Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It's Back: A Meaningful Lent

I'd really like to update this monstrously long post to reflect what it's like to observe Lent with teens and/or college students in the house. But until the magical day when I have time to do that, here's the old standby, which I updated/cleaned up a bit last year:

A Meaningful Lent: The Monstrously Long Post 

(Updated and cleaned up a bit. This was originally a series of posts, written in 2009. I pulled them all together to have a one-stop post for most-things-Lent. Hope it's helpful -- enjoy!)

(Intro from 2009): 

As I did at Advent, I've compiled all of last year's posts about the upcoming liturgical season into one, long, wordy post, and here it is. The title of the series, "A Meaningful Lent," comes from then-six-year-old Ramona's protest that she would not give up something such as talking back to her sisters, but rather, she planned to give up something "meaningful!" Our attempts at meaning follow.

Part 1. A Meaningful Lent 

The other day, Ramona told Betsy that instead of giving up sassiness, she was going to give up something meaningful.

But what does "meaningful" mean? How do we enter into into Lent in a way that will really make it meaningful? I always start by asking, "What to Give Up?"

We sometimes hear this debate: Should we give up something "good" or something "bad"? I see no reason to debate. All I have to figure out is the answer to this question: "What will help me grow closer to God?"

On the "good" side of the debate are those who say we must give up "a good" or it's not a sacrifice (a sacrifice being the giving up of an objective good for a greater good.) On the "bad" side, are those who say that giving up "something bad" (a bad habit -- complaining, smoking, caffeine) is just as difficult as giving up something good, and therefore, is a great spiritual exercise.

I declare a draw. Both sides are right.

The key is in our perception: if it's a struggle to give it up, we're inordinately attached to it.

When we give up an addiction, we say to God, "You are more important to me than this thing. I'm giving it up for You." It's the act of love that counts, but our acts of love often lead to real and positive change. When we offer an addiction for God, we find Him working on our hearts, ridding us of painful, controlling attachments.

In that sense, it's certainly an acceptable Lenten sacrifice to give up "something bad."

On the flip side, when we give up something that is objectively good, we get the joy of that thing's return on Easter Sunday. And this is a beautiful thing to experience. We see, in a small but concrete way, that sacrifice leads to Resurrection. ("Break out the chocolate bunnies! He is Risen!")

There's still a bit of room for debate: is chocolate an objective good or an unhealthy addiction? (Umm, okay...that's not up for debate. God invented the objective good of chocolate right after Adam, Eve and the staggering way we love our children, right? They don't call chocolate the food of the gods for nothing.) What about moderate alcohol use? Blogging, Facebook, Twitter? Meat every day? Dessert every night? TV? Movies? Music?

There's often some overlap. I have to ask myself, "Am I addicted to what, in moderation, would be an objective good?" Perhaps, when Easter arrives, I'll find that God has helped me to let go of the attachment, and enjoy the thing as it's intended to be enjoyed.

That overlap is the reason it can be helpful to choose several things to give up -- something in the "bad" category ("God, help me get rid of this vice forever!") and something in the "good" category ("Grill a steak! Pass the wine! Celebrate the Feast!")

It's all so personal. What's easily managed for one person might be a torturous attachment for another. That's why we really shouldn't debate about the "right things" to give up for Lent. If giving it up will help you grow closer to God, then it's the right thing.

Various things I've given up in the past that have been spiritually fruitful for me: meat on all days of Lent, wine, the radio, the wearing of any jewelry, all sweets, chocolate, complaining.

(ETA, 2/15/10: One year I gave up all purchases that were not a necessity. I got the idea from Jenn at As Cozy as Spring.)

Part 2.  Why Give Up Anything?

The short answer is, "Because Mom said so."

Mother Church knows what's best for us. And when we follow her advice, we find that our actions bear good fruit, even if we didn't initially understand the reason for them.

But, we always want the long answer, don't we?

Occasionally people say, "You don't have to give anything up -- just take on something positive." I have a couple of thoughts about this perspective. While I understand the intention behind the "positive spin" (that instead of giving up candy or some other trifle which can seem meaningless one is trying to do something of more"importance") I think it overlooks the good that is inherent in fasting.

At the same time, I want to point out that in "taking something on" we are making a sacrifice. If we sacrifice leisure time in order to do something else (more prayer, spiritual reading, volunteering somewhere) that is certainly a sacrifice offered in the spirit of Lent. Corporal and spiritual works of mercy that yield real results, both seen and unseen, all "count."

Additionally, on the subject of results we can see, here's a small, but concrete benefit of a fast: if we save the money we would have spent on trifles (how much is a bag of M&Ms? What's the beer budget? The cost of meat for forty days?) and donate it, we see the concrete results of our sacrifice. Our children see it. Trifles suddenly aren't such a trifle when we realize how much we normally spend on them.

But, why do we feel the need to put a "positive" spin on something that is already positive? For a Christian, isn't sacrifice always a positive? If what Jesus did for us isn't the ultimate positive example, then I've got the wrong religion.

Sometimes, I know what the answer is for me: I'm looking for loopholes and an easier road. But, there's no easy road to avoiding sin. It's an uphill battle for us, fallen lot that we are. So, let's listen to Mom and give Lent the spin it deserves.

I never say anything better than the Catechism of the Catholic Church does, so I'll direct you to a couple of passages that discuss sacrifice, mortification, and spiritual progress.

Paragraph 2015:
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.

Paragraph 2549:
It remains for the holy people to struggle, with grace from on high, to obtain the good things God promises. In order to possess and contemplate God, Christ's faithful mortify their cravings and, with the grace of God, prevail over the seductions of pleasure and power.
And, from Scripture:
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." -- Matthew 6:21

During Lent, we are called to "pray, fast and give." In taking on additional prayer time, or attending daily Mass more often, or praying the Stations of the Cross, or other devotions such as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, in fasting from festive food and drink, or from various entertainments or areas of excess, and in freely giving of our time and money, we see that it's not a matter of "either/or." We don't ask, "Should I pray more? Or should I fast from something? Or should I give of my time? Give away a few more dollars?"

