Laura Ingalls Wilder on Freedom: God is America’s King

The South Dakota Prairie. Photo by J. Stephen Conn. In the Creative Commons.

Last summer on the way home from our long summer road trip, we heard in Little Town on the Prairieby Laura Ingalls Wilder about an Independence Day celebration out on the prairie in Dakota Territory. The whole town gathered together for horse racing, but first a citizen gave a speech and then recited the Declaration of Independence. Laura, of course, already knew the Declaration, but listened with great attention taking to heart the founding of her country. After the Declaration, this is how she understood its meaning:

“Then Pa began to sing. All at once everyone was singing:

‘My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing. …

‘Long may our land be bright
With Freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!’

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.

She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God, to Thee, author of liberty…” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.”

The book was published in 1941, but gave an account of the mind of a 15 year old girl in 1881. And the ideas are true. This is the kind of literature we all need to read, to remind us of the founding of our country, but also that our freedom is God-given. When we do not keep God’s laws, we are no longer free. We must remind our country that freedom is contained within God’s law, and when we do not live within His law, we are no longer free.

How Are We Called to Be Holy?

From the film Thérèse (1986) directed by Alain Cavalier

I had a crisis of faith over the past few weeks. I was not questioning any points of doctrine or doubting God and His existence, but I was doubting whether or not I, as a middle class American with so many comforts, could ever really live life of heroic virtue. The doubt came from a combination of circumstances, the first being the bleakness of a winter that has no end in sight, the second being the deaths of a number of people close to me or close to those I know, the third being considering the lives of a couple of saints through film.

The winter is self-explanatory. It is getting pretty long here in Minnesota, even though it has been mild compared to last winter. But when the 20s seem warm, you know you have a winter problem. The glumness of winter wears a person down, and opens one up for doubts. Further, Lent is looming on the horizon and as I think about what to do for Lent, all of my faults and tendencies towards sin stare up accusingly at me.

Then there are those who have died. The first was a neighbor, an elderly man of Christian faith, leaving behind his kind widow. They have been great neighbors, and for my children he is the first person that they knew personally to pass away. They pray for his soul daily, just as they prayed for him to overcome his cancer daily. The second was the father of a good friend. This also affected my kids, since he is the grandfather of some of their friends. The third was a young husband and father, whom I never knew personally, but was friends with many people I know from college. He had a month-long battle with advanced cancer and left behind three children and a pregnant wife. The final death was that of one of my parents’ dear friends, a woman whom I have known my entire life. She was a woman who always served, always loved, and always prayed. I pray and hope for all of their salvations, but it made me think about my own death and realize that I am failing to live a fully Christian life in so many ways. Would people hope for my salvation in the same way that they hope for these people?

On top of this, I saw a powerful movie about the life of St. Vincent de Paul, Monsieur Vincent (1947), directed by Maurice Cloche. St. Vincent de Paul had a comfortable life of ease serving a wealthy family, but, being unsatisfied with what he was doing there and with the comfort of his own life, decided to devote his life to the poor. He served as a bridge between the rich and the poor, always calling the rich to do more for the poor, and never seeing himself as doing enough. “I must do more,” was his continual realization.

Then there was the movie The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), directed by Roberto Rossellini, and based on the classic book The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. The film focused on his life after he established his first community of brothers. You see his desire for simplicity, his serving of the poor, and his calling on of his others to holiness. You see that he was a passionate person, who always felt that he had too much. He stripped himself of all material comforts, keeping the bare minimum. His brothers did the same. These lives of the saints made me realize that I am not doing enough and that I take too much pleasure in my bourgeois middle class comforts. The hours I spend reading articles online, socializing, enjoying my sturdy, warm house, eating good food seem extravagant compared to the lives of the poor who barely have enough clothing, whose homes are in disrepair, who live have no way of living within their means for their means are so limited. Why am I so blessed materially and they are not? It made me wonder if I should be making radical changes with my life, like those of St. Francis or serving the poor endlessly like St. Vincent de Paul. Can someone living a comfortable life like mine really become a saint?

