Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Insomnia Turned Inside Out

I used to place a high premium on getting a good night’s sleep. On nights when I battled insomnia, I wanted to throw the alarm clock at the bedroom wall. I tried every nesting routine that had been successful in the past, stopping short of walking in circles on the bed like a dog. When I didn’t get a solid night’s sleep, everyone knew it the next day.

I used to love eating in restaurants. Someone else made the meal. Someone else got the messy dishes. I didn’t have to please six different people with six different tastes in food. When we had to rein in the spending, our eat-out budget got chopped. After about two weeks, I would simply have to go to Denny’s and get the Grand Slam.

I still love a good night’s sleep, and I still love to eat out. But something is changing. I’m craving a spiritual diet and rejuvenation time with God more than a meal out and blissful sleep.

I’ve learned to turn insomnia into prayer time. I’m learning to be contented with what is in the food pantry at home. These may seem like little things. But that’s okay. The saints tell us that we can do little things for God. If we let God transform us in little ways, He will begin to transform us in all ways.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Tennyson's Epiphany

I first heard the word epiphany in a British literature class while attending the University of Missouri. The professor explained that an epiphany is a moment of truth, that instant when new understanding overtakes and recreates one's thought process. It happened to Tennyson.

For years, Tennyson had grappled with the untimely death of his dearest friend. A plethora of poetry documented Tennyson's struggle with human mortality. But his lifelong search for meaning in the midst of mortality came in an instant. The same man who, in his early twenties, had penned "In Memoriam," a 2900-line poem of bereavement, wrote "Crossing the Bar" - at the age of 80.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

For tho' from out the bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

(From Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" - stanzas 1 & 4)

Though it had taken nearly sixty years, Tennyson's epiphany had finally come. After a serious illness while at sea, Tennyson said the words came to him in a moment. At his own request, this poem is always published at the end of any collection of Tennyson's poetry.

We all have questions that needle the soul. And sometimes we wrestle with those questions for a very long time. Tennyson proves what every person of faith believes. If you seek without giving up, you will find God - the greatest epiphany of all.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

(Not) All By Myself

I had literally been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt. . . and the coffee mug and calendar and a host of other souvenirs. I'd seen a Beef Eater, Big Ben, and a double-decker bus. I'd walked the halls of Hampton Court Palace and Westminster Abbey. I'd made my purchases at Harrods and walked along Tower Bridge. And I'd done these things alone.

As the plane sought higher skies that November morning, I longed for someone who could share the memories with me, someone to remind me of the things I'd seen and done, things that would fade in my memory as time passed. Why couldn't this business trip have coincided with my parents' trip to London just the year before? Why couldn't it have come along while my sister still lived in England? Life's experiences, good and bad, should be shared.

As Catholic Christians, we are blessed to be part of a faith that is shared. We are in this together. Not even death can separated us.

Some of the greatest saints have promised to spend their heaven interceding for those who remain.

You have friends here and friends on the other side of the veil. You don't have to travel this journey alone.

If you feel lonely, if you feel abandoned, if you feel like you are going it alone, pick yourself up. Get to Mass. And while you're there, look around. We're in this together.

We're praying together. The priest is praying for us. Our Lady is praying. The saints are praying. Your guardian angel is praying.

You are not alone.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

No Inherited Faith Here

I found a manuscript I wrote in 2000. I was a Protestant back then, and the manuscript is something my dad and I were working on. I abandoned the project after Dad died. The other day, I found the envelope with the manuscript inside it. I thumbed through the pages and found an excerpt that seemed almost prophetic. Keep in mind that I wasn't Catholic in 2000. I had never even considered becoming Catholic. My journey didn't begin until my father passed away . . . and you probably know how that story turned out. But, here's a glimpse into my world - three years before the conversion began:

I'm blessed to be part of a family that has birthed numerous preachers, teachers, missionaries and evangelists, but that legacy makes it harder to bear when I feel estranged from God. I've been on my knees and felt as though my prayers were bouncing off the walls and ricocheting around the room. I've cried like one who has lost a loved one, believing my intimacy with God was just a figment of my imagination, wondering if there was anything I still believed about Jesus. Was there more to my faith than an inheritance from my parents and grandparents? Or was my faith like a deed to a house that I'd inherited, an edifice I had never built or lived in? Where does learned-faith give way to real faith? How do I arrive at a fresh faith despite the generations that have preceded me in that faith? Where is the absolute certainty that I believe because I believe and not because Mom and Dad do? How does one find a spiritual mountain her parents have never seen . . . an altar that's hers alone? What does she do when all the verses are worn out? When all the sermons sound the same? When her faith feels like a box of hand-me-downs? Can a person empty herself of all the years that came before - to encounter Jesus for the first time, with fascination, need, thanksgiving, reverence, and awe?