To pray, to fast and to give are all intimately connected. Progress and growth in one area fuels further progress in the others.


This trinity is the foundation of a meaningful Lent. When I start there, good things happen.

Part 3. Fasting and the Holy Father 

Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent, 2009:
(Found in its entirety here.)


...We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting.

...In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who “sees in secret, and will reward you” (Mt 6,18).

...At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, Saint John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?” (3,17).

...Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 21).

As Lent approaches and I consider giving up the foods and other things I enjoy, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. It's helpful to me (a rich American, despite my protests about the cost of the latest van repair or appliance replacement) to consider that the things overwhelming me are often incredible luxuries for much of the world.

And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for Me.'  -- Matthew 25:40

A reminder from Mom:

If you are a pregnant or nursing mother, or are ill, 
Mom -- I mean Holy Mother Church, not me -- doesn't want you to fast from nutritious meals. There are myriad ways to fast.

Take care of your physical health, and offer the things from which you must fast (sleep, time, favorite foods that affect breast milk, sanity) as your prayer and your offering. Mom knows your situation, and she not only understands, she insists that you take care of yourself so that you may take care of the gift you've been given.

Part 4: Lent with Young Children

Some of our favorite things:

The Lamb of God Calendar

On poster board, draw a picture of a lamb. (I based ours on one I found online, but I can no longer find a working link to that - I'm sorry, original creator of this lamb image!) and now use the pattern to trace a new one each year. This year [2012 update] Ramona colored and added a bell.

Divide the body into squares to make a calendar, covering the entire period of Lent.

Every day, Ramona glues a cottonball on that day’s space. This is such a great way for little ones to count down to Easter and it gives them a concrete picture of the length of the season of waiting. When Easter arrives, we replace the little Lenten notes (click on the picture for a larger version -- you'll see the notes, which say things like, "Pray ... fast ... give ... Love") with big, colorful "Alleluia!" notes. We've been doing this one since Anne-with-an-e was little, and all of my girls have loved this activity.

(To give full credit where credit is due, I have to say that the credit for this idea goes to someone else -- I just wish I knew who! I saw a very similar idea in a little newsletter years ago. They suggested gluing cotton balls on a lamb made from a paper plate. I made a wall calendar instead. So, whoever you are ... you inspired this wall calendar, and we thank you!)

Sacrifice Jar

There are different versions of this all over the place, but here's what we do: We place an empty jar next to a bowl of dried beans. For every sacrifice, prayer, act of kindness or penance performed, a bean goes into the jar.

On Easter morning, the beans will be replaced with jelly beans and M&Ms, reminding us that the rewards of Heaven will be sweet. And, please note: the jar of candy

will be full to overflowing, even if did not get filled with beans during Lent. God's grace is like that, no?


Lenten Caterpillars

This idea is from my dear friend, Holly, godmother to all of my children.

Cut out 1/4 of a cardboard egg carton and paint it for the caterpillar's body. Glue on "googly eyes" (or paint them on) and use pipe cleaners for antennae and legs (or toothpicks and tiny pom-poms.) When Holy Week arrives, wrap your caterpillars in paper or coffee filters (their cocoons.) On Holy Saturday night (after kids are in bed) tear open the cocoon and replace it with a butterfly.

The butterfly will depend on the artistic skills -- or lack thereof -- of Mom and/or Dad. Our butterflies have ranged from drawings, to origami, to a picture from the internet (that was a hectic year) to fun foam and sequins. Add to the symbolism of rebirth with a note proclaiming, “Jesus gives us New Life! Alleluia!”

This was the year that Anne-with-an-e made a Benedict Caterpillar-batch.
Some traditions are still fun to indulge, even when you're in college. 


Homemade Soft Pretzels

1 1/2 c. warm water
1 pkg. yeast
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
4 c. flour
1 beaten egg
Coarse salt

Measure warm water into large (warm) mixing bowl. Sprinkle on yeast and stir until it looks soft. Add salt, sugar and flour. Mix/knead dough. Shape dough into the usual (or your own special) pretzel shapes.

Grease cookie sheets and lay pretzels on them and brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Photo from Pixabay. Ours never look quite this lovely. 


New Prayers

I always choose a new prayer for us to learn during Lent. We say it nightly, at bedtime prayers, and memorize painlessly. (We do this at other times of the year, too, as a way for all of us to learn various prayers.)

Part 5: Confession and Dorothy Parker 

In this post, I want to share my three best tips for a meaningful Lent.

They are:

1. Go to confession.
2. Go to confession.
3. Go to confession.

And, if I haven't mentioned it lately, I also think going to confession would be a good thing to do.

If you love going to confession, good for you. Keep it up.

If you hate going to confession, consider giving up "not going to confession" for Lent.

If you hate to go, but love having gone, you may be a Dorothy Parker fan. (Of her profession, she said, "Hate to write ... love having written.")

I am a Dorothy Parker sort of confessee. Hate to go. Love having gone. Love going regularly, even though I hate going. (And, although it has no place in this post, I'll share another Dorothy Parker quote: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Love that, although it's completely out of place here.)

And, finally, one more Dorothy Parker quote that does have a place here:

“It's not the tragedies that kill us, it's the messes.”

Confess the mess.

And, that's the last of Dorothy Parker I can share. If I repeat her most famous stuff, I'll have to head straight to confession.

Part 6: His Lent and My Lent

It never fails.

I always make plans for Lent. Plenty o' plans.

But, God always has His own plans for my Lent.

Just a friendly, neighborhood reminder: if your Lent doesn't turn out to be what you envisioned, keep in mind that it's because we aren't really in charge. We never are.

