Little Way of the Family


St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Little Sacrifices

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We often think of St. Thérèse in terms of simplicity of life, the life of a joyful young woman in a cloistered convent. She is the Little Flower, which almost has some kind of 60s flower-child connotation.

She was, indeed, a gentle soul, and she did, indeed, live a simple life. Her spiritual life was, however, built around the concept and practice of self-sacrifice.

“I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies,” she wrote.

I find the concept of obscure sacrifice to be compelling. We all love to make sacrifices when we get noticed for it, don’t we? We all have “white martydom” syndrome. Do we hesitate to share with others how hard it is sometimes to raise kids? How many times, in an argument with our spouse, do we tell them just how much we have given up for them? When we give up desserts or alcohol or something else for Lent, do we make sure everyone at work knows about it? Do we make a big deal to people about not eating meat on Fridays?

But obscure sacrifices, hidden sacrifices. Aren’t those the sacrifices we are commanded to make? Didn’t Christ say that if we fast we are to wash our faces and not let anyone know we are fasting? Didn’t He tell us to not let the left hand know what the right is doing?

It doesn’t take much. St. Thérèse said, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” We have to pick up those pins, and marriage and family life provides ample opportunity. Let’s not squander that opportunity by trumpeting our great self-sacrifice. A little humility would be in order on that front. We should remember that St. Thérèse performed her little hidden sacrifices when she was suffering from a tuberculosis which would take her life at the age of 24. We should remember that St. Thérèse went through a Dark Night of the Soul, herself, and was tormented by temptations and a grave crisis of faith. If she could persevere through that without complaint, we can persevere through our daily pains with a smile on our face.



Momentum, Writing, and Prayer
September 18, 2013, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Daily Life, Prayers, Writing | Tags: , , ,

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I was thinking about this post on writing my novel, and I realized that incremental progress is only one of the advantages of daily writing and daily prayer.

When I write every day, I develop a momentum. The words I wrote today make the words I write tomorrow come easier and with more energy. If I miss a few days writing, I find it hard to get started again. I have to get my head back into the story, find my voice again, find out what happens next.

When I am writing daily, I am living in the story. What happens next is laid out in front of me, like the little arrows on Google Street View.

In physics, momentum is mass times velocity, or roughly equal to the heaviness of the object times its speed. In writing, the speed is how many words we are writing each day or better each week. The mass or heaviness is how important the writing is to us. The more important our writing is to us, and the more regularly we are writing it, the more momentum we’ll have, and the easier it will be to keep going.

Prayer is like that. The speed is the percentage of our time we spend in prayer. The heaviness is the intensity of the prayer. As we develop prayer momentum, prayer – which is characterized by our closeness to God and the graces he provides – becomes easier to keep going, and the graces multiply.

This, I think, is a concept for hope, because in the beginning both the writing and the prayer are hard. Sometimes they seem too hard; it seems like we try and try and only fail. We make so little progress in the beginning for the work we are doing.

But, think of the enormous aircraft carrier, or battleship.
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Sitting in the dock, so massive, it takes an enormous effort to begin the motion, but once underway, momentum keeps it going forward, and soon it is speeding across the ocean.

Or think of the rocketship. It requires huge solid fuel boosters to be able to separate itself from the Earth. But in minutes those boosters are shed, and it powers ever upward, riding its momentum.

Don’t give up. Be patient. Let your momentum build.



Teach Your Child to be a Prayer Warrior!`

Today our six-year-old son Elijah earned his Prayer Warrior trophy. He’s been looking forward to this moment all summer, working hard toward the goal, and today he accomplished it.
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What is a Prayer Warrior? When we moved to our new parish, we wanted to instill in our younger kids a more reverent attitude toward Mass and toward daily prayers. Our son Elijah is an accomplishment-oriented child. He loves competing in sports and games, and he loves earning trophies and medals. Even the medals from the summer reading program at the library are special to him. We thought that a trophy would be a suitable motivation for him to learn to really pay attention and participate at Mass, so we set up a Prayer Warrior program, taking advantage of the fact that the whole “spiritual warfare” concept would be appealing to a six-year-old boy.

We set up on the refrigerator a paper with ten blocks. Each day, if he paid attention and prayed out loud during our nightly prayers, he would get a star in the block for that week. Then on Sunday, if he had achieved six stars, and if he did a good job of sitting still and paying attention at Mass, he would earn a sticker for the block. As the weeks progressed, our expectations for his behavior at Mass and during prayers increased gradually. He knew that once he received ten stickers, we would send away for his Prayer Warrior trophy.

He did a great job, and his behavior at Mass has been transformed. It was never particularly bad behavior, not distracting to those around us, but he fidgeted and didn’t really pay attention as well as he should. Now he sits like an angel, faces forward, and participates as well as he can. It is inspiring our four-year-old as well, who can’t wait until she is old enough to be eligible for the Prayer Warrior program.

