Catholic Exchange: On Being Human and the Need to Wonder

I stood on a cold, frosty afternoon looking out the window at my daughter playing in the snow. She was bedecked head to toe with winter gear to protect her from the bitter wind, a wind she hardly noticed. Her fuchsia snow pants insulated her knees from the icy snow and she sat contentedly eating snow. She examined each handful before placing it in her mouth. She was struck by the uniqueness of each new handful. As I watched her, I was drawn into her wonder. I was struck by the obvious joy of that moment for her.  I realized in that moment, children often have their priorities in order, while we adults grasp at all the wrong things.

A pile of dishes was awaiting my attention, textbooks for my graduate courses sat opened, reminding me of work to be done. My elliptical machine, cold and mechanical, stood in the living room corner as an oppressive force of health and fitness. My mind was running with an endless list of things that must get done. And yet, I stopped to see what my daughter was doing in our backyard on a bitter cold winter afternoon. She had been begging me all morning to go outside and I made her wait until it hit 25 degrees. I have grown soft living in Southwestern Virginia; away from the arctic subzero temperatures of my upbringing in Montana.

I couldn’t help, but stop. There she sat, engrossed in wonder and serene contentedness. The very same serenity that alludes so many of us in adulthood with our deadlines, duties, and responsibilities. I realized that my daughter’s work was probably much more important than what I felt bound to complete in a begrudging sort of way. She was examining the secondary causes of God’s free and self-emptying Creation. I stood watching her examine each snow crystal before she placed it in her mouth. I entered into her wonder, her total giving of self to the moment. How could I not be drawn in along with her?

She did not feel the cold or complain about the weather the way we adults often gripe. Instead it was an opportunity for joy, play, discovery, imagination, and love. It was a moment for her to experience God through the beauty of His creation. She was living the good, the true, and the beautiful. How often do we brush off our child’s excitement over something seemingly mundane? How often do we miss out on the opportunity to enter into their wonder and joy of discovering something new for the very first time, or even the twentieth? How much do we ignore that God calls us to fully live in the present? Our children teach us the presence of God, but we pay little attention.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Abandoning Utilitarianism to Embrace Transcendent Beauty

We live in an age marked by utilitarianism. If an item, building, or artwork does not serve some use it is easily discarded. It is also an age of secular humanism in which the person is the center of the cosmos, not God. These two philosophical undercurrents have impacted us as Catholics whether we like it or not. There is nothing wrong with a properly ordered humanism, just as there isn’t anything inherently wrong with using items for their utility. I clearly need to use a knife to cut an onion. The problem with utilitarianism is that it has come to dominate Western culture from how we understand the human person to art to religion to architecture. We do not use people, but utilitarianism tells us this is acceptable since the goal of life is my personal happiness. Beauty is of little use in this system. Beauty within itself serves no real purpose. It cannot be formed and re-ordered to my personal end, so I discard it. This is evidenced by the architecture and art of our day. It is largely devoid of transcendence and keeps us firmly, if not stuck, here on earth.

We are not at home here in this Fallen earth. We are called to come to know God and grow in further communion with Him through His Church and through His creation, but our end is not here. Creation is a window to God. It is one of the ways he communicates His beauty, transcendence, humor, creativity, and power to us. The earth is not the fullness of revelation, however, that rests with Christ. We are made for communion with God. In fact, we are made in His image and likeness, so that we could bridge the gap between the material and the immaterial. We were meant to unite the gulf between the spirit and matter. Our vocation before the Fall was to bring creation into communion with God. Through the Fall we failed and Christ had to come to complete that vocation for us. If we look at the architecture and art of the last decades, do we see our call to transcendence or do we see a desire for comfort for the things of here and now? Are we uniting Heaven and earth as Our Lord has done?

Read the rest at Catholic Exchange.

The Peace in Leaving Facebook Behind

I have written multiple blog posts about my increased understanding that I needed to give up Facebook. I only rarely used Twitter and saw it as an overwhelming amount of information with absolutely no real human connection. It is a place to vent political ideology in 140 characters, and that largely includes Catholic writers too. Facebook was another animal. I deactivated my account and gave the password controls to my husband 2.5 months ago. I had given it up for months at a time, but always ended up getting sucked back in for some reason, so I told my husband to change the password and that I was done. I was addicted to Facebook. My overly empathetic personality pulled me too close to the train-wreck and I had to walk away.