If He hands you a different Lent from the one you planned, be assured that it is truly from His Hand, and tell Him, simply, "Thank You."

Part 7: My Crown of Thorns

When I was received into the Catholic Church, my dear friend Jack gave me an incredible gift: a crown of thorns.

This is not a miniature replica, nor a harmless likeness. It is a real, piercing, terrible, beautiful crown of thorns.

Every year, during Lent, it is prominently displayed in our home. It does wonders for my tiny Lenten sacrifices. A brief, but penetrating gaze upon the thorns penetrates my thoughts, my soul, my desires. It keeps my little offerings in perspective.

The sight of the crown that our King endured keeps me close in thought to Him, the Man Who gave everything for me, the One Who loves me no matter how weak I am, or how petty or selfish. No matter how much I may stray or grow lukewarm, He is there. He is faithful, waiting for the one He loves to return that love and fidelity. All. The. Time.

And that's what Lent is, for me ... a rekindling of the greatest love affair of my life. And, when I am tempted to think that my little Lenten sacrifices are too much, or too hard, I gaze upon that crown of thorns.

And I know that nothing is too much. He showed us what it means to give everything. The least I can do is feel the sting of my small sacrifices.

Part 8: Lent with a Sensitive Child

When Anne-with-an-e was a little girl, she was extremely sensitive. A picture of Jesus on the Cross could reduce her to tears. Singing certain hymns left her spent. The idea of forty days of sorrowful mysteries drained her. I sometimes wondered how someone so little could feel things so deeply.

Lent became a difficult time.

I, being an enthusiastic convert, looked forward to doing everything I could during Lent to challenge myself. But, I realized that my vision of Lent and the Lent I needed to provide for my tenderhearted daughter were two different things.

In a way, it was humbling to create a "more relaxed Lent," if I can call it that, than I had previously practiced. But that's what I needed to do. I pulled back, I stopped trying to do things such as Stations of the Cross for children. Anne just couldn't take it; it broke her heart.

One might argue that our Lord's crucifixion is supposed to break our hearts. Yes, it is. It does. But, a soul in formation has to be handled with the utmost care, and I knew that forcing certain practices on this child would not help her to love God more, and it may even have the opposite effect. Clearly, that was not my vision for teaching my child about how fabulous Jesus was.

All of my go-to "Lent with Children" practices were good: baking pretzels, putting cotton balls on the Lamb, putting beans in the sacrifice jar. But anything too raw, too harsh, too weepy, was just too painful.

As Anne grew, our practices slowly grew and changed, too. Things that had once been too hard were handled, and I saw an extremely sensitive child growing into a beautifully sensitive and perceptive young lady. Now in her teens {2009}, Anne chose her own penance for this Lent (and it's something she really loves, so I do believe she's challenging herself) and she also chose to take on a devotion I hadn't even suggested.

I don't mean to suggest that Lent should be watered down. I offer all of this only to help anyone out there who has found that Lent is "just too much" for their sensitive child. You're not alone, and I can assure you that "pulling back" or "taking it easy" or tailoring Lenten practices to make them work for your particular child in your particular situation is not a compromise. In your case, it's sensitive parenting, and it can bear lovely fruit.

And, the beauty of the Catholic Church's teaching (that the parent is the first educator in a child's life) means that we can and should make careful, prudent decisions about these sorts of things.

Every house, every child, every soul is different.

So is every Lent.

At least, that's been the experience at our house.

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

Part 9: Halfway Through the Desert

We've been trudging through the desert for three weeks, but who's counting?

At more than halfway to Easter, it's a good time for some assessment.

Am I aching for the things I gave up?
Good. That means I'm too attached, and I'm forcing myself to turn to God for strength, comfort and immediate gratification, rather than to created goods.

Am I barely feeling my sacrifices? Hmmm. Maybe I should add something new to the mix. One year I gave up complaining, which is always guaranteed to offer renewed humility and gratitude.

Some places to visit to gather strength for the rest of the journey:

Pope Benedict's Message for Lent this year
Just in case you haven't read it yet
Loads of links here

Lent: Call to Conversion
from Franciscan Media

Part 10: Solemnity of St. Joseph

An oasis in the desert.

A Solemnity (read: "It's as big as a Sunday!")

Celebrate today the earthly foster father of Jesus.
I find nothing sweeter to my imagination than to see the celestial little Jesus in the arms of this great saint, calling him father a thousand and a thousand times in his childlike language, and with a heart all full of childlike love.

~~ St. Francis de Sales,
from The Mystical Flora of St. Francis de Sales

Though we have always celebrated St. Joseph's day (by "always" I really mean, "Since I became Catholic," and "I'll jump on any legitimate feast day,") I've not paid much attention to the Italian traditions that go hand-in-hand with this Solemnity. But, one of the priests in our parish grew up with Sicilian traditions, and he's been sharing them with us, inspiring me to do more with St. Joseph's day than to simply feast on the things from which I've been fasting.

On a more serious note, I always say prayers of thanksgiving on this day for the intercession of St. Joseph, which has been an enormous blessing for our family.

I believe he prayed for us through Atticus's conversion, through miscarriages, through doubts and fears about more miscarriages (which can lead to fears of being open to life) and for the spiritual growth of our domestic church.

My beloved St. Joseph is the model husband and father ... giving of himself completely, pouring himself out in body and spirit, offering a total self-donation for his wife and foster-son. May he hear our prayers and cries for intercession, and may he intercede before the throne of God for our family, for all fathers, and for all who call on him with love and faith in the Savior whom he raised, and especially today for many fathers who are seeking work in these difficult economic times.

One of my favorite prayers for the intercession of St. Joseph:

Oh, Saint Joseph, whose protection is so great,
so strong, so prompt, before the Throne of God,
I place before you, all my interest and desires.

