Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Vocation of Change


Our Spanish relatives, seeped in Old World Catholicism, are a fount of wise sayings like the following: "God doesn't call us to a vocation of sameness. He calls us to a vocation of change." In other words, God doesn't make his will known in a set of simple instructions and then vanish off the scene. God accompanies us, inviting us to constant conversation and relationship.

"Look at the chosen people of Israel in the Old Testament," our Spanish cousin explained. "God called them from place to place." And indeed, the Old Testament tells a tale of a people on the move. The Book of Exodus describes generations of enslavement in Egypt, and 40 years of wandering in the desert, before reaching the promised land. Hundreds of years later, during the Babylonian Exile, the Jewish people were forced out of Judah and into Babylonia for practically 50 years before being able to return home.

Our cousin saw parallels between the history of God's chosen people and her own life. Like Leonie, St. Therese of Lisieux's sister, she was attracted to more than one religious order but had yet to find her place. She recognized God's will in the interior urge to keep searching and the courage to embrace change.

At this time in my life, I too can hear God calling me to change. This past year has brought both exhilarating highs and devastating lows. In April, Ave Maria Press published The Four Keys to Everlasting Love, which my husband and I wrote together. Then in August, the same publisher released The Catholic Mom's Prayer Companion, featuring daily devotional essays by me and many other writers. Along with a dizzying round of radio and in-person promotional appearances, the year also brought unwelcome reminders that my husband's health is not all it could be.

And so, this past year has shown me that God isn't finished with me yet. What he wants from me is more. To make room for more, I have to pare down and trim away. What this means, for the time being, is the end of this blog. I've enjoyed the journey and hope you have, too.

This blog started on a wing and a prayer in December 2011. I soon joined the teams of excellent bloggers at CatholicMom.com and CatholicLane.com. With the help of veteran news editor John Burger, who supervised me at the National Catholic Register way back when, I got tagged to report on events with Cardinal Dolan at the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel and on Pope Francis' 2015 visit to both New York City and Philadelphia for online news outlet Aleteia.org.

I owe thanks to many people who assisted me along the way. Lisa Mladinich of AmazingCatechists.com introduced me to the editor of the Catholic Match blog and Catholic Digest magazine, both of which ran my articles. Rick Hinshaw, former editor-in-chief of The Long Island Catholic Magazine, recommended my husband and me as marriage advice columnists for the FAITH Magazine consortium. Mary Kaufmann produced my first webinar for Word of the Vine/Incarnate Institute. Acquisitions editor Lil Copan went prospecting on LinkedIn and asked me to submit my book proposal to Ave Maria Press. Heidi Hess Saxton ushered us through the harrowing days of writing and rewriting the book manuscript, perfecting it for publication. Editor Joan McKamey also sought me out via LinkedIn, resulting in two contracts to write entire issues of Catholic Update. Last but not least, Pam Swartzberg, Chair of the Women's Commission of the Archdiocese of Newark, deserves thanks for introducing us to Jill Cherrey, coordinator of the Archdiocesan God's Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage program, where we regularly speak.

There are scads of others, too numerous to mention, who helped with the success of this blog. I have thanked you elsewhere over the years, and if I don't thank you here, please know that your name is still in my heart!

I will still be available for paid writing and speaking assignments. Please reach out to me by email at santoskaree at gmail dot com.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Sometimes Less is More at Christmas


"I'm not sending out Christmas cards this year," I defiantly announced to my friend Kristin. "That's okay," she replied. "Many years I've had to choose between Christmas cards and sanity. Choose sanity, and your family will thank you."

Sometimes we feel locked into holiday rituals that aren't really serving their purpose any more. Sending Christmas cards can be a chore rather than an opportunity to reconnect with seldom-seen friends and family, to remember them, pray for them, and maybe even get in closer touch. When that happens, a big BURN-OUT bulb is probably flashing over your head. Just say no until you can recover your internal equilibrium.

