Monday, November 28, 2011

Celebrating Advent

       Last summer I asked our kids what their favorite liturgical season was.  Their answer, without hesitation, was, “Advent”.  My little Catholic heart was bursting with joy upon hearing their answer.  You see, my husband and I do a lot of extra things during the Advent season to TRY to keep our entire family’s focus on preparing for Jesus, rather than on the materialism and greed that penetrates so much of the culture.  
     When we first started all the extras our children (only 2 then) were ages 3 and 1.  The extras were anything but pleasant for us.  We were exhausted and family prayer time, which was already a daily struggle with the little ones, was now lengthened.  We persevered and pushed through those years, wondering why we were doing it at all. 
     Last Advent was, I think, our first glimpse at the beauty that was created out of our efforts.  The 3 and 1 year olds had grown into 8 and 6 year olds and now entered family prayer time with joy and anticipation.  Their attitudes shouted to our 2 year old that family prayer time was something very special and he, in turn, rather than being a challenge as they were at his age, eagerly participated in all of our little extras.  It was during Advent that we discovered that even though he could barely speak more than a few words, he loved to sing.  His sweet little “Rejoice!” echoed through our entire house as we sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" each night. 
     So hearing our children declare Advent their favorite liturgical season last summer, rather than a more typical response of Christmas or Easter, was a moment of triumph for me.  I know Holy Mother Church teaches us that Christmas trumps Advent and Easter trumps Christmas, but in a world filled with greed and a distorted view of the purpose of these holy days, I will delight in my children’s love of Advent! 
Below are some of (most of I think) the extra things we do to make Advent special.  The Catholic Church is so rich and beautiful, we are not only doing these little extras, but are also making sure to explain WHY we are doing them.  Advent could be called a season of story telling for us, as we are constantly talking about the traditions and meanings of the faith we are practicing.  We’re always looking for new ideas, so feel free to add your own traditions and ideas in the comment section below!  How about some Jesse Tree ideas????!!!!! 

-Before Advent begins we make our Advent wreath(s) out of play dough.  Just make the play dough using any recipe that will harden, decorate with greens, etc., and add candles!  The kids love to see their artwork aglow throughout the Advent season!

-On the first Sunday of Advent our Christmas tree goes up.  It is bare, except for lights.  An empty crib is placed beneath the tree, waiting for baby Jesus.  We will spend the entire Advent season preparing our tree for baby Jesus, just as we are preparing our hearts for Him.

-Each night we turn out all the lights in the house, and light the candle(s) on the Advent wreath.  We pray extra prayers together and sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  For those who may be interested, here is a link to the book we use: 

-After prayers each child gets to pick one ornament from the ornament tub to place on the tree.   Each day our tree looks a little more beautiful for Jesus.  By Christmas Eve, when He is placed in His crib underneath the tree, it is completely covered with ornaments.

-On years when there is not a curious baby in the house, we also place pieces of hay in the crib for Jesus, by performing acts of charity and sacrifices for Him throughout the day.

-We draw names at the beginning of Advent and try to be extra nice to that person throughout the Advent season.  The name drawn will also be the recipient of our Christmas gift exchange.

-We remember St. Nicholas, and in honor of him, the stockings are filled on December 6, and sometimes other days leading up to Christmas with small items.

-We try to keep gifts very minimal.  Jesus received 3, so each child receives one educational gift, one he/she needs, and one he/she just wants (the wants is purchased by the person who drew his/her name at the beginning of Advent).  When we talk about the gifts we always make sure to stress that the greatest gift any of us can ever receive is Jesus.

-The Advent Calendar:  Each day a door is opened on the advent calendar and the children get to add a piece to the nativity scene on the calendar board. 
Kurt Adler Wooden Nativity Advent Calendar with 24 Magnetic Figures

 This year we’ll be using our new Advent Ornament instead!

-Our Nativity starts with only the animals and the shepherds and sheep off in the distance.  As the weeks pass, the children have fun watching for Mary and Joseph to arrive, then baby Jesus, and finally the three Wise Men.

-This year we are adding to our traditions!  Our parish has handed out the Advent Challenge.  Each day we are to pray Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati’s “Prayer for the Courage to be Great” and pick a slip of paper from a small bag.  Each piece of paper has challenge to be completed.  Some examples are:  Attend an extra Mass during the week, or write a letter to someone pointing out their good qualities.  We are very excited to add this to our Advent traditions!  Here is the prayer:

‘Heavenly Father, Give me the courage to strive for the highest goals, to flee every temptation to be mediocre.  Enable me to aspire to greatness, as Bl. Pier Giorgio did, and to open my heart with joy to Your call to holiness.  Free me fear of failure.  I want to be, Lord, firmly and forever united to You.  Grant me the graces I ask You through Bl. Pier Giorgio’s intercession, by the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.”