Then my husband and I saw a beautiful movie, Thérèse (1986) directed by Alain Cavalier, about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. And just as she always does, St. Thérèse showed me how I am to live a life of holiness. My realization that even a person raised in the middle class with bourgeois values can live a real life of holiness, was similar to the epiphany Thomas Merton had when he first read about St. Thérèse:

It was never, could never be, any surprise to me that saints should be found in the misery and sorrow and suffering of Harlem, in the leper-colonies life Father Damian Molokai, in the slums of John Bosco’s Turin, on the roads of Umbria in the time of St. Francis, or in the hidden Cistercian abbeys of the twelfth century…

But what astonished me altogether was the appearance of a saint in the midst of all the stuffy, overplush, overdecorated, comfortable ugliness and mediocrity of the bourgeoisie. Therese of the Child Jesus was a Carmelite, that is true: but what she took into the convent with her was a nature that had been formed and adapted to the background and mentality of the French middle class of the late nineteenth century, than which nothing could be imagined more complacent and apparently immovable. The one thing that seemed to me more or less impossible was for grace to penetrate the think, resilient bourgeois smugness and really take hold of the immortal soul beneath the surface…

She became a saint, not by running away from the middle class, or by the environment which she had grown up: on the contrary, she cling to it in so far as one could cling to such a thing and be a good Carmelite. She kept everything that was bourgeois about her and was still not incompatible with her vocation: her nostalgic affection for a funny villa called “Les Buissonnets,” her taste for utterly oversweet art, and for little candy angels and pastel saints playing with lambs so soft and fuzzy that they literally give people the creeps…” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp424-425)

St. Thérèse showed me that it is possible to have a deep spiritual life, but to have my days spent serving my family, cleaning, and cooking. She showed me that the key to holiness in my vocation is not to sell all I have and give it to the poor (though serving and caring for the poor I must do as I can), but making all that I do part of my prayer. I must allow God’s grace to penetrate every aspect of my life. I must be mindful of Him in everything that I do. I must live my vocation of wife, mother, and teacher of my children. This is the life I have chosen, this is the life I have been given, this is where God will make me holy. Most of us are called to be holy where we are. Few of us are called to lives like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Vincent de Paul. This does not mean that we should ignore the poor, but part of living out life as Christians is to serve the poor as we are called. And as a wife and mother, my caring for my family must not be neglected.

God’s grace has the ability to penetrate the least likely of places, and if He has put us in a specific place, called us to Him, and is not calling us to leave where we are, we must trust that He is going to make us holy where we are as long as we continually seek lives of grace and discern whether we are doing enough
Originally posted at Truth and Charity…

Learning Virtue From Jane Austen

This baby needs to be rebound…

Every couple of years (usually during pregnancies) I pull out our tattered volume of the complete works of Jane Austen and read it from cover to cover. And with each reread of her novels, I discover more about how she saw human nature. This past reading I was struck with her exploration of her characters’ natural inclinations. We all have them, an inclination to certain sins like sloth, gluttony, selfishness, or over-indulging various pleasures. But we also have inclinations to good things. Some of us are more inclined to quiet prayer, while others are inclined to a long run, and others to friendliness. And while we are to spend our lives overcoming our weaknesses, we do so with the aid of our good inclinations.

In Austen we see her heroines and heroes overcoming their natural weaknesses, and her villains succumbing to them. The villains of her stories, such as Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Mr. Crawford in Mansfield Park, have no guidance or inclination to seek virtue, and often they are influenced by others with the same weaknesses to lead a life of vice. A character that is inclined to self-indulgence often has been raised by someone of the same character or been spoiled in their youth by a well-meaning adult. Those who overcome their weaknesses, such as Emma in Emma and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, are encouraged to do so by a good upbringing or by another character who is self-aware enough to see the need to overcome weakness. In Austen we see these good influences in the forms of a mentor or of a romantic interest who sees more clearly the other’s faults. Clearly, one cannot form oneself in virtue alone.

