple, contemporary graphic art. Now, a lot of this is great art… don’t get me wrong. I just think that picture books deserve to be published only if there is a great marriage between word and image… and I for one am not willing to suffer through a mediocre story just to see some hipster images…

 But hey, look at this!  Pond by Jim LaMarche!  It’s been 16 years since we’ve delighted in La Marche’s naturalist beauty found in The Raft, and I’m not sure if Pond is designed to be a sequel in the proper sense, but it’s hard not to draw parallels. The story does the same thing in paying attention to the natural world while still progressing the plot… it begins in mid-winter and goes through the year.  After La Marche illustrated the superb Winter is Coming, it’s evident that he just keeps getting better and better with each title.

 The Bear and the Piano.  Easy. Fun. Great illustrations.  A sweet little story to delight all budding musicians or those unsure of their own talents. Definitely worth checking out.

 

 

 I finally got to see The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles and, as suspected, I loved it. Erin Stead’s illustrations are perfect, soft and inviting in this evocative, simple story about a lonely man who finds friendship… really well done!

 

 

 Finding Wild is one of those graphic arts tour de excellence that I stuck my nose up at in the intermission.  The difference is the text. It reads like spoken word poetry and manages to encourage people to appreciate wild spaces, big and small, without becoming preachy about environmental issues.

 

 The Night Gardener.  Simple, beautiful, whimsy.  This is one of those fun little stories that aren’t necessarily the most profound or gorgeous things in life but has the potential to be a child’s favorite.  I have learned with my own kids, that there are certain flavors of quirkiness in tales that they just adore and beg to have repeated again and again.

 

Let’s see, I already raved about The White Cat and the Monk, which leaves only one last thing I need to gush about: A Child of Books… the pièce de résistance of 2016… and that’s only because I feel like this book is my autobiography. I’m not sure I would’ve initially picked Oliver Jeffers to be the illustrator in my life story but upon reflection, it makes sense… his work is messy and stylistically unorthodox but simple and authentic too.  So those adjectives probably fit me quite well.

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Misericordia

(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Soul Gardening Journal)

In reflecting on my own wretched pitifulness the other day, I was disgusted to think of the squalor I had to offer God. Just broken promises, half-hearted prayers and a controlling greed in trying to manage my own life. People like to remark about how St. Thérèse was so humble and sweet in just wanting to be a tiny, insignificant flower in the garden of Our Lord. In a jaded huff, I wondered if God loved the weeds in His garden too.

     What do I have? Nothing.

besides-gods-mercy-there-is-no-other-source-pope-john-paul-ii  And then my three year old crashed my pity party by tromping in, pants torn, runny nose, face and body covered in various shades of filth from robust play in the muddy section of our yard… tears on his cheeks over some infraction from a rowdy sibling. He looked remarkably like an orphan from a Dickens novel. My heart melted. My thoughts went from my egotistical musings to my child. I scooped him up and held him on my lap, rocking him and smoothing back his hair and letting him wipe the nose on my shirt. It was gross. But it was precisely this grossness that tugged at what mercy I have in my selfish heart. Had he been clean as a whistle, carefully groomed and composed in coming to me, my love would not have overflowed in such a powerful way.

     Mercy in Latin is misericordia… or literally having a pain in your heart. In so many revelations to saints, especially to St. Faustina, Christ discusses how His divine heart is actually attracted to misery. I was perplexed when I first heard that, but I think we mothers can get it. When are we at our most merciful and nurturing?! When a child is hurt or sad. All the great spiritual masters warn us not to dwell on our failings lest the evil one start to manipulate our minds. We are to shake ourselves off and try again with new resolve, even if we have to do this dozens of times every day. If God comes running when we are in our most pathetic state, I can’t think of anything more consoling. We can be His ugly, broken children, but we are not orphans. Just as my son in his pathetic moment was not just a disheveled, distasteful boy, we are not the sum of our ugliness and sin. Our disorders do not define us. And just how I managed to look past his grime to see his innocent little heart— wanting nothing more than to restore him to peace and make him feel loved,   our Father desires to do the same with us. He is not repulsed by our miserable natures; His greatest desire is to heal us and and show us His love. He is not the angry schoolmarm in the sky tsk’ing our every bad move. God is love and “Love’s middle name is Mercy.”

