Catholic Exchange: What Will We Give Jesus for His Birthday?

We are now in the final days of Advent. These last days are a good time to fully prepare ourselves for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas. If we have not taken the time to enter into prayerful quiet, now is a good time to do so. If we do not enter into the preparation of Advent, there is a good chance we will miss the true joy of Christmas, because we will not have taken the time to prepare our hearts fully for the coming of Our Savior. A couple of weeks ago, my parish priest asked us a question in order to help us prepare for Christmas. He asked, “What are we going to give Jesus for His birthday?” Ever since Father spoke these words, they have been on my mind. What am I going to give Jesus for His birthday?

Whose birthday is it anyway?

To be honest, it is such a simple question, that it is often lost on us; this includes me. Often, we end up making this one of the busiest and most material times of the year. As parents, my husband and I have tried to cut back on the material and busy sides of Advent and Christmas. We spent one too many Christmases with family and friends watching kids tear into far too many gifts only to cast them aside. The desire for more, more, more was all over their faces. More of what, exactly? Things that can never in principle make them truly happy? We realized early on that we cannot hope to teach our daughter holiness if Christmas is seen as an accumulation of large quantities of stuff. We cut back to three gifts from us, which represent the gifts of the Magi. All other gifts are from grandparents and other family. Even then, it has been difficult to maintain temperance in this regard because my husband and I are rather counter-cultural in this approach.

Our reason for this refocus is because it is very easy in our culture to focus on the material aspects of Christmas. We are inundated with the idea that buying the “perfect” gift will achieve happiness for our loved ones or ourselves. Advertising campaigns have even switched to telling us that we “deserve to buy ourselves the perfect gift this Christmas.” We hear this on the radio, see it on TV, and we are bombarded whenever we walk into a store this time of year. I notice a tendency in my own daughter to want stuff and lots of it. Of course, hours or days later she will cast aside this item she had to have since it has served its temporary purpose. I have been asking God how to temperately celebrate His birth in a manner that is a balance between merriment, cheer, self-emptying love, virtuous living, and a focus on Him. Then came Father’s question to all of us, to me.

In the Latin Rite, we can easily forget that Advent is a penitential season. It is not as strict as Lent and often the penitential aspects are not mentioned, but for all intents and purposes, Advent is penitential. We are told to prepare for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas and in the Parousia. If Christ came again in the Second Coming at this very moment, would we be prepared? We are called to constantly prepare our hearts for His coming. This is a call to grow in holiness, to deepen our prayer lives, frequent the sacraments, and to consider those areas where vice rules over virtue. The Catholic understanding is not that we have to be merely “good people”. That idea comes from the post-modern heresy of moral therapeutic deism. We are called to be saints, not “good people”. In Lent, we consider something to give up to grow in holiness to prepare for the great mysteries of Holy Week. In that same vein: What is it we are going to give Our Lord and Savior at Christmas?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

It has been a very stressful week for my family and me with multiple health scares and the ever present agony of waiting for news. I did want to start a brief series on the cardinal virtues based on a term paper I wrote for grad school. This first part is from that paper. We will consider this the introduction and next week I will begin on prudence. I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.

The cardinal virtues are essential to the moral life. Each human being is made for happiness and truth, which can only be found in God. In order to discover and live this happiness each individual must foster proper habits through the cardinal virtues. In the Christian life the assumption is that the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the movement of grace, are all at work within the individual as he or she works towards the ultimate truth of God. While the focus here is on the cardinal virtues, the supernatural virtues are always at work in each Christian’s life. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are virtues which order behavior to the pursuit and habitual response to goodness and truth. An individual cannot hope to live a moral life fixed on objective truth without the constant pursuit of these virtues in daily living. It is within the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living where the bigger moral questions are grounded. If an individual lives their private life virtuously, then those habits will spill over into public life and the moral orders of family, community, and country.

In examining virtue and calling others to its pursuit there is often a stumbling block tied to freedom. Individuals may see the virtues as a limitation of freedom and an imposition from external forces against the desires of that particular person; therefore, freedom must be rightly understood first in order to prevent this impediment. Since human beings are spiritual and bodily creatures, there is a natural order within each person at the ontological level. At the very level of being human beings are made for goodness and truth. This goodness cannot be completely blotted out by sin and concupiscence.[1] Far from limiting personal freedom, the virtues order and give direction to life. Servais Pinckaers states, “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation. We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them.”[2] This means human beings are free when they conform their lives to their natural inclinations for goodness and truth. Freedom is grounded in the human desire for good, “The natural root of freedom develops in us principally through a sense of the true and the good, of uprightness and love, and through a desire for knowledge and happiness.”[3] Freedom itself must not be seen as the ability to do whatever one wants, but as the perfection and pursuit of goodness so that each person may be fully alive.

