Thursday, December 8, 2016

12 Gifts that Keep Christ in Christmas (2016 Edition)

This year, I'm combining my Christmas gift suggestions with my annual post on Best Catholic Books I Read in the past year. Because if you're a bookworm like me, books will always make the best gifts. Here are my top picks for married couples, mothers, kids, and everyone.

For Engaged & Married Couples

1. The Four Keys to Everlasting Love. You know it, I gotta say it, but I believe it, too. Admittedly, my husband and I wrote this book, but I still think it's pretty freaking great. Every time I re-read it, I find something that helps us in our marriage right now.

2. Invited: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner. This terrific resource for engaged couples covers the practical AND spiritual aspects of preparing yourself to walk down the aisle. Nobody can resist a two-fer, right? Plus, the author Stephanie Calis is a doll. Nuff said. Read my interview with Stephanie here

For Mothers

3. The Catholic Mom's Prayer Companion. This book of short and poignant daily reflections starts January 1, 2017, and runs throughout the whole year. A good way to keep Christ in Christmas and every day after.

4. Divine Mercy for Moms. This best-seller from Ave Maria Press is a favorite with book clubs and has sold more than 10,000 copies so far. See what all the fuss is about!

For Kids

5. YOU. Life, Love & the Theology of the Body. This program for teens includes high-quality video presentations and a comprehensive study guide that can be used at home as well as in a parish or school. If you're serious about explaining to your teen the importance of staying chaste until marriage, give this program as a gift to them. And then go through it together! The videos appeal on an intellectual and emotional level and are appropriate even for young teens and tweens. My 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son loved the story by Jason Evert about how he resisted pressure from his very young peers to steal a kiss from a girl at recess on the school playground.

6. Mami, Mami, Cuando Rezas. This sweet Spanish-language book for toddlers and pre-school children is a translation of Mommy, Mommy, When You Pray. This 25-page picture book teaches kids how much their parents cherish them as gifts from God. The Spanish version helps teach them another language, too! Great separately or as a matched set. Read my review here.

For Everyone

7. Sacred Music CDs from Gloriae Dei Cantores. The sacred music of the Church is one of its greatest treasures, especially the early masterpieces of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Paraclete Press has a stunning collection of both types of recordings by the choir Gloriae Dei Cantores. You can't go wrong with any of them, but my favorite is Masters of the Renaissance, which features "top 40" composers of the age like Tomas Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, and Orlande de Lassus. To listen to clips of the choir's polyphonic singing, click here and for clips of  their Gregorian chant singing, click here.

8. Illustrated Version of Dickens' Christmas Carol. This new edition of a timeless classic includes reprints of the original illustrations. Charming!

9. Icons: The Essential Collection. This hardcover coffee table art book has over 60 full-color images of icons by Sr. Faith Riccio. To my untrained eye, these icons look like they could have been created centuries ago in Russia. There's no unwelcome hint of modernity. Brief explanations show us how to "read" the icon and understand its symbolism. The one drawback for me is too many pictures and not enough words! I would have loved at least 10 more pages of explanation per icon.

10. All God's Angels. I've been thinking a lot about angels lately, imagining that the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael stay beside me every night while I sleep. And of course the Christmas story evokes stunning visions of angels trumpeting in the sky. This paperback book quotes 24 passages where angels appear in Scripture, bringing to light the role that angels have played and continue to play in the history of our salvation. Also accompanied by gorgeous reproductions of angels in sacred art throughout the centuries.

11. Nuns in Space. For the more futuristic minded, this Catholic sci-fi novel introduces us to the space-faring religious sisters who belong to the Order of Our Lady of the Rescue. Delves into essential questions like how does our physical environment shape our society, government, and even religious beliefs; other than our sentience, what makes us human; and how would religion treat genetically modified humans? Read my review here

12. From Grief to Grace. This book is for anyone who has ever suffered, and haven't we all? As I wrote in my earlier review, the book's author "reveals insights from psychology and theology as she explores the meaning of grief, its common causes, and its ultimate purpose. She gives specific tips in dealing with grief caused by death, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, divorce, addiction, mental illness, and chronic disease." Give the gift of comfort this Christmas, and the knowledge that grief will eventually make way for grace.

