Thursday, 16 July 2015

family sanctity in 12 (incredibly difficult) months

If only it could be merely that hard. 

Nevertheless, I'm a creature who does thrive on schedules, routines and a well-ordered planner. I like to organize and designate. I love to craft a vision. 

After a recent blip in family life, I renewed my vision of what kind of adults I'm trying to help my sons and daughters to become. At that point I determined that a much more deliberate and intentional program of character formation was past due. So, I began listing only the MOST IMPORTANT virtues I wished to see my children (and truly, myself) possess.  My goal was to eventually pinpoint three essential virtues and target them relentlessly over the coming months. 

As the inspiration began to flow, I altered the plan to absolutely no more than five.  But...that was hard too. 

In the end, there *may* have been more than twenty. 

(page one of two.....)

Way too many....even after weeding out some of the rabble. 

So I decided to cheat. By grouping together virtues that seem logically connected (at least in my life) I created some "sister virtues" and some "virtue triplets" and some "virtue families".  I thought about the liturgical year and the school year and the seasons, and then I assigned each month a little "virtue egg" full of the specific virtues I'd like to focus on as a family. I started (and will continue) brainstorming for Scripture, quotes & mottos, parables, picture books, real life examples, "some food for thought" - anything that would help give children a clearer understanding of the goal. These, I will use to perpetuate ongoing conversation about the virtues as each month unfolds. We're praying for the Virtue(s) of the Month daily, conversing a little about them during the day, and striving individually and collectively to deepen our possession of the month's target virtue. 

The final schedule looks like this:

January: FAITH, Reverence & Piety
February: CHARITY (Love)
March: HOPE (which ideally leads to interior PEACE)
April: JOY & Cheerfulness
          (specifically as the fruits of Contentment, Simplicity & Detachment)
June: TRUTH (Honesty and Sincerity)
September: PURITY
October: FORTITUDE (Courage & Strength); HARD WORK

We've kicked off and I'm pleased so far with the implementation of it all. Obviously, no one has achieved sainthood yet, but the standard has been raised and the picture of goodness is being painted with increasingly vivid color. 

After working out the overall framework, I'm still sketching in the details, but the Lord gave me both His blessing on the project AND a real little gift when he placed the following book in my hands on Saturday. It is a teeny, tiny, short little volume about character formation in kids. (There's a companion volume for parents of teenagers, but I have yet to read or need that one.)

Lastly, I present some photographs that my 5 year old has been taking.  (Her subjects are not always cooperative, nor are they always aware she is photographing them....she has no special instruction, equipment, props, etc...  These pictures are just the work of a little girl who loves to roam around the house "borrowing" the family point-and-shoot.) Without further ado:

At first I loved that this joyful moment had been captured,
but now I realize that my face may actually be contorted in pain.

Not bad for a really little kid. Admittedly, I selected these out of a larger collection of many lesser-quality images, but overall, I think she is doing really well with photography for a five year old. Also, I'm pretty sure even professional photographers only show us the best work from a much larger body of pictures :)

Yesterday I finally "taught" her how to edit her own images on the computer. When I say "taught" I mean I spent maybe FIVE minutes (grand total) demonstrating how to apply filters, crop, rotate, etc.... before I was called away from her side by the Terrible Trio of little boys. By the time I had wiped all the bottoms and filled all the bellies that were clamoring for my attention, Bernadette had been working for almost an hour on her photos. I thought her work was really stunning for a nearly-illiterate five year old, after five minutes' worth of instruction, working totally solo and making all her own artistic choices. 

It serves for me as a timely reminder of what even the youngest children are capable of, given just a little instruction and the freedom to make some informed choices. 

Imagine the beauty of which her soul is capable. 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

why I am "for" homeschooling (rather than "against" school)

Plodding through Weigel's biography of John Paul II,  I am struck by the Pope's frequent insistence that decisions (or actions) must never simply be made "against" something negative, but ought to be made "for" something good.

That insightful principle has given me a powerful new tool with which to evaluate decisions I am making as a wife, mother, friend, citizen, etc....  Recently I have had several reasons to reflect on whether or not to continue homeschooling. I have chosen to go forward, after clarifying to myself that homeschooling must never be a decision "against" anything, but a decision "for" something great.

The big buzzword in our family life these days is "parish renewal". Rich's brand new job is all about Church renewal, the New Evangelization, parish renewal - in short, his job involves deeply recognizing that something has gone drastically wrong in our culture, that "religion" is no longer thriving quite as it used to. Something new, something creative and perhaps radical, some attempt to think outside the box is needed; if the Catholic faith is going to flourish in the next generations, parishes must dare to do things differently, even if some choices discomfit those who prefer the same old same old. Without compromising the dogma, depth, beauty or demands of orthodox Catholicism (and its liturgy), parish culture itself must be reimagined; the traditional model is not as powerful in the face of the new culture in which we live.

Reading and talking so often to Richard about "Parish Renewal" has led me to see parallels to "Family Renewal".  The family is faring just as poorly as the Church, or arguably worse. It's a chicken-and-egg situation, and it behooves the one to invest in the other. I esteem homeschooling as a real possibility for "family renewal" - requiring the same courage in scrutinizing how fruitful the "normal model" has been, and demanding the same levels of prayerfulness, humility, commitment, creativity, ambition, passion, prudence and fortitude to try something new.  When I look at the culturally normal and accepted model of family life and child-rearing, I ask myself - I am obligated to ask myself -  how successful has this model been in producing close-knit families that are true schools of love, community, character and faith? Which factors might account for the failures of the Normal American Family? How can I do things differently so as to give my family the best possible chance of being genuinely intimate and close-knit for life, of becoming persons of character and sanctity, of investing in Christ and His Church wholeheartedly? Those are profound questions and I have no guarantee that the answers I am finding are correct.

