A New Use for Holiday Cards

A New Use for Holiday Cards

Let me ask you: What did you do with all of the Christmas, holiday, or New Year’s cards you received back in December and January?

If you’re like me, you held onto them for weeks, believing that one cold winter day you would sit down with a big mug of tea and re-read them, save the extra-special ones, and maybe even call or write those super-human individuals who had taken extra time to pen novellas of their lives in the past year. (Those people always impress me; I can barely get my cards mailed by Dec. 22nd, much less tell everyone what we did in the previous 12 months!)

Or maybe you even had grandiose plans of crafting with the cards you received – making a collage or ornaments out of them. Yes – one ambitious year perhaps you even admired all those sweet faces of your friends’ kids and planned to photograph each card, saving them to your hard drive or the cloud! (I actually did this. Precisely ONE time.)

But in all likelihood – you did none of that. You eventually let out a big sigh of co-mingled regret and relief, and recycled the colorful stash, secretly hoping that no one would ever ask you to recall the cards’ contents.

By now, the cards my family received would usually have been appreciated and tossed. But not this year.

This year, we are trying something new: we are making the cards a part of Lent.

In our home, we “say grace” before meals. It’s a good habit – one that’s meant to remind us from Whom we receive our nourishment.

Typically, we say the traditional Catholic blessing:

“Bless us, O Lord,
and these Thy gifts,
which we are about to receive,
from Thy bounty,
through Christ Our Lord,
Amen.”

It covers all the most important points and when said with genuine heartfelt devotion, offers the gratitude that’s due.

There is danger in repetition, however. After awhile, it can be tempting to ignore the words – to just go through the motions of saying them without concentrating on their meaning.

One way to recharge a mealtime prayer with its intended significance is to change it up a bit – not by re-wording it necessarily, but by adding to it.

So at every meal this Lent, we are taking a couple Christmas cards from our stack and praying for the families that sent them. Our prayers are not fancy or flowery, just straightforward expressions from the heart that the One who sees and knows all will grant our friends the virtues and strengths they need most.

If you wonder what that looks like, here’s what I said last night after the basic blessing:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for our dear friends Pete and Amy and their children Brendan, Zach, and Ellie. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen them but we know they are in Your loving hands. Please watch over them and bring them closer to one another in 2018. We pray too for Uncle Bill and Clara. May you bless their new marriage and new home in California. Amen.”

Sharing these cards every night has given my husband and I opportunities tell our kids a bit more about old friends – people with whom we ‘swap’ Christmas cards but rarely see – people we knew long before the kids came along. It’s a side benefit I wouldn’t have considered before starting this Lenten effort.

Remembering people and holding them up….

We can start anytime.

Flip through your phone’s address book, glance over your Facebook friends, make a list of names.

Fold your hands and lift up a friend. Today.

Holy Moments – Day 26 – Come Clean

I love my dishwasher. No really. I LOVE my dishwasher. You can have all of my other appliances. I’ll even go to the laundry mat. I’m keeping this one. Forever.

We’d had so much trouble with the last dishwasher that I took a very long time picking this one out. I did tons of research and finally settled on – a Bosch. Not the fanciest model, but a basic Bosch – which still costs more than most other dishwashers, so I wanted to be very sure of this purchase when we made it 7 years ago. So sure that I carted my dishes into Sears and loaded them into the floor model to make sure they would fit the way I wanted them to. You should have seen the sales guy’s face.

Anyway – imagine my dismay today when last night’s gravy had become a gelatinous adhesive on the pots & pans, and the racks were decorated with spinach-leaf polka dots. Huh? This never happens. My machine does NOT let me down. Never in seven years had I seen such…such…ick when I expected sparkles!

I investigated. The culprit? A wooden chopstick jammed at just the right angle to block the lower wash arm. A little hold-up, and the mess remained.

Dishwasher

This got me thinking about what it takes for me to feel clean. To truly feel washed clean before God.

I know that I am a child of God, and that when I turned my heart toward Christ, the power of His love and mercy washed me clean of all my impurities and I stood before Him as if I had never done anything wrong. With my life, I want to show Him that I love Him. I want to thank Him for creating me, sustaining me, and saving me. But I still sin. And though I know He always loves me, in order to stay close to Him, in order to see His will for me most clearly, I have to clear away the debris that clouds my vision of Him – and that’s the stuff that I allow to get in the way of my relationship with Him. It’s my arrogance, my selfishness, my pride, my ego, my gluttony, etc. My sin. My sin might look slightly different from someone else’s, but it’s all dirty. And there’s no way to live a life of holiness when you’re sitting in muck.

