Monday, August 31, 2015

Trusting in the Bigger Picture

*Life begins image from Ali Edwards' Firsts digital kit

Today I dropped my oldest off at the middle school, but it was not until the afternoon that it hit me that this would have been the year. It would have started the first of three years that I would have been her reading and writing teacher had I stayed in our previous community in the K-8 school where I taught and the girls attended school.

Since my transition to teacher education at the university level two years ago, the start of the school year is always bitter sweet. There is about a month where I am back to work before my university students arrive and while K-12 teachers are preparing for and then welcoming their students. I drop my girls off to their schools and miss being one of the teachers within their same school. Once my own classes start and students arrive, I feel more at peace with occasional nostalgia.

This year though, there has been a shift. While I still miss my previous context, I have comfort in the bigger picture. When my husband and I were deciding whether or not to make the move, I did a lot of praying that if a transition to higher ed and a move back home closer to both sides of our families was in the best interest of our family in the bigger picture of our lives, the pieces would click into place. If conversely, it was better to stay, I wanted it to not work out for one reason or another.

Everything clicked into place, and I accepted the position just in time to welcome our third daughter into our lives, put our house on the market, and prepare for our transition. Last November, a little over a year in to my new position, I had a significant shift in making some tough decisions in order to have some healthy career boundaries and to allow for more of my focus to be on other aspects of my life.

Nonetheless, trips back to our old community would still make me emotional. I missed my colleagues and the families, I was sad about the girls not having access to bilingual instruction, it was hard to no longer be part of the school where I invested so much time and energy... While I was grateful for my new position and aware of the advantages of the position and being closer to family, it was still hard to let go of 7 years of experiences in another community. In between two trips to the community back in April, I knelt in the pew praying prior to Mass that would be followed by a Chris Stefanick event at our parish.

I got a sense that the reason why I moved back was to be more involved in my parish and to invest more in my own faith development. I thought about opportunities that opened up or were facilitated based on where we are - right here. right now. I considered what was already in motion and what would still be to come. I had the clarity of the bigger picture that I had prayed about; although it was somewhat surprising as it started to come into focus more, something I had not anticipating back when the transition was just a possibility. My thoughts were solely focused on: my career, family, and my girls' education. The realization of a deeper layer to the purpose of moving has helped me to feel settled about our shift.

Today when the thought came that this would have been the year, rather than feeling sadness, I thought about the rhythms and routines of the day. The girls and I attended morning Mass together as we will each Monday because their schools have a one-hour delay on Mondays. Our priest was able to give them a blessing for their first day. If I had been in a K-12 context, I would have been in my classroom and attending daily Mass would not be possible today or any day other than vacations. When I dropped the girls off, I was able to experience the moments as a mom, rather than rushing between mom and teacher. When I walked between the university and the church for a mid-day meeting followed by praying the rosary in the quiet church, I was grateful for the proximity of the university and church, as well as the flexibility of my schedule. I met the girls at the end of the day for a check-in on their day and prayer and then switched back to work.

Sometimes trusting in God's plan for our lives requires us to take a step without knowing for sure how it will all work out and without knowing the why behind being drawn to a certain direction. It requires moving out of comfort zones and taking risks. It requires patience and reflection to connect the different pieces and room for surprise and a shift in direction. This is just the start.

Lead me, Lord. Help me to trust in your plan for me and to take the steps that you would like me to even when there is no way for me to comprehend your big picture. Help me to be amazed with the way you help different pieces come together and to recognize where you are calling me to move.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Priests as Resources and Guides

Last week over at Redeemed Online Andy Lesnefsky posted about the importance of turning toward God, rather than away, in times of doubt and confusion. He reflected on the importance of prayer in these circumstances. Over the last few months, I have also been thinking about the power priests and the guidance they can provide to supplement a strong prayer life.

I can't remember a time in my life when I have had the confidence to ask my priest questions that arose prior to this summer. Instead, I would soak up the guidance from homilies but was sometimes left with lingering thoughts or questions. The first time I asked one of my priests a question earlier this year, I realized that doing so requires a certain level of comfort with vulnerability. I had to set aside worries about feeling like I should already know certain aspects of my faith and shouldn't need to ask, as well as concerns about how my questions would point out my own weaknesses. In that sense, I had to humble myself in order to have the courage to approach him.

Nonetheless, once I got past that, I instantly recognized the resource and blessing available, something that had been there all along but it just hadn't occurred to me to seek - the guidance of a priest in a conversation. Now, just a couple of months and some additional dialogues later, I am starting to realize the value of the unique voice my priest offers in that he will provide me input and clarification through a strong Catholic lens. While my other go-to people for advice are still important voices, it can end up being that they provide the advice they think I want to hear or their advice can be situated in the current predominant social and cultural context of the time, rather than rooted in the faith.

