Happy Birthday to Our Blessed Mother!

Birth of Mary - Gozzoli
Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Impart to your servants, we pray, O Lord, the gift of heavenly grace, that the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin may bring deeper peace to those for whom the birth of her Son was the dawning of salvation. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

O Mary, conceived without sin,

Pray for us who have recourse to thee!

 

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Who Do You Think You Are?

I was thinking this morning that this blog doesn’t really fit into any of the ready niches that the blog-world offers.

  • There are Mommy blogs, which are about home life, and kids, and how to stay sane amidst the chaos of everyday life,
  • There are homeschool blogs, which are similar but more focused on education and learning,
  • There are Catholic blogs, which talk about matters of faith, and
  • There are personal development blogs, which talk about self-improvement and building better habits.

If you built a Venn diagram of those categories, this blog would fall in the tiny intersection of all four.

Venn diagram - mommy, homeschool, catholic, self-improvement blogs
That tiny dot in the middle – that’s me!

Personal development for Catholic homeschooling moms – maybe I’ll make that my new tagline!

But self-doubt follows on the heels of that definition – “Who do you think you are?” whispers the devil in my ear, “Why do you think you have any right to speak on any of these things?”

What is my authority for talking about faith, about raising children, about self-improvement? Shouldn’t I have some kind of expertise, some credentials? Shouldn’t I at least be able to claim some success in these areas before I start telling others about them?

 

Cue Emmett from the Lego movie!

BUT, I think this self-doubt plagues many bloggers and writers, and anyone who puts themselves out there to the public. And I think sometimes it leads to people putting on public personas, and laying out this glossy-magazine, perfect version of their lives, which isn’t their everyday reality. And while I think we do realize that this happens, it’s still discouraging to read everyone’s happy stories when it feels like all we ourselves have to share are failures and screw-ups, and not even amusing ones at that!

I do find myself hesitating to talk about the bad days, the disappointments, the struggles, at least until I can find some humor in it, some way of looking at it that doesn’t feel like it’s a total failure. And yet, I know when I read of other people’s struggles, I find them encouraging. If I can extend compassion to others in their struggles, surely I should trust that they will extend it to me in mine. And maybe we’ll find the silver lining in it together.

So I’m just here sharing my personal journey – the peaks, the valleys, the struggles, the small wins, and hopefully, the big wins. And yes it’s about faith AND habits AND self-improvement, AND life with kids, AND homeschooling, AND so so so many books, because that’s what makes up my life. I hope you find it helpful or at least entertaining. Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Here’s to more ANDs!

Oh, AND more Chesterton!

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

 

A Recipe for Joy

I heard this attributed to Saint (Mother) Theresa of Calcutta, but I haven’t been able to definitively corroborate that.

Jesus, Others, You = JOY

Whether she came up with it or not, I like its counter-cultural message.

How do you cultivate joy in your life?

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More Thoughts on Pride, humility and judgment

This is one of my favorite passages from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:

All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble”, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

Thank God for C. S. Lewis! It’s a blessing that I read this passage as long ago as I did, because without it I probably wouldn’t notice how often this very progression happens in my mind. And, if I did notice, I probably would spend all night wrestling with the devil, but now, thanks to Lewis’s good advice, I do laugh and go to bed.

The problem, of course, is that I think about myself too much, which can only lead to pride. Or to shame, which at its heart, is just the flip side of pride – the only reason it hurts to let others see my faults is because I think I am better than I am. It’s walking a tightrope, and it’s ridiculously easy to fall into either despair at my sinfulness, or the spiritual pride that makes me think I can merit salvation (even if I don’t voice that thought out loud).

That’s why I love that Jesus insists that love of neighbor is at the heart of loving God. Because when I wholeheartedly serve those around me, I don’t have time to think about myself, and so I can get off the tightrope and get on with my mission of loving God.

Pride, Humility, and Irony

 (Or: The Holy Spirit’s Great Sense of Humor!)