One consideration that has given me much pause in my reading of the life of Karol Wojtyla: when he lived under Communist rule, he noted that Polish families were kept separated for as many hours a day as possible - husband from wife, mother from child, brother from sister - in a successful attempt to undermine the family. That does not sound so entirely different from the de facto segregation occasioned by the crazy pace and chaotic scheduling of the modern American family: two working parents (who may or may not cohabit); kids scattering in every direction for school; hasty dinners eaten solo; and homework, sports and extracurriculars eating up the nights and weekends. If separation undermines the family so successfully, then will more togetherness have the opposite effect?  Is homeschooling a good method of fostering togetherness? (or is it too much togetherness?) I don't know. It's an experiment. I don't know the outcome yet. I presume it will depend almost entirely on what I do with all this togetherness.......a grave responsibility and not one to be undertaken lightly. Only in rising to that challenge do I satisfy John Paul the Great's instruction to choose for something good. If I'm keeping my kids home for the good of family life, character formation, etc.... then what I do with them all day better actively serve those goals. Not only must I carefully plan and execute for their academic education, but I must be constantly striving for a home life that is joyful, cheerful, peaceful, orderly and an absolutely compelling school of virtue.

Every young Catholic has a responsibility to truly discern religious life, which the Church recognizes as the highest calling and the most perfect (complete) gift of self. We are not all called to become religious (in fact, few are), but if we truly love God, we at least open our hearts to allow Him to call us completely to Himself, if He so desires. In a similar way, I feel obligated each year to discern whether I am called to continue homeschooling my children, which I see as a vocation within a vocation and the most complete gift of self that I can possibly make to my family. My children have been uniquely entrusted to me and no one else loves them (or knows themselves to be accountable for the persons they will become) as I do.  Therefore, as primary educator of my children, if I choose to delegate significant portions of their upbringing to someone else, I am morally obligated to make that decision seriously, after prayerful discernment, well-informed of the personal and cultural influences that will shape my young children outside of our home. Not only what does the school itself purport to do, but who is the teacher who will be in direct authority over my child? do I know of and admire her character & values sufficiently to responsibly entrust a good portion of my child's upbringing to her? is she kind, fair, challenging and just? is she vigilant about the culture of the classroom? what are her deepest attitudes about God and the Church? how much emphasis does she place on these in her private life and in the public life of the classroom? what about the teacher next year? and the year after that? who are the student peers who will tremendously influence my child's tastes and attitudes in nearly every domain? how well has my child internalized our family values and how much maturity does that child possess to lead, rather than be led? These are questions to be dismissed (or answered flippantly) to our collective peril. Adults speak glowingly of the tremendous influence one great teacher had on their lives. Is the reverse true? What is the lesser-noticed impact of mediocre teachers? I don't believe that homeschooling is obligatory for all families, nor that I will certainly homeschool every year of my children's upbringing. Only the discernment seems obligatory to me, given the state of family and culture.

I discerned religious life for two years in my 20's, in a very serious (although very immature) way and determined it was not my calling. I do believe that there are (many!) people who could discern homeschooling and determine it is not for them.  Thank goodness there are so many other options! When I first became a parent, I was open to the idea of homeschooling, but had not made a definite decision. Finances seemed to indicate a long term inability to ever afford Catholic schools and our public school district was unappealing. However, our kids were babies and really it was a moot point. A short time later, while living in New Zealand, I found a Montessori preschool near our house that was absolutely "perfect" by every yardstick I held - and tuition was nearly free. At the time, Maria was 3 years old, Bernadette was not quite 1- and I was newly pregnant. Not only pregnant, I was suffering from pregnancy-related depression and overwhelmed with living in a new country, with abundant missionary responsibilities and a home filled with daily visitors who distracted me mightily from interacting properly with my toddler. It was a hard time. Nine months later I was overwhelmed with caring for a seriously ill newborn, on top of everything else. In those particular seasons of my life, I discerned that sending my eldest child to school was the best thing I could do for her and I was tremendously grateful to have the option to entrust her to such a wonderful little school. Having outstanding schools is important and I have immense respect for all those who are involved in ensuring that that option exists. Our parish school and local Catholic high school are both phenomenal, and both are constantly striving to become ever better. It gives me great peace of mind to know that there are wonderful schools in town, if ever I discern that one child, or all the children, ought to be in school. Homeschooling for me is not about "rejecting" traditional school any more than consecrated life is about "rejecting" marriage and family.

I end with a bashful confession.  Homeschooling is challenging; it is a constant struggle by this imperfect woman to grow in patience, self-giving, self-control, creativity and the ability to be in a fruitful and sympathetic relationship with each child. It is not perfect. It is often messy. Often I wish my kids had more access to peers and microscopes and fine arts. Like all things, it's a trade-off. The microscopes and kilns and band ensembles help keep firmly in my mind the fact that I am not choosing against traditional school, but for family culture. One of the biggest struggles for me (and here's the confession part): often I feel frustrated by all that I can't do because of the immense time and energy demanded by caring for and educating five kids of disparate ages who are all home all day every day. When I recently thought about what I could do with my time if some/many of my kids went to school.....   I thought of the idealistic (more prayer! volunteering! ministry!); the domestic (a cleaner house, more mommy-and-me activities for the baby and toddler); the mundane (a part time job, keeping better in touch with friends); the disappointing, yet very likely (wasting more of my life breath surfing the internet) ...... I realized that, with exception of more prayer time, there is nothing more important, worthwhile, or frankly satisfying than what I am doing, despite all its myriad frustrations. I am possessed of a renewed sense of gratitude that I live in a free country where I am (still) permitted to homeschool, that I have a husband fully supportive of my desire to do so, that I have the education and temperament conducive to succeeding at it,  and lastly, that I do have a firm sense of having a God-given vocation to homeschool.

