Blog

Christmas

When Things Don’t Go As Planned

by Sr. Cecilia Cicone, novice

When I was eight years old, all I wanted for Christmas was a scooter. I enjoyed riding my bike around our neighborhood, but all of the other kids would ride on their scooters. They would make sharp turns and do jumps and tricks that were simply impossible on a bicycle. I made it known to my parents and to Santa at the mall that all that I really needed for that year to full of Christmas joy was a brand new scooter. Preferably a blue one, but that was less important.

Christmas morning rolled around and, sure enough, the first present that I opened was that scooter. I remember being flooded with excitement and waiting for the moment when I could bundle up and take it for a test ride in our cul-de-sac. When that moment finally came, I put on my helmet and opened our garage door. I was not prepared for what happened next.

As the door opened, I heard the whirring sound of motors running through our neighborhood. My heart sank when I realized what it was coming from. Almost every child in the neighborhood had received an electric scooter for Christmas. They were practically flying around our neighborhood as I tried in vain to keep up with my new scooter, propelled only by my little eight-year-old leg.

Just moments after I received the very thing that I had wanted most, suddenly it wasn’t enough. My parents attempted to use it as an opportunity to teach me about gratitude and remind me of the importance of physical exercise, but the disappointment that I felt on that Christmas morning still sticks with me all these years later.

When I recall this story, I realize that it contains a lesson I have had to learn over and over again throughout my life. That there are many times when I think if only I had that one thing, if only that one conversation would have gone better, or if only things had gone exactly as I had planned them, then I would be at peace. Then, I would be happy. Then, things would be as they should be.

You see, like most people, I like things to go according to my plan. There’s something about Christmas that seems to bring that attitude out. Maybe it’s all of the memories we have, or the picturesque Christmas movies we’ve seen, but we do our best to make Christmas “perfect” for ourselves and our loved ones. We spend precious time picking out the perfect gifts, we labor tirelessly over the cookies we bake, and we make plans to see Christmas lights and drink hot chocolate. Then everyone will be at peace. Then we will all be happy. Then things will be as they should be.

Then a family argument breaks out before we even open presents, we drop the container of cookies on the way to the car, and someone slips on the ice as we go to look at Christmas lights. And although deep in our hearts we know it’s not true, we can’t help but feel like this Christmas wasn’t as good as it could have been. We may even feel like it’s been ruined.

That’s because Christmas isn’t about things going according to plan. In fact, if things had gone “according to plan,” we may not have had Christmas at all! At Christmas, we celebrate precisely the fact that things did not go according to plan— at least, not according to our plan.

If things had gone according to our plan, maybe Adam and Eve would not have eaten the fruit in the garden so that we wouldn’t need a savior at all. For some of us, we would have hoped that Jesus would come as a powerful king so that we would know his power beyond any doubt. We might even wish that God wouldn’t have needed to come at all, that he would have stayed far off and just snapped his fingers to save us.

Thank God that things don’t go according to our plans!

Because things didn’t go according to our plan, God revealed his deep love for us in ways that we never could have imagined. This is especially true on the cross. Because things went according to his plan, we have learned that he is merciful, that absolutely nothing can separate us from his love. We know we don’t need to fear him because he came to us as a tiny infant. Things didn’t go as we might have expected, and so we can look into the manger and see just how close God desires to be to us in each moment. Every time something doesn’t go according to our plan, God reveals something to us about his plan of love.

When I was eight years old, I learned the important lesson that neither a scooter, nor any material thing, would be enough to satisfy me. In truth, only God is enough. It is my prayer, for you and for me, that this Christmas will not go according to our plans. Amidst the burnt cookies and the traffic jams, may we praise God that his plan is the one that always prevails.

 

Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace: 3 Ways to Start Advent

Can you believe it—we’re in Advent already! Whoa! How can you slow things down so you can really mark the season?

  • Start with reconciliation. Confession is an important part of preparing your heart for Jesus: it will help you identify any cobwebs you may not be seeing on your own, especially in the bustle of Thanksgiving and the holiday season. Start your Advent this year with a clean slate!
  • Prepare for light. We’re entering the darkest time of year, which can be difficult for many. There’s light coming, in more ways than one, but it can feel very far away. If you feel sad or just “down,” consider a “Happy Light” for light therapy. It’s hard to feel joyful when you’re feeling depressed!
  • Bring music into your heart. There are so many beautiful Advent carols and songs, some of which are familiar, some less so. Take a moment every day to use them for reflection with our free book, Angels from the Realms of Glory.

Advent is a time of preparation, but doing too many things at once will always make you feel unprepared. Banish those feelings and get ready to welcome the Light of the World!