Do you remember the story of the rich man and the tax collector?

Luke 18:9-14
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So, since the first time I heard this story, I thought it was a great example of how Jesus often used hyperbole to make his point. “Surely nobody,” I often thought, “could ever be so prideful as to actually pray that way!” Even if they thought themselves better than other people, surely, they would still want to think of themselves as humble, right?

Well, a couple of years ago, our church did a video Bible study series – Bishop Robert Barron’s Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Prideful Virtues. It was a great study, and I learned a lot from it – chiefly having to do with how many of the seven deadly sins I really struggle with. But the way God revealed my pride to me was certainly the funniest.

So pride was the first sin covered in the study, and we read the above story as part of it. So that thought was fresh in my mind as I was driving home – “No one could be so prideful as to actually pray, ‘Thank God that I’m not a sinner like that person over there!'”

Well, halfway home, I see the car ahead of me swerve from the middle into the left lane, then swoop back over, cut across two lanes and take the exit. And before I could help myself, out came the prayer I thought no one (let alone myself) would ever be prideful enough to pray! “Thank God I’m not a bad driver like that person!”

Being able to recognize irony is grace too, right?

 

How Do I Find Time For Reading?

Yesterday I posted what I’m currently reading, and I realized that it was a long list, and it might look like I do nothing but read all day.

I wish that were true; my fantasy life would be living in my own library and occasionally having great meals with people I can discuss the books with. Great meals that someone else prepared and served and cleaned up after!

Sadly, this is not the life I live, and cooking, cleaning, and other chores take up more of my day than I would like. Also, the whole four homeschooled kids thing – a freely chosen occupation, and one I love, certainly, but one that would take up every minute of my life if I didn’t specifically carve out time for other things.

Reading has always been my favorite thing to do, and, as a homeschooling Mom, it’s also a big part of my job description. I’m always reading about learning, teaching, parenting, and similar topics, trying to ensure that I’m doing the best job I can raising my kids. But, with the four of them constantly demanding my attention (and rightfully so), it sometimes seems like there’s not enough time in the day to get everything done, let alone “luxuries” like reading for my own pleasure.

So what are some of the strategies I use to fit reading for learning and for pleasure into my day?

Selectivity

This is the first and probably most important one – I only have limited time for reading; I hate wasting even a minute of it on things that aren’t worthwhile.

Especially online – it’s really easy to get sucked into a black hole of vaguely interesting articles and come up for air a couple of hours later without having gained anything lasting from the experience. I’m not saying I haven’t learned really valuable things from online reading; just that the signal to noise ratio online is low, and selectivity is especially important.

But even with books, there’s an easy trap to fall into – reading books because I think I should or because someone else liked it. With popular fiction especially, I’ve found that my tastes don’t necessarily align with other people’s, and so reading something just because everyone seems to be reading it has sometimes (often?) led to regret.

So, being really picky about what I read is the first strategy.

Accountability

I’m a member of a local book club, an online book club, and a Bible study (and I might be joining a second reading/discussion group soon). The reason I do this is to make sure I prioritize reading time. If I need to have a certain amount of a book read by the time book club meets, I’m going to meet that obligation. On the other hand, if I have a book I want to read just for myself, it is often bumped on the priority list by things like chores, errands, and other “more necessary” things. The downside of this strategy is that I need to find the right groups that want to read the same kind of books I want to read. (There’s also the double benefit of it being social time, which, even for an introvert like me, is helpful, even necessary, when I spend most of my days surrounded by little people.)

In another twist on this strategy, whenever possible I will borrow a book from the library rather than buying it. The deadline pressure of needing to return it by a particular date gets those books read ahead of the ones I own and can keep forever.

I also put the books I’m reading on my to-do list, so that I need to check it off.

Convenience

This is the most practical-minded of the strategies. I make book reading convenient by literally having books everywhere I sit.