Austen has very little conversation about God in her novels, and her characters’ attempts to overcome their weaknesses do not include prayer. In fact, about half of her clergymen, such as the unforgettable Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice or the prideful Mr. Elton in Emma, are inclined to various vices that they do not overcome. I imagine that Austen did not want to preach to her readers, but was merely making obvious the importance of forming ones own character and the character of young people for the best.

Despite her lack of attention to the importance of prayer, her emphasis on improving upon our natural inclinations reminds me of St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. Early in this beautiful and practical spiritual work, de Sales discusses the importance of overcoming our sins so that we can become holier. He explains that the more we pray, the more we open ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit

As the Holy Spirit enlightens our conscience we perceive more clearly and distinctly the sins, inclinations, and imperfections, which hinder us in attaining true devotion. The same light which discovers to us these tares and weeds, also kindles us with the desire to cleanse and to purify our hearts from them.”

If we don’t want to end up like Mr. Wickham or Mr. Crawford in Austen’s novels, we must seek a life of prayer, and in that life of prayer work to weed out our natural inclinations to evil. And while Austen does not teach us to seek God to overcome our weaknesses, she does warn us that if we do not seek to form ourselves in virtue, we will make bad choices and surround ourselves by vicious people. The only way to ensure a good life of virtue is to seek to overcome our weaknesses and seek out others who are doing the same.

Originally posted at Truth and Charity…

Seven Quick Takes: Friday, January 16

I finally found a use for the hooks between those partitions…

 1. Happy Season After Epiphany! We like to celebrate Christmas until Candlemas (February 2) in our home, so I spent the 3 days after our three weeks of out of town visiting with family unpacking our suitcases and getting up the last of our decorations. This meant putting Christmasy things on the front door wreath, changing the Advent candles for red ones, and hanging the Christmas cards up for display. It just feels more right to me to have the tree up for all of January rather than in the middle of Advent. I have been playing the Christmas music still as well. Being raised an Advent purist, it is nice to listen to Christmas music well after Christmas day without guilt!

2. We started the “spring” semester at the Awesome School this week. This meant that we attempted some of our normal school things everyday, but did not cry if we only got to one or two subjects. I feel pretty accomplished considering that G was recovering from a touch of the flu she had on Saturday. L (4) has decided that she wants to start Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, and my goodness, there is huge difference between my children and how easy they are to teach…

3. I am hoping that we stay healthy, since we have not really seen anybody since we got back to town. It will be nice to get back into the routine of play dates, mom’s group at church, and our home school co-op. So far G is the only one who had any symptoms of the flu and it has been almost a week since she got sick. Maybe it helped that she quarantined herself in her room for three days with the Chronicles of Narnia radio plays.

4. We are starting potty training on Monday with F (26 months). She has been interested for months. Since we told her that we are going to start training her on Monday, she is obsessed with the bathroom and talks fairly continually about it whenever anyone uses it. It would be nice to have diapers used only during nap and bedtime… plus our toddler size prefolds are pretty useless at this point. They are more like rags than diapers.

5. I made an attempt at movie reviewing on Truth and Charity this week. M and I went to Exodus: Gods and Kings on our date last week in Michigan, and while we had lots of commentary on the movie, I limited myself to one theme in my review.

6. Gee, it is nice to be in the rhythm of writing again. Vacation always takes from my writing time which is generally nap time or in the evenings. I was pretty wiped out every afternoon, which I attributed to being pregnant, but also may have been from a lingering cough/sinus infection which I finally got treatment for this week. I hope to be more on the blog than I have been and maybe on some other sites soon.

7. In your charity, please remember in your prayers our elderly next door neighbor who is on hospice and dying of cancer. He does not have much time left. Please also pray for his wife and children. While we have only lived here a year and a half, they have been very helpful and kind neighbors.

Linking up with the lovely new host of Seven Quick Takes, Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

Missing Mediation in Exodus: Gods and Kings

Last week, my husband and I got out to the movies to see Hollywood’s latest adaption of the Exodus story, Exodus: God and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses II. The movie was full of striking imagery, and the music was reminiscent of the 1998 soundtrack of the Prince of Egypt. It followed the basic plotline of the Exodus story, while taking artistic license in the interpretation of the story.