Have a Blessed Advent everyone!  Don't forget to share your ideas and traditions below!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Guarding Our Senses

      We all know how powerful our senses are.  Smelling a certain smell or hearing a song can instantly transport our minds to another place and another time.  A few months ago, as I stood with my kids in the face painting line of a children’s tent, I heard the lyrics, “It’s a quarter after one, I’m a little drunk, and I need you now” sung on the karaoke machine.  I turned around to see several middle school girls having a great time being stars of the microphone.   I felt sick to my stomach.   I looked around.  Was I the only person in the tent who found it very disturbing to hear young girls singing about being drunk and “needing” a man?  Doesn’t anyone else hear what they are singing?  Sure they heard it, they were singing along.  

        Why then, did they not feel the same discomfort as I was feeling?  In a culture where we are constantly bombarded with what should be offensive to us, we very quickly and easily become desensitized.  What would have shocked generations before us, is now just a part of everyday life.  We walk through the mall and see giant posters of women dressed in nothing more than a skimpy pair of undergarments.  Commercials are laced with sexual innuendos.  Music, with distasteful lyrics is played virtually everywhere we go.  Most of the culture is so accustomed to seeing and hearing all of this garbage that we do not even notice how inappropriate it is.  We’ve been living in the stench so long, we can no longer smell it. 

       In our little Catholic Bubble, we try very hard to not only guard the senses of our children, but also our own.  When we first had children, we were not yet practicing the faith, yet I knew I did not want our daughter to hear most of the music we enjoyed listening to, nor did I want her little eyes exposed to the television shows we were watching.  As we learned more about the faith I started to question myself.  If I didn’t want her to see or hear something because it was garbage, what then would make it appropriate for me?  Would I be embarrassed if Jesus were sitting on the couch watching this with me?  Would I be comfortable singing these lyrics in church?  Over time we made changes.  We stopped watching most of our favorite shows and got rid of the majority of our music collections.  Does this mean we do not watch TV, or that we have no music?  Absolutely not (although many of our wise friends have pulled the plug and are still surviving)!  It simply means we monitor everything we see and hear. 

        The hardest part for me was the music.  I love music.   I love music to the point where I can say that for over half of my life, it was my god.  I spent hours in my room growing up listening to music.  I fell asleep listening to music, woke up listening to music, and spent my study halls writing my favorite lyrics in notebooks.  I prided myself on making the best mix tapes to listen to while cruising.  Music, for me, is more powerful than any smell, at taking me back to a certain place.  It was hard for me to let go of my attachment to all of this, but I knew it wasn’t good for my soul.  I would hear a few notes of AC/DC and I could taste the beer and feel the party.  So I got rid of the music.   I discovered a treasure of appropriate music.  Music that glorifies God.  Music that brings me closer to Him, rather than further away from Him.  Music that builds me up, instead of tearing me down.  Music I can pray to.

         It is this treasure I wish those young girls would find, because we need to guard our own senses and the senses of our children.  I don’t know who said this, but it is true: 

 "Our thoughts become our words.  Our words become our actions.  Our actions become our habits.  Our habits become our character.  Our character becomes our destiny."   

I will add to this that our thoughts are heavily influenced by our senses.  You get the picture.  Considering that our destiny is shaped by our character, habits, actions, words, and what we expose ourselves to, I pose the following question: 

Do we really want young girls (or anyone) singing about the pathetic false-love in Lady Antebellum’s (yes I did have to look it up) song? 

I say it would be far better for them to embrace the authentic love that penetrates the heart when listening to something like "Beautiful", by Mercy Me.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dust My Soul

It’s that time of year again when the sunlight comes streaming through my windows at just the right angle, allowing me to see millions of dust particles floating through the air.   At our old house this didn’t happen.  So last year, when I first started seeing these flying particles, screaming out my great lack of ability to keep my house clean, I spent all my spare minutes trying to stay ahead of the dust.  “My chore chart must be off”, I told myself.  “Clearly, I need to be dusting much more frequently than the chart says, or I wouldn’t be able to see all this dust floating around”.  No matter how often I dusted, every time the sun shone through the windows I would still see it floating everywhere.  I started complaining to my husband.  This whole situation was really starting to make me panic.  I was about to give birth to our 4th living child.  How was I going to care for a newborn, homeschool, and take care of the house if I couldn’t even stay ahead of the dust?  So he bought new filters for the furnace and assured me it was probably just part of living in a newly constructed home.  The weeks passed, the baby was born, and my obsession with the dust went away.  