I prefer reading actual paper bound books, but if it’s a book I have to read, say for a book club, I’ll often get the e-book version because then I can read it on my computer or my phone during downtime for other tasks.

The physical books I have spread around the house – upstairs in my reading nook, downstairs in the living room by the couch, one on the dining table that I read while I’m eating (this is an especially good spot/time for magazines). Weirdly, I don’t have any books on my nightstand, because I don’t find it comfortable to read in bed.

I sometimes wish I could make better use of audio-books, but I find that I’ll often get distracted from what I’m listening to by whatever printed material catches my eye; I guess I’m more of a visual than auditory processor. I have successfully used them in the car. I do use them a lot for my kids – they are very much auditory learners and pick things up best by listening to them.

Attention and Distraction

This isn’t so much a strategy as something I try to be mindful of. If I’m just reading short bits of books in brief snatches throughout the day, I’m obviously not as focused on it as I would be reading it in a longer stretch in a quiet house, say after the kids go to bed, or before they wake up.

So, I save the books that need more attention for those times, and read things that are easier, shorter, less important, during the day. Or I’ll read through books quickly the first time this way, and then again slowly if I feel there’s material in there I need to process further. I also take notes to help me really pay attention to what’s being said. That way, it might take me slightly longer to get through the book, but I know that my notes contain what I want to remember from it, and I don’t need to reread it.

 

Those are my major strategies for getting my reading in. Oh, I guess there’s one more that I should mention. If I am reading something, and my kids interrupt for a non-emergency reason, I will make them wait until I come to a good stopping point. I’m not above saying, “I will read you your book when I’m done reading this chapter of mine, or you can read it yourself now.” My kids know that reading is a priority of mine, and I think it’s helped them want to be readers too.

How do you find time for reading? Any favorite tips you have that I didn’t mention?

What are the distractions that keep you from reading as much as you want?

What I’m Reading These Days

Do you read one book at a time, or several at the same time?

I used to strictly read one book at a time, and I usually didn’t even think about what to read next until I had finished it. But now that I have kids, my reading time is limited. In fact, I usually have a stack of books waiting to be read.

In general, I’m also reading things for various book clubs and Bible studies, and not just because I want to read them, which means I have to read multiple things at the same time if I want to keep up with the group.

I’ve found I like this new style of reading, though, because reading disparate things at the same time helps me find connections between them, and this will often lead to insights that I would have missed had I only read one of them. Perhaps even if I’d read both books, but not at the same time, the connection wouldn’t have come to mind.

Usually, I’m reading a spiritual (almost always Catholic) book for book club, a self-help book or a parenting/homeschooling book either for a different book club or on my own, a particular book of the Bible for Bible study, and hopefully, a new fiction book every other week or so. I also read the daily Mass readings each morning, but that’s with more of a focus on “What does God want me to do today?” rather than for general learning.

So with all that background, here’s what I’m reading right now:

My book club is reading Chiara Corbella Petrillo, A Witness to Joy by Simone Troisi and Christian Paccini. This is about an Italian woman who died a few years ago after delaying cancer treatment in order to give her unborn baby the best chance for survival. It’s translated from Italian, and the idiom reflects this. I’m almost done with this one, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I’m looking forward to discussing it in book club.

I’m also reading Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection for an online book club. This book is subtitled Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life. Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. I’ll probably write an in-depth review of this book when I’m done with it, but she talks a lot about shame and fear and vulnerability, topics which don’t get a lot of airtime in mainstream discussions.

Our Bible Study took a summer break where we watched Bishop Robert Barron’s video series Catholicism: The Pivotal Players. This was interesting, and also filled with beautiful images of various churches and other places where these illustrious people lived. But since we were not studying the Bible in-depth, I took this opportunity to go through Fr. Michael Gaitley’s DIY retreat book 33 Days to Merciful Love, which is a study of St. Therese (The Little Flower) and her Little Way in preparation for a consecration to Divine Mercy. Like his first book, this one is intended to be read every day for 33 days leading up to a Marian feast day, followed by the act of consecration. I did mine to end on the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th, and it was a great experience. The book is powerful and deep, and it’s not meant to be merely read, but rather prayed.