The director, Scott focused largely on the brotherly rivalry between Moses and Ramses, starting the movie off with a battle against the Hittites in which Moses is a hero. Their relationship plays a key role in the progression of the movie. When Ramses discovers Moses’ true origin he banishes Moses to the wilderness. In the wilderness Moses meets Jethro and his family, and eventually marries one of Jethro’s daughters, Zipporah. Through his relationship with Zipporah, we learn about Moses’ lack of faith in any god. When Moses encounters the burning bush, it is unclear to him whether it was a dream or whether God is really asking him to do something. Through further subtle urging, Moses decides to go back to Egypt and see about freeing his people. He believes that God wants him to be a military leader. Throughout the rest of the movie, Moses spends a lot of time trying to figure out what God wants him to do and acting according to his own judgment. It seems that God has left Moses to free the Israelites through guerilla warfare. Only when Moses attempts fail, does God step in. And when God acts, He does not use his servant, Moses, He does it on His own. Moses responds to the actions with anger towards God. Pharaoh is given no explanation. And the Israelites just sit back and watch.

Scott missed the whole point of Moses’ relationship towards God and the Israelites. He missed the fact that Moses was not just a leader, but was also a mediator. As Catholics we know that God relates to us through human mediators, beginning with the prophets and fathers in the Old Testament and ultimately through Christ.In the book of Exodus, the Lord, hearing the cries of His people, chooses Moses to be His mediator. The role of a mediator is one goes between one party and another. Moses hears and understands God’s plan, his only doubt being that he is not worthy of this role. Moses speaks the words of the Lord to Aaron, and Aaron in turn speaks them to Pharaoh and the Israelites. When the Israelites have a complaint to make to God, such as when Pharaoh increases their workload, they tell Moses and Aaron, who in turn go to God. For each and every plague God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh, and has Moses perform a physical action to bring the plague about. When Pharaoh considers allowing the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship he tells this to Moses and Aaron, who then speak to the Lord asking Him to bring an end to each plague. In the Scriptures, God explains the entirety of His plan to Moses, how He ultimately will take His people out of Egypt, how Pharaoh will resist, how He will smite Egypt, and how Moses will do the signs for Him. There is a clear understanding between God and Moses, a clear line of communication, and the Israelites go to Moses when they need to speak to God.

This role of mediator is almost entirely missing from the movie. While in Scripture, God tells Moses clearly what He desires him to do, in the movie Moses is left with a lot of guesswork. In Scripture Moses relies entirely on God as to what he is to do next, and in the movie Moses spends a lot of time seeking God’s help for decisions and not getting any help.

There are three instances where Scott demonstrates a slight understanding of the importance of Moses acting as a mediator between God and the Israelites and Pharaoh. The first is before the final plague, the Death of the First Born. There God reveals His plan to Moses, Moses instructs the Israelites in how to protect themselves through the blood of a Lamb, and Moses warns Pharaoh that the final plague will be the worst. The second instance is at the Red Sea. While in Scripture, Moses is told to raise his arms so that the sea will part, the movie shows Moses making an act of faith that the Israelites will be able to cross the Red Sea. He falls asleep at night trusting that the Israelites will be safe, and wakes the next morning to see that the sea is parting. The final instance is in the last scene where Moses and the Lord are together on Mount Sinai and Moses is writing down the law, finally in agreement with what the Lord is doing.

Maybe Scott intended to use the story of Moses to tell a story of a person growing in faith overtime, but in doing so he missed the point of a mediator. As Catholics, mediation is a crucial part of our practiced faith. Moses is a type of Christ prefiguring Christ and revealing what Christ will be like. Christ, while He is God, also is the definitive mediator. He became man to mediate salvation to us. He established for us the mediation of his mother and that of the Church. The Church mediates God to us through the Magisterium and the Sacraments. Mediation is at the foundation of how we relate to God, and when you take the role of Moses’ mediation from the Exodus story, you miss the crucial way in which God relates to humanity.

Originally posted at Truth and Charity.