Oh, Saint Joseph, do assist me by your powerful
intercession and obtain for me from your Divine Son,
all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So having engaged here below your heavenly power,
I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most
loving of Fathers.

Oh, Saint Joseph, I never weary contemplating you,
and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach
while he reposes near your heart. Press Him in my
name and kiss His fine head for me and ask Him
to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath.
Saint Joseph, Patron of departing souls --

Pray for us.

(Image above is Georges de La Tour's "Christ in the Carpenter's Shop", 1645)

Part 11: Solemnity of the Annunciation

Another Solemnity to celebrate!

We interrupt this Lent to bring you glad tidings of great joy.

I love this sane and balanced attitude of Mother Church. Although we are exhorted to sacrifice during Lent, "Mom" never lets us forget that our Lord is risen indeed, and even during a season of penance and self-examination, there are days on which we are fairly commanded to celebrate. Being an obedient Catholic, that is exactly what I will do.

A couple of other ideas to consider:

Read these beautiful words from St. Bernard, "Arise, hasten, open."

Consider doing a spiritual adoption of a child conceived at this time of year, and in danger of abortion. No, you don't know the child's name, but that child is out there. (It was my friend Andrea who first introduced this idea to me when I was a new Catholic.) Then, pray for that child through the nine months from today until Christmas day (don't forget to point out to your children that the Annunciation is celebrated exactly nine months before Christmas.) At Christmas time, donate baby items to a crisis pregnancy center (some parishes do spiritual adoptions as parish-wide prayer project, holding a "baby shower" during Advent to collect needed items for donation.)

Or, consider "adopting" a child through a sponsorship program, such as Unbound, through which individuals and families can sponsor children, the elderly or a religious vocation candidate.

However we observe and celebrate this feast, I pray to remember the lesson that is at its core: Mary's fiat ... her "yes" to the Lord.

Where am I withholding my fiat? Is there something I need to say "yes" to that I'm resisting? If so, I pray that the Lord will grant me to grace to say, with Mary, "Let it be done to me according to Thy Word."

(The painting is "The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937. There are so many incredible, beautiful pieces of art from which to choose for the Annunciation -- just Google "Annunciation" under "images" -- but I love the portrayal of the angel in this one, as something that is beyond our vision and comprehension.)

Part 12: Avoiding God's Gaze

During Lent, and especially during Holy Week, Atticus and I frequently recall the gifts and graces that led to our conversions as we examine the ongoing conversion that is known as "life." This post is from 2008:

That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus ~~ Luke 24:13

A year or two before Atticus came into the Church, I was at Mass one Sunday and heard this Gospel reading. I stayed after to pray that day, and I poured my hurting heart out to God: "When will he be open, Lord? When?"

I prayed a bit more, and cried a little bit, then sat and tried to listen. What happened next was not something I heard, but something I saw and felt inside:
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. ~~ Lk 24:15-16
I had an image of Atticus ... Jesus was holding onto him, His hands on Atticus' shoulders, trying to catch his eye. Atticus looked away: right, left, anywhere but straight ahead, into the Eyes of Jesus. He was avoiding God's gaze. I knew that trick; I had done it myself.

And then I knew the answer to "when." It was only a matter of time.

Jesus was that close to my husband. And it was only a matter of time before Atticus stopped looking away, could no longer avoid Him, would look up and gaze straight ahead, into the eyes he would recognize as those of his Lord. Their eyes would lock, and that would be it.

My tension slipped away. It might be months. It might be years. But Jesus had His hands on Atticus. I knew it in my heart and in my gut.

Sometime after that, I don't really remember the exact timing, Atticus did indeed surrender and looked straight into the eyes of God.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him
~~ Luke 24:30-31
When Atticus received his first Holy Communion, he recognized his life and God's claim on it in a new way. I remember marveling at all that he felt and sensed that Easter Vigil night, at all that we discussed. He knew what he was leaving behind and he knew -- as much as any of us can "know" -- what he was gaining.
Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.
~~ Luke 24:35

We recount what has taken place, and how He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

And our marveling continues.

(Painting: Christ on the Road to Emmaus, Roelant Roghman, 17th c.)

Part 13: A Collection of Reminders
A Collection of Reminders:
  • Check on all the usual suspects: clothes for the children? Shoes that fit? Tights? Things for Ramona to do before the Easter Vigil begins. Baskets. Eastro-turf. Candy, candy, candy and candy.
  • Waterproof mascara
  • Eggs. Boil or prep them early so that when it's time to dye them I do not fall into sins of anger.
  • Wish our priests a happy anniversary on the commemoration of Christ's institution of the priesthood (Holy Thursday.) Thank God for the gift of the priesthood. 

Part 14: Quotes from St. Teresa of Avila 

"Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life ... If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing."

"Do not dismayed daughters, at the number of things which you have to consider before setting out on this divine journey, which is the royal road to heaven. By taking this road we gain such precious treasures that it is no wonder if the cost seems to us a high one."

"The time will come when we shall realize that all we have paid has been nothing at all by comparison with the greatness of our prizes."

Part 15: Looking Back and Looking Ahead (Alone at My First Easter Vigil)
    The nice thing about being in your late forties and having a blog is that the blog can step up to the plate and pinch hit for your brain. When I can't remember something, I turn to the always-reliable search feature.

    Last night, we were trying to remember how old Ramona was when we first took her to the Easter Vigil. I couldn't access the memory so I turned to the Search box and found out she was three. This will be our fourth year to attend the Easter Vigil as a family. And that has me thinking back to what Easter used to be like around here.

    My history of attending the Vigil is a history of growing up and growing into my life as a Catholic and as a Catholic wife and mother.