 

Image credit: David Bartus for Canva

Inspiration

The Transformation of Suffering

Sometimes a life experience is so dramatic, so poignant, that it stops us in our tracks and forces us to pay attention. This is true of many of the situations and events experienced by the saints. Not only do we sit up and take notice, but in many ways we are challenged by these moments. Some of us change our lives’ trajectories because of them. All of us are called to be grateful for them.

In 1975, Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận was arrested by the Communist government of Vietnam and imprisoned for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement, before being finally exiled from Vietnam in 1991. Following the example of Saint Paul while he was in prison, Francis-Xavier wrote messages to his people from captivity; his writings would eventually blossom into three books.

Chapter six of St. John’s Gospel relates an extraordinary story: seeing a vast crowd coming to hear him speak, Jesus takes the five barley loaves and the two fish offered him by a young boy and makes that bread and those fish into food enough for the five thousand. Francis-Xavier takes that story for the title and indeed the operating principle of his book, Five Loaves and Two Fish.

The first loaf is living the present moment; the second loaf, discerning between God and God’s works; the third loaf, prayer as a fixed point of reference; the fourth loaf, the Eucharist as his only strength; and the fifth loaf, love and unity as Jesus’ testimony. And then we come to the first fish: My First Love: The Immaculate Virgin Mary and the second fish: I Have Chosen Jesus.

Five loaves and two fish. “Stay with us,” prayed the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them to eat. Francis-Xavier’s sister writes that “during an interview with the media after his release, he was asked what his secret strength had been that kept him alive and sane. His answer was always, ‘The Eucharist.’ He explained how when he was arrested, he had to leave immediately, empty-handed. The following day he was allowed to write to his faithful to ask for some personal effects. He wrote: ‘Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach pain.’ They understood right away. A few days later, the guards handed him a small container addressed to him, labeled ‘Medicine for stomach ailments.’ He also received another small container containing small pieces of Holy Host. With three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand, he would celebrate Mass. ‘Each time I celebrated Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with Him the bitter chalice.’ And those were the most beautiful Masses of his life. He always carried in his shirt pocket the little container holding the Blessed Sacrament. He would repeat, “Jesus, You in me and I in You,’ adoring the Father.”

During 13 years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for Francis-Xavier an increasing power of hope that enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope that doesn’t disappear, even in long nights of solitude.

Francis-Xavier himself spoke of what his imprisonment had taught him during a talk he gave shortly before his death. “From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for 12 years in Communist China, came to my mind. On the day of his liberation, Bishop Walsh said, ‘I have spent half my life waiting.’

“It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die.

“No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.

“A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”

There is so much to learn from these words and this witness! Those of us who have never been imprisoned have no idea the fear—the panic, even—that must be one’s first, second, and last feeling. To transcend that fear and reach out to others is extraordinary. To find in it something of holiness is even beyond.

“Those in prison,” wrote Saint John Paul II, “look back with regret or remorse to the days when they were free, and they experience their time now as a burden which never seems to pass. In this difficult situation, a strong experience of faith can greatly help in finding the inner balance which every human being needs. This is one reason why the Jubilee is so relevant to prison life: the experience of the Jubilee lived behind bars can open up unexpected human and spiritual vistas (…) To celebrate the Jubilee means to strive to find new paths of redemption in every personal and social situation, even if the situation seems desperate.”

How many of our own situations feel desperate? How many of our own present days seem like “a burden which never seems to pass”? How many of our own problems feel unsolvable? Yet there is meaning in everything, and, as Francis-Xavier reminds us, no situation is there to merely be endured, to be waited through: we’re called upon to participate everywhere and in every way, by being beacons of Christ’s light for those around us and by bringing his word to a world that needs it now more than ever.

photo credit: Mitch Lensink for Unsplash

Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace: 3 Ideas for Finding Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving week, the one day a year we set aside as Americans to practice gratitude. As we look around God’s big, beautiful world, it’s hard to believe that we make thanking God an event only once a year! Here are three ideas for inserting a little thankfulness in our lives—every day.