What We Can Learn From the Benedictines

It was a mild December night in Minnesota as a hundred Catholic adults converged upon the beautiful house of a lovely young couple in order to meet a monk. They entered the house and, having been welcomed with a smile, dove right into the fudge and wine and entered into conversation with the other like-minded acquaintances present.

After and hour of socializing, the monk, Fr. Cassion Folsom, O.S.B., the founder and Prior of a new community of Benedictines, began to speak.
He told us about his order, which established themselves in a monastery in Norcia, Italy, the birth place of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, in 2000. Benedictines had been in Norcia for hundreds of years until they were suppressed by Napoleon in 1810. This group of monks has been growing well and is nearing 20 monks.

It is not a coincidence that the Benedictines are drawing new vocations. The work in which St. Benedict engaged, preserving the Church, community life, knowledge, and virtue, is a work that is again of immense importance today. Fr. Folsom shared this quotation from Alasdair Macintyre, from a book published in 1981, which is still relevant today:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are.
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

 If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.

This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” (After Virtue, p. 263)

Macintyre and Prior Folsom both believe that people seeking to live virtuous lives need to build communities that foster their virtue. We need to do something now, while society deteriorates around us, to preserve all that is good in Western culture. Now maybe things are not as bad and secularized here as they are in parts of Europe, but the possibility is looming. We see the need for better local communities in recent events, such as the recent Michael Brown shooting and the reaction to it in Ferguson, Missouri. A good community preserves morals, teaches them to our children, and never stops seeking to become better.

Prior Folsom spoke of the importance of the pockets of Catholic community that we already have in the United States. We need to cling to them, be formed by them, and allow our wider communities to be transformed by them. Having a good Catholic community is more and more essential to being able to actually live a Catholic life in the modern world. It is also easy enough to find online community support, but the real, live, in-person community matters the most.

I don’t have a ton of practical advice on how to build community, but probably the best place to start is in your home life. Monks model for us a real community built on rules and a schedule that requires prayer, work, and community. When I first read the Rule of St. Benedict, I realized how helpful it was to planning a good family life. There is a beautiful book The Little Oratory that gives great advice on establishing a life of family prayer. The routine of family meals, family prayer, and extending hospitality to others are basics of community life that are not hard to incorporate.  We can imitate this in our own families, bring it to our community of friends, and to the wider communities we live in. We need to be making conscious efforts to bring the goodness of our Catholic communities to those around us. Transformations must begin at the most basic level. So, we must begin with ourselves, transforming our own minds and our own lives of virtue and then grow out from there.

Originally posted at Truth and Charity.

Overcoming the Advent Grumpies…

Our Christmas Visitor by coblat123. In the Creative Commons.

My favorite Advent was the year my second was born. She was due the second week of December and I decided to do all of my shopping and card writing in November so that I could just rest and not worry about the physical Christmas preparations. The Saturday after Thanksgiving I decided that we had to finish everything for the baby even though we were still 12 days before the due date; I had a hunch. And sure enough, I woke up in labor at 4 am on the First Sunday of Advent. My daughter was born before dinnertime, and because I had been so well prepared, I spent all of Advent not worrying about the physical Christmas preparations and just contemplating Our Lady waiting for her newborn baby.

There was something nice about not being apart of the busyness normally associated with Advent. I sat on the couch, nursed my baby, read to my toddler, napped all the time, and watched it snow almost everyday that December in Buffalo, NY, and was readying my heart for Christmas day. I was free from the pre-Christmas craziness.

Without a due date to motivate myself to do things early, I am not usually done by Advent, but I do get most of the shopping and card writing done by the first week of Advent. I do not see it as getting caught up in Christmas early, but preparing for Christmas in all the many ways that we have to. We also have a number of family Advent traditions, such as the Jesse Tree, an Advent Wreath, an Advent calendar, and not decorating until closer to Christmas.

But how are we supposed to deal with the neighbor across the street who has a huge Santa Claus plastered across her door the day after Thanksgiving? Or the house with the lawn covered in light up residents of the North Pole by mid-November? Or the Christmas trees and lights all over stores with the blaring Christmas carols?