Friday, December 2, 2016

4 Good and Not-So-Good Reasons for Doing the Right Thing

No matter what our religion, most of us want to do the right thing. We could argue all day long what the right thing is. Sometimes it's objectively clear -- don't murder, don't rape, don't steal. Sometimes it's a judgment call. But underneath it all is a reason or motivation that drives us. Do we want to do the right thing for the right reason? Not always. Here are four good and not-so-good reasons for doing the right thing.

1. To Feel Superior

This is obviously not such a good reason, and it drives Pope Francis around the bend. The Pope has warned: "like the scribes and Pharisees, there is also the temptation for Christians to fall into pride and arrogance and believe themselves better than others." The Pharisees' faith was external -- they said the right things and maybe even did the right things, but their hearts weren't in it. They paid homage to their own self-control or willpower or knowledge of Judaic law, instead of acknowledging all these qualities as gifts from God. The Pharisees lacked compassion for people who acted or talked or thought differently from them.

This type of self-congratulatory religiosity is superficial, says Pope Francis. It is ultimately empty. In a homily at Casa Santa Marta, the pope used the analogy of air-filled pastry to illustrate the faith of a Pharisee, and the hypocrisy of those who puff themselves up:
“I remember that for Carnival, when we were children,” Francis recalled, “our grandmother made biscuits and it was a very thin, thin, thin pastry that she made. Afterwards, she placed it in the oil and that pastry swelled and swelled and when we began to eat it, it was empty. And our grandmother told us that in the dialect they were called lies – ‘these are like lies: they seem big but there’s nothing inside them, there’s nothing true there, there’s nothing of substance.’”
“And Jesus tells us,” the Pope continued, “‘Beware of bad leaven, that of the Pharisees.’ And what is that? It’s hypocrisy. Be on your guard against the Pharisees’ leaven which is hypocrisy.”
One of the best descriptions of empty faith can be found in chapter 18 of the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Two men went to the temple to pray, explained Jesus. When the Pharisee prayed, he praised himself for fasting and tithing and for not committing extortion or adultery -- doing the right things. But the tax collector directed his prayer to God, admitting his failings and seeking mercy. The Pharisee's self-centered faith won him no points with God.

2. To Feel Good About Yourself

"We feel good when we do good," explained The New York Times. Motives for altruistic behavior aren't always pure. They get tangled up with self-interest. The Times noted:

We know that even when we appear to act unselfishly, other reasons for our behavior often rear their heads: the prospect of a future favor, the boost to reputation, or simply the good feeling that comes from appearing to act unselfishly.
We like it when people thank us or praise us. If we think of ourselves as generous or helpful, acting altruistically confirms this positive self-image. "I'm a good person because I did the right thing," we can say to ourselves.

This is a better reason to do good than boosting our own sense of superiority. But it still bears the taint of "all about me."

3. Out of Duty 

Concepts like duty and obedience get a bad rap these days. In individualistic America, built on the backs of intrepid pioneers, we love a rebel. Someone who obeys or acts dutifully seems like a tool, a cog in the wheel. We wonder if they lack initiative, creativity, drive, or intelligence. 

The pioneer spirit was once balanced by devotion to higher ideals. As recently as 1961, President Kennedy famously appealed to our sense of duty in his inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." But then the country experienced a sea change due to the Vietnam War, resulting anti-war sentiment, anti-authoritarianism, hippie culture and the sexual revolution. Acting out of duty became as outmoded as short hair.

In truth, duty is a very good reason to do the right thing. A sense of duty helps us say no to self-centered laziness. It keeps us focused on others and on the world around us. It motivates us to become better people, while without it we could easily become worse. As St. Paul wrote in the Letter to the Romans, "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (7:19). A sense of duty keeps us fighting to do the good we truly want and to avoid the evil we truly don't want.

4. Out of Love

The best reason by far to do the right thing is out of love. Duty only takes us so far. It can be undermined by internal conflict, bitterness, and resentment. It can turn us hard and unhappy. It can keep our hearts from God.

Every day, we have a myriad of chances to do the right thing for the right reason. Do we genuflect in church to make a display of ourselves, to follow a rule, or to show Jesus that we worship him as our King of Kings? Do we wash the dishes, clean the house, answer the phone or kiss our spouse because we have to or because we're grateful for all our blessings? At every decision point, we can ask ourselves if we're doing the right thing. But just as importantly, we can also ask ourselves why.