Holiday rituals can be more about habit and projecting the perfect family image than about the holiday itself. Advent reminds us to go deeper. We hear about St. John the Baptist in the Sunday readings. He tried to leave civilization behind, to wear animal skins and eat locusts and wild honey in the dessert, to focus on God alone. Of course, then civilization in the form of his followers ran pell-mell out into the dessert to interrupt his solitude anyway. But he wasn't afraid to shrug off the trappings of the every day.

This year, consider switching up your Christmas preparations. Saying no to old ways of doing things can mean saying yes to something else. For example, my husband jumped out of bed last Saturday and yelled, "Let's go cut our own Christmas tree!!" The kids rushed to throw on coats and scarves and pile in the car.

"Where are we going?" I asked my husband breathlessly. "We're driving east!" he said. "We'll find something!" Thanks to smartphones and GPS, we arrived at a piney paradise and began stomping through it to find the perfect tree. The big kids took turns wielding the saw, while the littles played hide and seek. Once the tree was wrestled to the top of the minivan and tied down, we drove cautiously home, hoping it wouldn't fall off the way the surfboard had over the summer. Finally, ensconced in the living room, our newly cut tree spread its fragrance throughout the house.

"You know what?" my friend Maureen mused. "If you hadn't skipped the Christmas cards this year, you probably would have stayed home slapping labels on envelopes instead of having an adventure with your family." She was absolutely right. So, this Advent and Christmas season, don't be afraid to take on less. You may be surprised at how it brings you more.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Weeds, Worries & Squeaky Boots: 3 Common Distractions in Prayer



Sometimes prayer makes me feel connected to God, peaceful and rejuvenated. At other times prayer leaves me more anxious than before, swamped with sadness and misgivings. My level of distraction is what makes all the difference. When I focus on God and the good things he has done for me, prayer time fills me up. When I focus on myself, there's no room for God to enter in.

I've encountered at least three big distractions in prayer. The first one is self-condemnation, the feeling that the garden of my life is filled with weeds instead of flowers. The second one is worries about the future, which edge perilously close to despair. The third one -- which particularly hits me in Mass -- is letting myself get annoyed at the people around me. Here are some ways I've found to overcome these common distractions that drain the energy from my prayer life.

1. Weeds: Self-Condemnation and Criticism

Many Type A people, myself included, are hyper-critical of themselves and others. The feeling that nothing is ever quite good enough is what drives them to succeed. But it also drives them and everyone around them absolutely bonkers.

Incessant self-analysis, particularly, when it concludes that we've fallen short yet again, can keep us away from God. Obsessing about our failures is ultimately obsessing about ourselves, never a good way to achieve growth in the spiritual life.

Sometimes we will do things well and sometimes we will do things poorly. But we can offer everything to our Lord. Picture our high-quality work as roses and our sub-standard work as weeds -- worth very little, especially in the eyes of the world, but still surprisingly beautiful. Children, after all, very often don't see any difference between flowers and weeds. When you feel you have failed, imagine that you are a little child offering a bouquet of weeds to God the Father. He will accept it with a smile.

2. Worries: A Dark and Stormy Future

The devil tempts us through our bleak imaginings about a distant (or not-so-distant) catastrophe in our future that we can neither prevent nor control. This is why Jesus urges us: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today" (Mt 6:34).

Worries and anxieties can become all-consuming, an ever-present soundtrack that leaches our energy with its draining negativity. But Jesus has promised to wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4) and take all our cares away. When worries swamp you, imagine them being nailed to the Cross with God the Son. He is strong enough to handle them.

3. Squeaky Boots: People Who Annoy Us

In C.S. Lewis' famous parody The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon gives advice to a junior demon on how best to tempt souls (whom he calls "patients") away from heaven. One letter includes the following nefarious counsel about distracting a Christian as he attempts to pray in church:

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. ... It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. ... Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
We can lump all of our neighbors' annoying idiosyncrasies under the label "squeaky boots." (Let's not use the label "double chins" or "odd clothes," since these labels might describe me more aptly than I'd like!)