I used to be a huge grump about these things. I suppose one could call me an Advent purist. I still cringe a little thinking about putting up the tree on Gaudete Sunday, though my husband and I decided it would be best since we always travel over Christmas. I found myself not able to enjoy Christmas music when Christmas came because I spent all of Advent critical of the music being played. When I spent all of Advent not joyful, it made it hard to become joyful when Christmas arrived. Then my daughters started noticing decorated house and stores before Christmas, and I had to change my attitude.

I learned to not be so grumpy by explaining the early Christmas festivities of others to my children. When it came to music, we discovered some great Advent music, but also noticed the large number of secular Christmas music that is actually about wintery things and could be considered Advent songs themselves. Certain hymns I prefer to save for Christmas, but others I have given myself permission to enjoy in Advent. Christmas lights on houses we explain as people’s way of getting ready for Christmas. The lights can serve us as a reminder of what Advent it for, preparing for the light of Christ to come. I think that December 13, the Feast of St. Lucy whose name means “light” would be a good day to light ones lights. As for the stores and shopping, we just view everything as a way to prepare for Christmas. If stores did not have things up early, then we could not get ready in time. And sometimes we just explain that a lot of people do not wait for Christmas day to celebrate Christmas, but we do. We wait to celebrate birthdays and open birthday presents until the actual day, and we do the same for Jesus.

And then there is Santa Claus. My children just call him St. Nicholas. We do St. Nicholas day, but we don’t do Santa on Christmas. I know there are lots of opinions here, but we simply think the recent Santa Claus tradition to be unnecessary for us to celebrate Christmas seeing as it is a big detraction from Jesus’ birth. The presents on Christmas are in honor of the Christ child and the Jesus that dwells in each of us.  As for St. Nicholas day, my children put out their shoes on December 5, and eagerly look to see what we put in their shoes “in honor of St. Nicholas.” They do not care that we do not pretend that the small gifts and candy are brought by the great saint himself. We have traditions for other and feast days throughout the year, and St. Nicholas day has its own special tradition. They also know that some children think Santa comes of Christmas, but that does not change their enthusiasm for Christmas morning or presents.

I discovered that when I stopped being critical all of Advent that it made my Advent a more prayerful experience, and that sometimes the early Christmas music helped me experience the joy of Christmas day more fully. It is not everyday that we celebrate the anniversary of our God’s birth. Advent and Christmas are both beautiful seasons, and I love all of the decorations and lights. I am glad that I am able to appreciate them all more fully now.

Whether you are an Advent purist or not, grumpiness during Advent is never helpful. Don’t let the early secular Christmas be the Grinch that stole your Advent, just find a way to make it part of Advent, and you can enjoy the waiting and preparation that Advent really is about.

Originally published in full at Truth and Charity.

GIVEAWAY: Magnificat Advent Companion App and Christmas With Bernadette

Advent is coming and the Catholic world is full of great suggestions of how to prepare for Christmas. I have been given the opportunity to review a book for children, Christmas With Bernadette, and the Magnificat Advent Companion App. One is a sweet story of a young girl and her family throughout Advent, and the other is a beautiful spiritual resource designed to enrich your spiritual life this Advent.

Christmas With Bernadette

Christmas with Bernadette is the second volume in the delightful children’s book series authored by Emily Ortega and illustrated by Meg Whalen. I reviewed the first book of the series, I’m Bernadette, earlier this year.

Bernadette is a spunky first grader in a Catholic elementary school. She is the oldest in her family with two younger brothers and a baby on the way. It is refreshing to read children’s literature about a loving but not perfect Catholic family. Bernadette has the typical struggles of an oldest sister with her two younger brothers who are set on destroying things and share none of her interests. And of course there is school and remembering her items for the Christmas party.

Christmas With Bernadette is a great story for showing children the traditional Catholic way of preparing for Christmas with a full season of Advent. We follow Bernadette and her family from the beginning of Advent through Christmas day, with tales of the Advent wreath, helping Mama in the kitchen, Daddy solving the problem of figuring out Christmas presents, and wondering when that baby is going to be born and if it will be a sister this time.