We’re thinking about extending his Prayer Warrior program further. Perhaps having medals akin to those achieved in Boy Scouts, perhaps having an “advanced level” trophy. He could achieve these levels through memorization of prayers, regular reading and/or memorization of scripture, saying the rosary on his own, and so forth. The biggest benefit is that he sees that prayer life is important to us, both our own prayer life and his prayer life. These little motivations help to instill a sense of that importance within him.

It was really easy to put together the “program”. All it took was a quick printout formatted in MSWord, and a trip to the local trophy shop for a $4 trophy. But it will be something that he remembers for a very long time.



I’m Writing a Novel ?!?
September 4, 2013, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Culture, Daily Life | Tags: , ,

Yes, I’m writing a novel, and that effort is telling me a lot about my faith and family life.

I wrote a novel once before. It took me 6 years to write, spans about 450 pages, and still sits in a file on my computer, untouched now for more years than I’d like to acknowledge. I’ve been told that it’s good, and I am finally doing the hard work to clean it up for publication, but my point is this: my novel is like the light under the bushel basket. Regardless of its merits, the book is no good to anyone sitting on the hard drive of my computer. For anything to be of value, it has to be shared.

Here’s the other thing: I wrote that book the way I cared for my spiritual life at the time, in fits and starts. I would set aside a Saturday and work feverishly for four or five hours and make tons of progress. Then I would let it sit for weeks, revisit it, and decided I needed to rewrite what I had done. As a result, progress was achingly slow. In the same way, I would pray. Sometimes. Some days I would forget to pray. Some days I would put it off. I would start a spiritual book, but never finish it. I would read scripture, and then I would put it down and not pick it back up again.

Now? I am writing every day in short bursts, two to four pages per day. It’s not a huge amount, but it is daily progress that adds up quickly. Shockingly quickly.

Another difference between then and now is that then, I fit the writing time around my otherwise worldly schedule. I couldn’t miss my TV time. After all, Xena Warrior Princess, or Star Trek might be on. I couldn’t sacrifice my football viewing or my other hobbies. I couldn’t sacrifice anything. I fit it in during weekends where I didn’t have much else to do, and so it dragged on, and I thought I would never finish.

With four kids, I no longer have time where there is not much else to do. My days are packed from waking to sleeping. And so I sacrifice. Each night, after the kids and my loving wife are sound asleep, I sit up for a half an hour or an hour, getting my time in. And I make progress.

That’s how a spiritual life should be too, making sacrifices to grow spiritually. We have to spend the time every day in prayer and in scripture and in spiritual reading. We have to sacrifice our other activities to make that happen every day. We have to take time at mealtime to say grace. We have to take time before we start a task to pray and offer it to God. We have to take time to start and end our day in prayer, especially in union with our family.

And then we have to take the fruits of our spiritual life, the graces we receive, and we have to share those with the world around us. We have to get that light out from under the bushel basket, just as I have to get that book off my hard drive.



Happy Fingernail Appreciation Day!
August 27, 2013, 7:50 pm
Filed under: Children, Sin, Theology of the Body | Tags: , , , ,

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Fingernails are one of the lesser-appreciated parts of the human body. We tend to treat them more like a tool than a body part. But we depend on our fingernails, and so our family decided to celebrate Fingernail Appreciation Day.

Our fingernails are not just for scratching an itch, but if you have ever had an itch you cannot scratch, you know that function is no minor matter. Our fingernails first and foremost protect our fingers. Without them, we would cut and scratch and bruise those fingertips on a regular basis. They also increase our dexterity, providing firm support when we pick up large objects, and acting as tweezers when we pick up small ones. And in our primitive stage, our fingernails acted as rudimentary utensils: tearing, cutting, and scraping our food as necessary.

When misused and abused, however, our fingernails can become a source of pain and suffering. If we chew them in nervousness, they become ragged and the fingers sore. If we fail to trim them, they can break and tear, and we can bleed. Bleeding or sore fingertips can keep us from doing what we need to do and can make even simple tasks painful. Finally, if we don’t keep them clean, they can harbor bugs and diseases.

Fingernails are like every other part of the human body. God designed them for a purpose, and when we abuse our bodies or use them in ways other than how God intended, we can and will suffer.

So Happy Fingernail Appreciation Day! Let’s take care of them and use them wisely.



Superhero Movies
August 25, 2013, 8:08 pm
Filed under: Children, Culture, Family Time, Sin | Tags: , , , , ,

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With the announcement of Ben Affleck as the new Batman came a hubbub of debate in a Yammer group at my work over the pros and cons, along with much angst and passion. As Batman was my childhood favorite superhero (I still remember when in college I eagerly awaited the first Batman movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson), I of course had my opinions. My biggest regret, however, was not the choice of the new Batman. My biggest regret was that there was a very strong likelihood I would not be able to share this upcoming movie with my children. In that case, I won’t see it at all.

We went through similar issues when the Amazing Spiderman movie came out awhile back. My youngest son, a big Spiderman fan, saw the commercials (no matter how little TV you let them watch, it seems like the commercials always filter in), and he badly wanted to see it. Dutifully, his mother and I looked the movie up on Parent Previews and quickly found that the movie was deemed even more violent than the previous incarnations of Spiderman, and included a man’s arm being ripped from his body. We decided to pass.