As a musician, I am particularly sensitive to sounds that annoy me. At the top of the list are bad church music and out-of-tune singing. During Mass, I'm frequently subjected to both.

One day, I had to grit my teeth as a lady with a boomingly mannish voice belted out a monotone drone that bore no relation to the melody the rest of us were trying to sing. The deeply impressive power of her voice nearly drowned out the entire congregation altogether. I reminded myself fiercely, "Squeaky boots! Squeaky boots!" And it made me think that perhaps she was "a great warrior" on God's side, in the words of C.S. Lewis. So if someone annoys you, pay attention to the promptings of God the Holy Spirit, telling you that this person may actually be an ally, a great soldier in the army of God.

May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless you and keep you from distractions in prayer! And for tips on praying together as a family, check out chapter 11 of our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love. Free worksheets available here!


Image from Pixabay.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Marriage Rx: Should I Boycott My Brother's Non-Church Wedding?

Question: My brother has fallen away from the Church and is getting married to his girlfriend outside of the Catholic Church. I know the Catholic Church will not recognize their marriage as such, but what is my reaction to this supposed to be? I have heard that some Catholics do not recognize the marriage and continue to call the married couple girlfriend and boyfriend. I feel this is severe but what does the Church teach us to do? Also, is there a sensitive way to approach this subject to subject to explain what he is doing? - Bernadette

Answer: You're facing a problem that confronts many devout Catholics today. Data suggest that a significant percentage (perhaps even a majority) of Catholics are choosing to marry outside the Church. They may not know or even care that the marriage is considered invalid without a special dispensation (or permission) from their bishop.

The Church does not tell us exactly how to RSVP. Good Catholics are free to disagree on this issue, and they often do. You have several choices open to you.

1. Boycott the Wedding. Some Catholics will refuse to attend the wedding in order to send a clear signal that the couple is doing something wrong. This "tough love" tactic may get results, particularly if the boycotter is a parent who has an otherwise strong relationship with their child. We saw many couples in our pre-Cana program who chose to marry in the Church mainly because of family pressure. If the family relationship is weak, however, boycotting the wedding may fracture it irreparably.

2. Attend the Reception Only. Another option is to skip the ceremony but attend the reception. Believe it or not, some guests might bail on the ceremony and skip straight to the canapes anyway. You have a strong reason to stay away from the "I dos." The ceremony itself is the "wedding," and if you attend it might look like you're condoning something that you're not. What happens afterward at the reception is just a party.

3. Attend the Wedding after Voicing Your Objection Privately. Part of what makes this issue so tricky is that the bride and groom probably have no idea what the fuss is about. Almost everyone seems to have forgotten about the beauties and graces of a sacramental marriage. They don't see any difference between a church wedding and a civil ceremony except for venue and cast of characters. Perhaps no one has ever told them. God may have just volunteered you. But to spare them embarrassment, you can keep your objection private and go ahead and attend the wedding and reception to show family support and unity.

How do you approach this subject sensitively? Rather than emphasizing the downside of a civil marriage, emphasize the upside of a Catholic one. As we say in our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love, couples united in the Sacrament of Matrimony "are called and empowered to love to the highest degree, the degree that Christ loved us -- to forgive seventy times seven times, to do the humblest chore out of love, and to die to self in order to live and love for others."

They may not think that they need God in their marriage now, but when crisis hits and things seem humanly impossible, they may finally seek God for whom all things are possible. Tell them that God is waiting for them and will always wait for them.

*   *   *

We agree that calling a civilly married couple girlfriend and boyfriend seems severe and not likely to lead to a change of heart. They are at least legally married (an increasing rarity these days). Their situation can easily be resolved by asking a priest to convalidate the civil ceremony. It's never too late for your brother and his wife to grow closer to God. And if you stay close to them, you may play an important role in making it happen.