I appreciate that my priest will share what I need to hear from a Catholic perspective with an explanation of why. For example, the first time I was talking about some Bible passages that were hard for me to grasp and relate to for years. However, with some key pieces that he mentioned, it made sense in the overall bigger context. I just hadn't thought about it with those vital points of consideration before.

Through advice and dialogue, I gain a sense of calm but also feel pushed or challenged. My priest will make seemingly simple statements that will then stick with me as I process and turn the thoughts over. As a result, different concepts click into place. For example, talking about what is most important in life, I realized that I probably answered too quickly with the response that I know as correct since a child but then wondered if my life and actions were really aligned to that response or if my actions are really aligned with valuing the concrete more than the eternal. I started asking myself questions like, What would my life look like if...? or If God is really most important in my life, would I be doing this? My responses to these questions help me point toward areas of improvement in my life, such as how I spend my time, how I nurture relationships, and how I forgive. Other times it is just the importance of being reminded of something vital. Then there are times when I am reaffirmed for something I am doing, serving as encouragement.

Now that I am more aware of priests as a resource, I reflect on when to ask, when to pray over time, and when to just move forward. I am grateful for the different ways that I can encounter God's voice throughout my days.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


This week I am grateful for...

  • starting the week with the last day of a weekend retreat at our diocesan retreat center focusing on evangelization and catechesis. There were opportunities for individual quiet reflection (especially with my early mornings), whole group, small group, and one-on-one interactions. 

  • making a decision about what my role will be for this academic year at church - co-leading high school youth ministry. 
  • the start of my 11th academic year as an educator. I am grateful for my journey as an educator and all that it has taught me about life, relationships, and priorities over time.
  • family, including my niece's 22nd birthday dinner at my mom's house and a lunch with my sister on Tuesday.
  • a conversation about Jesus's three-fold love: unconditional, sacrificial and forgiving, as well as a reminder later in the week to keep it at the forefront of my mind and reflect on implications.
  • documenting life alongside Ali Edwards and am looking forward to putting all of my photos and words together into one of her kit albums. The album that held my first four years of completing the project, Week in the Life, filled up last year. I look forward to taking some time to revisit all of these years - from one community to another, from 6-8th grade to a sabbatical replacement back to 6th-8th grade and into a permanent position in teacher education, from doctoral student to Ed.D., from family of four to a family of five. I love seeing the glimpses into our rhythms and routines over time and how our life has shifted. 
  • quiet mornings. I have been working toward a goal of starting my days at 5 AM - daily readings, daily devotional, and praying the rosary. Then whenever Manuel comes out, I like calm time with him knowing the end of the day might be chaotic. Then I typically have some more time to read or write. This morning I had some time to read more of Matthew Kelly's new book Rediscover Jesus: An Invitation

  • the every once in a while spontaneous adventures as a family. My husband just woke up and our school clothes shopping in town with just the big girls and I just turned into a day trip as a whole family. Off to get ready...

...and so much more.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Work in Progress: On the Continuum

My spiritual life looks drastically different today than it has at any other point in my life. While my faith life was fairly strong at different points, in recent years it became more of a struggle. The closest I got to feeling like I had a strong beyond Sunday routine in recent years was when I would read my Living Faith daily reflection and then the daily readings from the light of my Kindle while pregnant with Camila. I continued the routine when she was born but then it slipped away when we moved and I started back to work.

When she was about a year old, as part of my One Little Word reflections, I wrote, "Filling out my April monthly card, I knew that the words I wanted to use to capture this point in time was feeling so busy. Then those same words caught my eyes. They were already stated in January and March. I know that February was not much different. I am realizing again and again that sense of feeling like I am drowning from time to time. Though I am getting better with the mental side of busy, today I have been feeling like the word to describe it is coping. Yet, I want to go beyond coping. [...] When life feels like this, it seems that nutrition and exercise often take the back burner as I grasp for air or dog paddle, depending on the moment."

Then about 5 months later, last September,  I wrote, "It feels like there is always one thing that if I can just get past it, I will be able to focus on [goals]. [...] And yet, I want to do so much more than just 'get through'. [...] I feel like there is so much going on, I can't focus too much on anything related to my word other than my general mindset and coping in order to minimize stress."

When Ali Edwards prompted us to write letters to ourselves in October of 2014 as part of her class, I noted, "This year has been a busy one - not unlike recent years. There always seems to be some big change or event that takes up so much time and energy. As you look forward to November and beyond, you hope for a change in the rhythms of your life. [...] You will need courage Amanda, to continue on this path of not allowing the pressure of some to overrule the decisions you have made about your own priorities."

