Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Who Does He Say You Are?

Growing up I can remember a desire to read and understand The Bible and making some attempts to do so but not really understanding how to access Sacred Scripture in a deep way. However, that has been shifting in recent years. As my love for Scripture has been developing and I am drawn toward reflecting on identity construction, I was excited to hear about Colleen Mitchell's book Who Does He Say You Are?: Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels.

I started reading this book as part of the WINE: Reading Between the Vines Summer Book Club but could not wait to read bit by bit along with the dates for the club. Instead, I read through to the end with the intent to go back and re-read chapter by chapter as they are discussed as the thinking in the book lends well to multiple readings to prompt further reflection and discussion.

Colleen Mitchell starts the book with a personal prologue framing why Scriptures have been powerful in her life and a source of great healing. She then shares her hopes for her readers and some guidance for how to approach reading the book. It is an invitation to journeying alongside her as we discover, re-discover, or deepen our understanding of our identity through Scriptures. Next, there are twelve chapters focusing on different women from The Bible centered on a different layer to our identity, such as: "You Are a Dwelling Place of the Most High God" Mary, the Mother of Jesus; "You Are Made for Contentment" Martha and Mary of Bethany; and "You Were Made for Resurrection Joy" Mary Magdalene. She concludes with an Afterword.

Each of the chapters follow a pattern of sharing Scripture that illustrates the focal woman and concept for the chapter; a reflection that enters in to what it must have been like to live that moment in history with a connection to how it is relevant to our current context; an invitation to ponder what the Scripture and focus of the chapter means for us personally with regards to our own identity in Christ; a prayer; and questions for reflection.

Through my reading experience, Colleen Mitchell achieved her purpose of the book for readers being "a tool to help you draw nearer to the God who created you, who loves you, and who wants to see you whole, knowing you are in him and purposeful in your pursuit of the life that leads you to him" (p. xx).

When my copy arrived in the mail and I skimmed a little bit, I instantly knew without yet reading for myself that this would be a book I would want to share and ordered three more copies to give to others. I can tell this will be a book that comes to mind as people share about their journeys and will be one I will likely revisit over time and encourage others to read.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Living at the Core 5: Retreat

Previously, I wrote about how the most powerful forms of self-care keep God at the core. In my day to day life, this means I have intentional rhythms and routines that help me to maintain a comparatively higher level of peace through strengthening my relationship with God, such as starting my day at 5 am with Scripture and reflection followed by any combination of prayer, reading, and writing; attending daily Mass and weekly Adoration; and praying the Rosary daily.

Making these intentional shifts have meant the difference between regularly feeling like I was drowning and being able to have an overall sense of peace and calm, lower level of stress, and a solution-oriented mindset. Nonetheless, sometimes I can feel the impact of a busy life starting to build and recognize I need a more extended rest. In the early winter I started to think about how I could probably really use a silent retreat; yet, I also knew I wanted to attend the first women's conference hosted at our diocesan retreat center. Logistically, I was having a hard time figuring out how to make it work to block out both that weekend and another time for a retreat.

Instead, I started to think about the retreat center, one of my favorite places and somewhere that I associate with great peace. Even if there was not a directed silent retreat, I thought a couple of days there prior to the conference would nurture me. As the days grew closer, I could tell I was going to need this even more than I had anticipated, aligning with just finishing up the academic year.

It ended up being perfect. Rather than having a structured schedule, I knew types of activities I wanted to do: attend Mass and Adoration (there are 3 parishes within a half hour going in different directions providing for a range of options), read, write, spend time in the Chapel, walk, rest, sit in nature...

Now, it is back to my "real life" with one foot in summer vacation and the other in doing some work at the university and church. As I continue to refine the patterns of my days through liturgical and academic seasons, I will be keeping a couple of days of retreat annually as an option in the back of my mind.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Share What You Love

One week from today I will be attending a women's conference at our diocesan retreat center, one of my favorite places in the world. It is set in a rural context with open spaces and surrounded by fields and mountains. It brings a sense of calm and tranquility.

I will be going a couple of days early to have some extra space to transition from a busy academic year to summer. I am planning to focus on prayer, reading, writing, and resting flowing into the conference.