So – what to do about that?

I was raised in mostly non-denominational Protestant churches. I’d heard about Confession. One of those things Catholics did. It sounded scary. And weird. Sit in a tiny dark box and talk to a priest about all the bad things you’d done? Hmm.

But then after a long spiritual journey, God led me to RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults from 2006-2007. It’s the process by which adults join the Catholic Church. In the course, I learned the Church’s views on Confession, also known as Reconciliation. And I came to believe that there could be grace bestowed in this sacrament. And so, near the end of the course, on a Wednesday night, I made my first confession.

I wish I could say it was easy – that I was cool as a cucumber. Nope. I was 35, I wanted to be as thorough as possible, and had made a very long list. So by the time I walked out of the confessional (which was actually quite spacious and bright), my mascara was smeared all over my face and my hair was a total wreck. I vaguely resembled a raccoon riding a motorcycle.

I was totally, utterly exhausted. I drove home and went right to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that something had fundamentally changed. An enormous burden had been lifted. I literally felt lighter. And miraculously – somehow – healed. 

What I didn’t know about Reconciliation – or rather, what I’d been told, but didn’t believe – had actually happened. It was mind-blowing. Powerful. For the first time ever, I felt CLEAN. 

The chopstick of doubt (so to speak) had been removed, and not only did I feel clean, I felt closer to God than ever before.

God will forgive me when I tell Him my sins – whether in this sacrament or on my own. But it is altogether different to vocalize my sins to a priest who helps me determine my culpability, and gives me guidance and hope. The sacrament also confers grace which strengthens me to resist the temptations that have mired me and led me away from the Lord. Most importantly, I know that yet again I have drawn close to the heart of God, and that this is what He wants most.

I can’t say that every Reconciliation experience is a powerful as that first one. But each one has enough amazing grace to keep me coming back.

Holy Moments – Day 16 – Les Jacobins

AquinasQuote_Cross

My daughter asked me last night why we have to sleep. (This kid would absolutely forgo it, if she could.)

I told her that I didn’t have a detailed answer for her, but that scientists tell us we need to relax our brains – to give them a rest from everything they’ve been processing all day long. If we didn’t get a break every night, our minds wouldn’t function well. They would just be overloaded with too much information that would become a tangled mess as we tried to sort it all out.  Our minds need time to throw out garbage and put important items into long-term storage.

Whether this made sense to her or not, I don’t know. But this morning, in my studies and on FaceBook, one name kept popping up: Thomas Aquinas. And once again, I was taken back to that pivotal year in my development: 1992-1993, my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Toulouse, France. I often think that if I had been forced to process everything I was exposed to in that year, in the time I was experiencing it, my brain just might have exploded. The lessons I was taught – academically, interpersonally, and spiritually – have lasted to this day, and more is being revealed to me as the decades pass. I have needed time, rest, and maturity to take it all in. If there is one year of education I haven’t thanked my parents for enough – this would be the one.

So, for the duration of this 31-day series, don’t be surprised if I’m revisiting France a few more times. I’m not trying to relive my past. The Lord just keeps bringing it back, because there were holy moments there. And I was aware of them the time, but I didn’t have words to speak about them. And He was taking me on a journey…

Now – me and Thomas Aquinas.

It was September 1992 and my fellow students from the Dickinson College study abroad program were with an art historian preparing to enter a church near the town center of Toulouse, Les Jacobins. It dates from 1350, and from the outside, it looks like this:

640px-Couvent_des_Jacobins

The floor plan is unusual, and that’s the first thing you notice when you get inside. In 2011, there was some extensive work done on the church to secure its foundation, so I’m not sure where you enter now, but when I was there, you came in at the door above the letter ‘C’ on the floor plan pictured here.

Plan.eglise.Jacobins.Toulouse

At the far end of the nave is the Jacobins’ famous column, admired for its architectural originality. Ten palms cascade out from its center. Here you can see the church’s narrow space and some of the green and red detail of the palms in the column.

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Jacobins_Column_1992

In this quiet hall, under the altar, lies the tomb of Saint Thomas Aquinas – one of the ‘doctors’ of the Catholic Church, an exemplary thinker and saint whom many, if not most, consider the preeminent theologian of the Catholic faith.

512px-Tomb_of_St._Thomas_Aquinas

I was nineteen when I entered this room in September 1992.

I was captivated by its beauty.

And intrigued by its complicated ceiling.

And it’s here that I realized I was ignorant.

Truly, ignorant.

When I arrived in France, I knew next to nothing about Catholicism or the growth of the Church in Europe.