Want more tips and news about our Catholic marriage advice book? Sign up here for The Four Keys to Everlasting Love newsletter and get your downloadable thank-you gift.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

12 Hints for a Happier, Holier Marriage


Every married couple's Kryptonite is different. Some couples have no financial problems, but strain to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Some couples will happily serve the poorest of the poor in a soup kitchen, but have trouble inhabiting the same room with their in-laws. That's why the Vatican has recommended no less than 12 topics to be covered in pre-Cana marriage preparation programs. Unfortunately, a lot of programs leave crucial information out.

So, to make up for what went missing, my husband and I wrote a Catholic marriage advice book covering all 12 topics, from finances and work to community service and relationships with in-laws, plus everything in between. The book is called The Four Keys to Everlasting Love: How Your Catholic Marriage Can Bring You Joy for a Lifetime. Below you'll find some of our best hints from the book, arranged by topic, plus links to free downloadable worksheets.

Personality Differences:

Marriage is quite an adventure, and somehow never exactly what we expect. Our God, after all, is a God of surprises, as Pope Francis is fond of saying. The first bump in the road that many couples encounter is overcoming personality differences. Opposites really do attract, and that adds to the excitement but can also create conflict.

Hint #1: Overcome your differences by searching for and finding common ground, and relying on God who loves you both equally. Help: Download Chapter 1 worksheet.

Sacramentality & the Saints:

Nowadays, fewer Catholics are choosing to get married in the Church than at any other time in recent history. Many people don’t realize what a wonderful treasure Catholic marriage is! The graces of the sacraments -- especially Holy Matrimony, the Eucharist, and confession -- are a powerful aid to couples in their everyday struggles and in times of great crisis. And the saints, our cheering section in the next life, are willing and eager to help husbands and wives get each other to heaven.

Hint #2: Seek help from the Church on earth and in heaven. Help: Download Chapter 2 worksheet.

In-Laws:

Marriage is more than the union of just two people. It’s also a union of two families. Many couples struggle with learning to love their in-laws. It helps to remember that in most cases what the in-laws really want is for your marriage to be successful, long-lasting, and happy. By loving our in-laws and extended family members, we follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Hint #3: Listen respectfully to your in-laws' advice, even if you don't ultimately follow it. Help: Download Chapter 3 worksheet.

Work/Life Balance:

Whether we work at home or in an office, nobody wants to feel like a gerbil on a wheel. Work is meant to be more than that, and deep inside we all know it. A lot of effort can be poured into finding a “dream” job or career, and that’s certainly a worthy goal. But sometimes we’re called to bloom where we’re planted and to recognize that all work has value in the eyes of God.  Realizing the supernatural worth of our work will help us to prioritize well: first, God; then, family; and last, work.

Hint #4: Do all your work with love and care because God is your ultimate "boss." Help: Download Chapter 4 worksheet.

Finances:

Marital finances are a hot-button issue for many couples. But frequently couples are fighting over who’s in control and who gets to make the decisions as much as they’re fighting over the money itself. It helps for them to commit fully to the idea that what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. It helps even more for them to realize that everything that is theirs has been given to them by our loving God. We are not so much owners as we are stewards, caretakers of God’s blessings.

Hint #5: When it comes to money, be "we-centered" rather than "me-centered." Help: Download Chapter 5 worksheet.

Family community service:

Jesus wants us to feel a special love for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. That’s one reason why programs for the Sacrament of Confirmation stress community service so heavily. But community service doesn’t have to be relegated to the teenage years. Families can reach out to meet their neighbors’ physical and spiritual needs in ways that amount to priceless gifts.

Hint #6: Help out your neighbors in small, meaningful ways by hosting a play date or buying an extra gallon of milk for them on your grocery run. Help: Download Chapter 6 worksheet.