One of the reasons why I am excited for the conference is because it is a chance to learn and grow alongside other Catholic women and because it is a new event for our diocese and I am so grateful for the opportunity. I decided to donate some books that have nurtured me in my faith development to be used as giveaways. As I reflected over which books I thought would be a good fit for this context, I ordered copies of the books pictured:

1) Praying the Angelus: I just finished this one with the St. Teresa's Online Book Club. I loved that it focused on the power of Catholic prayer and as with my experience, I think the book will be valuable for a range of reasons. If the person who receives it already prays the Angelus three times a day, it can enrich their experience by pondering the prayer and practice through a new lens. It can help someone who is unfamiliar with the Angelus to begin a transformative habit. Even if the person does not decide to pray the Angelus three times a day, it can help to reflect on the power of existing layers of prayer routines and prompt reflection on room for growth.

2) Who Does He Say You Are?: I have not actually read this one yet but am starting it as part of a WINE Book Club. I love the cover of the book and am excited about the concept. There is a link between WINE and the conference as Kelly Wahlquist, founder of WINE is one of the speakers. During Lent we read Walk in Her Sandals that was edited by Kelly and a book club for both WINE and St. Teresa's Online Book Club.

3) Getting Past Perfect: I read this as part of a CatholicMom.com book club. One of my favorite concepts from the book was thinking about our most important identity in life being who we are in relation to God, something that will complement Who Does He Say You Are? well. Even if a woman who doesn't happen to be a mom ends up receiving the book at the conference, it can still be of value to her based on this concept and many others that can be applied to roles other than being moms in life. For example, I could make a lot of connections to my career while reading her writing specifically focused on the lens of being a mom.

4) Divine Mercy for Moms: This was the original St. Teresa's Online Book Club read and then it was also a CatholicMom.com book club later on. Similar to Getting Past Perfect, though targeted to moms, I think women in general would enjoy reading about their experiences and the role of the Divine Mercy chaplet in their lives. Over time I have been memorizing more of the chaplet but still don't have it fully memorized. I am hoping to do so soon. As I do, I would like to revisit this book. I am also very excited for the authors' latest book coming out this fall.

5) Extreme Makeover: The full titles of the books show why Who Does He Say You Are?: Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels and Extreme Makeover: Women Transformed by Christ, not Conformed to the Culture will likely complement each other well. When I originally read this book, I appreciated seeing glimpses into the transformation in Tomeo's own life based on better understanding her Catholic faith. It was a journey I was starting on when I first read it.

6) The Catholic Mom's Prayer Companion: This continues to be part of my daily morning routine. Like the other CatholicMom/Ave Maria Press books I have listed here, I think women in general will see value in this book, whether or not they are moms. I appreciate the short daily reflections that follow a consistent pattern on a range of topics from a variety of writing styles of the contributors.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Praying the Angelus

I continue to love the books selected for the St. Teresa's Online Book Club. Our current book is Jared Dees' Praying the Angelus: Find Joy, Peace, and Purpose in Everyday Life. Growing up Catholic, I had never heard of the Angelus prayer. It was not until the summer of 2015 when a Totus Tuus group came to our parish that I learned about the Angelus as they prayed it after daily Mass. Then, my priest mentioned that it was part of his family's daily prayer routine.

In the book, Jared Dees starts with an invitation to integrate the Angelus into our daily lives three times a day, following the established custom. He talks about the origin of the prayer (and the Regina Caeli that replaces the Angelus during the Easter season), as well as how and why to pray them. My favorite concept from this section was the value in having something to turn our thoughts back to God, "Praying the Angelus [...] reminds us to dedicate our time, our work, and our lives back to God. Each time we stop what we are doing and pray; we orient our lives and our time to God, the source of our lives and the inspiration for our work. In pausing to consecrate time back to God and rededicate our lives to him, we recognize that our life and our work are gifts that he has given to us and that we give back in return" (p. 3), as well as "We can find peace in our busy lives when we stop and remember that we are put here on earth to do God's will" (p. 5). He explores this concept of time throughout the first part of the book.

I also liked that in the How to Pray the Angelus section he addressed why prayer can be so powerful, even though it requires courage and discipline to do so because it is not necessarily going to always feel like an immediate profound experience. However, when we commit to a regular prayer routine and then follow through, he describes how it can be transformational.