    The year I was received into the Church, I attended the Vigil alone. Well, no, not entirely alone -- my lovely sponsor was with me, of course. Her name was Carolyn. We had first met the night they told me she would sponsor me. I felt so alone that night, so pitiful. A stranger as a sponsor? How weird is this, I remember thinking. The whole class must feel sorry for me.

    I had wanted my friend, Jack, to be my sponsor, but a weekly two-hour drive for RCIA classes was impractical, so Carolyn was assigned to me and slowly we got to know each other.

    So, I had Carolyn at the Vigil, and Jack came, too. And he brought along a friend, just to keep him company on the two-hour drive to the Church (and for the two hours he would drive home that night.)

    Carolyn, Jack, and someone I barely knew. Atticus stayed home with Anne-with-an-e, who was about 18 months old. He didn't want to stop me from becoming a Catholic, but he didn't particularly want to be a part of it, either.

    That first Easter Vigil was a frightening, incandescent event. Fear and awe mingled with an odd detachment, an observation of all that I was doing, of what was happening. At the last minute, I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to be one of the candidates who would help to carry the gifts up to the priest. I remember shaking a little as I carried the decanter of wine. This is going to become the Precious Blood of Jesus, I thought. And I will consume Him -- Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. And I am here alone.

    No, not alone! I scolded myself. Your friend is here, and all these people are here. And God is here.

    And yet, in a specific way, because I am a married woman, I felt alone. My husband was not there.

    When I received Holy Communion for the first time that night, I did not experience magic. I didn't instantly change, nor did my feelings. I was not suddenly transported to a new place of giddy joy. Something I wished for (spiritual unity in my marriage) was still missing. And yet, I felt ... what? Grounded. Firm. Certain. I did not have a single regret about what I was doing.

    I wasn't sure how I could feel quiet exultation and deep sadness at the same time, but I did. I knew this was the right thing.

    Perhaps it's because I knew, down to my bones, this:

    I was not alone. (To be continued ....)

    Part 16: Looking Back and Looking Ahead (In Which He Makes My Crooked Ways Straight)

    I left my first Easter Vigil knowing that despite my sadness over my husband's refusal to consider Catholicism, I had a steadfast companion. Jesus had not let me down, and the quiet exultation I felt while in His presence continued.

    I attended my second Easter Vigil as a sponsor. Actually, as a neophyte, I had no business sponsoring someone else so soon, but no one knew better, and I was eager to help. My family was not really a part of Holy Week that year. Atticus stayed home with two-year-old Anne. I was very pregnant with Betsy, but otherwise, it was just Me and My Candidate. I reveled in sharing Holy Week with someone who was excited about it and full of questions.

    The next year, I was on the RCIA team. Holy Week was again a time to share my excitement and joy with others -- candidates and catechumens. Still, no Atticus. He stayed home with our two very little girls.

    I continued to be a part of the RCIA team the following year. I loved it. Really loved it -- listening to others' stories, teaching, answering questions, learning more all the time ... I loved it so much that when I began to feel that God was calling me away from it, I didn't want to listen to Him. He couldn't possibly want me to stop, could He?

    But, the whisper I kept hearing was that I needed to pull back from "church work" ... pull back from witnessing to others, and witness in a different way -- in my own home. To my husband. I felt God nudging me to show Atticus that my love for him and for the family God had given us was my overriding call, my vocation, and the most important thing in our world.

    And so, with a heavy heart I resigned from the team, at least temporarily. And when Holy Week rolled around that year, it felt very strange to me to be home on Holy Thursday night. Instead of the gorgeous Mass I had come to love, I was at home with my little girls, creating a "Holy Family meal" and coloring pictures of the Last Supper, and watching five-year-old Anne-with-an-e build a crucifix out of blocks. Instead of being absorbed in behind-the-scenes RCIA prep and busy-ness in those final days before the Easter Vigil, I was home, calm, present. Instead of being out late on Holy Saturday night with people Atticus didn't even know, I was at home with him. That year we went to Mass on Easter Sunday morning, as a family (though he was adamant that he was still not considering the Catholic Church; he was merely being courteous to me.)

    I was also expecting another baby, though we lost the baby the month after Easter. I asked our baby to intercede for his father.

    Then, later that summer, something changed.

    Atticus and I had been having a lot of conversations about faith. He had been thinking, he said, about the nature of evil -- about how evil really comes down to being separated from God. I will never forget the moment when he said to me, "And I don’t think I want to be separated anymore. I want to be where you and the girls are."

    I remember where I was sitting. I remember the tears that welled up in my eyes. I remember my disbelief ("I can't believe he believes!" I thought.) And, I remember cautiously imagining that we would become a Catholic family.

    But, not so fast, Missy. Atticus assured me that what he meant was simply that he wanted to further explore things.

    Hmm. I happened to know an RCIA team that could use another member. I grabbed the chance to rejoin the team and to let my husband "tag along" and listen in. The priest and the RCIA director were entirely open to allowing Atticus as an unofficial participant for as long as he liked. (It didn't hurt that the priest was the one who had suggested the year before that we both pray to St. Therese for Atticus's conversion.)

    The Easter Vigil of 2000 brought a joy into our lives that, at one time, I thought I'd never see. Five years after the Vigil in which I'd been received, Atticus came into the Church. (Lots more about that in You Can Share the Faith.)

    For the next few years, we sacrificed experiencing the majesty of the Vigil for the things that worked best for our little family. Our young daughters handled Mass on Easter Sunday morning better than a late Saturday night, so that was our tradition for awhile.

    When Ramona was two years old, I decided to take the older girls to the Easter Vigil while Atticus stayed home with Ramona. Anne-with-an-e and Betsy were excited to attend, as I'd been preparing them for it, and teaching them about what they would see.

    The following year, when Ramona was three, we tried the Vigil with the whole family. It worked fairly well, except that Ramona slept through the whole thing, and then was up for hours after we got home. (Not so good if the Easter Bunny is waiting to come to your house.) The next year, when she was four, all the pieces fell into place.