Then that month is when it felt like so much was set into place and the momentum has built.

Realizing that evangelization is a part of my life's purpose is closely linked with a natural pull to impact the lives of others. As I think of ideas and implement different aspects here and there in implicit and explicit ways, the concept of a continuum came to mind. If someone would have told me last year that even though I felt like I was drowning, right now part of my core routines would include: re-engaging daily Bible readings and reflections at the start of the day; a daily rosary; daily Mass; and weekly adoration, I would have felt exasperated and stressed out. I probably would have been defensive, inclined to say I really didn't know how that would be possible.

Yet, here I am. So what changed? What was the catalyst? How did these different pieces click into place as the core to be prioritized, that once in place would help me to feel more at peace and provide guidance for my decisions and priorities in other aspects of my life?

Those questions provide me with a lot to untangle, but what I know for sure is, back then, I just wasn't ready yet. Instead, I was led to have a thirst for something different, something more. In the swirl of gratitude and business and reflection, I was prompted to take steps that would lay the groundwork for where I am now. I was living life experiences that would provide a rationale based on contrast so that I could value these core aspects of my life more.

Knowing what I know about my faith journey in recent years, when trying to positively impact others, I want to keep reminding myself that others are also on their own continuums. If it doesn't seem like my words and actions are prompting shifts that I would like to inspire, I will still persevere knowing that there's always a lot going on under the surface. I will remember that maybe some people just aren't quite ready yet. Maybe the foundation is building.

Today I received a letter that Matthew Kelly sent to Dynamic Catholic Ambassadors, in which he stated, "When I first got started in this ministry in the early 90s, a holy priest took me aside one day and said, 'Never get discouraged. You will only ever see 1% of the impact you have.'" These words spoke to me, reaffirming thoughts that were already swirling in my mind.

Where are you at on your own continuum? How can you honor where others are at on their continuums? How can you learn from others? How can you teach others?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fueling the Passion: Focused on a Purpose

I couldn't sleep. Eyes shut, I shifted stomach to back and side to side. I had woken up with Camila. While she was only awake very briefly, I could not fall back to sleep. Instead, I thought and processed, ideas taking shape.

As an educator, this isn't new to me. In my dissertation I included a narrative about not being able to sleep in my hotel room following a career fair when I was in my teacher preparation program: 
The gears in my brain churned away, screaming at me to get out of bed and start documenting the flow of ideas. I tiptoed to my backpack to grab paper and a pen and sat on the floor next to the hotel window, not wanting to wake my master colleagues. A bit of sunlight was streaming through the crack in the blinds, just barely enough to see. My hand flew across the paper, and I felt the great feeling that comes with writing thoughts onto the page. 
At the education fair I had eased into a free-flowing conversation with a co-principal about how I would teach reading to high school students who were still struggling. I felt an instant connection, and though I did not even know when the interview process would begin or if I would get the job, on the inside I was already buzzing with excitement about the possibility. I relived the chance meeting the day before as my ideas spilled out. 
Once I could not think of anything else to write, I tucked my notebook back into my bag. Later I would add to the list, revise it, and eventually shape my first units. A few weeks after the education fair, I had accepted a position for the district that ignited so much passion from a single conversation. (pp. 74-75)
Now alongside my career passions, I have another fueled by a purpose that has emerged as part of my One Little Word 2015: Core. At the start of the year, I wrote the following as an intention, "Begin to live with this mission in mind: Strive to live life according to God's will by nourishing spiritual life and nurturing connections. Conscientiously focus on showing family is important, value self care, and work with joy."

If you would have asked me not too long ago what my vocation is, I would have stated being an educator. This year part of my personal development has included me being able to see the bigger picture, recognizing that my vocation from a Catholic lens is married life, which in my context includes being a wife and a mother. Being an educator is still a huge part of who I am, but I am now seeing beyond wrapping so much of my identity into being an educator alone and instead am seeing the bigger picture of my life's purpose.

One part of my journey this year that helped position me well for this shift was Tsh Oxenreider's course Upstream Fieldguide. Back at the start of the year, as I went through the process of the sessions, I drafted a purpose statement based on my intention, revised to say, "My life's purpose is to live life according to God's will, which includes courageously prioritizing breathing room in order to nourish spiritual life, nurture connections, empower others, and live with joy." Tsh prompted me to consider the larger context of my life - not just the phase in which I find myself right now, which made all the difference. 