Sexuality:

One of the most misunderstood areas of Catholic teaching is sexuality. Many people are shocked to learn that the Catechism calls married sexuality “a source of joy and pleasure” and “a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” (CCC 2360-62). Catholicism regards sexuality as a precious gift from God, enriching marriages on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

Hint #7: Communicate (often!) about sex in a positive and intimate way. Help: Download Chapter 7 worksheet.

Fertility:

Women especially are taught to fear their fertility during their teen years when adults (with the best of intentions) warn of the dangers of getting pregnant through premarital sex. Many married couples hold onto that fear, worrying about the impact of children on finances or career plans. NFP encourages the mindset that fertility is a great blessing. It helps couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy in an effective, safe, ethical, and relatively inexpensive way.

Hint #8: Gain a greater appreciation for your fertility through Natural Family Planning. Help: Download Chapter 8 worksheet.

Big families, special-needs kids, adoption & more:

No matter how big our hearts are at the start, they can always grow bigger. Many special family circumstances challenge parents to do more than they think they ever possibly could. Challenges like big families, special-needs children, adopting, fostering, and stepparenting can all be transformed into channels of God's all-powerful grace.

Hint #9: Ask yourselves how far you can open your hearts to new challenges. Help: Download Chapter 9 worksheet.

Parenting:

There is no greater responsibility than parenting well. Our children are God's gifts to us, and they will shape the world of the future. We are called to nurture our children's bodies, minds, and souls, forming them in Christ. "If we are like pencils in the hands of God, as Mother Teresa said, then each of our children is a sketch destined to become a masterpiece," we wrote in The Four Keys to Everlasting Love.

Hint #10: Parent with heavenly purpose. Help: Download Chapter 10 worksheet.

Prayer:

In the day-to-day grind of life, it can be easy to forget that what we do now has consequences for eternity. This is especially true in the hustle and bustle of family life. Through the eyes of faith, we can see that our families are "domestic churches," where we share God's divine love with each other and strengthen each other's faith. A rich family prayer life can bring great peace to our homes.

Hint #11: Grow closer together and closer to God through a deeper shared prayer life.  Help: Download Chapter 11 worksheet.

Imitating Jesus, Mary & Joseph:

The Holy Family is the best role model that any family could possibly ask for. Our Blessed Mother Mary is a shining example of grace under pressure, faith in the face of uncertainty, and perseverance through the hardest of life's challenges. St. Joseph is a pre-eminent father figure, protective, strong, and willing to share all with no expectation of return.

Hint #12: Don't just ask yourselves, "What would Jesus do," or WWJD? Ask "What would the Holy Family do," or WWHFD? Help: Download Chapter 12 worksheet.

What's your Kryptonite? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below. And if you'd like to continue the conversation, please join our online book club (Sept. 10-Dec. 3) by clicking here.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Nuns in Space: The Fabulous, Futuristic World of Karina Fabian's Discovery



It's hard to find good Catholic fiction nowadays, and Catholic science fiction is an even rarer breed. Enter Karina Fabian's new space thriller Discovery, about an order of nuns devoted to space rescue and their mission to help recover an alien spaceship stranded in an asteroid belt at the edge of our solar system. Discovery is, quite simply, stellar (pun intended).

Author Karina Fabian's world-building is first-class. There's enough hard science in Discovery to satisfy the geekiest astrophysics major. (I don't know if it's scientifically accurate or not -- you'd have to ask the astrophysics majors.) Throughout the novel, Fabian deftly weaves in elements like spacesuit training classes, low-grav ball games on a dodecahedronal court, and advanced medical technologies like bone knitters for rapid bone repair.

Fabian's space-based society simmers with conflict over class and religion. The researchers (called "Dataheads") look down on the asteroid miners (called "Rockjacks"). Deep-seated religious tensions separate the Catholic sisters, the Evangelicals, the wiccans, and the Codists, who have turned rules of safety in space into a re-imagined 10 Commandments. "Zerogs," humans who have been genetically modified to thrive in a zero gravity environment, shun extended contact with others. To keep their genes pure, they will kill any zerog who mates with a non-modified human -- and any offspring of that mating.