A lot of people will say to use it in moderation, but I am not one of those people who can use it in moderation. In the beginning I would do pretty well, but before long I was sucked into conversations I didn’t need to be involved in like telling Pope bashers to knock it off and got to Confession. I am a stay-at-home mom, so I am pretty isolated for most of the week. I saw Facebook as adult interaction, but in reality it wasn’t any deep connection and it was not making me a better person. Facebook was an impediment for me on the path to holiness. My husband didn’t like me on Facebook, my daughter didn’t like me on Facebook, and I didn’t like me on Facebook.

Facebook in itself is a good. There are great gifts in technology and the material world which are goods; that does not mean they are good for everyone. Some of us have inclinations towards addictions with certain things whether it be food, alcohol, drugs, pornography, or social media. If we cannot control that addiction then we need to cut it out. If something is not helping us on the path to holiness, then we need to cut it out. It is not a condemnation of Facebook, instead it is an acknowledgement of my own personal weaknesses.

Here are somethings that have happened since I have freed myself from the clutches of Facebook.

  1. I enjoy the moment.
    Yep, that’s right. I am more present in each moment throughout the day. I am more available when for my daughter and my husband. I no longer spend hours on my phone. I don’t think of clever status updates through out the day to garner as many likes as possible. I only take photographs I truly want to save as opposed to those I would put up throughout the day on FB. Once again, I am more present in my own life. True story!
  2. I no longer worship myself on Facebook.
    Now this does not mean that I no longer battle pride, I do, daily. Facebook has the real risk of sinful pride. We post pictures of our families, our articles, or things of interest and can run into the tendency of either knowing better than everyone else or thinking we are better than everyone else. “Likes” are an homage to pride. The more likes the better we think of our pictures or updates. It’s gotten so bad that we post pictures of our meals and way too many pictures of ourselves. Vanity is rearing its ugly head in multiple generations right now through social media! If we are really honest with ourselves, we will see how pride is infecting us through our use of social media. This does not mean that there aren’t people who use social media in humility, but for most of us sinful beings, pride is a real battle and danger in social media, that is, social media centered around ourselves.
  3. I am a lot less stressed out about the state of the world.
    Let’s face it, social media is a train-wreck we cannot seem to look away from. I have been watching the news since I was 8 years old. Yes, 8. I have always been in the know and up-to-date on current affairs. It was wreaking havoc on me, but I didn’t want to admit it. I am a very empathetic person. I get sucked into the evil of the world and it is compounded by own experiences as a relief worker during the 9-11 aftermath. Certain personalities cannot handle an onslaught of the evils of the world. My leaving social media does not mean I think we should put our heads in the sand. We should be aware of current affairs, but social media is obsessed and addicted to it. We should know about it and then get on with the business of evangelizing the world and serving others in charity and truth. Obsessing and talking about current events incessantly is not evangelizing or living the Christian mission. We have to get up from our computers and serve. I think for people who struggle with anxiety and depression massive social media use is very bad and exacerbates symptoms. I say this as a fellow depressive and anxiety sufferer.
  4. I have time for important things in my day.
    We are obsessed with our smartphones! Our smartphones are a major impediment and distraction in our day. As an experiment I suggest you write down every time you go on your phone to check social media. The number and amount of time you are on your phone, tablet, or computer will be stifling. That is time we could be spending with our kids, spouses, reading books to help us in the spiritual life or even just great books, we could be writing a novel, helping people in need, focusing on a hobby we enjoy, going for a walk to enjoy God’s creation, and praying more. There are so many better things we could be doing with our time. I do those things now that I am off of Facebook for good. We have to decide which good is greater and chances are social media is not the greater good in our lives.
  5. My life is quieter.
    I know this probably terrifies some people. It terrified me when I was contemplating the final deactivation. For the first few days it’s difficult. You might feel disconnected at first, but then you come to enjoy the quiet and lack of needless distraction. You will find more peace and focus. Is it the solution to all of your problems or mine? No, but it’s a step towards peace and real connection with God and other people.
  6. I can focus on the real relationships in my life.
    If we are truly honest with ourselves we will admit that social media is not authentic connection with other people. It is the illusion of real connection. In reality it does not require any of us to step into the real lives of our Facebook “friends”. We might pray for them and interact occasionally, but we are not sitting by hospital beds, bringing needed food, money, or items to them. We are not there to hug them or have a real conversation. We do not have to truly step into the Crosses of those friends. As Christians, this is an essential element of authentic friendship. There are countless people in our lives today who need our love and support. We meet people and have them in our lives for a while, but then we move on whether physically or developmentally. I am not the person I was in high school and I barely remember most people I went to high school with, or even served with in the Navy. I wish them well, but a superficial Facebook connection does little towards our real call to charity.

