As the winter Olympic Games in Sochi were wrapping up, the television network played its requisite montage of memorable moments. Skiers, snowboarders, and skeleton-racers soared to new heights and speeds. Then there were the “agony of defeat” moments, none more poignant than U.S. figure skater, Jeremy Abbott, who crashed into the boards during his short program. In obvious pain, he got up and, encouraged by the cheering audience, finished his routine. He garnered no medals for his efforts, but looked elated by his personal triumph.
The other day I watched my husband walk slowly up the hill to our house after another of his lengthy training runs. It was a bitterly cold day but he ran anyway. Over the years I have been both baffled and impressed by his initiative. The only way he maintains such a rigorous routine is by, in his words, “ignoring how he feels.” This isn’t about his physical needs. He monitors injuries with great care. Rather, it’s about his mental state. If he doesn’t “feel” like running, he does so anyway. This seems to be the secret to good self-discipline.
Poor as I am with sports metaphors, I have used Ron’s mantra to encourage those trying to engage in a spiritual discipline. With Lent now underway, it’s a good reminder of the kind of initiative needed to move through six weeks of “penance, prayer, and almsgiving” – the three traditional practices of the season. Ignoring how we feel when the weeks wear on is probably the only way to keep from giving up entirely or backsliding into the dreaded spiritual malaise called acedia. Saint Paul had his own sports analogy for the discipline required of a Christian: “…This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14) Whether it’s running a mental marathon or simply trying to recover from a painful fall, pressing on toward the goal is what spiritual initiative is all about.
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On my neighborhood’s Facebook page, tucked amid notices about road closings and queries about handymen and window cleaners, was a post that stopped my heart. Four local high school students committed suicide within the span of two weeks. Because I am still reeling from the shooting at Arapaho High School in December, the news both haunts and torments me. What kind of despair envelops our youth to the degree that they choose to snuff out their own lives? How much anger and frustration builds inside of a teenager to warrant blasting a classmate in the face with a shotgun?
I never thought much about the marking that occurs on Ash Wednesday as anything other than a call to penance on an individual basis. This year, I believe I will see it differently. When our children come to the decision that life is not worth living, it is time for a collective wailing and gnashing of teeth. The rather bizarre ritual of smudging ourselves with ashes, symbol of regret and despair, seems apropos for a wounded community. It goes way beyond guilt trips or public shaming. We are a people in pain and need relief, we are sick and need healing.
The late Evelyn Underhill once noted our misconceptions around healing. Rather than getting rid of pain and distress, divine healing restores us to our true selves. Healing, she wrote, is a regeneration, “…bringing life back to what it ought to be, mending that which has broken down, healing our deep mental and spiritual wounds… giving new strength to the weak, new purity to the tainted.” The work of healing is part of each one of our souls, our common vocation as beings made in God’s image and likeness. This brings me hope. We needn’t wear ashes forever. Healing is possible. Hope is eternal. Ash Wednesday will give way to Easter Sunday. Imagine carrying this message to every young person. It would go a long way to helping them see the precious gift of life and the very good reason to stick around and see how it unfolds.
Talk to your family or class about the ritual of Ash Wednesday. What does it mean to be marked with ashes? What life do you hope will arise for your family, parish, school, community, and the entire world this Lent?
Download my Reflection for Ash Wednesday, and use it in your parish or home.
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As a child I learned to “give something up” for Lent. My meager efforts at abstaining from candy or from teasing my little brother pale in comparison to the regimen of a forty-day desert fast. As a spiritual tradition, fasting goes back millennia. Jesus, in embarking on his wilderness experience, was following the practice set by his ancestors. It was a form of purification.
Rather than using the season as an endurance contest, the traditional practices can be seen as soul-full habits. Just as one doesn’t pray for forty days and then cease until next Lent, so should our efforts at fasting become ingrained ways of practicing our faith.
To heighten your awareness of Lenten fasting, download a Soul-nourishing Practices for Lent and use it with your family or class!
Some people start their day with coffee and the newspaper. Mine begins with orange juice and my journal. The cat is usually waiting for me to settle into my favorite chair. She then nestles beside me while I do some spiritual reading and then write my entry for the day. It’s a nice, gentle routine that places me on solid footing once I step into my day.
As Lent approaches, I am even more aware of the value of this regimen. Lent is a time for spiritual practices to become even more sharply focused, and so I generally take on some additional reading during the season. The journaling remains an anchor point, however. In addition to looking toward what lies ahead, I gain perspective by reading my letter from the day before. More than once I have been struck by the way in which my reflections have shaped the day. Journaling has been a cherished practice for decades.
My son once joked that, should I end up in a nursing home and forget who I am, he would bring me my journals. It’s actually not a bad idea. It echoes what the great mystic, Catherine of Siena, advised: “Make two homes for yourself… One actual home… and another spiritual home… to carry with you always.” My journals bring me home.
As a spiritual director, my feedback to directees is often the same. After listening to their questions and concerns, I generally end up advising reflection. Whether it is writing in a journal or engaging in formal prayer, meditation, walking, or simply being, the important thing is take the advice of another great saint. “Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” (Francis de Sales) This all seems like a no-brainer. After all, if my cat gets it, why don’t the rest of us? Nonetheless, our fast-paced culture tends to militate against reflection. It’s “onto the next” ... and the next… and the next… until we look around and wonder where our life went.
Someone once noted the reason so many people show up for Ash Wednesday services is because everyone gets something. I wonder, however, if it doesn’t run deeper – a hope and a hunger for a spiritual home where we find the inner peace we all long for. Lent is a great reminder that the only way there is through a reflective life.
As Lent approaches, consider the kind of reflection you can fit into your daily routine. Talk about this with your family or class.