Discovery brims over with fascinating characters. The religious sisters who belong to the Order of Our Lady of the Rescue are highly trained professional space-farers risking their lives for others. My favorite protagonist, Sister Ann, plays the role of a futuristic Cassandra, spouting accurate prophecies that no one understands. Her poetic mysticism makes her resemble St. John of the Cross in a spacesuit. She converses in aphorisms, like
"When we control, we find comfort; when God controls, grace." 
-and-
"The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear."
 
Two additional central characters in the book are Sister Rita and Dr. James Smith, the archaeologist tapped to head the exploratory mission of the alien spaceship. They attended college together at Terra Technological University, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Franciscan University in Steubenville (where else do college students routinely meet up in chapel?). Their unrequited romance hints at a crisis in their vocations, since James is a former seminarian and Sister Rita a fully professed religious sister. The relationship, fortunately, takes a backseat to the more interesting, larger story.

After many chapters of captivating and well-executed character development, the pace of Discovery picks up dramatically about half-way through when the crew finally reaches the alien ship. A mysterious third arm of the six-armed spaceship forces many of the crew members to face their deeply hidden desires, wrong choices, and guilty secrets. As the ship catapults toward crisis, the sisters are called upon to rescue their friends and colleagues in more ways than one.

Those who know me know that I'm a bit of a science fiction junkie. In times of stress, a reading binge of 10 books or more is a sure-fire cure.  In college, I was a geek groupie.  Not good enough at math to achieve full geek status, I focused on the history and anthropology of technology. I would have majored in science fiction if I could have.

Science fiction at its worst devolves into romanticized space opera or non-stop action against monstrous aliens easily identified as evil. Science fiction at its best explores what it means to be human. What might happen to humans when you remove them from their normal political, cultural, and physical environment? What new societies or religions would evolve? Humans know we're different from animals because we have sentience and the ability to worship God. What if we met aliens with those same qualities? How might genetic modifications impact cultural norms in unexpected ways?

Discovery delves into all the best and most exciting themes of the science fiction greats. Although the book contains elements of romance, action-adventure, and even horror, it never shies away from the essential existential questions. Highly recommended.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

2016 Theology of the Body Congress Round-up



A record number of nearly 1,000 Catholics gathered at the 2016 Theology of the Body Congress in Southern California last week. Participants attended three days of workshops, panel discussions, and keynote speeches by key figures like Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

I'm so sad that I couldn't make it out to Southern California for the Congress, but I've gathered a few fun links from around the web about it.

1. Best Reporting


And... the award for best opening day reporting goes to Lisa Hendey of CatholicMom.com, who told us what she learned in talks by TOB expert Bill Donaghy and anti-porn activist Fr. Sean Kilcawley of Integrity Restored and the Office of Family Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Lincoln. Click here to read Lisa's post. 

Award for best after-the-fact summary goes to this excellent summary of talks on sexuality, celibacy, contraception, pornography, feminism, the single life, and communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Click here to read the article from Our Sunday Visitor.


2. Best Wrap-Up


Ascension Press is offering an 8GB USB flash drive containing 39 talks from the 2016 TOB Congress in MP3 format for $149.95. Pricey, but less than a 3-day trip to the West Coast.






3. Best Tweet Conversation


The funniest tweet conversation about the TOB Congress highlights the dangers of using big words on Twitter. Starring chastity speaker, film critic, and religious sister extraordinaire Sr. Helena Burns.



I don't believe in panaceas. But Theology of the Body is a panacea.

I was skimming through tweets and thought this said pancakes. TOB is a pancake? 😳

I first misread this as "I don't believe in pancreas." I apparently need much more coffee on .