The second and third parts of the book focus on meditations of the different words in the Angelus and the Regina Caeli. He pulls out concepts from different lines which he describes briefly and then transitions into a meditation. In the book club, the facilitators have been drawing from these meditations to do daily posts for group discussion. This section of the book reminded me in some ways of St. Teresa of Avila's The Way of Prayer looking deeply at the Our Father.

The book inspired a deeper appreciation for the Angelus. Though I made some attempts to integrate it into my daily life, it is not a consistent part of my routine yet. One reason is logistics. I have a traditional slider cell phone, rather than a smart phone, so I am limited to setting 3 alarms. I tried to do a rotation of once I switched off one alarm, programming forward to another (such as 6 am to 6 pm and 12 pm to 3 pm - when I pause to reflect on Jesus' Crucifixion); however, that did not go too smoothly. The other challenge was that I do not yet have the prayer fully memorize (and am even further off on the Regina Caeli), and when I don't have the prayer memorized it is hard to pause and prayer whenever the alarm goes off if I don't happen to have the words with me at the time. A smart phone would be a quick solution to that as well, and with the prevalence of smart phones, I would imagine my challenges of the limited alarms and not always having access to the words wherever I happen to be would not necessarily be obstacles to smart phone users.

I am also trying to decide whether to layer in one more prayer routine or to continue with my current routines. Whether or not I add in the Angelus, the book was still valuable in considering the power of my current prayer practices from new lenses as a lot of what he said about the Angelus applies to my daily Rosary and the 3 pm pause to reflect.

Eventually, I would like to read Dees' other books.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Consoling the Heart of Jesus

Last year when I read 33 Days to Merciful Love for the first time, I bought Consoling the Heart of Jesus because of his references to some concepts of interest being expanded on in the book. I started to read it and then part way through misplaced it. I was on maternity leave, navigating life as a mom of four and preparing to transition back to work at the end of summer.

I kept thinking eventually it would show up, but when I was reading 33 Days to Merciful Love this spring - one year later, I decided it was time to re-order the book as it was still nowhere to be found. I started again from the beginning and was not completely sure at which point I crossed over from already read to new; however, I do know that toward the end of the retreat portion of the book it was so perfectly aligned with areas of confusion and struggles from last spring/summer. The material that I didn't quite get to because I couldn't find the book would have been highly beneficial.

Now, through the lens of concepts in this book, I can see those experiences with deeper clarity, helping to illuminate how God was helping me to navigate part of my journey and making me stronger in the process. Of course, based on additional space and time to reflect, his ideas made more sense now than they would have then. Maybe I needed those additional months to be able to let the experiences to take shape in my mind in order to then step back and view them from this lens in a more meaningful way. Fr. Gaitley mentions that he typically re-reads the retreat annually, explaining how "With each new reading, the old themes seem to enter my heart more deeply, and I'm brought back to my spiritual foundations" (p. 26).

The book is set up to be a self-guided retreat. In recognition of the power of 30-day Ignatian retreats filled with silence and prayer and the reality that it can be a struggle for many people to access one of the retreats for various reasons, this book is an alternative to help support similar growth. The retreat portion of the book begins with an introduction, followed by a section to lay a conceptual foundation to live a guiding principle in our lives, a section to overcome obstacles to living the foundation, and a conclusion.

The foundation all comes back to St. Ignatius' First Principle and Foundation, focusing on the purpose of life and how align our lives to that purpose through proper prioritization. In general, this foundation is closely aligned to my experience in 2015 of choosing core as my one little word to guide my year in which my journey led me toward recognizing that God had not been at the core of my life and then on-going discovery through an inquiry process about how to change that. Fr. Gaitley explains, "the principle 'first things first' basically means that when one keeps his eyes on such a vivid goal, the 'first thing,' then all else falls into place. It can also imply that when one goes after a 'second thing' first, he loses not only the second thing but the first as well" (p. 37).

The longest section in the retreat portion is dedicated to overcoming obstacles, which makes sense as it is comparatively easier to understand the principle but much harder to navigate authentically living it in our lives as the obstacles (fear of suffering; our weaknesses, sinfulness, and attachments; fear of suffering, again; the sensitivity of the Lord's heart; and the insensitivity of our hearts) arise.