Friday, November 18, 2016

From Grief to Grace: A Treasured Addition to My Bookshelf

As a mom of six, I’ve been privileged to hear many birth stories. In From Grief to Grace, author Jeannie Ewing recounts one of the most transcendent I’ve ever heard – the story of her daughter Sarah, born with a rare genetic condition called Apert Syndrome, characterized by facial abnormalities and fused fingers. Jeannie’s obstetrician told her, “It felt as if God’s hand, not mine, delivered your baby. … We all noticed how you and your husband responded to Sarah. We agreed that you both were either Christians or in denial.”

Despite the doctor’s consoling words, Jeannie felt plunged into a grief that lasted for months after the delivery of her baby. Her spiritual journey impelled her to write From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, which she characterizes as “a conglomeration of my life experience mixed with my understanding of human suffering.” In the book, Jeannie reveals insights from psychology and theology as she explores the meaning of grief, its common causes, and its ultimate purpose. She gives specific tips in dealing with grief caused by death, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, divorce, addiction, mental illness, and chronic disease. The book is enhanced by an essay by Jeannie’s husband on the distinctly masculine way that men process grief as well as achingly relatable meditations on the Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

“We are all given a choice in the midst of grief: victim or victory,” writes Jeannie. “We are not called to despair, to give up, or to give in to the inescapable losses along our life’s journey,” because the Christian life is “a life of hope and expectancy, of earnest anticipation and resurrection,” she adds.
Sometimes God leaves us in our grief no matter how much we pray that he will take it away. It is then that we realize how joy and sorrow can coexist. “If we permit God to enter into our wounds … we find that sorrow contains inexplicable, inexpressible joy,” she writes. We don’t have to fully eliminate or ignore our grief in order to experience illuminative moments of joy.

God sometimes gives us purpose before he gives us healing. And that purpose is greater intimacy with God and with others. God wants us to do more than study or memorize the tenets of Christianity; he wants us to embody them. “Grief, then, is the impetus that inserts us into a realm of living these spiritual tenets instead of simply learning about them,” Jeannie writes. The raw power of grief draws us inexorably out of the ivory tower into the midst of the frail and impoverished human condition.

Grief empties us and forces us to face the reality that we cannot control everything in our lives. We “remember in our interior grappling that we are weak, and our weakness is a gift that leads us to the arms of our Heavenly Father,” she explains. Recognizing our weakness, our powerlessness, our dependence on God may deal a sharp and painful blow to our ego, but
[t]he difficulty of being Catholic is that our Church isn’t designed to make us feel good about ourselves. … Instead of an egocentric faith, we are blessed to have a theocentric one.

In providing us with incontrovertible proof of our vulnerability, grief opens our hearts to feel compassion towards others. Our brokenness helps us to understand another’s pain. And so, even in the midst of our own grief, we can minister to others who are suffering. Jeannie advises us that this ministry “will not be comfortable, so don’t expect it to be. Instead be at ease with the discomfort, and rest with the struggle the other person is experiencing.” The desert of our grief and emptiness is where we, like Moses and Jesus before us, will find our mission of mercy.

No one is immune to grief, although it manifests in different forms. My greatest grief has stemmed from my husband’s recurring brain tumors rather than from the illness of a child, but in reading From Grief to Grace I felt that Jeannie’s personal experience of grief closely mirrored mine. Her understanding and wisdom were spiritual life rafts when my prayers had deteriorated to unutterable groaning (Rom 8:26). From Grief to Grace contains eloquent, intelligent and deeply moving insights into the eternal question of why we suffer. It is a treasured addition to my bookshelf.

My thanks to the author and publisher for providing a free review copy of this book.

Image courtesy of Lil G Photography. Used with permission.

Friday, November 11, 2016

How to Find Everlasting Love (and Keep It!)

Angie at Yellow Pelican blog is  a star supporter of Catholic marriage and family. Her recent post "The Good Thing Christian Husbands and Wives Should Always Do in the Bedroom" was sensitive, insightful, and spot on. So,  I was thrilled when she asked me to author this guest post on how to find everlasting love and keep it.

Read the first few paragraphs here and click through to read the rest on Angie's blog. 