Thursday, September 22, 2016

How Catholic Geeks Schooled Me On Love #TOBTalk

The 2016 Theology of the Body Congress starts tomorrow in California, and I'm bummed that I can't go. But I still get to share the wonderful news about the goodness of God, of sex, and our bodies through the #TOBTalk campaign (search #TOBTalk on Twitter for more). And I'm hoping somebody brings home a program for me so I can see our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love listed in the resource section!


I first encountered Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body (TOB) in New York City during the late 1990s, when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. The vibrant Catholic scene teemed with young professionals at the top of their game, working, playing, and praying in the city that never sleeps.

I was proud of my geek status as a Manhattan litigator who had graduated high school at age 14, college at 18, and law school at 21. But there ain't no geek like a Catholic geek. I couldn't hold a candle to these people. In addition to mastering their professional fields, these young Manhattan Catholics of the JPII generation read papal encyclicals on their lunch break and quoted the documents of Vatican II by paragraph number. In this hotbed of faith and learning, JPII's TOB was just catching fire.

In 1997, Pauline Books published the first full-length English translation of the 129 talks that made up TOB. Two years later, George Weigel's definitive biography of Pope John Paul II declared TOB to be "a theological time bomb waiting to go off."

Around this time, my Catholic suitor, one-on-one evangelist, and future husband Manny invited me to join a book club discussing the precursor to TOB -- the book Love & Responsibility, which was written when Pope John Paul II was still Karol Wojtyla. With its detailed analysis of complex theological and philosophical concepts, JPII's writing sang serenades to the geek in me.  The fact that his subject matter was love, romance, and sexuality didn't hurt either.

Like most 20-something urbanites, I had muddled ideas about sex. A part of me thought sex was the road to happily ever after, but that definitely hadn't worked out for me in real life."To find your prince, first you have to kiss a lot of frogs," one of my roommates cynically declared. I was tired of frogs.

My mother's birds-and-bees advice to the teen me had included lessons like "men think of sex like hamburger -- they might enjoy it, but no one actually remembers all the hamburgers they've ever eaten." The main idea was that for at least half the population, sex was a feel-good activity that had no emotional value, much less a transcendental one. From there, it was a short hop, skip, and jump to the notion that God didn't really care about sex either. In my mind, sex wasn't "right" or "wrong." It just was.

But if sex had no moral weight or transcendental value, then why did the break-up of a romantic relationship feel like the loss of a limb? Popular theologians like Christopher West (who wrote TOB Explained in 2003) pointed out that sex is meant to bond or unite two people together forever. When "two become one flesh" through sex and then break off that sexual relationship, they feel torn apart on the inside because they are.

This outlook made sense, not just at an intellectual level, but at a gut level, too. Sex was made for lifelong union. And it was made for babies, also. Sex creates life, and that's part of God's plan. As I learned more about Pope John Paul II's teachings, I could feel my worldview realigning like a spine under the hands of a talented chiropractor. I was happier, healthier, and on my way to converting to Catholicism, marrying in the Church, and birthing a passel of beautiful babies.

So, TOB taught me the transcendental value of sex. God does care about sexuality and procreation. He's not a kill-joy, he's a generator of joy. The excitement of romance, the pleasure of sex, the satisfaction of lifelong married love, and the fulfillment of parenting are all joy-filled gifts he gives us. God's love is meant to excite us, please us, satisfy us, and fulfill us. This is the epiphany that TOB sparked in me, and one that I'm honored to proclaim.

This article appeared originally on Catholic365.com. Image Copyright 2016 by Bill Donaghy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

St. Gianna & St. Josemaria: Patron Saints of Work/Life Balance


Everyone needs a few more heavenly intercessors. Sure, our guardian angels watch over us, but why not enlist the aid of the saints as well? "All Christians should adopt their own patron saints," it says on the Catholicism channel of About.com. There are patron saints of churches, countries, professions, and even diseases. Over the next nine months, we'll pick some new Patron Saints For Your Marriage.

Some of these saints are famous, and others are relatively obscure. But each one is a worthy heavenly helper. Since September began with a celebration of Labor Day, let's start with two patron saints of work/life balance: St. Gianna Molla and St. Josemaria Escriva.

St. Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor


As a 20th-century woman, St. Gianna lived through experiences that are familiar to all of us today. She was an educated, professional woman who kept a close eye on family finances and worried when her husband went away on business trips. She enjoyed concerts, skiing, and family vacations. She volunteered her time to help the poor.

She also exemplified the principle of prioritizing well: God first, family second, and work last. Despite being a busy working mom, she took the time to attend Mass and pray the rosary every day.

Gianna was thrilled to be a wife and mother, nicknaming her husband Papa d'oro, or father of gold, and calling her children "my dearest treasures." She never considered her time spent with her children as less important than her time spent in the office. She loved mothering and doctoring equally well. Her attitude toward work could be summed up in her much-quoted saying: "One earns paradise with one's daily task."


Gianna's husband, Pietro, remodeled his parents' house into a clinic for her so that she could work closer to where they lived. She kept her hours short, sometimes limiting her working day to two hours. After their third child was born, Pietro suggested that Gianna give up her medical office. She responded with a chiding look, but then promised "when we have one more child, I will stop my medical work and will be a full-time mother, even though that will be difficult for me."

She never got that chance. Gianna encountered a serious complication during her fourth pregnancy due to the growth of an ovarian cyst. The doctors recommended either to abort the baby, perform a complete hysterectomy (during which the baby would also die), or attempt to remove the cyst surgically. Gianna chose option 3, saying, "I want them to save the baby."

After the surgery, Gianna was able to carry her baby to term. Doctors delivered the baby successfully through a C-section, but Gianna developed an infection and died in the hospital shortly afterward.

Gianna's husband and the daughter she died to save were both present when Gianna was canonized by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2004.


St. Josemaria Escriva: Priest, Founder, Lawyer


St. Josemaria was canonized in 2002, also by Pope St. John Paul II (there's a reason why John Paul was dubbed a "saint-maker"). Born in 1902, St. Josemaria died in 1975 after devoting his life to founding the organization Opus Dei, which means "work of God."

Josemaria was ordained a priest in 1925, just a few short months after his father died. The family was soon plunged into financial difficulties. As the oldest son, Josemaria felt responsible for his family's well-being, but his salary as a priest was minimal.

In 1927, Josemaria began studying law in Madrid so that he could earn enough to support his mother and younger siblings. In the meantime, he continued serving as a priest and laying the groundwork for the foundation of Opus Dei, which currently has around 85,000 members worldwide.

A main principle of Opus Dei is the sanctification of ordinary work. Josemaria saw clearly that all work was noble. "It is time for us Christians to shout from the rooftops that work is a gift from God and that it makes no sense to classify men differently, according to ther occupation, as if some jobs were nobler than others." (Christ is passing by, no. 47)

Like St. Gianna, St. Josemaria saw no inherent difference between work inside and outside the home. All work is a form of service to others, of love made manifest, of prayer in action, he believed. In this quirky and evocative word portrait, Josemaria revealed how it's possible to attain holiness even through housework.
You are writing to me in the kitchen, by the stove. It is early afternoon. It is cold. By your side, your younger sister — the last one to discover the divine folly of living her Christian vocation to the full — is peeling potatoes. To all appearances — you think — her work is the same as before. And yet, what a difference there is!
It is true: before she only peeled potatoes, now, she is sanctifying herself peeling potatoes. (Furrow, no. 498)

In other words, intention is everything. Saints from Josemaria to Gianna to the recently canonized Mother Teresa have all expressed the same idea in slightly different wording. As we explain in our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love, "the value of our work can be measured by the love and care we put into it. Even the smallest, most mundane task can be a kind of offering to God."




St. Gianna and St. Josemaria, pray for us, that we may learn to love our daily work.

Image of St. Gianna: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, via Wikimedia Commons; image of St. Josemaria: ©  Pablovarela (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons; other images  courtesy of Pixabay.