I found that at the start of the year I was not really sure what shifting my focus to living according to God's will would mean in a specific way. I began to pray, reflect, and focus on investing in further developing my faith formation. In recent days, I have been realizing that living according to God's will is more concrete in my mind - my purpose is evangelization. Through different resources, again and again the concept of the purpose of my marriage being to help my husband get to heaven/aid in his journey to live a holy life and the concept of leading my girls to heaven as my most important role as a mother have been coming up. Stewardship beyond my immediate family also entails impacting others around me in a positive way, just as they can support my faith development in a collaborative community. Before this year, I did not view evangelization as part of my role, and it is definitely not a part of my comfort zone. However, a range of resources, including those from Dynamic Catholic, Chris Stefanick, and Redeemed Online helped me to recognize just how integral this purpose should be in my life. 

Yet, the question is still there - how can I best accomplish this at different levels in my life? With all the ideas swirling around, I know that I have personal limitations based on time, resources, and the different roles that I fill. This morning one idea emerged as a starting point, something that would be relatively small but that would push me out of my comfort zone, help me to build confidence with my emerging purpose, and hopefully set some positive change in action. I'm ready to develop that idea with the intent to implement it in September (and will provide an update with more details at that point). 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Daily Mass with a Toddler

Right after I realized that I wanted to go to daily Mass every week, it was about time to transition into summer break. There were still some days that my toddler would be in day care while I worked a little bit here and there, but there was a 2 week period when she would not be going to day care at all. I told myself that I would still go to daily Mass every day to at least try, regardless of how easy or hard it would be.

With my older girls (currently 9 and 12) kindergarten seemed to be when they turned a corner and it was easier for them to behave in a way that was not stressful for me at Mass. Once our toddler got past the infant stage and was no longer quiet enough at Mass, my husband was often staying home with her, knowing that one of us was most likely going to be out in the hall with her rather than inside the church anyway. However, that ended up being detrimental to our family as the older girls would sometimes resist going to Mass (such as: If Papi's not going, why do we have to go?). Of course, I also knew that while it was so nice for met to go with the big girls and be able to focus on Mass that it was not okay that my husband was back home missing Mass completely.

Instead, we started to go to church as a family but take our toddler down to babysitting offered during Mass. However, every attempt to have her in Mass on days when daycare was not available were not that successful. I remembered some recent attempts in which the stress of trying to keep her in the pew and quiet made me sweaty. In an examination of conscience, with a laugh I knew for sure that one implication to my life for "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods" was: You shall not covet your neighbor's calm and quiet children in Mass. Needless to say I was not able to focus and fully participate in Mass and was far from the calming sense of peace that usually comes with Mass.

I thought about the minimum of 10 week days without day care with dread. I longed to be able to participate in daily Mass but knew it would be more challenging with my toddler in tow. In my mind there were two thresholds that would constitute celebrations - 1) being able to stay through the homily and 2) receiving the Eucharist. I prayed for perseverance for the 10 days and any other summer days when there wasn't a reason why I had her in day care.

Nonetheless, I also considered the positive aspects. The shorter daily Mass time might be an opportunity to build her stamina and for her to gain a better understanding of Mass expectations. I knew that my stress level would impact her, so I tried to go in with as calm as possible of mindset in order to try to set the tone.

To my surprise, by the second day, I had a sense of "we can do this." It wasn't always easy per se, but I felt completely different, namely calm. Somewhere along the way, I realized that it was no longer a "have to" but a "want to." One day when I went on my own, I realized that I missed having her there - not the feeling I expected to have at. all.

In less than 2 weeks we will go back to our regular work/daycare routine, where I was anticipating I would breathe a great big huge sigh of relief when it comes to daily Mass. Instead, I am thinking through how I might reverse our daily routine some days to go to Mass together first and then to drop her off before heading to work. There will be some days when I go on my own, including when I am scheduled to fill in as a reader or Eucharistic Minister, but I will no longer view a daily Mass with Camila with stress and worry.