This summer I looked for the particles, but never saw many, and felt assured that it must have been the new construction.  All was well, that is until this morning, when I looked in the bathroom mirror.  Now, I haven’t been following my chore chart very well lately, and it HAS been awhile since I have dusted thoroughly, BUT there on my mirror, were thousands of dust particles, and the light streaming in through the bathroom window clearly showed a path of the particles through the entire room.   My stomach knotted up a bit.  I got out the glass cleaner and sprayed down the mirror.  I dusted it, and looked again.  I could still see all the particles flying around and the mirror really didn’t look that much better.  The truth was out.  The dust had never gone away.   It was just hiding in the lack of sunlight.

In that moment I realized that the dust and the light from the sun are like sin and the light of Jesus.  At night, or during different seasons when the sun is not shining so directly into the house, I cannot see the dust, just as when we are far from the light of Christ we cannot see our sins.  As we move closer to Him and His light shines upon us we can suddenly see not just the big sins, but the little ones too.  The closer we get, the more we can see how desperately we need Him to cleanse our souls.  I was reminded that the longer I go between confessions, the less I recognize my sins.  I try to go weekly or biweekly, and when I do, I have very little difficulty remembering all of the ways I have offended Him.  However, when I needlessly put off confession and the days go by, I start to drift further from His light, making it much more difficult to see my sins.  Eventually (I never let it go past a month) it gets dim enough that I am duped into thinking I don’t have all that much to confess, and the thought of going becomes a burden rather than a blessing.  When this happens I know enough to know that I have wandered too far.  I am in the dark.  It is now more important than ever to run, as fast as I can, towards the light and into the confessional for thorough dusting.

Lord Jesus, shine your light upon my soul.  Show me every area of sin and ugliness that needs to be dusted and cleansed.  Never let me drift too far into the darkness, and only momentarily so that I can be reminded of my great need for your mercy and light.   Dust my soul Jesus in your great Sacrament of Mercy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Club

It was early October, 2007.  An acquaintance had just shared with me that she and her husband were expecting.  She also shared with me her fears.  You see, she and her husband were part of a special club.  They had previously suffered a miscarriage.  I distinctly remember feeling sympathy for her and thanking God that I was past that 12 week mark.   On the evening of the day of her next appointment I saw her husband.  The look on his face spoke volumes and without saying a word, I knew the news was not good.  He confirmed that the baby had died.  I wept and told him how sorry I was for their loss, and I was, but in terms of truly understanding their pain, I was completely clueless.  I couldn’t possibly understand.  I wasn’t yet a member of the club, nor did I want to be.  Unfortunately for me, very soon, I would be fully initiated into that club. 

It was now late October, the 25th to be exact, and suddenly I found myself lying on an ultrasound table, with my husband and little girl at my side, staring at a screen displaying my dead baby.  What was supposed to be a wonderful and exciting 20 week ultrasound had now turned into every mother’s biggest fear.  In the blink of an eye the sympathy I felt for my friend transformed to empathy, and the sorrow I felt for her and every family who has ever lost a child, skyrocketed.  In that moment my relationship with her changed forever.  I was now “in” the club.  In our pain and sorrow we were now bonded.  Today, she is one of my closest friends.  She is my sister.   We are members of a club that no one wants to be in.

It has been almost 4 years since I delivered our dead baby.  In that time I have learned many things about the club.  First, it is a much larger club than I had ever imagined.  After I joined, countless women came out of hiding to share with me their own stories of pain and loss.  Young women who had suffered miscarriages in recent years.  Women who had lost grown children.  Women who had lost children many, many years before, and who had never told a single soul, because well, “in those days we just didn’t’ talk about these things”.   All of us in the same club, filled with a sorrow and sense of loss that only we can fully understand.   It didn’t matter if the loss was days or decades old, the wounds were still there.   I quickly learned that while the pain dulls, and the wounds scab over, they never fully heal.  Each and every time another mother experiences this unique loss, the scabs are torn open and the wound is once again exposed.