  • Don’t be picky: appreciate everything! Gratitude doesn’t have to be saved for the “big” things in life. The habit of being grateful starts with appreciating every good thing in life and recognizing that there is nothing too small for you to be thankful for. Even if it’s as simple as appreciating the clear weather or how quickly your mailman delivered your mail last Friday, don’t leave anything out when practicing your gratitude.
  • Volunteer: For many people, the key to having more gratitude is to give back to others in their local parish or local community. Not only will it make you more grateful for the things that you may take for granted, but studies have shown that volunteering for the purpose of helping others increases our own well-being, and thus our ability to have more gratitude. (University of Pennsylvania researcher Martin Seligman found that volunteering is the single most reliable way to momentarily increase your well-being.)
  • Remember that materialism fuels ingratitude. Our culture and greed often lead us into a vicious circle of materialism: The more we get, the more we want. Materialism leads to the “give me” mindset in which “stuff” fills the void of our hearts. It is important to focus on the non-material world where we share our thanks with words of affirmation, kind deeds, and prayers of thanksgiving. This is especially true with raising children. In fact, we do not always need to “reward” them with things, but instead we can affirm them and their dignity as children of God. Consider praying before making a big purchase or a spontaneous one.

We wish you the most happy and healthy Thanksgiving ever, and we pray that we all might be open to and grateful for everything God accomplishes in our lives!

 

image: Pixabay

Advent

Another Way to See the World

I remember very clearly the afternoon when we received word that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was on fire. I was living in our convent in St. Louis and one of the other sisters in formation pulled up the images on the computer. We all sat there for a few minutes in silence, absolutely in dumbfounded by what was happening. I remember praying over and over again, “Lord, have mercy.”

As the hours went on, we received the news that the Blessed Sacrament had been rescued. No one had died. And yet, we all felt heartbroken knowing that the church had been so mangled in the fire. Inside myself, I was confused. Why was I so upset about a building? 

In reality, this is because Notre-Dame is not just a building. Throughout the centuries, countless people have come to that place to have an encounter with the living God. The beauty of the art and architecture was designed expressly and was successful in pointing to God’s loving providence. In a country that struggles so much to hold on to faith, the towering church is a symbol that God remains. It is so much more than a building.

As I began to think, I realized that Notre-Dame was not the only thing in my life that was more than what appeared on the surface. Each morning, I open my Bible, which some people might consider to be just another book. But my Bible is more than just another book; it is the living Word of God that speaks to me on a daily basis. When I walk into church, I genuflect to the tabernacle and spend time in prayer there because the Eucharist is not just bread but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When I touch my Rosary in my pocket, I am not just touching beads on a string but am reminded of the Blessed Mother’s constant loving protection and moved to trust what God is doing in that moment.

This is a concept that actually gets to the core of how Catholics see the world. This is called a “sacramental worldview” and it is what allows us to see the physical world, those things that we can see and feel and touch in this life, in a way that points to God. It is a sacramental worldview that leads us to see the glory of God in a sunset or to be in awe at the beauty of a newborn baby. It is the understanding that allows us to appreciate this life and material things for the good that they truly are while also recognizing that this is not our ultimate homeland.

Right now, we are getting ready for the season of preparation for the key to understanding what it means to have a sacramental worldview: the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God himself became one of us. He entered into our material world in a real way, not through symbols, not simply by appearing to us, but by actually becoming human. In Jesus Christ, God could breathe and eat and cry and even be killed. Because he entered into our physical reality in such an intimate way, he was able to save us from the inside as one of us so that we would be able to have his own life within us. “And the soul felt its worth.”

These next few weeks are going to be busy and intense for all of us. With long lines at shopping malls, Christmas songs on the radio, and endless parties and events, God is extending an invitation to us to see more than what is on the surface. He is asking us to allow these things to penetrate our hearts so that it is not just another run to the store, another version of “Silent Night,” or another batch of cookies that we bake with loved ones. No, to you and to me, he is saying, “Let me use these things to show you how much I love you.”

This is how we see the world in a sacramental way. Although we live in the world, it is a vastly different way of seeing it than most people today. This allows us to live in such a way that everything leads us to God because we are aware that everything in this life is a gift from him, a sign of his love for us. And this can even go one step further: you can become a sacrament for others. You can be an instrument, a person created and beloved by God, through whom he makes his love known in this world during this crazy season. Let each decoration that you put up, each present that you wrap, each minute that you wait in line, and each Christmas card you write become a channel for God’s grace in this season. That’s certainly a different way of seeing the world.

Truly, God did not become incarnate only in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but takes on flesh in each of us every time we are open to receiving his love. The more we are aware of how he is using the material things in our lives to reveal his love to us, the more we are able to use these material things to show that love to others. As you go about your day, you can ask God, “How is it that you are showing me that you love me today?” You may be surprised by just how many love notes he sends you.

 

by Sr. Cecilia Cicone, novice

Advent, Christmas, Inspiration

The Big Three

The big three holidays are almost here: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Hooray! we say. As you read this, we will be in the immediate preparation for the first of these, Thanksgiving, praying that we make it through with family and friends, and without too much fuss.