Finally, for fun, I’ve been reading novels by Sarah Addison Allen. The first one I read was The Sugar Queen, which was her second one. I liked that one enough to borrow the rest of them from the library. I then read her first, Garden Spells, which I also liked but not as much. I’ve got two more waiting to be read when I have some free time. I don’t think I can really describe them very well, but they all include a mysterious, unexplained magic related to family and identity and belonging.

So that’s what I’m reading. What’s on your bookshelf or nightstand or e-reader? And any suggestions for books I should check out next?

Synchronicity

“There are no coincidences, only God-incidences.”

That line, uttered by the priest at a church I visited while on vacation, has become transformative in my life.

Not that I was a believer in coincidence, anyway. I knew God was in control of our lives even in the small things. But, over the past year, this message has been sent to me over and over again, and it’s taken me a very long time to accept it and understand it and finally love it.

First, a story!

Last June, like in many prior years, I attended the IHM national Catholic homeschooling conference in Fredericksburg, Maryland.

This is the conference I look forward to all year – there are always great speakers, mostly talking about homeschooling, but also about family life, living the faith, and other great topics. The viewpoint is solidly Catholic – a lot of the speakers are priests; one of my favorite talks from a prior year was by a nun talking about love in marriage. There is confession available, and I always think of it as much as a mini-retreat as teacher education.

But the 2016 conference was different for me – I found myself hearing the same thing again and again from different speakers. They were all talking about different topics (I think one was even about sports), but they all managed to include this line in there. They even quoted saints to make this point, and they were all different saints. It got to a point where I was like “Ok, God, I get it! This is the message you wanted me to hear.” Clearly, He didn’t think I had heard it enough, because it kept coming up, in other contexts, for several months after that conference.

“So, what’s the message already?”

Everything that happens is God’s will.

“That’s it?”

No, let me say it again more clearly:

EVERYTHING that happens is God’s will.

Not just the good things, not just the background things like the weather, but everything. If something happened, then God either caused it to happen, or allowed it to happen. Because He’s God! He’s all powerful; so if He wanted to prevent it from happening, he certainly could have. That He didn’t means that He has a reason for letting it happen. And because He is all-good, and all-loving, we know that the reason must be for our good.

There’s a verse I’ve always liked, but only recently properly understood:

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. 1Thess 5:18

For the longest time, I thought this verse only meant that God’s will for you was to give thanks in all circumstances, good or bad. Which is true, but less extreme than what St. Paul is really advocating. By that interpretation, if you get cut off in traffic, you should thank God because Jesus wants you to give thanks. So, “Jesus, I thank you despite getting cut off.”

I only recently realized that what the word “this” refers to in that verse is not “give thanks in everything,” but just “everything!” Or rather, “everything that happens- good, bad, or neutral; confusing, infuriating, scary; or even terrible, horrible, no-good, and very bad.” In other words, give thanks for getting cut off on the highway, because getting cut off at that time is God’s will for you. “Thank you Jesus that I got cut off just now, becausse I know you wanted that to happen to me at this time.” Which is a much more radical acceptance of the situation.

So, everything that happens is tehcnically a God-incidence. But I like to reserve that term for those synchronicities that just make me spontaneously praise Him for the wonder with which He takes care of me.

Like, for example, the other day, my daughter brought a piece of cheese in the car as her snack. She ended up not eating it and it got thrown away into one of the trash bags we keep in the car for the kids to use. Well, we didn’t use the car for a couple of days and when we did, the air was, ahem… redolent with the smell of 3 day old Gouda.

When we start driving to Church, my husband rolls his window down to mitigate the stench, and because of this, notices an odd sound the car is making. It turns out we had a flat tire, and of course, the free air compressor at the Sheetz near our house is broken. So we turn around, go back home, and he starts to work on fixing the tire.