    Our whole family now attends the Vigil together, no one falls asleep, we all look forward to the baptisms, my daughters try to predict when I'll start crying, Atticus and I reminisce, and then we head home and celebrate with delectable food and drink.


    There have been so many times in my life when I've had no idea what God would do next -- times I couldn't see through the dark tunnel to the light at the end. I had to walk in blindness until He would lead me to the next step.

    That's what faith is -- a series of tentative steps in the dark, with wholehearted trust that my Guide is leading and won't let me fall.

    When I converted alone and lost unity with my husband, when I left a ministry I loved, when I lost babies and arguments and every sense of firm footing ... God was still at work.

    I just had to trust.

    And to hold on, with all my strength, to the knowledge that I was not, I am not, alone.

    "I will lead the blind on their journey; by paths unknown I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These things I do for them, and I will not forsake them."

    ~~ Isaiah 42:16

    "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

    ~~ Jeremiah 29:11

    Friday, February 02, 2018

    Poetry Friday, a Groundhog Day Shrinklit, and Other Bits and Pieces of Our Days

    Since I barely blog anymore (or constantly ask myself, "Should this go on Facebook? Or Instagram? Is it a blog post? Do I remember how to blog, other than Poetry Friday?") I thought I'd cram several things into this so-called Poetry Friday post and then release it into the wild.


    1. Atticus and I recently celebrated our 34th anniversary. And by "celebrated" I mean: We talked about how high school speech season dominates every weekend of January and February and part of March we will probably go out to dinner sometime in late March when speech season is over if we even remember at that point that we recently had an anniversary. 

    2. Re. having to wait until March to celebrate our January anniversary:

    Who cares? I'm merely ecstatic that my husband is alive and healthy and there's no more cancer. That's celebration enough. Pass the wine.

    3. And here's a post from 2010 with a little tribute to Atticus. Everything in it is still true (plus an extra eight years).

    4. I read five books in January while also teaching a Brave Writer class so I'm feeling like a champ of some sort. Time for a book post. Anyone read Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge?

    5. It's Groundhog Day, so here's my annual Groundhog Day Shrinklit. It's time to watch the movie, methinks.

    Karen's Groundhog Day Shrinklit

    Phil: at first, a selfish jerk
    Focused on his fun and work.
    Women were a toy or game
    Till every day became the same.

    Quite suddenly, no rules apply
    Steal some money, tell a lie.
    Nihilism's worth a spin,
    Then despair comes crashing in

    Suicide just didn't take.
    Surely something is at stake?
    Could it be he'll find it's worth
    Striving for a true rebirth?

    Self-improvement: worth a try,
    Though all past ways it does defy?
    Selflessness for its own sake?
    Turn away from all that's fake?

    Helping, saving, giving, tears.
    Authentic feelings, first in years.
    Abandoning the ways of old
    Lets in truth, releases cold.

    Something genuine and kind
    Allows this man his best to find.
    Is this conversion? God at work?
    Or one colossal cosmic quirk?


    The Poetry Friday round up is at Mainely Write

    Friday, January 26, 2018

    Poetry Friday: Snow Day, by Billy Collins

    I love the lacy, drapey patterns the winds gave us. 

    Though for us, it was more than a day; it was a snow week. We went to sleep Sunday night, wondering if we'd actually be hit with the predicted blizzard. A "revolution of snow" later (fourteen inches), we had our answer. School canceled for Atticus (for three days!) college classes canceled for Betsy, library closed for Anne-with-an-e, and Green Gables Homeschool? Shut down tight for Ramona and me. 

    Like my beloved Billy Collins, we were willing prisoners in our house. The dog indeed "porpoised through the drifts" and obviously, as the sun rose on today, Poetry Friday, there was only one poem I could turn to. 

    Snow Day
    by Billy Collins

    Today we woke up to a revolution of snow, 
    its white flag waving over everything,
    the landscape vanished,
    not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness, 
    and beyond these windows

    the government buildings smothered,

    (Read the rest here, at The Poetry Foundation.)


    The round up today is at Beyond LiteracyLink

    Friday, January 12, 2018

    Poetry Friday: I, Too by Langston Hughes

    Give me your tired, your poor 
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

    Because this is America.
    Because this is who we are, or are supposed to be.
    Because no country is a sh--hole and no human being is disposable.

    I, Too
    by Langston Hughes

    I, too, sing America.

    I am the darker brother.
    They send me to eat in the kitchen
    When company comes,
    But I laugh,
    And eat well,
    And grow strong.

    (Read the rest at The Poetry Foundation.)


    The Poetry Friday round-up is at Bookseed

    Thursday, January 04, 2018

    Poetry Friday: To the New Year, by W.S. Merwin

    I love this one.

    Happy Poetry Friday, Happy New Year, Happy Hope.

    To the New Year
    By W.S. Merwin

    With what stillness at last
    you appear in the valley
    your first sunlight reaching down
    to touch the tips of a few
    high leaves that do not stir
    (Read the rest here, at The Poetry Foundation.)


    The round up this week is at Reading to the Core

    Wednesday, January 03, 2018

    What I Read in 2017

    Let me start by saying it wasn't nearly as much as I'd planned to read.

    Gosh, somehow, after Friday morning, July 28th (when Atticus got the cancer diagnosis), the year just kind of got away from me. August was that blur of tests and MRIs and scheduling and worrying. It wasn't always easy to concentrate. I do remember finishing Middlemarch while I was staying in the hospital with Atticus. He was asleep one morning, and all was quiet, even the nurses and their ever-present checks on vitals. Then there were blurry days of recovery at home, and difficulty concentrating again, and just as he was getting back to some semblance of normal, the blurriness, the tests, the doctors' appointments were happening with Betsy.

    And yet.


    The one constant in our lives.