However, when the retreat concludes, there is still a little more than half of the book remaining, including: an appendix that addresses Ignatius' rules for discernment, another appendix with excerpts from St. Faustina's diary, and references and notes. The end of the book has a "Consoler Cheat Sheet" to summarize the main concepts and key reminders of how to live aligned to the suggestions. His section on discernment was a good supplement to True North, Discerning the Spirits, and Discerning the Will of God. It helped me to feel more confident with the concepts of consolation and desolation. I did not read the section with excerpts from St. Faustina's diary since I read the whole book earlier this year; however, I eventually might read it since I like how it groups together by common topic. As I was marking page after page when reading the diary, part of what I was noticing was the concepts that came up again and again.

Though this is the third book of Fr. Gaitley's that I have read, it was the first one that he wrote. Fr. Gaitley recommends reading the retreat portion of the book over a weekend; however, I read it in smaller pieces over a longer span of time. Perhaps, that is why his newer retreat books are intended to be spread over 33 days, recognizing that sometimes people are able to block out a weekend, and other times, they need to read and ponder in smaller pieces.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Living at the Core 4: Spiritual Notebook

I firmly believe in the power of writing to facilitate learning and have used writing to navigate my thinking about different aspects of my life over time. Though I had been keeping a spiritual notebook off an on since the summer of 2015, when we started a new liturgical year last November, I committed to reflecting on daily Scriptures each day. Writing about my faith is my current most predominant writing territory.

My two main spiritual notebook habits are that when I read the daily readings as part of my 5 am routine, I make note of verses I love, verses that make me think, verses that bring comfort... Sometimes I also do some journaling about what I think the Scriptures are conveying, questions I have, how they relate to my life, or ways they encourage me to persevere or to improve.

Then, after Mass I prefer when I have a little bit of time to capture my priest's key ideas from the homily. I note how his thoughts complemented mine or how they helped to deepen my thinking. I also reflect on books I am reading or making sense of different layers of my life. Sundays are the exception. When I go to Mass with my whole family, I do not have the luxury of that quiet space for reflection and greater Mass attendance on Sundays means the church is not as quiet immediately after Mass anyway.

Carving out time for regular writing in quiet spaces means thinking intentionally about what is accessible within my typical days. I need to find places  that are conducive to writing within close proximity of where I am already at. Though I usually write in the church after Mass, one day last week I spent a little bit of time in a quiet space on campus. I love being out in fresh air, especially when it is one of those not too hot, not too cold perfect spring days.

While I will still be able to continue with my writing at home, soon there will be less consistency with my writing directly after Mass. During the summer I will likely have a combination of work days and family days. On family days, I will often bring one or both of my little girls (1 and 4 years old) to Mass, making it challenging to be able to sit, focus, and write afterward. One of my older daughters also expressed a goal to dedicate more time to God this summer by attending daily Mass and going to Adoration with me sometimes. Then, once the school year starts, it appears that I will have my 4 year old with me for almost every daily Mass prior to dropping her off at preschool.

Living at the core means discovering the rhythms and routines of life that help us to live comparatively more peacefully based on nurturing our relationship with God, while also recognizing that as circumstances shift we need to let go and create new habits that align to the current circumstances. We also need to focus on what is beautiful about shifts, rather than longing for the comforts of previous routines. The beauty in the summer will often be linked to nurturing my girls' faith formation by attending daily Mass together, as well as walks after Mass and time at home without having as many outside obligations. In the fall it will be about providing access for my third daughter to attend a pre-school with a strong focus on Biblical stories.

The beauty is all about relationships and recognizing that sometimes to nurture my girls' faith formation, it means I have to be willing to change some of the rhythms and routines of my day that bring so much comfort and help me to feel centered. Instead, I need to get creative and think about how I can still find that sense of peace while transitioning to something new. The specific habits might not look the same; however, I know that prioritizing my spiritual notebook has had its benefits, and as needed, I will rediscover how to layer it into my life through different phases.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Strength Training

Thy will be done. You know the bigger picture. You know whether this is part of your plans for me or not. You also know the stories of all the other people this might impact and whether or not it is a part of helping accomplish your plan for them. Thy will be done.

I was surprised to see an unexpected potential opportunity. So much about it seemed so perfect. It was something that I had been longing for, yet it did not seem like it would be possible any time soon or perhaps ever. Then the chance arose. I was in awe with how God had lined up different aspects with an element of surprise if it were to work out.

I thought back to how a part of the book Desiderata spoke to my heart when I read it a couple of years before, focusing on how our lives can have interesting twists and each of our previous experiences can position us well for where God is leading us in ways we never could have imagined. This opportunity felt like it was going to be another piece to my story, something that would better position me to fulfill God's plans for me. 