We all recognize these three as the extreme sports among our holidays. We flex our best resolutions before entering into this season. Somehow we will power our way through them.

It might be more worthwhile to spend some time with the little three. Now, by this I mean no disrespect, and I really should call them the humble and holy three: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We do well to ask how they negotiated the original version of what we celebrate.

Let’s begin with Advent, which is the season of preparation for the next two celebrations. We often reduce Advent to the season of shopping rather than of reflection on the coming of the Savior. So, let’s pick up Advent partway through its four-week pattern. The young woman, Mary, had an angel in her living room announcing she was chosen to be mother of the long-awaited Messiah. This certainly trumps all the robo sales calls we have to put up with! How calmly did she acquiesce to this turn of events? We don’t know, but she wholeheartedly consented: “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary’s immediate response was to set out on a mission of mercy to visit an older cousin who was also unexpectedly pregnant. We can see how invested Mary now was in God’s plan. When her cousin Elizabeth’s son, John (the Baptist), was born, Mary returned to her own family and to the scrutiny of her fiancé, Joseph. He was taken aback to find her obviously with child, knowing it wasn’t his own. God decided to clarify the situation for Joseph as he had for Mary, through an angel. Joseph wasn’t to be distressed, the angel said. This Child is of God so go ahead as you planned and take Mary as your wife. )Do you notice anything stressful yet?)

Another curveball is thrown into this original Christmas preparation. No quiet sitting at home, no little shopping expeditions, no cozy chats with happy grandparents-to-be. No, the foreign governing body has called for a census. It isn’t a paper form to be mailed in, but a trek to the ancestral home to register in person. So off they go at a very inconvenient time. Mary was literally expecting the Christmas Child. She was seated on a donkey; no Uber rides were available. She had to balance on the swaying beast while feeling her time was close at hand. Joseph, for his part, could only worry and put on a strong face and pray his heart out that everything would be okay.

When they make it to Bethlehem, it is late. There is no room to be rented. Again it falls to Joseph to provide. We picture him in popular films running from house to house begging for some place, any place, to prepare for what is imminent. How inadequate he must feel: such a mission and such a predicament! Why? he could have lamented, but we believe he was more of a man of providence. God would show him how he was to provide for Mary and the Infant. What Joseph found – a poor animal stable – has become the icon of our individual devotion. We ourselves are poor, unworthy, but welcoming abodes of the Son of God. Thank you, Joseph, for this spiritual gift.

It is a holiday, a birth day–was there a party? Yes, there was one large decoration, the star. The locals, friendly and curious, came. The angels again pointed out the event to shepherds who hurried over to see. Later unexpected kings arrived with precious, symbolic gifts. Privacy didn’t exist and soon neither did safety. The three had to flee in the night, making another treacherous journey, this time into Egypt where they would again be strangers trying to fit in.

>All of this was certainly a stressful time for Mary and Joseph. Our religious paintings and cards portray a peaceful, serene image for the season. The will of God seems to have been like a soft comforter over these harsh circumstances. Sweet smiles and calm nerves prevailed. I think not. I see Mary and Joseph as the true patron saints of our modern holiday season. Think of the emotions, the misunderstandings, the anxiety, the exhaustion of all these days. They were in love with God and totally dedicated to His will, but they had to feel each moment as it came. They didn’t know what was coming next. They definitely experienced stress. They were thrown into it; we on our part create most of our stress.

We find that our stress doesn’t come solely from world or church affairs, but from personal interaction with those around us–the near and dear, but even more so from inner action, from our own unpeaceful spirits. Let’s do as Mary and Joseph and put all of our energy and attention on the Child who is the reason, literally, for the season, the Gift, the charm, the center of everything. If our heart is with Him, we will be able to weather this seasonal squall of stress with grace and even with joy. And we will be able to put a new ring on the coming of 2020.

by Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP

 

Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace: 3 Ways to Find Peace in the Midst of Turmoil

Every day it feels like we’re moving closer to some apocalyptic future, with politics gone awry, climate change threatening our children’s world, and hatred everywhere we look. How do we as Catholics keep ourselves apart from the fray while still living in the middle of it? How to we find peace in the midst of turmoil? Here are three ideas:

  • It’s important to recognize what John 14:27 tells us: he makes it clear where peace is not found. It is not found in the world, ourselves, circumstances, or comfort, all of which we tend to seek for peace. Christ has made it clear in his Word that the peace we seek is bought, assured, and sustained by Christ alone.
  • Remain close to the community of faith. Church community, family, and friendships are all God’s design to bring refuge to those who are troubled. As St. Paul instructed the church of Colossae to remain in fellowship with one another to keep the peace of Christ, so does he instruct us to do the same today.
  • When we don’t know what to do next, we can pray. Why talk to Jesus? Because he understands suffering—not in some distant cosmic way, but in the flesh. He suffered greatly during his time on earth. He understands what you’re feeling.