    The list is all I have time to share today, but in the days to come, I hope to blog more about what I loved, what I didn't, and what I want to read in 2018.

    The 2017 Book List (including read-alouds with Ramona):

    The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron
    Anne's House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery
    The Spindlers, Lauren Oliver
    The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
    The Magnolia Story, Chip and Joanna Gaines
    Stitches, Anne Lamott
    Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham
    11-22-63, Stephen King
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
    Dragonspell, Donita K. Paul
    The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill
    Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin
    Echoes, Maeve Binchy
    The Year of Living Danishly, Helen Russell
    Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
    Black as Night, Regina Doman
    The Wheel on the School, Meindert deJong
    The Mother Daughter Book Club, Heather Frederick Vogel
    Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
    Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery
    The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
    Beauty & the Beast (a Camp NaNo novel by my daughter, Betsy)
    A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny
    Emma in the Night, Wendy Walker
    The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin
    Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
    Design Your Day, Claire Diaz Ortiz
    Untitled (Another NaNo book by Betsy)
    Middlemarch, George Eliot
    Emily Climbs, L.M. Montgomery
    Reading People, Anne Bogel
    Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
    Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine
    Emily's Quest, L.M. Montgomery
    The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin
    The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher
    Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
    Dark Matter, Blake Crouch
    Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown


    What did you read last year?

    Sunday, December 24, 2017

    Happy Christmas Eve and a Happy Update!

    I'm about to go hide in my room and write my annual Christmas-themed Harry Potter fan fic (a tradition started by Anne-with-an-e in 2008 -- so this is our 10th year! -- wherein we each write a Harry Potter story sometime during Advent, then read them to each other over Christmas Eve dinner.) But, before I do that, I wanted to share a giddy update:

    Betsy started a new treatment a couple of weeks ago, and it is working. We have seen an incredible change in her, especially in the last week/ten days. (I could almost say that the last four months seem like a bad dream, but the dream is still too vivid, so... nope ... not there yet.) She is actually starting to feel relatively normal again. We're getting our girl back, and we couldn't be happier.

    I'm not feeling very articulate about all of this -- all I can say is, "Happy! We're happy! We're so happy!"  😃

    Thursday, December 14, 2017

    Poetry Friday: I Fell Off the Internet Again When My Daughter Was Diagnosed With a Chronic Illness

    It was almost two months ago when I finally felt ready to write about Atticus, cancer, fear, and learning to breathe again.

    Then my daughter got sick.

    In reality, Betsy was ill before Atticus even had surgery, but we didn't know what was wrong. We were looking for answers, took a couple of wrong turns, listened to a misdiagnosis, thought she was getting better. And then it all went to hell. She got sick. Really sick. As in, this-mother-was-sick-at-heart sick. She was hospitalized twice in November -- mid-month, and then again the day after Thanksgiving. Really, even now, I don't have the energy to write extensively about what she's been going through. She has a chronic, autoimmune disease but now, with the right medication, we are starting to get it under control. We are beginning to get our daughter back.


    In the Hospital 
    Karen Edmisten 

    The first time I spent a night with her
    in a hospital was twenty-one years ago.

    In the dark, she cried. I reached for her,
    held her, nourished her.

    Now, darkness. A whisper:
    I wake from fraught sleep.
    Sweet girl, yes, I'm here.

    Nourishment is elusive.   
    My vibrant, beautiful girl is frail, wasting.
    In the dark I cried,
    and held her.


    It's been a hard few months. This poem shouts despair, I know, and I've certainly felt a portion of that lately, but things are looking up, and I have genuine hope for Betsy's health. I've got the energy to write this because my daughter has the energy to eat, keep food down, absorb nourishment again. It's such a primal desire ... a mother wants to feed her child: Eat, eat! 

    They say a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child, and it's true of health problems, too -- a mother can't really be happy when her children are suffering, can she?

    But a mother can hope. And trust. And keep going. And that's what we've been doing around here. It's what we'll keep doing because it's the only thing to do.

    Hope and trust. And learn to breathe again.


    The Poetry Friday round up is at Random Noodling

    Friday, November 10, 2017

    Poetry Friday: a beautiful one by Anne Porter

    I've shared Anne Porter's work before, but not for awhile. Here's a beautiful one: 

    A Short Testament
    by Anne Porter

    Whatever harm I may have done
    In all my life in all your wide creation
    If I cannot repair it
    I beg you to repair it,

    And then there are all the wounded
    The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
    Whom I have roughly dismissed
    As if I were not one of them.
    Where I have wronged them by it....

    (Read the rest here, at The Writer's Almanac.)


    The inimitable, incomparable Jama Rattigan has the round up this week

    Friday, October 27, 2017

    Poetry Friday: Some October

    After resurfacing last week with news of Atticus, cancer, and the smudgy blur that was the beginning of our school year, I'm back this week with some lines from Barbara Crooker which feel achingly appropriate. I know so many of you can claim the same kinship:

    Some October 
    by Barbara Crooker

    Some October, when the leaves turn gold, ask
    me if I've done enough to deserve this life
    I've been given. A pile of sorrows, yes, but joy
    enough to unbalance the equation.

    (Read the rest here.)


    Barbara Crooker. She's just one of those lovely gifts to and from the universe.

    She writes of the ordinary, painting it with extraordinary color and depth. She makes me think, and sigh, and laugh. I always associate her with autumn, for some reason. Crisp and lovely, golden hues, endings and beginnings.

    If you've never read her, you can find her books here.

    And go here for a little Poetry Friday bonus, Crooker's Poem of the Month, "Halloween."


    The Poetry Friday round up is at Friendly Fairy Tales.

    Friday, October 20, 2017

    Poetry Friday: Richard Wilbur and The Time I Fell Off the Internet Because Atticus Got Cancer

    Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur (who has long had his own category on my blog), passed away last Saturday at the age of 96. May he rest in peace.