Download my Prayer of Lenten Reflection, and use it in your parish or home.
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“Giving alms” is one of three practices that are traditional during Lent. Such practice has an equalizing effect, in that we share our abundance with those who have a deficit of resources. This involves charitable giving, to be sure, but also the donation of time and talent. In this way, almsgiving embodies the core principles of stewardship.
Discuss with your family or class the almsgiving you can practice this Lenten season. Then download a Prayer for a Generous Heart to use with your children or students.
A few years ago, while serving on a parish staff, I was asked to speak at the weekend Masses on the theme of stewardship. Just as I was heading to the lectern, I heard someone mutter, “Here comes the wallet talk.” It was dismaying because, not only did it mean some people would tune out my brilliantly-crafted words, but they would also miss the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of stewardship.
The experience awakened me to some issues around stewardship. Have we made it into a “wallet talk” instead of something much broader and more beautiful? If so, we have done a great disservice to both the concept and to the people who would benefit from it. In his short but profound booklet, Embracing a Generous Life, Bishop Robert Morneau describes stewardship in a nutshell: receive, nurture, share, return. I love this description. It makes the sharing of our resources - be they material goods, abilities, or presence - a means to contribute to something larger than ourselves. Stewardship is, at heart, about generosity and the grace that returns to us in abundance when we disburse what we have been so freely given. It’s about being a “cheerful giver”, one who knows that all is blessing from a benevolent and magnanimous God.
The day after my talk on stewardship, a woman came to the parish office and said she wanted to donate the altar in our new chapel in memory of her husband. She told me how stirred she was by the idea of donating something to benefit the entire community. The comfort and joy it brought her was obvious. In the intervening years, I have seen small children donate pennies to those without homes, teens tend gardens for elderly people, and adults serve in soup kitchens, on parish committees, and as catechists, sponsors, and mentors. In each case there is a receiving and a giving back that creates a lovely cycle of generosity and possibility. It’s so much more than simply opening up a wallet.
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Between now and February 14th, reflect on the lovely themes and associations of Valentine's Day. A bishop once told me that he considered prayers of adoration our “valentines to God.” In them, we express our utter delight and fascination with being cherished by a God whom we recognize in the smiles, hugs and “luv u” messages received from others.
As part of your Valentine's Day celebrations, download and share my Valentine for God prayer cards with your family or class!
Every once in a while I come across a holy card stuck in a book. We had dozens of them when I was a child. Most were of Mary, but a number depicted various saints, each with his or her defining symbol of sanctity. My older sisters enhanced the cards by using colored pencils to darken the folds in the robes, thus making the saints look like they were garbed in velvet. Even austere figures, such as Francis of Assisi, glowed with health because of the rosy hue added to their cheeks. My early impression of holiness was influenced by these saintly depictions. Eyes upturned towards heaven, each one was the picture of serenity and peace.
The reality of holiness is quite different. Rather than placing us in a perpetual state of spiritual bliss, holiness consists, in the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, of “…doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be.” This makes it accessible to everyone. Thus, if I were to create my own set of holy cards they would include parents and grandparents, teachers and catechists, grocery clerks, nurses, gardeners, and hotel housekeepers. These are some of the people I encountered over the past few weeks who seemed to fulfill their particular calling. Each one took time to share a kind word, to extend an offer of assistance, to provide service with a smile, or simply to be present to what he or she was doing.
In his book, An Anthology of Saints, Father William Bausch writes, “…The one thing we know about holiness is that it is catching.” It’s caught first from God, source of all holiness, and then filters out through everyday acts and attitudes of respect, kindness, mercy, graciousness, and love. To be just who God wants us to be. Pass it on.
Talk with your family or class about someone who is an example of holiness. How might you depict that person on a “holy card”?
Learn more about the holy women and men we honor as saints and blesseds, and download activities for your family or class.
Download my Prayer for a Spirit of Holiness, and use it in your parish or home.
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Sadlier offers whole community seasonal events that can be used with the entire parish community or religious education program. We invite you to participate in a Gather In My Name Lenten event designed to bring children, youth, and adults together to pray, share faith, and learn more about Lenten practices and traditions.
Use our Lent handouts (pictured above) to implement the full Lenten event in your parish or school, or as a standalone activity for students and their families.
When I was teaching second grade, I sometimes felt sorry for my colleagues in the upper levels. They didn’t receive the kind of love notes that appeared on my desk each morning. One of the most memorable was a thank you card from one of my more rambunctious students. His message of gratitude sticks with me: “You teached me things I never knewed.”
Okay, so maybe I didn’t quite succeed in the spelling and grammar departments, but his meaning is clear. To learn is to experience something wondrous. One of my favorite fictional characters is the wizard, Merlyn. He teaches young Wart (later to be crowned King Arthur) by turning him into different animals and, in doing so, offers first-hand knowledge of their lives. In T.H. White’s trilogy, The Once and Future King, Merlyn describes a benefit of knowledge: “The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. … Learn why the world wags and what wags it.”
I like to ask Catholic school teachers and catechists what excites them about teaching children. Inevitably someone responds by describing the joy of uncovering something new. Opening up a parable or teaching of Jesus, inviting contemplation on a perplexing problem, piquing curiosity about “what wags the world” – all are tremendous experiences that stimulate the mind and expand the spirit. While I continue to wish that we compensated our teachers more justly for their contributions to our Church and society, I know there are few professions that reap the kind of rewards they receive. One love note can make the headaches worth it. What a gift to teach what someone never knewed!
Send an inspirational quote from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the “mother” of Catholic education, to a teacher, parent, or student. Tell what you appreciate about him or her.
Download my Prayer for Knowledge, and use it in your parish or home.