When I met my husband-to-be Manny at a private party in Brooklyn, I thought he was a stalker. Our first conversation went something like this.
Manny: “We’ve met before. Two years ago. Crossing the street.” 
Me (with narrowed eyes): “No. We didn’t. I don’t remember you. At all.” 
Manny (displaying true genius): “You’re absolutely right.” 
Then he went on to reveal that he was a doctor who spoke Spanish fluently, read Russian literature for fun, loved his parents, went to church every Sunday, and played a mean game of pool. Take all that, add some inky-black hair, ears as pointy as a Vulcan’s (or elf’s, if you prefer), and I soon became his for life. 
Our first year of marriage hit us like a ton of bricks, tho. I was misdiagnosed with infertility then told I was pregnant. My grandfather died at around the same time that doctors found my husband’s first brain tumor. So we learned how to struggle, how to suffer, and how to keep holding on to each other. 
Now, after 16 years of marriage, 6 kids, 4 brain tumors, and 1 marriage advice book, we’d like to share with you some lessons we’ve learned.

Read the rest by clicking here.  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Why This Is the Only Political Post I'll Write This Election Season

Politics can make enemies out of people who would otherwise be friends. I've never seen clearer examples of this than during the 2016 presidential campaign season. My Facebook feed is filled with grim announcements of "purges" -- people who are refusing to stay connected in even that most attenuated realm of social media. Friendships that have limped along long distance for years based on a few happy memories are now falling prey to bitter partisan politics. What for?

Yes, this presidential election, like any other, deals with Big Issues. The fate of our country, the unborn, the immigrants, the poor. Most of us are aware of the problems, and many of us disagree on how to solve them. But that's no excuse for the rattling of sabers and the smears of warpaint on screaming faces. One commentator aptly called the reactions "tribal." As if loyalty to a particular party had to be punched to a fever pitch to overcome the glaring deficits in the individual candidates themselves. Unreasoning loyalty, like unreasoning obedience, is not something to be prized.

And conversations surrounding this election have often descended to the most repugnant common denominator. Few would call me a prude (and those who might, don't actually know me well). But the constant snickering repetition of body parts jokes is distressingly puerile. I find Trump's declaration that powerful men have the right to manhandle women to be an all-too-common attitude. As a professional woman, an attorney-at-law, I have been groped at business dinners by clients and at legal association functions by judges. And I have never publicly complained, out of fear of these all-too-powerful men. Trump's words are not jokes. They are deep, dark, and appalling truths.

It is also no laughing matter that confidential information may have passed from Hillary Clinton to her adviser Huma Abedin to Abedin's estranged husband Anthony Weiner. Former Congressman Weiner's unfortunate name is eclipsed by his unfortunate behavior, which includes a possible sexting relationship with a 15-year-old girl. As a lawyer, I know the danger that secret misbehavior poses to the security of the system. Anything secret is a possible inroad to blackmail. As a mother of a 15-year-old girl who texts and snapchats all day long, I know the danger of a pervert who believes himself to be powerfully attractive and beyond the reach of the law. Read my lips. I am not laughing.

I understand those who will vote for Donald Trump with gritted teeth because they support some of the policies he articulates while abhorring his personality and life choices. Trump has promised to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court and this is music to many people's ears. But Trump had earlier announced his intention to relax the language of the Republican Party platform on abortion, adding exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother. If successful, this change could set back the efforts of many pro-life groups far into the future, long after the end of any Trump presidency.

I understand those who will vote for Hillary Clinton whether out of fear of Trump's perceived demagoguery, or because she would be the first female president in a country long overdue for it, or because of her vocal support for core Democratic Party values on immigration and social supports for the poor. But she's adamantly pro-choice, which many bishops insist should disqualify a person from receiving the Catholic vote. And to elect as president a person under investigation by the F.B.I. for mishandling classified information is deeply troubling.

Some people I love will be voting for Trump, and others will be voting for Clinton. I cannot vote for either of them. My conscience won't let me. Appeals to practicality will not sway me. I will be voting third party. As a protest against the current political climate, it may be ineffective. As a message that my principles outweigh any party loyalty, it may go unheard. But I have reached my line in the sand, and I won't cross it.

As for why this is the only political post I'll write this election season, I don't want to argue about my decision, change anyone's mind, or fracture any friendships. I simply wish to explain my point of view and move on. Regardless of the results of this election, may God grant us all a better future where our interpersonal relationships matter more than the politics of the day.

Hillary Clinton image from public domain. Donald Trump image by Michael Vadon - →This file has been extracted from another file: Donald Trump August 19, 2015.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link