The book itself is 106 pages long with easy to follow chapters. A child ready for simple chapter books would be able to read it alone. My pre-reader daughters, a five year old and four year old, really enjoyed listening to the story, which took us about a week reading aloud one or two chapters a day.

Advent is the perfect time of year for children to read this story. (I am planning on sending it to my nieces for St. Nicholas Day, so that they can follow along with Bernadette during Advent.) I doubt that there are many other children’s chapter books that contain the liturgical year, a growing Catholic family, and a likeable, believable, and kind main character. If you know of any young Catholic readers or almost readers, Christmas With Bernadette would make a great gift this year for Advent or for Christmas.

The Magnificat Advent Companion App/eBook

I had the print copy of the Magnificat Advent Companion last year, and used it along with the daily readings to prepare for Christmas. This year, I have had a chance to preview the Advent App, which features much more than the print copy. In the app there is the daily Advent Meditation, but there are also prayers for the morning, evening, and night, the daily Mass readings and prayers (including the Order of the Mass), and a whole slew of other Advent features. There are recordings of Advent chants, an Advent penance service, the Advent stations, prayers for the “O” antiphons, and even blessings for your Advent wreath and Christmas tree.

Furthermore, the app is very simple and intuitive with the same format as the print Magnificat on the screen. One can easily switch from one screen to another. And there is a calendar feature to allow one to choose the day, though the current date is automatically chosen. The prayers on the app run through Christmas day.

With this app on my iPad (I still have a lame phone), I have all the liturgical resources I need for this Advent. I am pretty excited to use the meditations for my personal prayer time and the other prayers for our family Advent practices.

I will be conducting a giveaway of both items ending on Wednesday, November 26. There will two winners, one for each item.

If you wish to simply purchase them, they are both very reasonably priced. Christmas With Bernadette is available for less than $8 here, and the Magnificat Advent Companion App is available for only $0.99.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Working Vs. Staying at Home: The Decisions American Women Face

G hard at work at my desk years ago when I took her to work with me.
There was an outrage on Facebook last Saturday about President Obama’s statement about stay at home parents:

 “Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”

In context, he was talking about having tax payer funded preschool so as to allow parents to not have to choose between a job and having children. And while perhaps he did not mean to reject entirely the idea that parents should stay at home with their children, he pretty clearly stated that he thinks that working is the best choice for everyone.

I understand that when a parent makes the choice to leave a career and stay at home with children, she is making a life-long financial sacrifice. She is losing the chance for career advancement. But the choice between a career and staying home is much more complicated than the issue of money.

I personally began to think about the choice between stay at home parenting and having a competitive career when I was in high school. A young woman thinking about college, adulthood, and discerning religious life considers all the possibilities. At my highly competitive, all girls Catholic high school, the issue of working and raising children often came up. A motivated, intelligent young woman does not know if and when she will get married, but she does know that she is expected to go to college and choose a career. My personal goal at the time was to become a sports journalist. When I applied to colleges, I planned on being a communications major. I even got into a pretty good local school known for its journalism program, Webster University. It was five minutes from my house, and I was offered a nearly complete tuition scholarship. I could have succeeded academically there, and I could have made my way into the world of journalism. But when it came down to it, and I imagined life as a journalist, I realized that it would not be compatible with my dream of family life. I could not be the beat writer of the St. Louis Cardinals and be the type of mother that I wanted to be. I had no idea if I would get married and have children, but I hoped that I would. I made a choice to move away from a lucrative career back when I was 17, not when I decided to stay at home with my children.

By the time I got my financial aid package from Franciscan University, I was already wavering on whether to go into journalism. I could have chosen a lucrative career path, but went instead with the college that I thought would best form my character. I started off as a communications major, switched immediately to undeclared, and within three semesters had switched to theology and philosophy and was participating in the Great Books program. I am so glad that I made these choices.

My college experience formed me into the person I am now; I am not sure what I would be like without this experience. I learned to value virtue, family, and religion above material wealth and worldly success. I learned to discern what God had planned for me, and it was made pretty clear halfway through college that I would marry the man I was dating. While I focused on that, I always thought that, if for some reason I am unable to have children, I would pursue a doctorate. However, within a month of marriage, I was already on track to be a stay at home mom.

