Monday, August 14, 2017

On Your Voyage

On Your Voyage by Fr. Jose Kariamadam, CMI is a collection of 74 brief reflections - each of about two pages long. With decades of experience as a priest, teacher and administrator in India and the United States, Fr. Jose has a range of experiences from which to draw.

He introduces the book with a preface, in which he begins, "This is a medley of thoughts, borrowed and personal. You will find in it some of the best I have long been pondering and cherishing in terms of practical wisdom and spirituality [...] this is an attempt to think over and walk with the thoughts of others and mine to ponder and provoke, as we all continue our spiritual journey" (p. ix). The book encompasses a wide range of topics, including: parenting, education, liturgical seasons, common perceptions, cultural similarities and differences, and navigating different phases of life. As noted in the preface, he weaves together his own words and thoughts with those of others, both religious and secular from throughout different historical periods. The selections are united by common trends though, such as pondering what is most important in life related to mindsets, character, and values.

As an educator, I especially enjoyed reading his philosophy and thoughts relevant to education, noting the extent to which our thoughts aligned and pondering differences. As someone less advanced in my spiritual journey, I appreciated glimpses into his wisdom related to spiritual growth with insight into his personal journey, those who have mentored him and those he has shepherded over the years. Some of his thoughts on himself as a writer also encouraged me in my own writing.

The reflections were written for different audiences and purposes and then drawn together in a common collection. For example, some address his parishioners in the United States, others are directed towards an Indian audience, and others are more general in their angle. Yet, all have enough context to understand from any of those perspectives.

When I first received the book, I flipped through skimming those with titles that most captured my interest but then went back and read it cover to cover. The nature of the book lends itself to reading either way.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Living at the Core 9: Embracing the Gap

Living at the core means learning to be able to embrace the gap between what we envision and what is actually our reality given different limitations. It means recognizing our longings but then discovering that sometimes fulfilling those longings will be packaged in a different way than we had expected. It means recognizing our goals but then allowing space for the process to take place. It means being able to distinguish between different types of gaps and determining which are the gaps we need to focus on continually narrowing and which are the gaps we need to accept as lesser gaps to find peace with in order to focus on those of more importance.

Recently, the concept of approximations in The Catholic Mom's Prayer Companion: A Book of Daily Reflections resonated with me. In the June 24th reflection, Heidi Bratton talked about contentment and approximations that can end up being even better than what we initially envisioned as the goal in reference to her dreams to spend family time near water, yet recognizing an obstacle in the financial obligation of a vacation rental based on their current geographic location. She mentioned her surprise at the outcome when she took a chance to follow some advice that she doubted related to the power of approximations. She reflected, "we purchased a membership to a private lake near our house. We spent more time on the water that summer than if we had rented a lake-side cottage for a week and for a fraction of the cost. Most of all, it more than satisfied my dreams of big-time family fun." As a result, sometimes embracing the gap means that we readjust our original dreams that seemed out of reach to realize that an alternative approximation that is feasible will actually be better for us anyway or is at least worth trying and recognizing the beauty it does have to offer, rather than being hung up on it not being exactly as we had wanted.

As a wife, mom, and educator, embracing the gap means recognizing that the vision of what is ideal in each of those roles is often not realistic based on limitations of time and energy. Instead, I have to determine the best I can do with what I have and then be happy with what I was able to offer, rather than dwelling on the distance between where I got and where I wanted to be. Learning to do so was what helped me to have a breakthrough in setting healthy career boundaries, rather than constantly pushing the limits and losing the career-family balance battle because of the sense that I needed to do a better job no matter how many hours I had already poured into a certain project or curriculum design. I had to realize that I needed to have proper priorities of what mattered most and be able to offer less than perfect in some areas in order to also dedicate time to areas of more importance. With ministry, and area that does feel of greater overall importance, embracing the gap meant being able to serve in capacities, rather than letting my own limitations prompt me to say, "If I cannot accomplish my vision fully, I will not do it at all." It was about recognizing that I should offer what I have with love and humility, rather than letting the gap be an obstacle.