There are people who use social media in moderation. I applaud those people, but I think we should truly examine our consciences in light of our social media use. How often do pride, anger, envy, lust, etc. boil up inside of us as we use Facebook? Are we truly using it to connect with other people on a real level or using it as a distraction from our own pains, monotony, or loneliness? Is it helping us grow in holiness? Are we addicted to Facebook, honestly? How are the relationships in our lives, our spouse, children, etc.? Does Facebook impact those relationships in a negative way? Do we spend our evenings on our phone or tablet while our family members sit in the same room with us doing the same thing?

We are made for happiness, greatness, and holiness. If Facebook is not leading us to sainthood we need to decide if we can cut back or cut it out. I can honestly say that I don’t miss it at all and I can see the world around me much more clearly. I pray for the people I have known and those I connected with on Facebook through Catholic circles, but my vocation calls me to people placed right in front of me.  Remember the issue isn’t that Facebook is evil, it is about whether or not it is a greater good in our lives. Pax Christi.

I am not the only crazy Catholic writer to abandon Facebook. Check out Matthew Warner’s “radical” piece on leaving FB.

 

Advent Wreath Link-Up at CatholicMom.com

Today I am linked up with the CatholicMom.com Advent Wreath Link-Up.  If you have a camera and a blog be sure to share your wreath with us.

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Our Advent Wreath is our first as a family.  My husband and I have been married for 3.5 years.  We bought a simple gold ringed wreath at our parish bookstore.  I then went to the Dollar Tree and purchased fake pine garland and some simple white poinsettia flowers that have a hint of glitter.  We have four purple candles this year because last year’s candles melted in the attic.  Walmart only had purple and no pink.  The white flowers symbolizes that Christmas is soon to come.  Although we wait in the violet of Advent, soon we will give way to liturgical white to celebrate The Nativity of Our Lord.

wreath

Advent is a season that teaches me a lot.  I struggle, like many people, with wanting instant gratification.  Advent teaches us to wait, it teaches us patience.  Instead of rushing headlong into Christmas, we are told to become quiet, reflective, repentant, and expectant.  The Savior of the World is coming to us at Christmas, and he will come again.  It is not a day we check off of a list after hours of shopping.  Instead, it is the day God came to rescue us.  It is when the fullness of salvation story became clear.  It is also a season that lasts beyond December 25th.  We live the Incarnation each and every single day as followers of Christ.

May Our Lord bless you in the quiet of the Advent season and prepare your heart to receive Him at Christmas.

The Ugly Christmas Ornament Lesson

Once again my daughter is teaching me that the world does not revolve around me.  It is a very difficult lesson, one in which I sulk at times.  Give me a little bit of a break.  I have only been a parent for 2 years and was living blissfully unaware (okay..occasionally aware) of my selfish nature for 30 years prior.  Some of you may scoff and others will understand my story.