The experiment continues.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Way "Past Imperfect" indeed! Or, "Disappointing Novels By A Catholic Author"

A short time ago, a friend of Rich's loaned him a book that advocated (among other things) always "simultaneously" reading several books on different topics - in other words, reading a few pages from several different kinds of books each day.  The author, James Altucher, believes this practice helps us become more creative and dynamic because it fosters unlikely associations in our brains. This week I've been doing just that: reading, all at once, the following:

George Weigel's Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
Greg Popcak's Holy Sex and also, a companion work of sorts by the same author,
                        Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids
                        (I highly recommend both of these extremely practical and insightful books!)
Julian Fellowes' first novel, Snobs and his follow-up Past Imperfect
Technically, I was not reading the two Fellowes fictions "simultaneously", but I did blast through both novels in three days total, so it  felt like I was reading them at the same time. I was still digesting the first as I devoured the second. On the other hand, I checked Weigel's dense 864 page text on JPII out of our parish library about five MONTHS ago and have been slowly, steadily, faithfully plodding through ever since. I read it almost every night. I'm not even halfway done...  And while I've been "done" reading the two Popcak books for a while, there was so much excellent stuff in both (despite the author's sometimes maddeningly self-righteous tone) that I've been frequently reviewing and digesting the most worthwhile sections of both books ever since.

And- it's true about the fruitfulness of an unexpected pairing of ideas. But quite by accident, all of this reading material had a LOT to do with sex. John Paul II had much to offer the world on the topic, and Weigel does a good job of unpacking it in the biography. Popcak's books on sexuality are indebted to the late Pope's Theology of the Body to the point of their existence being entirely impossible without it. And Julian Fellowes' novels, while theoretically "about" English aristocrats and historical cultural shifts and power, turned out ultimately to be really all about sex. Which was a crushing disappointment to me for many reasons.

I'll start with the "brand" of human sexuality that Fellowes communicates in his novels.  Compared to what I was reading in Popcak's reflections on the awesome potential inherent to marital intimacy, the sex Fellowes writes about is boring, cheap, repulsive and, incidentally, unconvincing. He sets up a false dichotomy of sex as being either immoral and exciting OR "married" and drab. How unfair and untrue. I studied the Fellowes novels under an even purer light as I simultaneously digested the deep thoughts of John Paul the Great on the importance of literature, culture, friendship, marriage and human sexuality. I wasn't just disappointed in Past Imperfect as a novel; I was disappointed in it as a force of culture and as a commentary on culture.

Then, novels with highly sex-driven plot lines are not my usual fare. And when I read novels about aristocratic English ladies, I want to read about women who dress, think and behave like Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet. But I pushed on with Fellowes because, as in his for-television writing, he has a talent for arresting my interest and making me almost frantic to know what will happen next. There are few other televisions writers who have done that to me in the past decade. (None, to be exact.) So I assumed that despite the often rough language and the very occasional PG-13 physical interlude, he would come out on the other end triumphantly (though gracefully) affirming Truth, Goodness, Beauty - and traditional Catholic sexual morality. Like he does with Downton Abbey. Like the Great Catholic Novelists my Providence College English professors and Steubenville grad school friends loved: Waugh, O'Connor, Undset, Greene. But Fellowes didn't deliver this time.

For five seasons of Downton Abbey, I have watched him showcase the stickiest of human behavior, always and every time to ultimately demonstrate the indignity of sin and its sad, lasting consequences. I've thought it remarkable and I've admired him tremendously for creating a smash hit television show with firm moral underpinnings, whose popularity is not in any way confined to the cultural Catholic ghetto (to the contrary!). Infidelity, promiscuity, divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, rape, prostitution....there seems no morally contested area of human sexuality that Fellowes is afraid to explore. Never glorifying sin, he shows the hard modern issues from different vantage points, in different contexts, from the most sympathetic possible angles, and yet each time (I've thought) he does a wonderfully effective job of wrapping up the story line by gently and subtly underscoring Catholic moral teaching on each. I trusted him to do the same in his novels. Snobs did, to an extent. By the end of that novel, I felt that Fellowes had somewhat weakly commented on the right and wrong foundations for marriage, rather more strongly commended the heroic virtue of fidelity to marriage vows under difficult circumstances, and had driven home a very powerful message about human freedom and our responsibility for the consequences of the choices we freely make.  Past Imperfect, in contrast, seems rather the opposite. I finished reading this afternoon and can't shake the unsettling feeling this novel has left in my gut. I'm crestfallen that the Catholic writer I have so long championed could have written something as morally bankrupt as this book. I keep hoping that, as the hours pass and I have more time to reflect on what I just finished reading, I'll suddenly "get it" and realize that he was being IRONIC. Or that I'll suddenly grasp that he was doing some delicate literary-artsy THING and I was just too thick to see it while I was reading. Like when I read Brideshead Revisited. Or anything by Flannery O'Connor. But realistically, no. I think not. I want that to be true so badly, but I'm afraid it isn't to be.  Text me, email me, send me a link if I'm wrong. I still so wish to be wrong.

This is the last in my unintended series of posts about books. Next time, something about real life. Because how much time can a girl have to read, think and write about books in a real life filled up with five children? In my determination to soldier through those novels this week, said children were a tad bit neglected. This is why I don't have a television. That said, my resolution for the rest of the summer is to confine my reading to the hours after the little ones are in bed. Which means no more fiction for a while. Here's to the hope that this resolution helps me return my JPII biography to the parish library before my own John Paul's first birthday this October. At the rate I'm going, it's an ambitious goal, but not an impossible one.....

Sunday, 10 May 2015

bad religion

The formal review, as promised in yesterday's post.....  (I wrote this for our parish bulletin, which will explain some of the otherwise curious references I make to "our parish", etc....)

Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) speaks to anyone who suspects that a decline in religious faith is responsible for the vast majority of our country's problems. It also addresses itself to anyone who believes that the root of our nation's woes is too much religion. Douthat posits that both positions are correct: bad religion is undermining America. Religion done well, he argues, is our sole hope for national health. 

Douthat (who is Catholic) begins by tracing the history of religion in America. After a brief sketch of the religious convictions of the pilgrims, colonists and Founding Fathers, he skims the fluctuations of Christianity in the US through the 1950's.  He identifies the 50's as the seeming Golden Age of American Christianity, but notes that collapse was imminent and delves deeply into the question of why? What pre-existing conditions, what cultural undercurrents, what political events set off fifty years of religious decline in a country that appeared so robustly pious? 

​The subject matter does not make for light reading, but it's a particularly interesting and important topic, given our parish's recent commitment to renewal. "​If it's not broken, don't fix it"....  But, if "it" is broken.... find out why; find out what has been done to attempt repair; find out which repair attempts met with some success and why each ultimately failed. This book provides much of that necessary information. 

Douthat touches on the Civil Rights movement, the emergence of the megachurch, Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, the sexual revolution and the sex abuse crisis, parish shopping and organic eating. His scope is broad, peppered with insights sure to challenge some of the political and cultural assumptions each reader holds, while vindicating others. He is especially preoccupied (and unimpressed) with "accommodationist" Christianity, by which he refers to fifty-plus years of attempts to adapt worship and creed to make both more appealing to lukewarm Christians of each decade. (This censure gave me pause. Isn't that what we are attempting at Epiphany? As I continued reading, I was able to confidently answer that fear with a resounding "No"). 

Douthat identifies four major "heresies" on our current cultural landscape. He takes pains to plumb the depths of these popular modern spiritualities and pseudo-spiritualities, explaining (not unkindly) why they are attractive to so many people. These fascinating pages scrutinize figures such as Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck; they also explore cultural phenomena like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Douthat sounds the alarm over a shift towards "the steady conflation of religious belief and partisan politics, to the detriment of both." But perhaps most importantly, he does a solid expose of the "God Within" trend: the fashion of being "spiritual, but not religious" which is so attractive to young people (as well as many of their parents). We would do well to understand the appeal of this "heresy" and Douthat's book is good resource. The concept of God as Light, Being, Creation, the Universe, or the individual's own Highest Thought has been identified by Richard Dawkins himself as "a sexed up atheism," and it is crucial for us, for the sake of our young people, to understand the seduction of this spirituality. Rather than dismiss it as foolish fluff, it behooves serious believers to penetrate more fully into the mindset of those who enshrine "niceness [as] the highest ethical standard". We are speaking of persons who espouse tolerance and embody narcissism, who possess an ever-increasing ability to communicate on social media and a frighteningly diminishing ability to live in community, who have more freedom and less happiness than any previous a word, this heresy touches nearly all of us - to some extent or another. This is the heresy perhaps most responsible for emptying our pews and breaking parents' hearts. If I want to protect my child from losing her faith and help my neighbor rediscover his, I must have a well-trained ear to notice the (often surprisingly subtle) voices peddling this loose spirituality and I ought to become fluent in my ability to counter its errors. 

Douthat's short conclusion contains his evaluation of possible and popular sources of religious renewal, as well as his descriptions of what renewal ought and ought not look like. He recounts G.K. Chesterton's brilliant insight that time and again "the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs [yet always] it was the dog that died."  While Douthat encourages the reader in the virtue of hope, reminding us that America has come through worse times than these and Christianity through much worse, he also cautions "that it would be heresy and hubris to assume that a renewal of either is inevitable." With a touch of humor and a thump of solemnity, he insists, "Jesus never said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the United States of America."  Implied is that it is up to each of us, in our own adherence to authentic religion, to ensure that the gates of hell do not continue encroaching upon that goal.   

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Great Books for Catholic Grown-Ups

After writing my last post on some of my kids' favorite books, I can't resist writing a follow-up post on some of the books I have most enjoyed lately!

1. Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Great Loves (Jason Evert) -

         Pope John Paul II is hands-down my favorite saint. Like so many other mamas, I wanted to name my first son for him. My husband, however, had his heart set on naming our first son after his own favorite saint. Since he had called dibs on naming our first son "Joseph" about two weeks after we met, I had to give in gracefully when we actually produced that male heir five years later. Rich in turn graciously let me pick the middle name. I picked "Pio" for my second favorite saint....and because it would give my first son the initials "J.P."
        Although Rich wanted to name our second son "John Paul", we couldn't agree on a nickname (JP, Johnny, Johnnyboy, John John and a long list of others were proposed by Rich and vetoed by Kelly). We opted to repeat the idea of just using the initials "J.P." So, James Patrick is unofficially "JPII" in our family. But we never actually call him that. By my orders.
        When our third boy was born last October (in the month John Paul II became Pope and in the year in which he was canonized) we both agreed it was clearly time to use The Name. We also agreed to use no nickname at all.

        I regretted it all within hours of signing off on the birth certificate. John Paul is a real mouthful. It's a big name for a tiny person. The "Paul" got dropped by every nurse and doctor on the maternity floor. Except for the ones who carelessly assumed the right to call him "JP".

       While I was wallowing in regret, Rich brought home the (long ago) aforementioned book. It's such a slim volume, I almost gave it a pass. I didn't think such a tiny book could contain anything really new about the man. I'd already read so much about him. What else could there be?

       I won't even give a hint here. It's not necessarily that Jason Evert reveals "new" things about the beloved saint. It's the beauty and simple holiness of the man that overwhelms you as you read. This book is not about facts and dates and accomplishments. It's not really about anectdotes either. It's just about the five "things" John Paul the Great loved and how he loved them.

       By the time I finished this short book (I tried to draw it out as long as possible) I wanted to love what he loved and how he loved them...and I was so grateful to have a son named after him. My new baby's name no longer seemed cumbersome and I was no longer reaching for a nickname.  And THAT was just about when Rich hit upon the nickname that has stuck on this poor child:   ZombieBaby.

2. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (Maria Augusta Trapp)

        A while back, I let my girls & Joseph watch The Sound of Music for the first time.  Joseph became obsessed with the Nazis and the girls with the Trapp family. We spent the next few months learning everything we could about both.

     The public library carried Maria Von Trapp's autobiography, but I had trouble finding it at first because I didn't know she had dropped "Von" when she came to live in America. Because I didn't know she came to live in America.

      Once I figured out that I had to look under "T" and not under "V",  I had a real treasure in my hands. While the movie is faithful to the spirit of its main character and to some of the events she experienced, the differences revealed in this autobiography are surprising and delightful: when Maria first leaves the convent (strictly as an academic tutor, not as a governess), she thinks there will be only one child under her care; the "Baroness" is actually a Princess;  Maria does not fall in love with the Captain until after she (Maria) is his wife. These and many other discrepencies kept my pages turning rapidly. Her version of the story of their escape from the Nazis is better than Hollywood's, and her adventures in America are both funny and fascinating.

       However, what I most appreciate about this book is the truly inspiring intensity of Maria's Catholic faith. Her portrayal of WWII era Austrian Catholicism is stunning. She describes parish rituals from an age long gone, as well some beautifully holy domestic traditions which she attempted to bring with her to the States. Her efforts to raise her children as good Catholics in our culture are laudable, as is her passionate desire to do whatever necessary to keep the family unit tightly knit together. I didn't expect more from this book than to learn the "real story" behind a classic movie. I got that, indeed, and so much more.

3. Time for God (Fr Jacques Philippe)
    Quite simply, this is a teeny tiny little book brimful of wisdom on prayer. It would be beneficial to someone who has never prayed in his life. It would be helpful to someone who prays daily. It's practical and concrete, written in a simple, accessible style - not at all intimidating or complex.

4. Searching For And Maintaining Peace (also by Fr Jacques Philippe)
   I read this book five years ago. And every night since. Literally. Just a page or two each night, just enough to keep the life-changing insights of this small book always fresh in my mind. I read it for the first time when I was wrestling with depression and in danger of losing my unborn child....and I kept reading it once the baby was safely delivered, but seriously ill and enduring months of hospitalizations, medical tests and uncertainty. I can't give enough credit to this book as a conduit of God's grace for me in that difficult period (and since!)

5. one thousand gifts (Ann Voskamp)
     I loved this book. I hated this book. I can't decide if I loved it more than I hated it or not. I HAD TO own this book. I felt like I needed a support group/book club to help me work through my wide range of reactions to the book, the ideas in the book, the language in which the book is written. It's been about five months since I finished it and I still have no final verdict on it. Without delving too deeply into my interior drama over this best-seller, I will say two things by way of recommending it:

1.  The language. The way she writes. It's poetic. It's beautiful. It's annoying as hell. Then it gets worse. And then, suddenly, it stopped bothering me. I made peace with it. I wondered if secretly I had been perhaps jealous of those images Ann Voskamp conveys. Then I realized....jealous or not, there was another reason for my irritation. I just wanted to finish the book and her poetry was slowing me down and tripping me up.  (See #2.)

2. I need to slow down and stop being so task-oriented that I keep missing beauty. This idea is the main "good" that has come into my life from reading this book. Ann Voskamp began writing down the beautiful and good from her own life. She kept a running list of what was "best" in her day. Eventually, that list inspired her book. Since I read this book, I too have been keeping a list of the gifts I recognize each day. For years I've examined my conscience nightly (which essentially means that just before I officially end the day, I take a good close look at all the nastiest crap from the day and I apologize to the One most offended by it. A good pious practice - and also a bit of a downer at the end of an already discouraging day.....) It's been a wonderful addition to ALSO look gratefully on all that brought joy. I now end the day by also thanking the One most responsible for those fleeting moments of joy. This idea originated with the Jesuits, not Voskamp, but she helped me make it a reality in my daily routine. I find that I am now much more aware of how much joy there is in each day. I also find that I am more conscious of those moments as they unfold. I am more "in the moment" with them as they happen.

Although there are many things (besides the dramatic poetic style) that drove me nuts about the book, the only other one I'll mention is that it can be really off the wall to try to read it as a Catholic, for the following reasons:
1. Voskamp is not Catholic
2. She is writing a book on EUCHARISTIC living
3. She is quoting excellent Catholic authors all over the place  (Chesterton, mystics, saints, popes)
4. She is quoting Scripture on the Eucharist all over the place
and yet
5. She utterly misses the entire truth of the Eucharist.
         (and dodges any attempt to honestly grapple with the unanimous consensus that all her Catholic sources deliver on the Eucharist. And awkwardly leaves out/jumps over Scripture that would force her to grapple with it. I just found it a wee bit....maddening)

6. Divine Renovation (Fr James Mallon)
       I've not often had the pleasure of reading a book written by someone I actually know, but Rich and I met Fr Mallon while we were missionaries in New Zealand. In fact, he and Rich visited Hobbiton together. He's Canadian and had come to give the parish mission at the same church that was hosting us. That was maybe four years ago. I just read his book last week.
       This book is exciting. It's a total "outside the box" approach to parish renewal in the Catholic Church. While totally faithful to orthodox Catholicism, it proposes a host of "wow!" ideas that have real potential to create bigger, stronger parish communities filled with far more spiritually mature Catholics. These are Rich's final days teaching at our local Catholic high school. He's about to return to parish ministry, so the ideas outlined in this book are a lot more relevant to us right now than they might otherwise be. I like to think that I would have found this book insightful, inspiring and interesting even if parish ministry was not in my husband's immediate future. If nothing else, it showed me that far from having attained anything close to spiritual adulthood, I am still very much stuck in spiritual puberty. What's better: in addition to reminding me of this humbling fact, the book leaves no doubt as to what must be done to grow up. Praise be to God.

7. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Ross Douthat)

More than a year ago, Rich and I went on a date to Barnes and Noble. We each found a book and sat on a couch together reading. (We're exciting like that.)

I picked up this Bad Religion book - I think the title jumped off the shelf at me. I skimmed, I browsed, I read a paragraph here and there. We left.

For A YEAR I kept thinking about the snippets I'd read. Not all the time, just every so often. Then I started seeing the book referenced in other books or articles I was reading. Finally I checked the public library and brought it home. For the past ten days, I've drank in this book every time I sat down to nurse John Paul.

The first half of the book paints the history of Christianity in America. Interesting stuff. Really. Douthat traces the rise and fall of various Christian denominations, noting what was happening culturally and/or politically during these fluctuations of faith. He not only recounts what happened in Christianity, but he takes a stab at explaining why it happened.  It's not light reading, but I enjoy his writing style and the subject matter interests me. So I plodded happily along, not minding at all how long it took the baby to finish his meals and fall asleep.

If the first half of the book explains "how we became a nation of heretics," the second zooms in for a close look at the most popular modern "heresies". I wasn't really expecting or prepared for this close-up and it confused me a little at first.....and then, it UNconfused me. In the pages of this book, I found a great deal of insight into groups of people who generally baffle me. Douthat explains some of the popular spiritualities (and pseudo-spiritualities) of our time; he also explains (not unkindly) why they are so attractive to so many people. Some of the groups he sketches include those who adhere to the Prosperity Gospel, those who are "spiritual but not religious," and those believers whose political passions far eclipse their spiritual zeal.

I found his insights to be spot-on. He puts words around ideas I've held rather fuzzily for a long time and he raises points I have never considered before. He's Catholic, faithful and traditional in his spirituality, yet unafraid to make his Catholic reader squirm in her rocking chair.  His criticisms cross Christian denominations and partisan lines. He challenges some of the political assumptions I have long held and vindicates others. Since I began reading, I've had a sharper spiritual focus in terms of how I view politics, culture and my own behavior.

I finished this last book a few hours ago. My little nursling just woke up for another meal, but now I have no Ross Douthat to keep me company as I feed. It's late. I'm tired. I feel certain I can't bring this to an intelligent conclusion at present. I've been invited to write something much more coherent and polished about this book next week. Once I do so, I'll most likely publish it here as well.

  If anyone has read any of the books discussed here, I'd love to hear thoughts on them! And of course (at least until I wean the baby)  I'm always looking for great book recommendations.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Great Books for Catholic Kids

Reading to five

If there is only one thing that I am confident I am doing well as a parent, it's that I am doing my best to instill a life-long love of books in my children. I read to myself every single day, and I read every single day to my kids. It's by far my favorite thing to do with them. As soon as the baby takes a nap, I've got a little girl on either side of me, two little boys sharing my lap, and a pile of books at my feet. I easily check out 50 to 75 children's library books per month, minimum. Roughly half the stuff we read is non-fiction; the rest spans a broad range of juvenile fiction, from the gorgeous to the whimsical, and the serious to the silly.

THIS is what happens when we get home from the library. Blessed silence. 

Few things brighten my day more than when "awesome children's books" overlap with "faith".  In order to be "awesome" for me, a picture book (religious or otherwise) must be written and illustrated with excellence. When I stumble across something that makes a deep impression on my children (and that I'm willing to read again and again), I'll usually hunt down a used copy online and buy it. Recently, a few friends were returning to the faith after long absences and asked for suggestions about catechizing their very young children. My two easiest suggestions: hanging up beautiful religious art in the child's bedroom and building up a nice little library of great Christian books.

We all have really different ideas of what makes for a "great children's book". MANY (oh so, so many) a time I've scoured the library for titles on a List Of Great Juvenile Literature, only to emerge with a pile of books that my kids and I were all pretty "meh" about. So, rather than share a list of "Must-Own Christian Kid's Books", I think it's perhaps more helpful to go broad and discuss categories of books, rather than just the specific titles. I've probably missed some categories, but off the top of my head, I think a Catholic family benefits from having some books from each category below. Here goes.

Staples in a Catholic Home, with examples/suggestions for each category:

1. Books About the Mass:
These come in two species, so to speak -

Books about Mass, like
The Weight of the Mass (J. Nobisso)  Whimsical paintings. Loosely based on a true miracle. Story that highlights the value of the Catholic Mass. Wonderful vocabulary too! Age 5 or 6 and up.

and Mass books, such as
The Catholic Icing's Illustrated Mass (Appropriate for a child approaching First Communion. Available online for about $5. Guides a child through the parts of the Mass. )

2. Books About Scripture:
Okay, I used to think that a children's illustrated Bible was an absolute staple, but after trying and using several highly lauded versions, I learned that I personally would rather read the kids short passages directly from an adult Bible.  However, that choice may not be for everyone, which is why Children's Bibles exist.

One such choice.... The Action Bible (written and illustrated in..... Comic Book style. I hate it! I can't  say enough how much I detest this format for a Bible. But - Rich and the kids LOVE it. They love it even more than I hate it. To each his own....

When it comes to Scripture, I prefer something that absolutely screams "good, true and beautiful".... something a little more reverent than cartoons.... something more along the lines of The Beautiful Story of the Bible (Roche)  This little treasure is almost a child's Bible and it is soooo lovely.​  We've checked it out of our parish library a few times now and it's next on my "to buy" list.

In lieu of children's Bibles, I enjoy reading a gorgeous picture book that zones in on just one story/person/book from the Bible.  Some of my favorites in this category present text taken straight from Scripture with breathtaking illustrations. Others have no words at all, simply telling the story in pictures.

​    ​Creation (Genndy Spirin)​​
​    ​Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden (Jane Ray)
​    ​Noah's Ark: Words from the Book of Genesis (Jane Ray)
    Noah's Ark  (Peter Spier) (or the one illustrated by Jerry Pinkney)
​    ​Exodus (Brian Wildsmith)
    ..... and so on and so forth, through the entire Old Testament, if you so please!

Both of my libraries carry lots of these kinds of books. We've read at least 6 versions of the story of Queen Esther, for example, and the kids enjoy seeing the way different authors and illustrators present the same material.

3. Books About Saints
There are some well-done "encyclopedia" versions (one volume, lots of saints), such as:      

Ruth Sanderson's Saints Lives & Illumunations
More Saints Lives and Illuminations (also by Sanderson)
Treasury of Saints and Martyrs (by Margaret Mulvihill)
Amy Welborn's Book of Saints and the sequel, Book of Heroes  

I like to have one or two of these in the house so that I can easily access info about a saint when a kid expresses interest. But these are not books I sit and read cover to cover. They are more "textbook" than "storybook".

Side note: I'd love to rename this section "Biographies of Inspiring Catholics" and include within it some amazing books written for kids about our popes and Our Lady; however, I have yet to read any books on either that I absolutely love and want to reread a billion times to my kids. I've seen a lot of kids books on various popes and Mary, but either they're too long, too cheesy, too dry, too cartoony, take too many liberties, etc....  Please write a comment if I've missed a great book on Mary or a pope. (Please write a great book on Mary or a pope if I haven't.)

On the other hand, there are heaps of great picture books out there that depict the life of a saint. Just yesterday I read Demi's St Joan of Arc to my 4 oldest kids and we all loved it.  In March, we read books about St Patrick, including a great one by Ann Tompert. We also read about other Irish saints, finding treasures in our public library such as Don Brown's Across a Dark and Wild Sea (story of St Columba).  St Valentine by Robert Sabuda was a nice gift my kids got one Valentine's Day; I store it with the Valentine's decorations and we reread it every February.  Most kids like Tomie DePaola's fiction and may enjoy his series of saint books: The Lady of Guadalupe;  Christopher the Holy Giant;  Patrick;  Francis;  etc...

lest I give the impression that we just sit around and read books on holidays....

4.  An Illustrated First Catechism 
    Even with a 2 year old, this kind of little book provides a chance to start teaching some of the basics of the faith. We have two thin paperback versions (which we do not "read" cover-to-cover like a storybook. We look at pictures and I ask questions like "Who made the sun? The animals? The trees?" while my toddlers happily chirp out their answers. On the page with a depiction of the Trinity we review the idea of three persons and one God - and I quiz them on the names of the three Persons. They like answering the questions and some of the pictures are of more or equal catechetical value than the text - they illustrate concepts that would otherwise be hard/impossible to explain or discuss with a toddler!) Two possibilities:
    The New St Joseph First Communion Catechism   (really helpful pictures!)
    My First Catechism by Fr Lovasik

5. Christmas & Easter Storybooks:
Every Christmas and Easter, my kids get a couple of new religious Christmas or Easter books. Slowly we have acquired an awesome collection. I can't depend on the library for these because everyone else in town wants these books at the same time that we do, obviously.  I store them with the Christmas decorations and Easter baskets, and then each Sunday in Lent or Advent, I pull out a few and we build up to the holiday partly with books.

Some of Our Favorite Christmas stories:
Star of Wonder (Leena Lane & Elena Baboni)
            Thorough treatment of first Christmas, whimsical illustrations
Christmas (Jan Pienkowski)  All text straight from Gospel, intriguing illustrations
Room for a Little One (by Martin Waddell, gorgeous  illustrations by Jason Cockcroft)
           Suitable even for young toddlers - I love this book!
The Crippled Lamb (Max Lucado. Need I say more?)
Little One, We Knew You'd Come (Sally Lloyd-Jones, stunning ill. Jackie Morris)
          Also suitable for toddlers. Catechizes parents as well ;)
This is the Star (Dunbar, photo-like images by Gary Blythe)
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey  (Susan Wojciechowski)
            (ages 4 and up - may bring a tear to your eye!)
The Miracle of St Nicholas (Whelan)   (the value of being able to attend MASS on Christmas)
A Gift From St Francis (Cole. The first Nativity scene)
Also, seriously, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Such a fun way to start a discussion
             on what Christmas is really about!     

Our favorite Easter books: 
The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith (Jesus' last days through the eyes of a donkey. Gilded involved
    paintings, lots to see, includes institution of Eucharist, very 'complete', very Catholic.  Ages 3 or 4 and up)
Follow Me: Peter Lays Down His Net (Rottmann. Also very Catholic.)
Easter (Jan Pienkowski. Scripture & cool art)
Peter's First Easter by Wangerin
The Tale of the Three Trees (Hunt. So deep!)
​The Easter Angels (Hartman. A sweet but deep fiction about the angels at Jesus' tomb)
The End of the Fiery Sword ​ (written by my friend and mentor, Maura McKeegan. Excellent for
           thoroughly examining WHY Jesus died, starting with Adam and Eve's fall!)
The First Easter by Lois Rock (very simple but thorough, best for very little ones)
On That Easter Morning by Mary Joslin (good, simple & thorough, nice illustrations)
He Is Risen Indeed (David Erickson) (simply the Easter Gospels, illustrated in oil paintings)
Easter in the Garden by Pamela Kennedy (very well done fiction about
        a little boy witnessing Jesus' Resurrection)

Also nice to have is a kid's illustrated Stations of the Cross booklet

Lastly, during Lent, I like to check the public library for children's picture books about Passover  - it has helped my kids have a deeper understanding of what Jesus was up to on Holy Thursday.

Pienkowski's art

6. Picture books/story books/novels that emphasis Christian mysteries & virtues, such as: 
(There are so many wonderful choices out there! Here are just some that we love!)