    I sort of fell off the internet over the last two and a half months (which have felt surreal) but leave it to my beloved Wilbur to bring me back to my blog -- finally ready, I guess, to talk.


    This summer had me thinking a lot about cancer. All the time. In June, my dear friend Lissa was diagnosed with breast cancer. In late July, an internet friend and kindred spirit, Beth, died after a long, brutal battle against cancer. I was angry at cancer, sick of cancer, hated cancer. I didn't want to hear about another person I loved being attacked by cancer.

    On July 28, Atticus got a phone call, and we went in to see the doctor. A routine colonoscopy had revealed cancer.

    There are all kinds of stories to tell about the month of August: waiting for the CT scan and the MRI, which would eventually tell us that the cancer didn't appear to have spread (though, we were cautioned, we wouldn't know for sure until after surgery.) Meeting with one doctor who scared us terribly, then meeting with a surgeon we liked and trusted. Not being able to get surgery on the calendar until September 15th. Five days, four nights in a hospital two hours from home. Dissolving into tears when (as we were preparing to check out of the hospital) a young resident delivered the news: the pathology report was already back. It showed no spread to the lymph nodes. They got all of the cancer out. 

    I hadn't realized, until I crumpled into my husband's arms, how the hope for that news had been holding me upright until that moment.

    And so, the prognosis is very, very good. Atticus is four weeks into recovery, and is getting a little better every day. There will be close follow-up, but he's working, he's sleeping. The man who ran two half-marathons last spring/early summer is running again. He's adjusting to his post-surgery body. We can start to breathe again.

    And think about poetry. And Richard Wilbur.

    "The Beautiful Changes," Richard Wilbur said.

    Everything changes. All the terrible, wonderful, maddening time. The ground beneath your feet shifts, something breaks, you think you're falling. Then the dust settles and you see that

    the beautiful changes   
    In such kind ways,   
    Wishing ever to sunder 
    Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose   
    For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

    And you are thankful for that second finding, for the hope that kept you upright. You are thankful for wonder.


    I couldn't let a Poetry Friday about Richard Wilbur pass without referencing "The Writer" (which I have posted here numerous times). It's about his daughter. It's about my daughters, the daughters and writers who love Atticus. As Wilbur did his daughter, I wish mine always "a lucky passage."

    It is always a matter, my darling,
    Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
    What I wished you before, but harder.

    The beautiful changes daily. Minute by minute, it sometimes seems. And so I will keep wishing what I wish for Atticus and for my girls, but harder.

    May Richard Wilbur rest in peace, and may my beloved Atticus live as long and beautiful a life.


    You'll find the Poetry Friday round up at A Day in the Life

    Friday, September 08, 2017

    Poetry Friday: Nature Walk, by Gillian Wegener

    Ah, this is a lovely poem. Gillian Wegener's "Nature Walk" conjures memories of nature walks with my girls -- part of our homeschool, part of our history, bits of our family lore. Some walks were laden with wonder, some were a push-me-pull-you of competing mindsets.

    Nature Walk
    by Gillian Wegener

    The fern fronds glow with a clean, green light,
    and I lift one and point out the spores, curled
    like sleep on the back, the rows so straight,
    so even, that I might be convinced of Providence
    at this moment. My daughter is seven.

    (Read the rest here, at The Writer's Almanac.)


    Daughters do keep moving toward "whatever's beyond" but sometimes you still get to sneak in a nature walk with them. This is from ours, yesterday:

    So many painted ladies! So much delight in watching them with my daughters. Laden with wonder. They flitted, they fluttered, they drank sweet nectar. And then they were gone. 


    Friday, August 25, 2017

    Poetry Friday: Summer's End

    Summer's End 

    by Karen Edmisten 

    August, morning walk.
       The grasshoppers pole vaulting,
    a season shifting.


    The Poetry Friday round up is at Check It Out.

    Sunday, August 20, 2017

    Bits and Pieces of Our Days

    As Imperceptibly as Grief, the Summer Lapsed Away....
    ~~ Emily Dickinson 

    No one can nail it quite like my girl Emily. 


    I didn't mean to let the last few weeks slip by without writing. It just sort of happened, in the midst of a crazy late-July/early August. Some of the craziness had us dealing with some hard stuff (I don't mean to vague-blog...I'm sure I'll be able to say more soon), and some of it was just the busy-ness of life.

    Atticus, for example, is already back at work. He started on August 9th. And, as happens every year, I'm scrambling to remember what it's like to think about making dinner every night. Can't remember where on Facebook I saw this, but it is the perfect new header for my "What's for Dinner?" chalkboard:

    Pros and Cons of Making Food 

    Pros: Food 
    Cons: Making it 


    This is one of our baby swallows. They nest on our back porch every year, and this year we were privy to every step of the fledglings leaving the nest. The girls and I were enchanted. 


    I think Ramona should be a picture book illustrator. Here's her rendering of Ten and Rose. 


    I love having a daughter who loves to bake. 


    One of the highlights of every  month for Ramona: a new ScrawlrBox. Worth every penny for my teen artist. 


    This cup? 

    When my girls were little, it sported a Cookie Monster design. Over the years and through thousands of washings the design faded (as imperceptibly as grief, Cookie Monster lapsed away.) 

    The cup has remained in the cupboard but this week it's going with Betsy to her first apartment.

    Serve her well, Cookie Monster cup. We'll miss you. 

    Thursday, August 03, 2017

    Poetry Friday: Hope is the thing with feathers

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers
    by Emily Dickinson

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers -
    That perches in the soul -
    And sings the tune without the words -
    And never stops - at all -

    And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
    And sore must be the storm -
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm -

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
    And on the strangest Sea -
    Yet - never - in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb - of me.


    Donna has the round up at Mainely Write.