Meanwhile, I realize it’s too late to make the Mass at our Church, so I decide to take the other car and the two kids who will fit in it to a different Church whose Mass is later.

And not only is the Mass an absolute joy (hymns I love, accompanied by a fabulous award-winning pianist, a homily that made me think, and one I was acutally able to pay attention to because the little two kids weren’t there to distract me), but one of their announcements is that their reading group is going to be discussing Chesterton this fall. Just the previous morning, I had been kicking around the idea in my head of starting a Chesterton reading group of my own, so just hearing this announcement was like God giving me a present. If I can make the timing work out so I can actually attend the group, that will be icing on the cake!

Anyway, so why did I tell you the story about God hammering that message into me? And why my insistence that “in everything give thanks,” specifically includes the bad things? Because that conference began the year that was both the best and worst year of my spiritual life, and that recurrent message saw me through both the good and the bad. I’ll tell you more about it sometime soon.

 

Self-Help Books and Religion

As I said previously, I read a lot of self-help books, and, for the most part, I do find them worthwhile. Sometimes all I find is one or two nuggets buried under pages of platitudes and cliches, but occasionally I’ll read something that really does change how I think about something or approach the way I tackle a project.

But I’ve found a recurring issue while reading these books, and I’m trying to understand whether it’s a problem or an opportunity.

Most self-help books are written from a non-religious perspective, which makes sense because they are targeting a wide audience. Using a religious perspective would naturally narrow their target market. But sometimes, I get the distinct feeling that the author is either going out of her way to hide that she’s drawing from Christian teachings, or she is genuinely unaware that her message has been anticipated by the Biblical authors.

For example, I’m currently reading The Gift of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I don’t know anything about her religious background. I’m only halfway through the book, and it’s full of new information and perspectives, and I’m pretty sure this will become one of those “changed the way I do things” books. But in the introduction, she talks about how the three aspects of what she calls “wholehearted living” are “connection, courage, and compassion”.

And I couldn’t help but be reminded of St. Paul,

“So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1Cor 13:13

I don’t know if the author deliberately chose the parallel but obscured the source to reach a wider audience, or if she honestly didn’t see the connection because she’s never considered religion to be a valid source of knowledge.

In a similar vein, I recently read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and she does deliberately go out of her way to point out that even though she uses words like God and prayer, she does not mean for them to reference religion but rather a personalized spirituality unchained from any tradition. And yet, I find her advice easiest to use when I interpret it in an explicitly Catholic way.

Specifically, she is famous for inventing the concept of “morning pages,” which are hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages written quickly first thing in the morning (or as close to it as possible). And she explains how this is a way of getting all your frustrations and subconscious blocks out of your head and onto the paper, freeing up your mental bandwidth, so to speak, for more important things.

I am finding this practice tremendously useful, but especially so when I use it explicitly to pray. Over half my pages are usually directly addressed to Jesus, either asking him for help with a problem or just thanking and praising him for revealing things to me as I journal. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this, but it’s certainly not the “correct” way to use them. And yet, I can’t personally connect to a vague “Source,” when I could just as easily connect with (pray to) a personal God, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Biblical authors, and countless other writers down the ages.

These authors’ exclusion of God from their writings, whether deliberate or unintentional, does occasionally make me wonder if I ought to be reading different authors – ones who explicitly espouse Christianity. On the other hand, had I not read some of these books, I would potentially have missed out on learning some major life-changing concepts, ones that eventually did lead me closer to God.

So I read any book that seems useful, despite its stated religion (or lack of one), and then seek to “baptise” the message in light of Catholic teaching. Kind of in the same vein as Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle, but obviously with far lower stakes!

I hope to share some of my insights from these books here on this blog. Does that seem like something you would be interested to read?

Are there any non-Christian books you’re fond of that have led you to grow closer to God? Let me know. I’m always looking for new books to read!