Some benefits that I found along the way/influences in the shift were:
  • I sit toward the back with plenty of space to feel like if she makes some noise it is not as distracting (though I know she can be heard at least some of the time). 
  • The first days I brought a bag with books or small family scrapbooks. Then I realized that step was unnecessary - better for both of us.
  • Even on the morning towards the end of the first week when I thought it was definitely going to be a lost cause and wondered why I was even attempting to go because she seemed like she was crankier than ever at home when getting her out of bed, I realized upon arriving to Mass that it was one of our best days yet. If I just get there, God will help me with the rest.
  • Many of the mornings I have needed to get her out of bed to head to church. I opted to quickly check her diaper and then take her in her pajamas. Some mornings, she snuggles into me almost the whole Mass. Those are my favorite moments - staring into her eyes, holding her, and listening to Mass (and thinking about what a blessing she is). 
  • The priests and other parishioners have made positive comments about her and ask about where she is when she is not there.
  • There are other moms who take their kids, some with multiple young kids. Seeing others provides moral support to persevere when it is challenging or to feel like it is okay to have a bit of noise from time to time from kids. Previously, I had a stereotypical impression that daily Mass would mainly be older retired people who would not appreciate the noise of a toddler. To the contrary, as mentioned above, many go out of their way to greet her and to ensure that I feel welcome with her.
  • Maybe most importantly, daily Mass is a perfect opportunity for her to start to become aware of Catholic traditions. I started to think about ways to help her tune into different aspects of Mass so that she will start to recognize the rhythms that she can come to expect. I know that these will be anchor experiences that she will better understand the significance of over time. She loves dipping her hands in the holy water, she sings along with Alleluia, she shakes her hand during the Eucharistic prayer along with the sound of the acolyte ringing the bells, she looks forward to shaking hands during the sign of peace, once she imitated bowing in front of the Blood of Christ, and she kneels down to pray with her hands folded. Earlier this week I was trying to tell her that she could not leave the pew, but then when I finally gave her some leeway, she stepped out of the pew and genuflected. I realized that the reason she wanted to get out so badly was because she had walked into the pew before me but then saw me genuflect and wanted to do the same. All of this matters. All of this is laying a foundation. 
Oh, and in case your wondering how frequently we have made it to the thresholds of the homily and the Eucharist, 100% of the time. We haven't had to completely leave a single time (and we are now on week 5 - with just a few daycare days thrown in there). We have moved over to the confessional or the entry way occasionally, but for the most part, we have been in the main church. I truly think this is because of my conscientious attention to knowing that she will take note of my stress level. The calmer I am, the calmer she seems to be. 

By bringing her to Mass, I know that I am aligning my actions with God's will for my vocation as a wife and mother. Furthermore, the moments together are a special time for quiet, calm, and bonding. Though I couldn't recognize it at the onset, I am grateful for this string of days all together and my decision to go anyway, rather than putting my commitment to daily Mass on hold until I got back to my regular work schedule.

How would God like to surprise you in your daily life? What would you like to do related to your spiritual life or faith formation that you are worried about being able to do based on different obstacles that you foresee? 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sunday and Daily Mass: Vacation Edition

Not too long ago, if we were going to be out of town, we would not necessarily figure out church locations and Mass schedules, especially not in a completely new town. However, this year with a better understanding/consideration of missing Mass on Sundays as a mortal sin and with the realization that I choose to have daily Mass as a part of my core, I noticed a shift in myself as I was preparing for a recent family trip.

Since we don't have SmartPhones or data plans, we can't use our cell phones to navigate on our trips, so Mapquest as our guide it was. In addition to a packet that I printed off to get from hotel to hotel for the different stops along the way, I also found the closest Catholic church to each hotel and noted the Mass times. The closest church was less than a mile away (0.4 mile) and the furthest was only 3.4 miles away.

I didn't really think I would make it to daily Mass every day during the week but wanted to have the information just in case. However, it worked out that we attended Sunday Mass together as a family (Father's Day), I went to daily Mass on Monday with my toddler while everyone else was sleeping, and the rest of the week I went to daily Mass on my own. It ended up that the early start times allowed me to slip out of the hotel while everyone else was still sleeping and then come back in time to get started with our day.

Just as I was pleasantly surprised that daily Mass fit perfectly into my work schedule without it being much of a struggle, I found it continued to fit well while on vacation without impacting what our family's plans would have been otherwise. Yet, it makes all the difference in how I feel about the start of my day - a sense of peace and inspiration for my day to day life.

The week pointed toward something bigger for me. It was one thing to realize that I wanted to have daily Mass as a part of my regular routine at home. Making the effort while on vacation, requiring me to step out of my comfort zone - both with driving solo in unknown cities and going to new church communities - helped me to realize just how important daily Mass has become for me. It is now a place holder in my schedule that I prioritize around. Dentist appointment scheduled that conflicts? Call to reschedule. Hard to go to daily Mass during summer days when my 2 year old is not in day care? Go anyway.

I don't think I can fully pinpoint yet all of the reasons why starting out with an intention to make an effort to go to daily Mass at least 2-3 times a week ended up in me quickly choosing I wanted to go every day and to problem solve challenges to doing so. I can point toward some reasons (the power of the Eucharist, quiet reflection and prayer, the guidance and inspiration of daily readings and homilies); however, I think there are additional deeper underlying reasons pulling me toward Mass that I will continue to realize over time.