I want to know you, Lord. I want to become an orphan for just a moment in time, so that I can be adopted into your family, so that my faith can become my own. I want to introduce you to others as my closest friend, not merely a friend of the family. I want to stand on your holy mountain, taking in the view with my own eyes, feeling the Spirit's wind blow over me, confident that I'm not living vicariously through another.

I wrote this in 2000.

Dad died in 2003.

I entered the Catholic Church in 2005.

Between 2005-2010, I have shared the story of my conversion and on-going conversion with 40 diocesan papers.

I'd say God answered my prayer - and that may be the understatement of a lifetime!


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Deus Caritas Est

The English graduate students at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois, used to meet on Fridays at a local bar and grill to unwind after a week of writing papers and analyzing literature. I met my husband at Shenanigans on just one of those afternoons.

John sat beside me and asked about my set of keys. I looked down at the mess of keys and laughed. “That’s a metaphor for my life right there.” There was a key to a house that used to belong to me. The last time I’d used that key was the previous Thanksgiving holiday when I backed up a U-haul and packed up my life. There was a key to a car that used to belong to me. Now it belonged to a tow truck driver in Atlanta. The man-who-was-not-my-husband-anymore had sold it for a little bit of nothing one day when the car stranded him in downtown Atlanta. In aggravation, he’d sold the piece of junk on the spot. There was a key to the car sitting in the Shenanigans parking lot – the only real asset I had besides my three children. And there was a key to my parents’ house, which they so graciously permitted me to call home during this unfortunate phase of life.

There were other keys, too, which I could no longer remember what they opened or turned on. And then, there was a key chain that I kept just because it was the metaphor that reminded me that there was always hope. No loss was so horrible that I couldn’t get through it. No rejection so terrible that I couldn’t keep going. Despair was not an option.

“God is love.”

That’s all it said. But that was enough.

And it still is.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Do What You Can With What You Have

In 2004, my husband and I thought we'd try something different. We sold our home in suburbia and bought four acres west of St. Louis. The land was a blank slate. A horse farmer had parcelled out his farm and entered retirement. We got the hay field that had supported his horse business over the years.

That meant that we had flat land, perfect for a ranch-style home. That also meant that we had nothing else. No grass. No trees. No fences. Nothing.

And we quickly discovered that all of that takes a lot of time and money.

Someone else bought the horse farmer's house and outer buildings. I love to wake up in the morning and drink my coffee while I look out our patio doors and see what's happening across the expanse of our huge, nothing-there backyard. Beyond the fence that divides our property from the neighbor's, there is so much to see.

They have a couple of cattle. Sometimes, they have sheep. They have an enormous garden. And a couple of rottweiler-mix dogs (I'm not so fond of them--they chewed a few holes in my dog's underside one day while I was taking our poodle for a walk down our common lane.)

But that's the point. Their lives are very entertaining. Something is always happening. Tractors. Cars. Pick-ups. Even a dump truck. And they are always coming and going in their collection of vehicles.

On the Fourth of July, most of the town of New Melle, Missouri, is seated on their front-lawn as they light up the summer sky with the best fireworks in town.

We usually watch from our patio. Or from the driveway as we light up sparklers.
We both have land, but we certainly don't utilize what we have to the same degree.

I suppose that's what it's like when Catholics receive the Sacraments - and some become holy saints and some just keep the pew from getting dusty (and sadly, some don't even do that).

It all comes down to what you do with what you've got. We didn't get the outer buildings and fences, and we've realized that we can't afford them right now. But we could definitely do more than we do with what we have.

And so can you, dear baptized, confirmed, called, equipped, and sent-out Catholic. Tell you what, you do something little for God today, something you probably wouldn't have done without some inspiration, and I'll go plant something in that big back yard.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Our Lady of Mount Carmel - my favorite name for Mary

We have all these names for Jesus Christ. Lamb of God. Lion of Judah. Prince of Peace. King of Kings. Alpha and Omega. Light of the World. Ancient of Days. Immanuel.