When it comes to the ultimate priority, our overall purpose in life though, becoming saints, embracing the gap means recognizing that while always striving toward the target of increased holiness and to "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), we have to allow space for the process to occur. We have to be willing to recognize the gap between who we are and who we want to become in order to then participate in on-going cycles of considering where God is calling us to grow next at any given time and then focusing on that. It is about living a sacramental life steeped in prayer and then being grateful for the graces provided to aid us on that journey. It is about dedicating time to read Scripture and access resources related to the lives of Saints so that we can ponder implications for how we can pattern our own lives after Jesus and the Saints who successfully did so. It is about seeing ourselves in the lives of others seeking to live a holy life and understanding how God interacts with his people in order to view the great hope for the transformations he can make in our lives if we allow him to do so. It is about seeing the gaps as areas for growth in humility and the realization that we are fully dependent on God.

We all have to deal with gaps in our lives, to recognize our own limitations and to consider which are the gaps worth fighting for, which are the gaps worth letting go of, and which are the gaps we should find joy with approximations. How are you called to recognize, embrace, and respond to the different gaps in your life right now?

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Well

As part of the St. Teresa's Online Book Club, I read Stephanie Landsem's The Well. Before selecting the next book, the leaders of the club had a survey as to whether we wanted to continue with a non-fiction book (as we had with every other book) or if we should mix it up and have a Catholic fiction book. I responded non-fiction, but then started to think about how much I do miss fiction. A couple of years ago I shifted almost exclusively towards reading non-fiction books about the Catholic faith as that was the natural area of highest interest, leading to those books always rising to the top of my what to read next stack. After the book was announced as the next pick and someone made a comment that she was the one who wrote the fictional narratives in Walk in Her Sandals, I was even more excited.

As a middle school teacher, I loved historical fiction. Reading Landsem's book reminded me of just how much I love the genre - seeing how she took historical evidence documented in The Bible and then filled in a novel length exploration of what might have happened before and after the scene of the woman at the well. She also added in details of the actual encounter between Jesus and the woman, adding a new depth to how that life changing experience might have felt like from the woman's perspective. Another element that I loved is that I had never really imagined the woman as a mom, nor pictured what it would be like to be her children and what their context must have felt like. Novels from multiple perspectives often capture my attention as well, and I enjoyed that this novel switched back and forth showing the thought process of different main characters through third person point of view.

It is hard writing about the book because some of the elements that I most want to talk about would be spoilers; however, I can mention that it was suspenseful and hard to put down after getting to a certain point. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote about why the genre would more aptly be called historical thrillers and this definitely fits Landsem's style. Without giving away the ending, I can say that it spoke to my heart. It perfectly aligned with the Gospel reading the weekend I finished the book, so I had been tossing around what ended up being a central concept for the book in my mind. I appreciated that the character's lives and contexts provided inspiration for how to authentically live aligned to the Gospel. I look forward to reading more of Landsem's books.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Living at the Core 8: Looping Back

In life, we often discover rhythms and routines that work for our lives but for different reasons they might slip away over time. However, living at the core means we often loop back to them - whispers and reminders of how beneficial they were, an invitation to reincorporate into our lives.

In my early 20s I was a wife and mom of a 1 year old and in a master's program to obtain my initial teaching license. Though I cannot remember at what point I started, I had an early morning hour for Adoration each week. When I moved out of town for my first year teaching, I did not begin Adoration at my new parish.

During the next summer I did participate in Adoration in my husband's rural Mexican community where we traveled from house to house in procession with a Monstrance over a span of days where we prayed together at different houses in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

About 3 years later as I walked around the ministry fair in the second community where I taught, I noticed information about Adoration and decided to begin again. I do not remember the details other than that I somehow mixed up the time and sat in the empty church for an hour before it was time for Adoration. Though I do not fully remember why, I never went back - for one or more reasons I put obstacles up, blocking me from reincorporating Adoration into my weekly routines and continued on with my busy life as a wife, mom and teacher.