You see, each year since we have been dating, my husband and I have bought each other a Christmas ornament.  We only put those ornaments on our tree, and a few gold ball ornaments.  Michaela was added to the tradition when she was born.  We open our ornaments on the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec 6th) and then set them aside until Gaudete Sunday.  It is little addition we made to that Feast Day in our home. So far, the ornament selections have been quite lovely.  I like the religious ornaments, but we do have some wintry ornaments as well.
Tonight my husband, daughter, and I decided to go to Walmart to try to find some purple Advent candles since ours melted in the attic over the summer.  We also thought we would see what kind of ornament we should get for Michaela.  We found 4 purple candles, they were out of pink.  My apologies to Gaudete Sunday.  The ornament selection did not leave much to be desired.  I was going to compromise on a Disney Princess ornament because it had Rapunzel on it, but then…my husband pulled out this:
This is going on my Christmas Tree.
This is going on my Christmas Tree. And, yes, the dog is wearing pink booties.
  Those of you have a toddler know what happened next.  She loved it!  It was the greatest ornament on  the planet.  Nothing could compare.  I tried.  I showed her the Disney Princess ornament.  She ignored it.  I tried a jingle-bell snowman.  It could not hold a candle to this gaudy pink dog.  I sighed.  My husband turned to me and said, “The ornaments are supposed to represent who she is right now.”  I knew he was right.  Her two favorite things right now are doggies and Pinkalicious.  It’s like Walmart knew this and made an ornament just for her, and other toddlers.
You would have had to know me before I got married.  I liked a matching Christmas Tree.  Something that was color coordinated and had beautiful ribbon swirling down the sides.  It was always topped with a beautiful angel.  This is one of those things I abandoned in favor of a new tradition with my husband.  However, it still sneaks out at times.  This being one of those times.  I now just admire those types of trees in my Southern Living magazine.
This is another great lesson that motherhood has taught me.  It just is not about me anymore.  It never really was actually.  Instead, it is about what makes my daughter happy.  If she selects an ugly ornament, it will be a story we can share later.  I will always remember this ornament and the Christmas she was 2 years old.  She will grow up way to fast.  I already have to catch my breath some days.
This experience also made me stop and wonder when I got so boring.  Childhood is such a magical time and I forget that sometimes.  It is a time when my daughter just knows what she likes and does not have the world telling her what to like.  It is a time of imagination, learning, and wonder.  It is a time for pink dogs and little girls who eat too many cupcakes and turn pink.
I may have grumbled in the store, but I will happily help her place this ornament on our Tree in the coming weeks.  It is hers and it will hold many memories.  And we can haul it out when she is a cranky teenager. I hope you are having a blessed Advent.
Two of my daughter's favorite things: pink and doggies.
Two of my daughter’s favorite things: pink and doggies.

 

What are some ornaments your kids have picked out that you have had to put on your Tree over the years?

 

P.S. We are really trying to live out Advent right now and minimize Christmas.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is Friday, so we wanted to be prepared.

Marveling at the Cathedrals of Europe

This morning I was looking over a fellow blogger’s beautiful website.  She has a section on stained glass and it got me thinking about my time in Europe.  My first trip to Europe was actually to England for a week long training I was leading for the Navy when I was 22.  My friend and I spent the flight drinking mimosas because we could not sleep.  I still cannot seem to sleep on international flights that are overnight.  We took a cab to King’s Cross to get on a train to Lincolnshire.  Even though I was exhausted and had a slight buzz, it was an exciting time. Yes, Catholics enjoy their drink, in moderation (okay a few times for me were not in moderation and that is called gluttony). As we drove through the London streets, I was amazed by the architecture, and the crowds.  London makes New York look sparsely populated.