Since freedom is grounded in goodness, there must be an examination of how best to achieve this goodness. As stated before, the supernatural virtues play their essential role, but the cardinal virtues are the habits needed in daily living. The process of acquiring virtue is life-long and a slow process requiring discipline. It is to make small choices in conformity to truth each day, so that truth is the ever present reality for the individual. Pinckaers uses the virtue of courage to explain this process, “The development of courage is progressive. It is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions. It grows with the dogged effort to study, to finish a task, render a service, or overcome laziness or some other fault.”[4] This development of habit applies to all of the cardinal virtues, but there is a hierarchical nature to the cardinal virtues. They develop, deepen, and are grounded in one another.

[1] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Third Edition, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 358.

[2] Ibid, 358.

[3] Ibid, 357.

[4] Ibid, 356.

I Gave Up Facebook Again

Photo by Brandon Russell
Photo by Brandon Russell

I gave up Facebook, again. Anyone who has read my blog over the last couple of years knows that I have one of those personalities that struggles with temperance when it comes to Facebook. I like to read the news, watch the Church, and engage in discussions with people. What I have discovered over the course of the last few years is that most FB conversations are not discussion, they turn into fights that typically end with ad hominem attacks. For whatever strange reason, I get sucked in.

Facebook is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be used for great good. It has allowed people to stay connected well past the relationships of previous ages. We can stay informed in real-time and share a bit of ourselves on our tiny slice of the Internet. For someone who tends towards introvert in social settings, it is an opportunity to express myself without all of the awkwardness of idle small talk. It is also a great place to share writing projects, get feedback, and have people share your work. I am very thankful to the people who have shared my writing over the years. I want to be honest, though, in the hope that my weakness will help others. I have allowed my iPhone and Facebook to take over my life.

I have forgotten how to sit in stillness. I cannot even seem to sit for five minutes in the car without my phone when my husband runs in the store. At night, my husband sits and watches TV, I am on my phone or laptop, and our daughter is either vying for our attention or on her tablet that we got her for school use. I have become one of those mindless drones. I have forgotten how to live in the present.

I am ashamed admit this out loud. The only other people who are aware of it are my regular Confessor and my family. I am sure people have guessed who are friends with me on FB. They see my frequent posts and know that I have been sucked in. That I have chosen to use the distraction of Facebook to try to quiet the restlessness in my own heart. It became my go-to “distractor” (as my husband calls it) after my miscarriages and when the post-partum depression/anxiety was so bad. It became a way for me to engage in adult conversation when my husband was traveling for work. It started off as simply a way to connect, but then I allowed it to consume me.

I have seen people argue that we should not leave Facebook because we have an obligation to evangelize. I disagree. Perhaps God is calling me to evangelize in a different medium than social media? If I cannot use it in a temperate manner and I allow it to take time away from my family and my life, then it is no longer a good in my life.

I convinced myself that I needed it to be a writer. If I was going to get my work out there and find writing gigs then I need a social media presence. That is a lie. I am already a regular contributor for one of the largest Catholic websites available and the other sites that interest me are only looking for submissions, not my blog presence. I do not need Facebook to be a Catholic writer. I am already a Catholic writer.

How many of us struggle with our isolation or loneliness through an overabundance of social media? I suspect it in a few of my former Facebook friends who like me struggle with living in that moment. Mine stems from periods of existential dread and a battle with sloth. I realized the answer to my struggles in two very different experiences.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Holy Archangels. It is a huge feast day in our home because our daughter is named after St. Michael. I went out of my way to make it a special celebration. We made cookies, cards to deliver to Catholic friends, and I made a nice traditional dinner. I was living the rhythms of the Church and sharing it with my daughter. I felt the most profound joy and peace. It reminded me of what kind of life I want to live and how I want to lead my daughter.

Today is the exact opposite. I woke up tired from my hormone issues and didn’t want to accomplish much. I spent the morning on my laptop while my daughter played and watched PBS. We did about an hour of school with her practicing her writing. I am a bit of a zombie today. I then got into an argument with someone on Facebook in which we were probably both a little right and then I got irritated with my daughter. After that moment I could see clearly, once again, what I was doing. I was wasting my time arguing with someone whom I do not even know in person. Yes, a fellow brother in Christ, but he was not the flesh and blood daughter standing in front of me.