Our art historian teacher was passionate about this building. She talked about the stones, the stained glass, the Dominican Order, the history of the attached cloister, and its enclosed garden. We would come to spend a great deal of time with this lady, and though she never professed faith of any kind, I came in time to understand that what she was describing in each church we visited was an unfolding story of a people giving glory to God.

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800px-Cloître_des_Jacobins

I visited many, many churches in Europe that year.

Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris.

Chartres Cathedral.

Midnight Mass in the Cathedral at Strasbourg.

St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Duomo in Florence.

Westminster Abbey.

Each one of these masterpiece cathedrals is worthy of a long visit and is a cherished artifact of history.

But Les Jacobins is the church that has stayed with me. I think of it more than any other.

Why?

Perhaps because it was where I realized there was so much I didn’t know. And in the silence of the rooms, which I came back to on my own throughout my time in Toulouse, I realized that not knowing was acceptable.

At a time in my life when I was anxious to figure it all out, to have the answers to life’s biggest questions – Who am I to love? Who loves me? What should I be doing for a career? Where will I go? How will I make it? What will become of me? – At this soul-searching time, my soul found respite here.

It was here that I could sit still. That I could listen to a concert. That I could just stare. At a ceiling. At the arches. And enjoy it.

By calling me back to revisit Les Jacobins time and again, God was opening His arms and saying, “Come. Rest in me.”

Day 17 – Saint Report

The big day is finally here and she stands in front of the teacher’s desk,  my bright pink scarf wrapped around her small frame. Her blond hair is styled in a way somewhat reminiscent of the third century, and topped with a small halo of white silk flowers and pearls. She holds in one hand her report, written in cursive on wide-lined paper, and in the other, a homemade gold harp – constructed from a bent piece of metal, duct tape, string and spray paint we found in the garage.  My ‘Saint Cecilia’, patroness of musicians, is beaming with pride. She will tell her audience, with a big smile,  that men sent to behead her struck her on the neck three times, but she did not die immediately, and many centuries later she was the first saint whose unearthed body was found incorrupt.

The Saint Report is a highlight of the year for every 3rd grade student at my children’s school. Each child chooses a saint to research, write a report about, and then portray in costume – before the class and parental paparazzi, of course.  At the end of their presentation, each child shares why he or she chose this particular saint, and the reasons are always interesting and sometimes priceless. My daughter loves music and plays piano, so Saint Cecilia was a logical choice.  Another child recently moved here from Puerto Rico, and left behind her best friend, Lucy.  ‘Lucy’ means light. Ironically, Saint Lucy’s eyes were gouged out (because of her faith), and for display purposes, this little saint had them right here on a clear plastic plate covered in Saran Wrap!   But I think the saint I enjoyed hearing from the most was ‘Saint Roch.’ I had never heard of him before, and truthfully, I don’t remember much from the report except the reason why he was chosen. We were told, “I thought his birthmark was cool.”  It was a mark on his chest, in the perfect shape of a cross.

It’s obvious to me that each child feels a special connection to the saint they portray. Each one is excited to ‘be’ this faithful person for a day.   And me….I’m happy to see my daughter make a connection between her own passions and those of a brave woman who has gone before her, home to the Father.

I was raised in the Protestant tradition and had never given much thought to saints until the Lord called me to the Catholic Church nearly 8 years ago.  In the 9 months of preparation and discernment required, I had a lot of questions, all of which the clergy and lay people who helped with my classes answered fully and unflinchingly.  So, saints?  Once I understood that Catholics are not to pray to saints, but to ask for their prayers just as I would ask a friend here in the flesh, I gained a whole new appreciation for these amazing people.  And a whole new appreciation for what I could learn by hearing their stories.

What occurred to me most as I considered the saints is that they themselves have no special power.  They are no different from me except that we believe they led exceptional lives – staying very, very close to God.  And how did they do it?  Not by force of will; in fact, it’s just the opposite. They did it by humbling themselves to God and His will in every way possible, in every single aspect of this earthly life. In everything they did, these people pointed others toward Christ and kept their gaze on Him. What examples to follow! These are the kinds of superheroes I’m thrilled my kids are thinking about, especially as we approach Halloween.

The class presentations end and later she asks me, “How many saints are there?” The answer – only God knows. We are all called to be saints.  God has left a hole in each of our hearts that only He can fill and we aren’t at peace until we figure that out.  “Is there a Saint with my name?” “You mean that people have heard of? I don’t think so. I haven’t found one recorded, but most saints aren’t recorded anyway.” “Maybe I’ll be the first one.”  That’s my girl.