About 6 years later during Christmas break, living back in the community where I originally had a consistent weekly Adoration, I went to daily Mass one morning and afterwards the priest exposed the Blessed Sacrament for Adoration. The style was different than what I had been used to as he led the group in repeating phrases after him. To my surprise, somewhere along the way, tears started to flow down my cheeks and I became self conscious in the small daily Mass chapel with others close by. At the time I could not quite explain what was happening. Now, I can see it in the overall context of my life as Jesus calling me back to intimacy with him, telling me to slow down, to make space for him, to prioritize Adoration once again in my life. He was letting me know it was long overdue for me to have a Christ-centered life.

Only, though I recognized the power in the experience, it still took me 6 more months to recognize that going to Adoration would be a part of my core. It has been about 2 years since I reincorporated  Adoration (at least weekly) back into my life and view it as one of the two non-negotiables alongside regular attendance at daily Mass. Along the way I recognized that the Eucharist is the most powerful form of self care.

This concept of recognizing the power and beauty of an element of life but then having it slip away or weave in and out of my life before finally settling in to a regular routine with a higher level of commitment to establish and maintain the integration has also occurred in other areas in my faith life, such as reading daily Scriptures and praying the Rosary, as well as what helps me to be more efficient at work and what helps to make our life at home feel like it is running smoothly.

Living at the core means paying attention to the invitations that come again and again, even if separated by spans of multiple years in between, and then making a choice to say yes even if it takes some trial and error in order to figure out how to make the aspect a regular part of our life throughout different phases and adjustments. It means noticing when our lives seem to loop back to a practice or routine that brought peace in the past and then recognizing that we can either put up obstacles to prevent allowing that peace into our lives or we can allow it in and then guard and protect it as we find solutions to all of the excuses that come to mind that might rob us of what our soul is longing for.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Simplicity: One Little Word 2010

In 2010 after hearing some of my favorite education bloggers (Stacey and Ruth who at the time were the original bloggers at Two Writing Teachers) talk about the concept of one little word, I decided to give it a try. Looking back, I can see how committing to choose a word each year and then intentionally pondering it helped to lead me back toward God in a more meaningful way. Even though it took me 5-6 years to understand that my longings each year all aligned with what St. Augustine said, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee" in his book Confessions, now I realize how God's hand was in the process of recognizing what my soul longed for each year. With each word, a stronger foundation was built to support me to grow in my faith. Starting today, I will have a series of 7 posts highlighting my words so far in this one little word journey.

Then:

My original word was simplicity. In January of that year, I noted that the word meant that I would be focusing on always evaluating and reevaluating what I could do to get back to having the simple things in life be as big of a focus as possible by making sure that I was not so exhausted at the end of the day and on weekends that I missed out on spending valuable, quality time with family. This picture of my daughter at her easel resonated with me and captured a dimension of what I hoped to invite into my life with the word.


That same month I left work one day a half hour after my contract time was over, rather than staying a couple of hours after work like typical because I was hosting a Pampered Chef party at my house that evening. The thought came to mind that it would be so nice nice to come home at a decent hour on a regular basis in order to still have energy for cooking, cleaning, and quality family time before the bedtime routine. Nonetheless, I knew that I would not sacrifice the quality of my teaching in order to do so. Instead, I decided that being efficient with my time at work would be my road to simplicity in order to utilize my time better without sacrificing quality. 

What's the natural next step for an educator who was feeling overwhelmed with career/family balance and dedicated to simplifying? Layer in a doctoral program at a university 60 miles away of course... While counter-intuitive, having that potential large time commitment on the horizon was one of the reasons that prompted me to choose simplicity to begin with though. 

The few times I documented reflections on my word throughout the year, there was a trend in noting that even though the life I was living seemed to be the opposite of what I was trying to invite into my life with a focus on simplicity, the word was still a good reminder to slow down, refocus and consider my priorities. As I prepared to close out 2010, I knew that simplicity would resonate for years to come, especially as long as I had children at home. 