Our culture tells us social media is wonderful and that it is okay to be on it all of the time. To be clear, I am not condemning social media. I am cautioning against its overuse, especially in the face of loneliness. It quickly becomes the way we see the world. We are constantly looking at our phones or computers instead of the people around us. There are plenty of people who use social media in a healthy manner, at this point I am just not one of those people. So this is me being honest. I am addicted to Facebook and I just gave it up again. This time I pray for the long run. I have gone months and months without it, but then I get back into it for whatever reason. This time I want to focus on the gifts of my husband and daughter and see where God leads me. I want to quiet that restlessness through the stillness of God. Giving up Facebook means that I can devote time to my family, studies, and write the books I want to write. So I am walking away from it. God bless.

Epic Pew: Laudato Si and 17 Practical Ways to Embrace Stewardship

Summer time has been busy, so my writing has been focused on the three Catholic websites I am now a contributor for. I will return to regular blogging when things slow down a bit and I get through my final exam for Theology of the Church. Today I am writing over at Epic Pew:

The Catholic Blogosphere has been on fire since Pope Francis promulgated his second encyclical, Laudato Si. The best thing that you can do is read it for yourself. When it comes to Church documents, it is much better to read the document yourself, rather than relying on the analysis of someone else. The worst thing a Catholic can do is rely on the analysis of a secular media organization. Temperance and stewardship are nothing new to an authentically Catholic way of life and go all the way back to Genesis. Here are 17 practical and easy ways to incorporate temperance and stewardship into your daily life.

1. Buy things used

I know that recycling has become more and more popular over the years. Why not establish a self-imposed recycling system in your house? Buy cars, clothes, furniture, lawn items, etc. used. My husband and I have been doing this for years. It saves us money and it gives things a longer life. Consider how much money you lose the minute you drive a brand new car off the lot?! Buying used is also fiscally smart.

2. Grow a garden

I am not saying that you have to get crazy like my husband and I are about gardening. Our garden is literally bigger than our house. Our goal is to really offset our produce needs through fresh veggies and canning. There is nothing like a tomato ripe off the vine in your own backyard. It tastes amazing! It is a taste you cannot find at the grocery store. Pick up a couple of 5 gallon buckets and plant some tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, kale (this is a great producer for months!!!!), or any other veggie you like. Your garden can be big or small, low maintenance or high maintenance. Not only is gardening good for your body, it helps us connect with God through His creation.

3. Hunt

We save a ton of money by supplementing almost all of our red meat with venison. It takes a little getting use to if you are die hard beef fan, but it is leaner and highly versatile. You can save even more money if you learn to butcher the deer yourself. It also reminds us of what a blessing the meat is that God provides for us. If you don’t like to hunt, then find a friend who does and offer to offset the cost. We hunt for many of our friends.

4. Shut off the electronics every now and then

In our highly connected world, this can be a difficult request. I struggle with this one, but in actuality, my struggle points to my addiction to my iPhone or laptop. We need to step away from the virtual world in order to pray and serve the people around us. Shutting off electronics not only cuts down on electricity, it cuts down on the ways we block one another out through a focus on the virtual rather than the actual.

Read the rest over at Epic Pew…

Falling Short and Conquering Sin

I am having one of those days in Motherhood and as a Christian when “I do the very thing I hate” to quote Saint Paul.  I have allowed little things and my own failures drag me down.  That is what the Devil wants.  He would rather I wallow in self-pity rather than ask The Lord for the strength to keep moving forward.

 
I was watching Fr. Barron’s Catholicism series on prayer (episode 9) yesterday.  We own it thanks to my parents and their generous Christmas gift last year.  I pull it out a few times a year and watch an episode.  My daughter even knows who Fr. Barron is and watched part of it with me.  She would point to the screen and say “We watch Fr. Barron”.  I was so proud.  Anyway, I digressed a bit there.  In the episode on prayer, he talks about St. John of the Cross, that great mystic.  St. John of the Cross tells us that we must free ourselves from those things that enslave us so that we can be filled up by God.  He calls this process of emptying the dark night of the senses and then the dark night of the soul.  Both order us properly to God.  I don’t know about you, but I am in major need of proper ordering.
 
It got me thinking about how right now, I really need to work towards conquering my sensual addictions: mainly food and coffee.  I have lacked discipline in this regard since I left the Navy.  I am getting older and eating poorly impacts me physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Food and coffee are meant to be enjoyed.  They are gifts from God.  However, they are not supposed to enslave us.  When we say we “need” something every single day, we are enslaved by the thing, rather than being the master.  That is the point of Temperance.  We can enjoy something as it is, but we can take it or leave it.  We do not have to have it.  We can enjoy it in the moment and then move on.
 