These women, the club members, gave me strength.  I understood that I was not alone.  I never wanted to be a member of this club, but I am very grateful for the support of those who have been there.  Not because we didn’t have support from others.  We did.  We were flooded with support.  I am eternally grateful for the group of friends and family who were there, and continue to be there for us, who are not club members.  They “get” it too, just on a different level. 
Very recently a new member was initiated to the club.   It is my turn to be a support to this beautiful soul, mourning the loss of her son.   It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last, and I never quite know what to say.  There are no words to take the pain away, but I can listen and pray, and I can share my own experience.  It helps to know that you are not alone and that others have traveled the same road, carrying the same cross that you now bear. 

God is great and brings good out of every evil, and the loss of a child is no exception.  There is hope for all club members.  We just have to trust in God’s Perfect Plan and know that He can take our suffering and turn it into something more beautiful than we can ever imagine.  I like to imagine our baby playing in the arms of The Blessed Mother. She, who is the perfect mother.  She, who was there at the foot of the cross.   She, who knows so intimately the pain of losing a child.  She, who is the original club member.  Perhaps when you think of it that way, it is an honor to be a member of the club.

                                                Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Giant Piles of Laundry

I don’t know what Monday morning looks like in other homes, but in ours it’s a little crazy.  Each week without fail, I find myself facing a giant mountain of laundry, dishes that have piled up, and a house that is in desperate need of being tidied.  Last night as I rolled around trying to get to sleep I was bombarded with more than the usual dose of anxiety when contemplating all that would need to be accomplished in the coming days.  I knew for certain that due to our 2 week camp out in the basement while our floors were refinished , my laundry mountain was going to be even higher than usual.  I was worrying so much that I was starting to feel sick.  This is nothing new for me, but what happened next was new.  Instead of rolling around for a few more hours I simply prayed.  I did what I have been told to do so many times, and what I have told others to do so many times.  I told Jesus all of my worries, all of my fears, and then I just listened.  I’ve done plenty of the “telling Jesus” part before, but it’s the second part, the listening, that I have trouble with.  This time, by the grace of God, I listened, and He answered.  The answer was simple.  Just do it.  Do one little thing at a time.  So there it was, a simple solution, followed by peace and sleep.  This morning when I woke up and it was time to face the monstrous heap of laundry, I dug right in, and I felt good.  While my laundry room still looks like I need to do laundry, the piles are of normal size now, and it is easy to see how simple living out God’s plan really can be.  He is not asking for huge things to be done and certainly not all at once.  He is simply asking us to do all the little things that He gives us in our day to day vocation, and to do them well and with joy.  When we look at the laundry, the piles of dishes, and the to-do lists He wants us to see them as opportunities to show our love for Him.  He wants us to be humble and realize that without Him we can accomplish nothing, but with Him we can do all things.  He doesn’t give up on us when He sees how much work needs to be done in our souls.  Instead, He waits patiently for each and every opportunity we give Him to shape and mold us into the persons He created us to be.  I realized today that I am God’s giant mountain of laundry. 


Monday, September 19, 2011

He is Always There

I am a convert.  Not just the kind of convert that used to be a good Protestant and is now a good  Catholic, but the other kind.  You know, the kind whose old friends look at the new me with skepticism and whose new friends have trouble believing that I was "really THAT bad".  For a long time after conversion (when I say conversion I mean the initial conversion...we are all constantly converting) I wondered why I had chosen to drift so far away from God.  I asked, "Where WAS He?" and "Why didn't I know?".  The truth is He was always there.  I was just choosing to look the other way.  I did not want to see Him.  He was there with sadness in His eyes when I rebelled against my parents.  He was there hoping I would not take that first drink.  He was there every step of the way trying to breakthrough to me.  I didn't listen.  I chose not to see Him.  I chose not to hear Him.  I threw Him aside, but He never gave up on me.  In His eyes I was still the little girl gazing at the crucifix on her grandmother's wall.  He saw and still sees in my heart the beauty that no one else can see.  He sees and waits patiently for me, and for all of us, to give Him bits and pieces to work with...molding us into the persons He created us to be.  There are a million things that I wish I could change about my past, but the truth is, if I hadn't come from the stench of sin that I was bathing in, I don't think I would have the same appreciation for all He has already done and continues to do for me, and for all of us.  Wherever we are, He is always there waiting for a simple glance in His direction.  With that glance, He can touch our hearts in ways we can't even imagine. 

Edited to add this song, which pretty much sums it up: