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The Intricacy of Family

  
  
  

Family: “…an intimate community of persons bound together by bIood, marriage, or adoption for the whole of life.” (A Family Perspective in Church and Society, United States Catholic Conference of Bishops)

I first read this definition of family when the U.S. Bishops’ document was released in 1988. I have referred to it many times since then in talks and articles about the reality of family. I like the broadened understanding of family in the definition because “blood, marriage, and adoption” encompasses all sorts of domestic relationships: married, never-married, widowed, divorced, or separated; parents and non-parents; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other extended family members; blended families, stepparents and adopted children. It’s a huge mix.

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Perhaps my favorite part of the definition, however, is the “bound together” line. It brings to mind Erma Bombeck’s delightful title of one of her books: Family - The Ties that Bind… and Gag! Bombeck had a tremendous wit and a realistic view of family that was never snarky or mean. It simply acknowledged the messiness of familial ties. We have only to turn to the Bible for affirmation of that fact. Some of the stories in the Old Testament are enough to make even the most dysfunctional among us relook at our own situation with relief.

In the New Testament, we have the Holy Family. While paintings often portray them as placid figures, the brief accounts of their life paints a much different picture. Angels appear unexpectedly, visitors both scruffy and exotic show up unannounced, and the family flees across the border to escape the violent acts of a paranoid king. As a mother, I have long been grateful that they are called the holy family and not the perfect one. This makes them more relatable as role models. Saint Therese of Lisieux describes holiness as … simply doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be.” Mary and Joseph exemplify this by their readiness to take part in a plan that must have perplexed them at times. Luke’s description of Mary “pondering these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51) speaks to the unfolding understanding that comes with the parental territory.

I noticed that one of the family saints listed for the upcoming World Meeting of Families is Mary, Undoer of Knots. What a wonderful figure to turn to in prayer when we feel our own family ties entangling us in anxiety, fear, or confusion. It affirms how the only way to stay bound together in love is by opening ourselves to the wondrous workings of God.

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Catholic Virtues Series: Empathy and Comfort

  
  
  

“Twelve Years a Slave” was on television recently and I found it no easier to watch the second time around. The same heartache enveloped me as scenes of brutality, suffering, and massive injustice unfolded in slow but steady fashion throughout the film. This time I was struck most deeply, however, by the plaintive cry of Patsy, the slave lusted after by her master and despised by his wife. Her desperation grows so intense that she begs Solomon, the free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, to take her life. “I ain’t got no comfort,” she cries.

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A few weeks ago I heard a presentation by Jerry Straub, a former Hollywood producer who now devotes his energy and skills to making films about global poverty. It was a sobering look at the millions of people who are without comfort as they scrounge through garbage dumps for scraps of food, seek basic health care, and struggle to survive in rat-infested hovels. After his presentation, I confess to suffering a bit of compassion fatigue. How, I wondered, do we even begin to address the magnitude of the problem? How do we bring comfort to masses of people who lack the most basic necessities for life?

A partial response might lie in the practice of empathy, something Jesus displayed each time he encountered those in pain. When healing people who were ill or infirm, he often reached out to touch the person and thus convey a sense of compassion and warmth. He didn’t shame the woman who others wanted stoned to death for her act of adultery, but instead told her to go and “sin no more” (John 8:11). Surrounded by crowds wanting to be healed in body and spirit, his heart was “moved with pity” because he understood how lost and abandoned they were, “…like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). His capacity to feel for and with others made Jesus a masterful healer

In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul’s analogy of the human body describes empathy in beautiful fashion. When one hurts, all hurt; when one rejoices, we all rejoice. By understanding that we are all in need of both human touch and Divine grace, we bring comfort in one-by-one fashion and thus participate in the healing of our broken and sorrowful world.

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Bright Ideas
  • Choose a passage from the Gospel in which Jesus heals someone and discuss it with your family or class. How does the way in which Jesus brings comfort to others inspire you to do the same?

  • Download my Prayer for Empathy and share it in your home or parish.

 

 

 

 

 

 photo © iStockphoto

The Gift of Older Sisters

  
  
  

I missed Sisters’ Day (August 3rd). Keeping up with all of the “official” days to celebrate people in our lives seems rather arbitrary. Instead I find myself celebrating my own sisters after a weekend of family parties. My two oldest sisters – Mary Ellen (Mel) and Jo Ann – are a generation apart from me. Both were in high school when I was born. They married when I was so young that I hardly have any memories of them living at home. Nevertheless, I feel a closeness to both of them despite the gap in our ages. I also admire them greatly.

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Mel and Jo Ann had experiences I can hardly comprehend. During World War II, they went to live with my grandparents in St. Louis. This made it easier for my mother and older brother, Ted, to join my father where he was stationed with the Army Air Corps. While they were surrounded by the love and security of extended family, it must have been hard to be separated from my parents at such a young age. The two of them developed a deep bond that has endured for a lifetime. I can’t ever recall hearing them argue or say a mean word about the other. They are best friends as well as sisters.

When it comes time for birthdays, I always have trouble finding cards for them. The stock fare for sisters is that of sharing secrets and giggling under the bedcovers. This isn’t the kind of relationship I share with either of them. To create my own card, I would add a word of thanks for the wonderful role models they have been as wives and mothers. I would compose a verse about the way in which each is aging with grace. And I would ask for God’s blessing on two wonderful women whose love and devotion to one another inspires and touches me deeply. 

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Bright Ideas

  • Do you have siblings for whom you are thankful? If not, name someone else you admire for their love and devotion to others.

  • Download my prayer, A Blessing Prayer for Siblings, and share it with your class or group.

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

Catholic Virtues Series: Loyal Loved Ones

  
  
  

“Wherever you go, I will go…” (Ruth 1:16) These words from Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, encapsulate the bond between two women from divergent families and backgrounds. The marriage of Ruth to Naomi’s son first brought them together. When tragedy befell both women they found strength in each other’s love and friendship. Perhaps the fact that they both understood the particular grief of being widowed solidified the relationship. Whatever the reason, Ruth remained steadfast in her commitment to her mother-in-law despite Naomi’s entreaties for her to return home to the security of her own people. Naomi, in turn, helped Ruth find a husband and begin a new life and family. Together the women weathered storms of grief, poverty, and desperation, and reached the happiest of endings. It is a profound story of friendship, dedication, and, most of all, loyalty.

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All relationships depend upon loyalty for success. Fidelity in marriage. Trustworthiness in friendship. Reliability among coworkers. As a part of our faith, we believe in God’s unwavering love and commitment to the covenant, I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God (Exodus 6:7). The last words in the Gospel of Matthew promise loyalty from Jesus to his disciples and, by extension, to each of us: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How, then, do we cultivate loyalty in our relationships with each other and our God? Ruth provides a simple and yet profound answer. We stick around. We endure the bad times and celebrate the good ones. And, most of all, we draw strength from knowing that we can weather any storm because God will always remain faithful to his promises.  

 

Bright Ideas

  • The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest and most interesting stories in the Bible. Read it on your own or with others. Reflect upon the loved ones in your life whose loyalty has strengthened and supported you.

  • Download my prayer, In Thanksgiving for Loyal Loved Ones, and share it with your class or group.

 

 

 

Forgiving Ourselves

  
  
  

One of the best lessons I learned about forgiveness came from a juggler. Several years ago, while preparing to give a talk on time management, I interviewed a juggler about his ability to keep so many things in the air at one time. When I asked about the secret to his art, his answer surprised me. It was not about dexterity, flexibility, concentration, or coordination. All of those things mattered, to be sure. They could also be honed with practice. The one essential trait for learning to juggle, he said, was the ability to forgive yourself.

Think about it. If the juggler isn’t able to forgive himself for dropping the balls, he won’t pick them up and try again. It’s why children are more adept at learning how to juggle than adults. They don’t find the ball-dropping a self-judgment or see their capacity for learning something new and challenging as finite. They pick them up and try again. 

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When teaching children the importance of forgiveness, we often neglect to include ourselves in the equation. Perhaps this is why so many people reach adulthood with chronic shame-and-blame patterns they find so difficult to break. I once heard this expressed when speaking to a group of parents whose children were preparing for First Reconciliation. One father spoke about his struggle with the resolution part of the rite. He explained that, while he was momentarily relieved by the extension of forgiveness, any feeling of peace quickly dissipated because he knew he would fall back into his same old patterns. Paul expressed a similar sentiment in his letter to the Romans. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

In her book, Emotional Alchemy, psychologist Tara Bennett Goleman describes the “schemas” that we each develop early in life as a response to the world around us. When faced with rejection or conflict, for example, we craft a reaction that repeats itself and follows us into adulthood. Neurological research has shown how these reactions are etched into our brains, thus ensnaring us in an endless cycle of self-recrimination. We drop the balls and walk away.

What does it take to forgive ourselves? Bennett-Goleman suggests paying attention to our schemas in non-judgmental fashion. This means shutting down the “shoulds” and merely observing our own behaviors. We can then explore some important questions. Where did we learn to withdraw, lash out, spread gossip, or sabotage others? What threatens us? What hurts us? What are we afraid of? This process offers the kind of compassionate space that, in our best moments, we afford to others. With time and intention we circumvent the harmful habits etched into our heads and begin to craft new responses that come from the heart. It is a lively, hopeful, and even playful way to discover that we can not only pick up the dropped balls but we can also add new, more colorful ones to the mix.

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Bright Ideas

  • This year’s theme for Catechetical Sunday is “Teaching about God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” Download resources from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops to use in your parish or school.

  • Download my Prayer for a Merciful Heart and share it with your class or group.

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

Labor Day Reflections: Work and Christian Spirituality

  
  
  

There is a beautiful golf club down the hill from us. Because so many of its members live in houses on its perimeter, it’s not unusual to see people riding to and fro in their golf carts. For many, this is a classic image of retirement.

I can’t say it attracts me all that much. I have nothing against golf. I took a class in college and loved the sensation of driving a ball up and across an expanse of emerald-green lawn. The hushed tones that accompany the tournaments my husband watches are a nice counterpoint to the loud and obnoxious noise of football games and hockey matches. It’s not the game of golf; it’s the idea of not working that lacks appeal to me.

Let me explain my thoughts. We have such an ambivalent relationship with work in modern day life. While often deriving our identity from “what we do”, we also make retirement – the cessation of such work – a lifetime goal. I don’t begrudge anyone the space and relaxation that retirement affords. The opportunity to spend more time doing things one loves, as well as being with family and friends, is good for the heart and soul. Nevertheless, there is an intrinsic value to work, whether one is drawing a paycheck or not. Thus, the reason behind the emphasis on the “rights and dignity of the worker” that is one of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching.

As we move into the Labor Day weekend, it is helpful to consider the important place that work has in Christian spirituality, as well as the value of striking a balance between work and rest. In her primer on the Benedictine Rule, author Jane Tomaine describes how it calls for “…a balance between physical activity and rest, work, and prayer, time alone and time together, work with the mind and work with the body” (St. Benedict’s Toolbox). This understanding makes retirement less a goal and more of a movement towards other kinds of work. All of it, in the end, works together for the greater glory of God and the service of our fellow human beings.

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Catholic Virtues Series: The Contagion of Joy

  
  
  

I love how Pope Francis has resurrected the concept of joy. In his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he emphasizes the importance of gladness as part of spreading the message of Christ. …[Christians} should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’” (EG 15) He embodies this message through the way he speaks and interacts with people around him. Photos show him smiling and laughing as he reaches out to bless a baby or receive the hug of an enthusiastic pilgrim. It’s a welcome sight amidst the cynicism and pessimism that seems to have overrun our culture.

A synonym for joy is gladness. This word appears several times in the Bible to describe the joyous disposition of those dedicated to God’s work and service, as well as in response to God’s blessings bestowed upon us. “Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing,” the psalmist proclaims. During my travels across the country, I have crossed paths with numerous people who show me what it means to bring joy into the most menial tasks. One was the driver who shuttled me to a rental car lot. Along the way he told backstories about a town I would otherwise have considered just another spot on the map. Another was a clerk who lit up the dingy environment in a convenience store with her attentive service to each customer. I seem to run across such people when my patience has been sorely tried by the rigors of the road. So often these encounters end with a simple benediction. “God bless you,” they will say as I am exiting the shuttle or collecting my change. Inevitably I feel lightened by their friendliness and good humor. Joy then becomes contagious, something I am grateful to not only receive but also pass along to others.

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Bright Ideas

  • Saint John Bosco is a wonderful example of a joyful saint. Share his story with your family or class and talk about ways you can spread the Gospel message with joy and gladness. 

  • Download my Prayer for a Joyful Heart and share it in your home or parish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catholic Virtues Series: Caring for God’s Creation

  
  
  

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I heard a news account the other day that broke my heart. It was about poachers cutting huge hunks out of the giant redwoods in order to make furniture and souvenirs. This activity is threatening the lives of these rare and majestic trees. It makes the care of creation all the more pressing.

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Muir Woods, one of the most easily accessed redwood forests in northern California, has a section called Cathedral Grove. Visitors are encouraged to walk through it in hushed fashion so as to take in the beauty and grandeur of the trees towering overhead. In such a state of reverence it’s hard to imagine anyone hacking away parts of God’s creation in order to make a few bucks.

As one of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching, care of creation entails a deep respect for the natural world and a commitment to safeguarding the environment. It also calls upon us to ensure that all people share in the earth’s resources in just and equitable fashion. The world is not only God’s gift to us here and now, but also a gift to the succeeding generations. In this way, our grandchildren and their children will be able to take delight in places like Cathedral Grove and know what it means to perceive the divine mystery in the goodness and beauty of creation.  

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 Reflection on Psalm 148

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

Catholic Virtues Series: The Legacy of Generosity

  
  
  

When I got the email about Ray’s death, my heart sank. It wasn’t a surprise, as the cancer in his system was depleting his energy and slowly draining the life out of him. Nevertheless, I felt as if a bright light went out of our world with his passing. I was often the recipient of Ray’s warmth and goodness. He greeted each person who entered our parish and made newcomers and old-timers alike feel welcomed and valued. He leaves behind a great legacy, one steeped in both hospitality and generosity.

As a counter to the restricted and self-guarded experience of stinginess, generosity opens the heart and blesses the soul. We not only find joy in giving, but also come to appreciate in fuller measure the abundance of God’s gifts. Like the widow visited by the prophet, Elijah, whose jar of oil and bowl of flour never ran out, we discover the replenishing generosity of God. No wonder so many of the saints were joyous, even in suffering. They uncovered one of Jesus’ most profound teachings: Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:38) Everyday saints like Ray give without even realizing they are doing so. Their kind of generosity – one of genuine caring and interest in others – has a way of generating goodness. After an encounter with them, we want to pass along what we have received. In this way, generosity keeps on giving. So, while we will miss Ray’s jovial greetings on Sundays, his legacy continues through the generosity he inspired in each of us.

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Bright Ideas

  • Engage your family or class to consider a person of generosity in their lives. How has being a recipient of generosity stimulated a desire to be generous towards others?

  • Download my Prayer for a Generous Heart and use it in your home or parish.

 

Virtues Series: Prayer for a Generous Heart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life

  
  
  

There is a nice parallel between the strength and stamina built in the body through physical workouts with that of the soul. I am often asked to speak to groups of catechists, teachers, pastoral leaders, and parents on the theme of spiritual balance. It’s a clear need in a world that seems perpetually off-kilter. When delving into spiritual practices, it’s always helpful to study the work of the “masters” – contemplative women and men who exemplify centeredness. Figures like Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, and Julian of Norwich come to mind. They are a bit like those toys with weighted bottoms that always spring back to an upright position despite the punches thrown at them. What keeps these spiritual role models grounded is the habits they formed through daily regimens and routines. Merton spent ample time working outdoors and finding grace in the ordinary routine of monastic life. Teresa and Julian were both recipients of mystical visions, but found grace in humor and in listening to the needs and concerns of others. Francis devoted his life to the poor, but reveled in the grandeur of nature.

“Practice makes perfect.” It’s not hard to see how true this is for the artist, the musician, and the athlete. How about the spiritual practitioner? What sort of practices might strengthen us and keep us upright, despite the slip-ups that are part of our day-to-day lives? There are the obvious ones – daily prayer and weekly participation in worship - as well as the nourishment that comes with inspirational reading, sharing time with those we love, and giving generously to those in need. No matter what soul-full activities we take on, the important thing is to do them on a regular basis. That way, no matter which direction we fall, we find ourselves with enough flexibility and grace to bounce back into place.


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  7 Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

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