So, I have decided to embark on a journey through battling those things that I am physically addicted to: bread, sugar, coffee.  It is not going to be fun.  I will have a caffeine headache for a few days and crave sugar like crazy. When I get up at 5am this coming Saturday to go to my Lay Dominican meeting I will really want a cup of coffee, or two.  This will be much harder than when I gave up Facebook.  But, the question I must start asking myself is: does this make me a saint?  Does overeating make me a saint? No.  Is not eating right good for my family? No.  It’s not about me!  I am still trying to drill that into my psyche.
 
When I don’t take care of myself, I end up in a cycle of self-loathing, which I then take out on my husband and daughter.  My husband can tell when I feel like a failure because I have a short temper.  The process of holiness is not about self-pity.  We should see our failings and then fall on God’s love and mercy, praying for help and grace.  On days I fall short, I have  tendency to let it get the better of me until I drag myself back to Confession.  Like Father told me in Confession this past Saturday, holiness is a one step at a time process.  It does not happen overnight. 
 
So say a prayer for me as I embark on a dark night of the senses.  Are there areas in your life that you need to free yourself from so that you can be more open to God?

Why I am Giving Up Facebook

This morning I got up at 5am.  My daughter started to cry for me at 457am, so I put her in the bed with my husband and then I got up for the day.  I started coffee in the coffeepot and made a frittata for us to eat for breakfast.  I then prayed Lauds, and continued work on my re-write of chapter one of my novel.  I am taking it one chapter at a time.  I also got on Facebook for a few minutes via my husband’s iPhone.  He chided me, and he had every right to.  Friday is supposed to be a fast from the Internet for me.  Yesterday I had pulled out an article that I had printed off a few months ago and I set it in the living room to re-read.  It is from Matthew Warner’s The Radical Life, The REAL Reason to Quit Facebook, and I sat down to read it again today.

You see, I contemplate deleting my Facebook account almost weekly.  It is a major time suck for me and I am clearly addicted.  I have given it up 3 Lents in a row and I end up right back where I started a few months later.  Yesterday afternoon, I took my daughter to the library to let her get a couple of DVDs and to play with her.  They have some educational toys that are perfect for working on letters and colors.  I also brought the iPad.  While we were there another girl started to play with Michaela.  She must have been about 4 years old.  I bounced between playing with them and the computer, but then I noticed the girl’s mother.  She was sitting across the room, glued to her smartphone. Not even paying any attention to her daughter. It hit me like a ton of bricks.  This is what Michaela sees from me almost every single day.  I ached for this little girl, and I realized that I do not want to live my life this way anymore.  I do not want that to be the most vivid memory my daughter has of me.  I only get one shot at raising my daughter and she should not have to compete with a computer screen.  I made a decision, it is time to delete my Facebook profile.

Here are my main reasons for deleting my Facebook account.

1.  God, my husband, and my daughter.  My husband and daughter are my vocation. They are the greatest gifts that God has given me and I have spent hours ignoring them while I pour over news stories, debates, pictures, etc. on Facebook.  They suffer when I am distracted.  They suffer when I get overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed about the Fallen world, because I have spent too much time dwelling on it.  Instead of leading them to Christ, I am leading us all to sin.  This is not the example my family needs.  It is not what my family deserves.  They should have my full attention and should not have to compete with a cyber-world.  My daughter has literally climbed on to my lap to remind me that she is there, to my utter shame.  My husband has tried to carry on conversations with me, while I have been glued to his iPhone.  This is what I have become, and it is not pretty.  Overcoming sin never is. God also has blessed me with a secondary vocation of Lay Dominican.  I need to live out the Rule of St. Dominic, pray, study, and preach.  I can’t do that while in a trance on Facebook.

Should my daughter look like this all of the time waiting for me? NO!
Should my daughter look like this all of the time waiting for me? NO!
I waited a long time for the right man to marry.
I waited a long time for the right man to marry.

2. Facebook leads me to sin.  I struggle greatly with the virtue of Temperance and if there is one thing that keeps me from that virtue it is Facebook.  I cannot limit my time.  I start off doing well, but eventually I fall right back into my old patterns.  This pulls me from my vocation and my path to holiness.