It doesn’t make me feel good to say “no” to allowing my children to see these movies. I want them to be entertained, and I very much enjoy being able to share the characters who I enoyed as a youth with them. I’ll even go further and say that the “simplistic” story of Good vs. Evil as portrayed in the comics has, historically, been a good and enriching thing for kids, just as those kinds of heroic tales have often been a good thing.

Two things have happened to spoil that. First, in attempting to aspire to a higher level of art, the comics have become morally ambiguous. Second, and maybe this is the same underlying problem, the comics have geared themselves to adults, and to that end have incorporated violence, sexuality, and immorality to such an extent that they are no longer appropriate viewing for kids. That is a big problem and irresponsible behavior by the movie-makers.

I believe in the free market. In this case, however, we have people who are marketing movies that children want to see, but making them for adults. Remember, these are comic book characters. Kids have every reason to believe that they should be able to see a movie about a comic book hero. “Adultifying” (I love making up words) a kids movie to such a degree that kids really shouldn’t be watching it is irresponsible. It corrupts children. You can’t just say that parents are responsible for what their kids watch, so I can do what I want. Sure, parents are responsible, but some parents won’t be. Parents are responsible for keeping their kids from playing in the street, but that doesn’t give you the right ot drive down a residential street at 100mph.

I’ll let my kids watch some of these movies, as long as I am right there to cover their eyes at the scary parts. Some, like the recent Avengers movie, are basic stories of good vs evil. The bad guys are scary but caricatured, and the good guys are flawed but unambiguous. The Dark Knight, however, (the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker) was pathological. The bad guy was a scary man who revelled in doing horrible things and was only defeated by a Batman who was willing to do bad things himself. This is the kind of movie that could scar a kid. I’ll let them watch Lord of the Rings, because the bad guys, while scary, are eventually defeated by purity, by self-sacrifice, and destroyed by their own evil. These are good messages.

Why can’t we have movies like the Michael Keaton Batman, or the Christopher Reeves Superman? Movies that are intelligent enough for adults but still watchable by children? I’m tired of seeing movies that I would have longed to see as a child only to find out that there is no way my kids should see them. It’s cruel of movie studios to put out movies like that, lures to children but inappropriate for those same children. The question of why they do it is an interesting one, but that’s a different post.



Marriage Is Not a Game
August 13, 2013, 10:31 am
Filed under: Culture, Love, Marriage | Tags: , ,

Baseball season will soon be upon us. We’ll have two boys in Little League, and practices are intense, three times per week to start, leveling off at twice a week once games get going. With two boys, that means we’re at the ballfield just about every day.

Little League ballgames are thrilling, sometimes too exciting for some parents. There is plenty of action – hits, stolen bases, runs – and you have the benefit of a loved one right there on the field. Even if your child isn’t one of the All Stars, there are always opportunities for parental pride to kick in as you watch your child do things he or she could not do just a few weeks before. But even when we lose, we can go home feeling good about playing the game, and the pain of the loss is short-lived.

Our culture is treating marriage as a game. Kids start living together as practice, to see if they’re “compatible”. Premarital sex is like sandlot baseball, just getting out there for the fun of it, with nobody keeping score. People jump into marriage for the wrong reasons – pressure from parents, an overeagerness to please, or because their friends are doing it – just like some kids play baseball for reasons other than a love of the game. But they don’t worry about that, because to them it is just a game, one they can walk away from if they’re not performing well.

But divorce is not the same as losing a baseball game. It’s not a matter of dealing with a little pain and then getting on with your life. Divorce is a life-long scar that doesn’t heal. It scars the couple. It scars the children. It scars extended family and friends. It scars the community. People who divorce are very unlikely to ever find a happy marriage on a second go-round. They are more likely to end up depressed, sustance-dependent, stuck in poverty, or divorced again.

Men and women treat marriage as a game even while they are in it. Even while things are going well. Even when they still feel as if they are “in love”. They hide things from each other – secret bank accounts, secret friends, secret Facebook accounts, secret web browsing. Will they get caught? Who knows, it is all a game. Arguments are games to see who will win. They play games over how to spend their money – his golf clubs or her car. They play games over where to go on vacation or whose parents to spend Christmas with. It becomes a contest over who will exert the behind-the-scenes control over the relationship. The loser of that game becomes more and more resentul, and soon they want to take their ball home, and find another game to play.

Marriage is not a game. It is a vocation. It requires the kind of single-minded focus that a prima ballerina gives to dance, that a concert violinist gives to music, that a professional baseball player gives to sport. To these people, those activities are a profession, not a game. They practice every day, in season and out of season, orienting every aspect of their life to make themselves a better dancer, violinist, or ballplayer.

Marriage, if it is to be something real, something that will last a lifetime, must be like that. It must be something we work at everyday, something we strive to excel at, something we orient every aspect of our life towards.

Men and women were not meant to use each other, or to play games with each other. They were created to become one in body and soul, and that takes work and dedication. If you give it that work, if you make that sacrifice, the rewards you get will be out of this world. Literally.