Max Lucado: Because I Love You, 
                      You Are Special, 
                       You are Mine, 
                       Just the Way You Are
                     Good for 3 to 7 year olds - and long beyond!
                     Even I get something out of reading these four. The art is really beautiful too.

To a lesser extent, Max Lucado's garden bug series books are of value - a bit cheesier, sort of along the lines of VeggieTales - and like VeggieTales, also available on DVD..... I don't really enjoy them, but my kids do - their favorites:        
                                                         Hermie, An Ordinary Caterpillar
                                                         Buzby, the Misbehaving Bee
                                                         Webster, the Scaredy Spider 
                                                          Flo, the Lyin' Fly

The Princess and the Kiss (purity for little girls age 4 or 5 and up)
     - beautiful! very gentle, sweet story about the gift of marriage & purity told in an age-appropriate          way  (Jennie Bishop)

The Squire and the Scroll  (purity for little boys - age 4 or 5 & up)  Also by Bishop, even better than
        the Princess and the Kiss!

Angel in the Waters  (Regina Doman) An affirmation of the dignity of human life from the moment of conception.  My kids have all enjoyed this even as very young toddlers, but I change the words for them at that age and make it their own story in the womb.

Have You Filled a Bucket Today? (Carol Mccloud. Concrete explanation of charity and kindness)

The Quiltmaker's Gift (Jeff Brumbeau. Not explicitly religious, but a great message about materialism/greed and generosity/detachment) My kids love this, I enjoy reading it and the art is intriguing - lots to see on each page! Age 3 or 4 and up.

Snow White Retold by Josephine Poole - a beautiful Christian retelling of the classic fairytale with a nice emphasis on forgiving our enemies rather than making our enemies wear red-hot dancing shoes until they fall down dead.....   (This version actually ends with a powerful depiction of the truth that evil is destructive unto itself - it is one of the only versions I know of in which Snow White and/or the Prince do NOT inflict a revenge upon the wicked queen; instead, her own malice is her  direct undoing.)

The Bearskinner (originally by the Brothers Grimm, retold by Laura Schlitz) Amazing "fairy tale" for boys (and girls) about the power of prayer and so much more. Best for older kids - the main character foolishly strikes a bargain with the devil, but afterwards learns his lesson really well.

Gershon's Monster (Kimmel) -- An excellent Jewish story about repenting for sin

Godiva by Lynn Cullen (beautiful princess/virtue book)

Snook Alone (Marilyn Nelson) - a story about a Catholic hermit and his dog, who become separated to illustrate a beautiful allegory about the life of prayer and faith and silence

Brother Hugo and the Bear (Kathy Beebe) - humorous, flattering tale about a medieval Catholic monk handcopying an illuminated manuscript.

By the time kids are old enough for novels, the choices really depend on gender and interests and taste, but here are just a few of the early novels my children have enjoyed (and which I feel have really made virtue wonderfully attractive):

Little House on the Prairie series
The Courage of Sarah Noble
Listening For Lions
Little Women
A Little Princess​
Narnia series (obviously)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 
The Tale of Despereaux
Mountain Born
Black Beauty
What Katy Did 
Thee, Hannah!

Happy Easter and happy reading!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Mission to New Zealand, P.S.

This post ought really to be attached to the end of our old blog, because it was inspired by a recent visit from one of the (now grown) youth whom we served during our mission years in New Zealand.

Charlotte came to the States on a "nun run"; believing that the Lord is calling her to religious life, she spent a few weeks visiting various convents across this country (and serving in Haiti as well).  She also got a VERY up-close-and-personal "Come and See" experience of Catholic family life. In fact, it was so up-close-and-personal that I feel utterly confident that her vocation to celibacy was assured by the second afternoon of her nine day stay at Casa Sealy. 

The last time Charlotte spent any time with this family, we were in New Zealand with an almost 5 year old, a 2 year old, a sick newborn and a little one on the way. Now - the eldest in nearly 8 and was delighted to see her old babysitter once again. The former 2 year old is five and a half - she remembers nothing of Charlotte or New Zealand, but was delighted to get reacquainted with both (see below). The sick baby is a miraculously healthy little boy and the "little one" has never been called "little" since he burst out on American soil weighing nearly nine pounds. Plus, we now have another fat baby - our only child with absolutely no claim on New Zealand :(
Charlotte knew exactly the way to their hearts: 
Kiwi "lollies" and "biscuits"

She asked them to help her learn how to play in snow!

They hoped this Kiwi girl would never leave! But, alas, she did. At 4:30 this morning, to be exact. But not before she witnessed a promise made. Rich wants me to start blogging and he extracted a promise from me to post photos from Charlotte's visit and photos of the latest pegs. So, in fulfillment of my word....

Vietnamese Martyr, St Valentine, Queen Esther, St Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe

Charlotte and I had one lovely evening when she painted a gorgeous Peg of Our Lady and I crafted a St Cecilia, but we hid her peg from the sticky (in every sense) hands of my children before I photographed it.  When she gets home from Haiti, I'll have her email me a photo of her peg and post it in here. 

Charlotte and I also prayed Stations of the Cross with the kids, using the Passion Pegs or Resurrection Peg Set I'd made a few months ago. As each Station was announced, the kids picked out the appropriate pegs, arranged them, and even built appropriate props (like a cross and a tomb) out of wooden blocks. It was the best way I have ever prayed the Stations with kids - by far!  They have been busy with the pegs even when we are not using them for Stations - they've had those pegs act out nearly every part of the latter half of the Gospels. 

Judas arranging to turn Jesus over to the Pharisees

In the Garden of Olives, Peter, James & John witness Jesus betrayed with a kiss

With Pilate

"Behold the Man!"

Veronica & Simon of Cyrene
Maria is so proud of this cunning Cross she built

"It is finished."
At the tomb on Easter Morning

Reinstating Peter on the beach

So, there we go. Up and running after many months. Safe travels to Charlotte and we look forward to welcoming you back to the States - in a habit ;)