Our Lord's mother has a few names as well.
I think my favorite name for Mary must be Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Recently, the Coming Home Network Int'l published my conversion story. It's not a new story to me. I lived it. And I write about it every month for diocesan papers. But I have rarely seen the whole story laid out from beginning to end.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel has her fingerprints all over the story.

July has always been my favorite month. It's my birthday month. It was my dad's birthday month. It was always marked by summer vacation and presents and lots of cake.

The most important day of July is right around the corner. It's not my birthday; it's not my father's birthday - although our lives were touched very deeply by the one we celebrate on July 16.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

She has ties to Elijah and Elisha.

To St. John of the Cross.

To St. Teresa of Avila.

To St. Therese.

And she used all of them to bring me home.

July 16. It's almost here!


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July Catholic by Grace Article

In my five years as a Catholic freelance writer, I have never written about Catholic education. As a former teacher, I haven’t wanted to burn any bridges. Not the bridges that are in my past, nor the bridges that might be in my future. After all, what if God sends me back to teaching? Wouldn’t want to damage my chances for employment.

And so, I haven’t written about it.

It’s time to light a fire and burn that bridge.

Very soon, thousands of young people will return to school. Even now, their mothers are ordering the uniforms and buying the backpacks. The parents are sitting down with the family budget and hammering out how they will afford the tuition. They are purging things from the “want” list to make it all happen. They are putting off things on the “need” list and deciding to make do with what they have.

Parents are making sacrifices because they believe Catholic education provides the best foundation for their sons and daughters. What do parents expect when they fork out thousands of dollars? Certainly, they expect that their children will get a solid education, and they expect the schools to instill respect and self-discipline in their children, but they might expect those same results from many public schools or even from nonsectarian private schools.

The majority of parents choose Catholic schools for specific faith-based reasons. They expect their sons and daughters will be taught the faith - how to live it, cherish it and share it. They don’t expect the classes to be carbon copies of the public school. The room, the curriculum, the teacher, the walls in the halls, the hidden curriculum (what students learn while they are in school that we didn’t set out to teach them) – it should all underscore one thing:

We are Catholic.

When I was working on my B.A. in education, the buzz phrases were writing-across-the-curriculum or reading-across-the-curriculum. Here’s a buzz phrase for Catholic schools. Be Catholic-across-the-curriculum.

Catholic teachers should know the faith well enough to defend it. Teachers should have a personal love for Jesus Christ and His Church – and find a way to integrate faith with the subject matter.

Here’s the reality. Parents are spending thousands of dollars in order to provide their children with a Catholic education, but all too often, their children graduate from Catholic schools unable to share or defend the faith. Some even have trouble living it.

It’s idealistic, perhaps, but wouldn’t it be great if our children could go to daily Mass every day of the school year? Wouldn’t it be great if they could spend fifteen minutes in Adoration every week? If they could be equipped with an arsenal of prayers that would help them face any crisis? If they could recite the Creed and be able to explain what the Communion of Saints is? What Apostolic means? What the Four Marks of the Church are?

Wouldn’t it be great if they began the process of discerning a vocation while they were still in high school?

Wouldn’t it be great if our children graduated with such a love for the Catholic Church that they considered attending a Catholic college or prayed that God would send them a Catholic spouse?

As educators, we have to prove to our parents that a Catholic education is worth their financial sacrifices.

We have to prove to them that Catholic education is truly and completely Catholic. That the curriculum is thoroughly Catholic. That the hidden curriculum won’t undermine their faith. That they will encounter classmates who are grounded in the faith and not more inclined to challenge their faith or compromise their morals.

Catholic education should outshine every other educational option. Parents should turn to each other on a warm summer evening and say, “Well, that purchase will have to wait another year. Their Catholic education comes first.”

We should seek not only to make Catholic education worth every penny. We should make Catholic education priceless.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

June Catholic By Grace Article

It's All Grace

Wilda Staton requested the same song each time Dad invited his little Wesleyan congregation to call out their favorite hymn numbers. Mom would nod her head at the request and quickly thumb through the hymnal at the piano. My sister and I watched Wilda as the rest of the congregation began singing “Amazing Grace.” That’s when her eyes always filled with tears, and we would stare at her with concern. Tears without pain or disappointment didn’t make sense to us.