Our times are difficult, but other times have been just as difficult for those living them. Keep that perspective, keep praying, and keep your faith, and you’ll find peace.

 

 

Photo: Deepu B lyer for Pexels

Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace: 3 ways to honor our deceased loved ones

November is a month of precious memories of friends and family who have gone ahead of us into eternity, loved ones we hold in love and prayer. How can you honor your own loved ones this month?

  • Enroll their names in the Daughters of St. Paul’s novena of masses. The sisters’ prayers and suffrages can bring comfort to those who’ve gone ahead of us in death. Pray for your departed loved ones by enrolling their names in these nine masses.
  • Pray with the Memento Mori prayer book. It contains everything you need to connect more deeply with God when you’re grieving.
  • If you don’t have the Memento Mori prayer book, pray all the same. Spend an hour this month in Eucharistic adoration and pray the St. Gertrude Prayer: “Eternal Father I offer you the most precious blood of your divine son Jesus, in union with all the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.”

November is the month in which we remember why we’re here, where we’re going, and those who have gone before us into eternity who still need our comfort and the compassion of our prayers. They are like “angels among us” still, and they remind us from eternity that life is truly about Good News! They know God’s salvation and mercy in a way we can now only hope to understand: that we are loved by God individually, uniquely, and eternally.

 

Image: Thomas Vogel for Unsplash

Advent, Inspiration

3 Ways to Open Doors of Hope

Don’t go through the next month and a half straight to Christmas. Take time to hope!

“Advent,” wrote then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986, “is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope.”

Our problem? We want to go straight to Christmas without taking the time the Church gives us for waiting, for expectation, for longing, for looking back, for looking forward… for hope! It’s easy for that to happen. Shops and online merchants lure us with promises of more to buy, more to do, more, more, more—until Advent gets lost in a headlong tumble of activity, anxiety, and stress.

“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

Here are three ways to open those doors:

#1: Start now

Download our free #PutJesusFirst Advent planner. What differentiates our planner is that it’s integrated: every week, along with practical reminders to buy stamps for Christmas cards and make travel arrangements, you will find prayers, family activities, Scripture readings, and more.

#2: Look ahead

Now is the time to plan for your Advent reading for yourself—and Christmas giving for others. Visit our webstore or one of our Pauline Books and Media Centers and get your children a reminder of what Christmas is really about—or find books for your friends. Choose some reading for yourself that will either challenge or comfort you, depending on this year’s needs. Order from our webstore now and you’ll be taking advantage of our free postage through December 8th!

#3: Be present every day

People talk about experiencing “the best Advent ever,” but even that is missing the point. Advent needs to change you, to allow God to act inside you and your family, to prepare you for the greatest gift of all: God come to earth as a tiny, poor, refugee child. In the birth of that child alone is our whole hope for the future.

Let us help you go through the doors of  hope this year!

Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace: Are You Worried About the Environment?  Here are 3 Ways to Help

It is because we value our relationship with God and God’s creation that concern for the environment and about climate change is for us Catholics a profoundly spiritual, ethical, and moral issue. Saint John Paul II said, “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the wellbeing of future generations.” But what can we as ordinary Catholics do? It turns out, plenty!

  • Abstain from meat on Fridays—and as often as you can. The Catholic practice to abstain from meat one day a week is to remain mindful of what Christ did for us, but also has significant environmental benefits. The less meat we demand, the less slaughterhouse pollution we contribute and the fewer natural landscapes we convert into pasture.
  • Buy less, use less. We live in a commercial culture that demands the newest, the brightest, the best in everything from clothing to electronics to automobiles. This consumerism comes at a price that is both spiritual and environmental. Consider buying things second-hand—or not buying them at all.
  • Sign the Saint Francis pledge. It is simple and yet powerful: you commit to praying with and for creation, living more simply by lowering your family’s, parish’s, and/or religious community’s carbon footprint, and advocating to protect our common home.

What was once an individual decision is now a moral issue, since it is the poor and marginalized who will suffer the worst consequences of our changing environment. But the good news is that we can do something about it! We can show through our actions that we are a people apart, that as Catholics we live differently from the consumer culture around us. One step at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We are losing our attitude of wonder, of contemplation, of listening to creation, and thus we no longer manage to interpret within it what Benedict XVI calls ‘the rhythm of the love-story between God and man.'” (Pope Francis)