3.  I am not the center of the universe.  I couple months ago I read Elizabeth Scalia’s Strange Gods. If you need a hard look at yourself and your false idols, then you need to read this book.  Facebook, for a lot of people, is an homage to “ME”.  Every thought, family event, picture, idea, has to go out into the world for approval.  Anyone who clicks on Facebook dozens of times a day knows what I am taking about.  How many people “liked” my comment? Or status? Or meme?  Or did that “idiot” respond to my witty comeback?  And the cycle continues at a dizzying pace.  I am not that interesting.  I am not that witty.  And, yet, Facebook gives us a false sense of importance.  If I am honest with myself, I am not on Facebook to keep in touch, I am on Facebook to get approval.  How many sins does that cover?

Nope.  I am definitely not even the center of this galaxy.
Nope. I am definitely not even the center of this galaxy.

4.  Facebook creates more noise in my life.  The Devil is cunning.  Social media is a great invention, when used properly.  But, since when have human beings been good at moderation?  If we are constantly scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or any other website, we are distracted from the world around us.  We are not giving thanks to God.  We are not praying.  We are not taking care of our families, friends, neighbors, etc.  In fact, the more I am on the computer, the more everything else falls apart.  I have to fight and force myself to pray.  I have to battle to play with my own child. I am so much more interesting than God, becomes an inadvertent mantra.  Oh, yeah, brutal honesty.

5.  Facebook does not take away loneliness.  I am a stay-at-home-mom.  I made this choice.  It is where I belong, but I get lonely.  I need intellectual stimulation that is more than watching Tangled or WordWorld for the 50th time.  I love teaching my daughter, but she is two.  Her attention span is only slightly longer than 5 minutes.  When I get sucked into Facebook, it usually is because I am lonely.  I am filling a void.  That void has an awful lot to do with my Faith, as well as focusing on my family.  I also am blessed with wonderful friends, who I never seem to call to get together.  We all live 10 minutes from each other, but we talk on Facebook, so why get together?  I need their physical companionship and conversation, not a computer screen.  Facebook makes me a worse friend.  So friends, expect me to call for lunch or coffee soon.

I have awesome friends, who I ignore except on FB and at church.
I have awesome friends, who I ignore except on FB and at church.

6.  How many of the people on Facebook are still in our lives.  The people I am friends with on Facebook meant a lot to me, most of them, years ago, even decades ago.  We have all moved on.  Our lives have changed.  Do we really care that much about each other?  I have three friends who have asked to see me when I have been in the same city as them: 3.  That tells me that our friendship is at acquaintance stage these days.  That is okay.  That is how life works.  People come into our lives for a short time and then we part ways.  I have fond memories of all of them, I still pray for them, but let’s be honest, we are not really friends anymore.  I am not being mean, just honest.  The people I am friends with now will call, email, or see me.  I am looking at you OLPH folks and Dominicans.

It was great while it lasted.
It was great while it lasted.

7.  Privacy.  This is becoming more and more of an issue.  This is not high on my list, but it is on my husband’s and I respect that.  I used to work in a national security position for the government, so I assume they monitor me.  However, I am appalled by what my former employer is doing these days.  Given the way things are going, social media could eventually be used against any of us.  I am a devout Roman Catholic, Veteran, Lay Dominican (does that make me double Catholic????), who works in the pro-life movement, works with women in crisis pregnancies, and supports traditional marriage.  Yeah……I think the real question is: Is there really any privacy online anymore?  I highly doubt it.

8. Facebook takes away from my writing.  When I spend too much time on Facebook, my writing and blogging suffers.  I get distracted, so my novel and the few blog posts I write a week get pushed back.  I really enjoy writing.  Writing is more important to me than Facebook.  If, by the grace of God, some day someone publishes my work, it will be because I stopped focusing on social media.  I will still blog here and at CatholicMom.com, by the way.

Facebook = low creative flow
Facebook = low creative flow

I am sure there are people who use Facebook in moderation.  They have a healthy respect and balance.  That is wonderful.  That is not me.  It is time for me to be completely and painfully honest with myself.  I am not proud of any of the things that I have done.  I started Facebook in 2008, when I was looking at a career in politics.  I should have deleted it when I left DC.  I pray that if you struggle like I do, you will consider a fast, delete, or deactivate those social media websites that are taking you away from your vocation.  Life is so unbelievably short.  It was only yesterday, that I was holding my newborn baby in the hospital, and now she is speaking in complete sentences.  God bless you and have a great weekend!

*Update: I have since abandoned my personal FB page. I have a FB page where I just post my writing and other authors I enjoy. It is quite freeing!