Now:
7 years later I can confirm the hunch that simplicity would matter for years to come. I still think about efficiency in order to be a good steward of my time in resources, seeking to work at a high quality and maximize the time given; yet, there are still areas where I know I do not utilize time as well as I could. There are moments when it is challenging to focus because my mind darts from one task to another that I need to complete. There's also still a tendency to add more into my schedule even when it already feels full. It has been an on-going juggle of saying no in order to stay yes and reflecting on whether or not I am making the "right" choices through on-going prayer.

I see so much linked to my faith when I look at simplicity. I think about how Saints like St. Teresa of Calcutta inspire me to let go of material things and simplify in areas such as the amount and style of clothing that I own. My Confirmation patron Saint, St. Aloysius also inspires me to reject the worldly in favor for a recognition that seeking what is from above is better. A desire for simplicity is a good foundation for humility.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Ministry Through the Workshop Lens 1: Objective

The area of K-12 teaching that most deeply sparked my passions was reading and writing workshop teaching. Even though I no longer teach middle school language arts, the concept of workshop teaching permeates who I am as a teacher in different contexts, including who I am and what I value as a Director of Religious Education and as a Youth Minister. I am starting a new series on my blog to incorporate elements of workshop teaching that have shaped me as I transfer the concepts into this new context. In the series I will share the background of the element and how it looks in the reading and/or writing workshop context and then explain how it looks in the ministry context.

This first post in the series will focus on objectives/learning goals, what we hope the impact will be on those engaging in the educational experience. Teaching through the workshop lens means focusing on living what I am teaching in my real life and then considering implications of how to support others with the same. It means keeping the big picture of what I am trying to accomplish in mind (long term/over-arching), while also thinking about natural steps to get there (unit and lesson level).

With reading and writers workshop the over-arching purpose is to nurture readers and writers. It is not about having them do well on a test as the ultimate, but rather about being life-long readers and writers. It is about being competent and fulfilled readers and writers with intrinsic motivation. At the lesson level, objectives start with readers and writers, such as readers ask questions to better understand characters and their motivations or writers have a way to collect inspirations for potential writing projects. The objectives then guide instruction - minilessons introducing the concept and the teacher modeling what that looks like, time for students to practice the concept with support, and time to share about the experience during practice. The objectives guide the process of developing instruction (something I will explore further in a future post).

Through the ministry lens, the big picture that I keep in mind is related to helping form relationships with God that will last throughout different phases of life. It is about considering what a Christ-centered life looks like and then considering how to nurture that in others. It is about reflecting on what leads toward an authentic relationship. It is about seeing the beauty in the Catholic faith and choosing to live a sacramental life. Through the reading and writing lens, we reflect on real reading and writing vs. school reading and writing and seek to align to what will engage and sustain readers and writers over time, instead of just accomplishing an academic based task. In ministry then, it is about considering how to have sessions reflect the processes and tools of those who authentically love and prioritize God in their lives.

The unit and lesson level objectives then, rather than being readers... or writers... statements can be disciples... I still have not read the book Forming Intentional Disciples, but the title makes me think it would align well with what I am getting at here. We think about what it means to be a disciple, and then we reflect on how to share that with youth with scaffolding of how to get there. This will be the first ministry year where I actually frame objectives in this way, as it has been a gradual shift towards realizing how I would transfer my workshop philosophy into the ministry context, and this was not yet one of the areas that I had implemented.  Some example objectives I have in mind are: Disciples consider implications for their own lives while examining the lives of Saints. Disciples intentionally make time for God in their schedules. Disciples seek to conform their lives to God's teachings.

As a teacher educator, when I guide teaching candidates through the process of lesson design, it is apparent that having strong initial planning is vital. The first area of focus then is to help candidates to understand what it means to have a clear sense of purpose and then be able to align different elements to that purpose. In ministry, we also have to make sure that we start with a clear purpose and then develop how to accomplish that with objectives as a guide.  The objectives intentionally start with language that honors the identity of our students/youth as readers, writers, or disciples. We try to help them to see themselves in what we are teaching so that they may have a desire to incorporate what we teach in their lives.