Nonetheless, I knew that even though it felt perfect, it might not end up being part of my plan. While my excitement built, I knew I should be patient and not get too excited until I knew one way or another. But of course, there I was dreaming and mapping out a detailed multi-year plan mixed with reflecting on how I wanted to respond if it did not work out. 

Thy will be done. You know whether this will help me or pull me away from being better positioned to accomplish your plans for me. If this is not part of your plans for me, even if I am the only one who expressed interest in it, guide those making the decisions to hesitate from offering it to me. Let them tell me no and turn down the opportunity. Or, if it is offered to someone else, let me be happy for the other person. Let me accept. Thy will be done. 

A couple of days ago the decision came. Even though I was planning on waiting patiently for things to unfold when and as they naturally would, I was impatient. I wanted to know whether there was a reason to keep hoping or whether the process had already moved forward with someone else. As I read the word "sorry" in the text response, the sad emotions came even though I wanted to fully accept whichever answer came as God's will and His ability to work all things for the good of all involved. 

Even though I proactively focused on approach, I realized that would not keep me from feeling a sense of loss even though I knew it meant the closing door must have been for the better. It did however give me a chance to feel the range of emotions that come with a disappointment and all the what if questions but then conscientiously choose to turn it all back to God and to pray in gratitude for being able to trust that it was not part of my plan for now, for others who would take part in the opportunity and the many lives they would impact as a result, for the people who inspired by the Year of Mercy had decided to offer this generous opportunity to begin with... 

I need to delete the folder with all my plans, I thought. But, what if something doesn't work out with the original plan and I end up being able to do it after all? Maybe I should keep it. 

No, letting go has been an area of growth for you. Delete the file. Let go. Intentionally remember to pray for others at strategic times, and in the face of unplanned reminders, pray. Trust and let go.

Thy will be done. Thank you for this opportunity to strengthen me, for helping me to desire a certain response if faced with disappointment and then being able to make a conscious decision to follow through. Thank you for helping build my excitement so that I could feel a loss but then still be able to respond with trust and confidence in you. Thank you for providing the contexts and scenarios in order to grow in the ways you would like me to. I know it is all part of my preparation to fulfill what you desire for my life. Thy will be done.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Living Joyfully in Hope


Recently, while at the library, my daughter brought over the book La semilla de zanahoria, feeling nostalgia for her first years of school at a dual language English-Spanish school. Though we had read the book together years ago, I had forgotten what this simple text was about. As we re-read I thought about the connections to faith. 

In the book, copyrighted in 1945, The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss has just one sentence on each two-fold spread pages until the last pages where the single sentence is stretched out over multiple spreads. It begins with a boy who plants a carrot seed. His mom and dad let him know they are "afraid" it won't grow and the big brother definitively says, "It won't come up." Nonetheless, the boy cares for the area where he planted the seed and maintains hope, despite being surrounded by people saying it won't grow. There are two pages saying that it did not grow followed by a page where everyone reiterates it will not, but he perseveres and continues caring and hoping. Then, the shift in the book occurs. The one sentence pattern switches to the concluding stretched out sentence where all the boy's hope pays off - a carrot comes up, and not just any carrot, but a huge carrot that he has to tow away in a wheel barrow. 

When we went to the library, I had recently heard a homily from a visiting priest focusing on John 16:16-20. He had talked about different potential interpretations of what Jesus meant by "A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me" and that something woven through the different interpretations is the essence of the Christian experience. We are called to wait in joyful hope throughout all different scenarios in life, such as shifts between light//darkness and happiness//sadness. 

I like how seemingly simple children's books that aren't even explicitly about faith can still inform Christian values - thinking about persevering even when there are not immediate signs that something is working or having the effect we hope it would. While the huge carrot at the end is an exaggeration and not realistic, it can be used to illustrate how when we have faith and continue doing the next thing whether we are in phases of consolation or spiritual dryness, God is working all things for our good (Romans 8:28). Whether or not we can see the fruits of our labor, we can commit to praying, to trusting, and to seeking to align our lives to God's will by deciding which voices to listen to and which to silence as we lean into God throughout the discernment process. 

Which books do you appreciate for what they can offer related to Christian values for different age ranges?