Yep, I lived two blocks from this amazing cathedral.
Yep, I lived two blocks from this amazing cathedral.
A Christmas performance of Handel's Messiah fit perfectly with the scenery.
A Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah fit perfectly with the scenery.
Arches and stained glass go so well together.
Arches and stained glass go so well together.
We reached our destination a few hours later: Lincoln, England.  I did not know it then, but I would be moving there 9 months later.  We made our way through the cobblestone streets to our hotel, which was directly across from Lincoln Cathedral.  The cathedral was on top of a hill and stood large over the town.  It is the twin of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, just a few centuries older.  I was amazed.  It was the first place that I wanted to visit.  I actually was blessed to see Handel’s Messiah performed there while I lived in Lincoln.
The cathedral is in the gothic design.  It has towering arches of stone.  The building itself in the shape of a cross.  It had a stunning rose window, and the entire building is centered on the altar.  The cathedral now belongs to the Anglican Church.  I ended up living in a row house two blocks from the cathedral.  I could walk to it anytime I wanted.  I saw it every single day.  It took my breath away repeatedly.  I can remember driving home in the summer after a long 12 hour shift.  The sun had been up for a couple of hours (England is a lot further north than we are) and there the cathedral shone in the sun.  Giving me enough energy to make the rest of the drive home.
Yorkminster, the first time I ever stood on top of Roman ruins.
Yorkminster, the first time I ever stood on top of Roman ruins.
When I did move to England in 2004, I wanted to see as many churches and cathedrals as possible.  I stood on top of Roman ruins at Yorkminster in York, England.  I visited the chapel in Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland.  For some reason I never made it to St. Paul’s in London.  I wish I had.  I went to St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Ireland.  I have to admit I was a bit disappointed.  The Reformation’s ties to the iconoclastic heresy stripped it of its grandeur.  I did stumble on a beautiful church in an alley in downtown Dublin.  It was  nothing to look at on the outside, but on the inside it was incredible.  It was in the baroque style, with marble pillars, beautiful paintings, and gold. Christ is the King of the Universe after all.
I do have to admit that in many of my travels in Europe I was disappointed by the beauty that was destroyed by the Reformation.  Remember, I hold a Catholic worldview.  The churches of the Netherlands were cold and bare, completely stripped of their former beauty. It was the same in many of England’s churches, except those that were High Church Anglican.
While in Bruges you can see Michelangelo's Madonna and then get the most incredible chocolate you have ever tasted.
While in Bruges you can see Michelangelo’s Madonna and then get the most incredible chocolate you have ever tasted.
I went to Bruges, Belgium a few days after Blessed John Paul II passed away.  It was a time of great sadness for the Church.  I went to the cathedral to see Michelangelo’s Madonna.  It was stunning.  The church itself had high arches, stained glass, artwork, and gold everywhere.  It lifted me up.  It reminded me of Heaven, which is exactly what beauty is supposed to do.  It refreshed me after being so appalled by Amsterdam. The only part of that city I enjoyed, was a sad part, Anne Frank’s house.
My time overseas was  cut short, so I did not make it to Rome.  My husband lived in Spain for a semester, so he was able to go to Fatima, Portugal and Rome.  Two places I would love to visit.  Some day we will make it back to Europe and take our daughter.
The trip that amazed me the most was my trip to Paris.  I had never had much interest in going to France.  I had heard too many horror stories and to be quite honest, I was pretty ignorant of French culture.  I decided to go on a weekend trip with one of my co-workers.  It ended up being one of the best trips I ever took in Europe.  Paris is beautiful.  It is unbelievably so.  The architecture, the Seine, the people.  It is an incredible city.  And you know what?  I never had any issues.  The key is to be humble when you are traveling in someone else’s homeland.  I only know a few words of French, but I used them, and it was appreciated.
I am not much of a shopper.  I would rather go to art museums and churches, than shop.  We went to Notre Dame first.  It was very crowded and somewhat chaotic.  There was not much room for reverence.  They were out of English brochures on the cathedral’s history, so I had to take one in Russian.  It is a gothic cathedral so it is very similar to a lot of the cathedrals that I had been to.  We heard about another church that was nearby called Sainte Chapelle.  We decided to check it out.
Sainte Chapelle, where "wow" can't even come close.
Sainte Chapelle, where “wow” can’t even come close.
When we arrived there was a line.  They only allowed a few people in at a time.  We decided to wait.  It was worth it.  When we went in, we walked up a narrow winding staircase.  If you have been to Europe, you know what I am talking about.  We then entered the sanctuary.  It was bare and open, but all around, in 360 degrees, was floor to ceiling stained glass.  I was in awe.  It is difficult for the senses to even fully discern such glory.  This was something to marvel at.  This is a defining moment for me in my travels.
Human beings are made to marvel and to worship. If we do not find God, we worship false idols like money, power, sex, etc.  When we do not have beauty to admire and marvel at we become empty and bored.  That is why so many American cities are just overwhelming, not beautiful.  Architecture has lost its connection with its roots. Art and architecture are meant to inspire, to show us what it means to be human, to worship, to create with the Creator.
We see this beauty in nature too, but it is incredible to see what man is capable of when his focus is on Christ.  The Catholic Church is the largest protector of the arts in the world.  Why?  Because we understand how beauty brings about conversion.  Marveling at something greater than us, brings us to God’s door.  It reminds us that there is something more than what we see daily.  We need to get outside of ourselves, and beauty lifts us up to new heights.
You would not know it thanks to modern architecture, but Vatican II affirms the necessity and use of sacred art.  Beauty is essential in the worship of Christ.  We are stepping into the Heavenly Liturgy at Mass, not a football game.  The senses need help being transported.  That is one of the purposes of stained glass, statues, candles, incense, gold, paintings, etc.  Not to mention that the Old Testament affirms God’s request for us to use beauty.  The Ark of the Covenant, was beautiful and included statues, gold, etc.,  hence the use of gold in our Tabernacles.  To lift us up.  Mass is a vertical expression, not a horizontal one.
A depiction of the Ark of the Covenant.  Look familiar, fellow Catholics?
A depiction of the Ark of the Covenant. Look familiar, fellow Catholics?
When was the last time you marveled at something?  Are you feeling overburdened by the world?  Make a point of seeking out beauty.  It will leave you refreshed and more focused on Our Lord.