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Advent on the mind…

The art of waiting.  It’s a tough thing but so incredibly essential for spiritual progress.  This does not bode well for impatient types with choleric blood in them like me… but God is slowly refining my spirit to recognize the beauty in letting things be and not chasing down answers, consolations or resolutions.  It is such a good cleansing fire for my soul!

And… perfectly suited for this upcoming time, where the prize of Christmas means so much more if you let the waiting and hoping fully apex during the season of Advent.

Thankfully there are books to help us. Here are some of my favorite choices…

 Come, Lord Jesus.  Superb. Timely. Excellent for Advent. (Why in the world is it so overpriced right now?!)  This one is worth hunting down or checking your parish library.  Mother Mary Francis is thoughtful and witty and profound; she wrote these little reflections for the cloistered sisters in her order but they are all so applicable to the layperson’s life too!  This abbess also has a few other titles like Anima Christi, A Time of Renewal (I’m picking this one up for Lent next year!), and most famously A Right to Be Merry (which I just realized that I have on my bookshelf… lucky me! I need to look at my books more often apparently!)

advent Waiting Stories for Advent, one of Michael O’Brien’s lesser known titles.  Just good, thoughtful little tales for adults. This is a small book but worth revisiting each year. The first story in the book nearly brings me to tears each time…

 

 

The Passion of the Infant Christ by the one and only Caryll Houselander. This is a hard to find title but it is slightly more common under its newer name (if I have my facts correct) of Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross: The Little Way of the Infant Jesus.  Houselander always has spiritual soul food to offer and this book is chalk full of wisdom to chew on as we wait to experience the divine love of the Prince of Peace.

 

 Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings. I really think humans of North America need to spend more time reading about and reflecting on horrible things that happened in Eastern Europe. Whether it’s the Holocaust, or Siberian prison camps or Communist evils… it is so good to get perspective on our lives related to the grander scheme of human experience.  Start with something like He Leadeth Me. But be sure not to overlook titles by Solzhenitsyn like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch or The Gulag Archipelago.  Anyway, why not cultivate just a bit of perspective and gratitude by reading Fr. Delp’s thoughts before our big celebrations?!  This is one I’m going to read this year…

 Advent and Christmas with Fulton Sheen.  I mean… it’s The Bishop.  Need I say more?!  Except that it’s barely over 100 pages and very, very simple reflections for even the busiest of people.  So there’s no excuse really!  (But you might get more bang for your buck by opting for the whole year with The Bishop a la Through the Year with Fulton Sheen.)  There’s a whole series of booklets in this vein that pull excellent reflections for Advent from holy people  like: St. Thérèse, Pope St. John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi (was always a bit of a Christmas saint…) St. Pio and more…

“Advent is the season of the seed …the seed of the world’s life, was hidden in Our Lady. Like the wheat seed in the earth, the seed of the Bread of Life was in her. Like the golden harvest in the darkness of the earth, the Glory of God was shrined in her darkness. Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.”  

—Caryll Houselander

 

 

 

 

 

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Beautiful Tidbits… not just for kids!

Just wanted to share some recent picture book treasures we are enjoying. Some are old, some are new… but these are what I love today. And all happen to be fitting for adults.

The White Cat and the Monk is a somber, stunning little delight. It’s a retelling of the old Irish poem “Pangur Bán” (about which I knew nothing until just now…). It’s the simple story of finding light and truth… a beautiful book for children and adults.

 

 

 

Wherever You Go is the new “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” While I love Dr. Seuss, this particular discover-the-world book is graphically much more inspiring and fun. The text is all about how different roads will do different things and lead you in different ways… superb for those bound for a new adventure or at a crossroads in their life.

 

All in a Day is older but needs to be read often. By all ages. Today I read it for the first time and wanted to cry. Granted, I’ve got a swirling load of thoughts that contribute to this, but I was so delighted and relieved in some sense just to read the hopefulness in this book!  Who says therapy has to be expensive!