My sister and I sat with Wilda during worship services because Mom was usually seated at the piano and Dad was standing at the podium. The gentle middle aged woman would keep the two of us quiet and happy. We loved her with that fierce love that children sometimes have for grownups who aren’t connected to them through familial ties. That was Wilda. She didn’t have to love us, but we knew she did.

Wilda Staton lived a difficult life. Her husband had died of some disease, the name of which I can no longer remember. Wilda’s failing mother lived with Wilda and her two half-grown sons. Lyndsey and Loren were the modern equivalent of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer – completely incorrigible.

When I was in first grade, Wilda died in a car accident. She met another driver at a blind intersection, and suddenly Wilda wasn’t there to sit with us in church anymore.

Her life was tragic from top to bottom. And yet, she was the one who first taught me about grace.
During my Protestant childhood, I learned that GRACE was an acronym for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. I’m still not sure what that means.

And there was the other Protestant definition that blended grace and mercy in such a way that it was impossible to differentiate between the two. “Grace is God’s gift of undeserved mercy.”
So what is grace?

Grace is anything that helps us to live in Christ, grow in holiness and remain on this journey toward sanctification. St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Church at Corinth, “God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

As St. Therese said “Tout est grace” or “All is grace.” If you belong to Jesus Christ, then it’s all good. It’s all grace.

Grace comes the day we bury a husband or care for an ailing mother. Grace is there when we’re raising our children, even if our children are as difficult to raise as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Grace shows up when we lift our voices and sing our favorite songs - letting the tears fall. Grace finds us when we care for someone else’s children, when we teach them, and when we love them. And grace is there when we meet another car at a blind intersection.

Wilda taught me more about grace by her living and dying than I learned from any sermon, Bible school class, or Sunday school lesson. Grace is God working in us and through us and with us, so that we can live the life of Christ always and everywhere.

It is not a one time shot in the arm.

It is not some clever-sounding acronym that lacks real meaning.

It is found in the nitty-gritty daily living of the faithful Christian who doesn’t give up. It is a gift that flows from baptismal waters and keeps on flowing into the deepest roots of our souls. It shows up when we need it and to the degree that we need it, so that we can weather any storm.
Why must we have a solid understanding of grace? A poor understanding destroys our ability to grasp what Sacred Scripture means when it says that we are saved by grace or that His grace is sufficient or that Mary is full of grace. The definition matters . . . because a faulty definition compromises Truth.

Tout est grace.

It’s all grace. Anything that draws you closer to God and helps you to live out your calling, anything that keeps you close to God . . . that is grace.

Grace: Free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to holiness.

Sanctifying Grace: the grace we receive at baptism. This is a permanent disposition that points us toward God and helps us to live in keeping with God's call.

Actual Grace: God's intervention and support for us in everyday moments of our lives.

Sacramental Grace: Gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive during reception of the sacraments.


Friday, July 2, 2010

Tilting at Windmills

If you travel north from Missouri through Iowa and follow the Avenue of the Saints (yes, that's what it is really called), you will reach a field of windmills just before you enter Minnesota.

The windmills look nothing like those of Don Quixote (Don Quijote en espanol). They are enormous . . . three or four times taller than the trees or barns or telephone poles that dot the landscape beneath them. Their arms and bodies are made of strong metal, but they respond to the wind with great assent.
Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.

While this new generation of windmills embraces the wind (changing that energy into useful electricity), there are always one or two that stand sadly still.

And they look all wrong, like someone needs to grab the blade and give it a spin to get it going. And then there are the ones that have no arms at all. Just a body, lifeless except for the stubborn vertical frame that stands against the wind and is immovable. Proud, yet completely useless.

We are like those windmills. As Catholics, we come at the end of a long line of saints. We stand tall at the end of the Avenue of Saints. Together, we receive with great joy the Wind of the Holy Spirit, and we let it move us. And when that powerful Spirit of God comes upon us, it passes through us and becomes something useful to those who need the power of God. Like wind-power that is changed to electricity, God passes through us and changes the lives of others.

But the Catholic who refuses to move, who keeps those arms still despite the power of the Holy Spirit that is his through Baptism and Confirmation (and kept alive and blowing strong through all the Sacraments) . . . that Catholic is like the sad one or two that stand still. Silent. Almost as though they were dead, even as the Wind of God continues to blow steady and strong.

Don't be that one.