 

The Whale is the newest addition to my favorite wordless books.  Wordless books know no age boundaries. The artwork by Vita and Ethan Murrow in this is exquisitely realistic.  

 

 

 The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles is my “not yet seen” addition to this list. The story sounds absolutely charming… from Amazon: “The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles spends his days watching the waves for a glint of glass and delivering messages near and far. His only companions are an orange tabby cat and a cow. Befitting the slightly melancholy tone, Cuevas’s text is appropriately lyrical (“Sometimes the messages were very old, crunchy like leaves in the fall. Sometimes the messages were written by a quill dipped in sadness.”). When he discovers a bottle with an invitation to a party the next evening—with no recipient specified—the Uncorker is curious. After asking the maker of cakes, the candy shop owner, several townspeople, a seagull, and a one-man band if they recognize the handwriting (no one does, though they all profess a desire to attend such a party), the Uncorker decides to go to the event himself in hopes of returning the message to the original author.”

 

 

 

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How to Hurt

Pain, like laughter, is one of the few universal human experiences shared across cultures and socio-economic statuses all over the world. Sometimes public, sometimes hidden. But the experience of pain… rather the response to it… is one of the most powerful gifts we can offer each other in the Body of Christ. Have you ever overcome a deep moment of temptation?  Or been consoled through a tremendous loss? Or seen the unexpected conversion of a loved one? Perhaps it was through the offering of pain by another sister or brother in Christ that effected this grace… only in Heaven will we be made aware of how interconnected the Body is.

And so there is only one way to hurt actually. And it’s, as many might suspect, the way of surrender. The more we resist pain and try to course correct things beyond our control, the more agony we drink into our own soul.  But there comes a point in most people’s lives… and especially in all Christian lives, when we will be faced with our own limitations. We can give direction to building our lives and exercising our freedom, but one day, helplessness will walk right up and come into the house of your soul without knocking and make himself at home. And this powerlessness hurts and is a feeling in our human nature to resist. But by laying the table and offering the finest bed to this guest, we become masters of an extraordinary gift…

There’s nothing to be done except peacefully accept this suffering. We abandon ourselves to the mercy of God knowing that He can draw good from everything.

What’s more is that the deepest kind of peace is that which can’t be bought at any old lemonade stand. It’s not a peace that means we’ve achieved a pleasant, problem-free sort of homeostasis. Father Benedict Groeschel (pray for us!) once said that if an angel walked in his room offering a promise of a happy, problem-free life from now on, he’d chase it out as a wicked devil, yelling “No! Never!” Christians have been promised the Cross. It’s our baptismal guarantee and part of our family inheritance. And the most profound kind of peace is the kind that embraces our powerlessness, accepts and even loves our weaknesses to some extent.  This unfathomable kind of peace can only be found when we consent to our true, authentic identity as a child of God. He who was not just our Creator… but He who was and is and ever will be our loving Father.  By our baptisms we were adopted into His family and there is no other family I’d rather identify with. No other Man I’d rather call Papa than He whose love is inexhaustible… whose mercy never fails. I’ll be just His little girl for as long as I live…

Don’t be afraid to hurt. Don’t be afraid to be fragile. His greatest gifts are often only experienced when we are the most poor and the most wounded.

Happy are those who weep, they will be comforted. So many graces and lessons can be learned only through the painful period of waiting. If we don’t spend days, months or years yearning and begging for His consolation (which He does promise)… our Father’s glory will never be fully manifested or abundantly experienced. He does not answer prayers in response to pious manipulation… but in a way that respects our human dignity and with an eye to a future full of hope and goodness that we ourselves can not see when standing in the deep, shadowy valley.

Anybody out there reading this, know that you aren’t alone in your pain. All of us have been given a custom piece of the Cross. Kiss this relic and identify with it. He will see us through. And know that faith in the promises of our Father is a decision, not a feeling…

We can strengthen the entire Body of Christ this way. We can use our pain. And we can trust that God Himself sees us and allows this suffering as a way to purify our own hearts and bring about the glory of His name.

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