It was not easy to be a stay at home mom, even with my 12 hour a week, bring the baby along part time job, on my husband’s meager graduate student income. But we knew that it was important for our family for me to be at home. During my first years of marriage and parenting, I had close female friends who were all making economic sacrifices to stay at home with their children. Some of them had part time positions that they could work from home, and some of them had free grandparent childcare. I lived in the subculture of college educated, single income, stay at home moms. If anything, it reinforced my choice. My pro-life Catholic friends all valued spending time raising their children more than their careers.

When we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to advance my husband’s career (we moved for his tenure-track academic job), I became friends with a number of moms who had Ph.D.’s. Most of my husband’s departmental colleagues who have young children at home have all made the choice to have one parent at home with the children, whether it be the mother or the father. In philosophy, the decision of who stays at home is often based on who has the tenure-track job. All of the academic parents who stay at home also adjunct classes and write. I have spent many a play date with these Ph.D. moms discussing the life and career that they had thought they would have until they met their husbands in graduate school. They are fully aware that by staying at home they are setting aside chances at a successful career in philosophy, but they realize that their children will only be young for so long and that it is important for them to raise them.

I am not claiming that it would be wrong for both parents to work and have their children taken care of by someone else. I think that having a thriving career is a good thing and that many women are meant to have competitive and lucrative careers. I am so thankful for my doctor, who is a mother of six, and who delivers my babies and looks into my children’s ears. I am thankful to my mother for keeping her nursing career going while my father pursued a new career path. Both of them had a strong presence in the lives of their four children. I am sure there are many mother journalists who are happy in their lives and jobs and have growing families. I really think that we cannot make a sweeping judgment about what is best for “Americans.” Every family makes a decision about what is best for their family.

And some families decide that a parent spending the weekdays with his or her children is more important than how much money they make later in life. Couples decide that, yes, they can make ends meet with a single income, and they go for it. It is not an easy decision to make, and career advances are sacrificed. But if anything is worth sacrificing income for, the care of a human being is. The life and formation of a human being is far more important than the salary one brings home. The salary provides the material needs, the parent at home provides so much more. The working parent, hopefully, finds fulfillment in work and home life.

Other families have both parents working. Some arrange schedules to have one parent at home at all times. Others have grandparents who can help with the childcare. Others hire childcare. I do not think that it means that these parents value or love their children any less than those who are able to stay a home. I have spoken to working parents who wish that they could stay at home, but they cannot make that sacrifice.

For a mother or a potential mother in a society that values so highly education and then “doing something with that,” the tension between work and family is always there. Feminism has brought this upon mothers. But no mother who stays at home should be made to feel that their choice was not worth it. Because, while children change ones life forever, human lives will always be more valuable than worldly success.

Originally published in full at Truth and Charity…

Four Ways You Can Help the Souls in Purgatory

Author’s Hill, Concord, MA. Photo by M. Spencer. Used with permission.
It was the hottest week of the year in St. Louis, and we were making our summer visit to my parents’ house. We slept in the nice cool air-conditioned basement bedroom that was my bedroom when I lived at home. One night towards the end of the trip I woke up with a chill over my body from a dream. It reminded me of waking from nightmares as a small girl in the same bed, praying for comfort. But my dream had not been a nightmare; it had been a reminder. I don’t remember the bulk of the dream, but at the end I had been outside with various members of my family in a mowed hilly field. A silver four-door sedan pulled across the grass and stopped with the driver’s side next to me. My deceased great-grandmother rolled down the window and asked me with a solemn face, “When are you coming to see me?” She then rolled up the window and drove away.

I awoke, wondering how I was supposed to go back to sleep after that. When was I coming to see her? What did she mean? Was it actually her asking or was it just my imagination at work? I had not really thought about her for a while, so I am not sure why my subconsciousness would bring her to mind. But what I did realize was that we only had one day left in St. Louis, and during that last day, I could go see her. I could go to her grave, and pray for her soul. And in doing so, I could be granted a partial indulgence for her soul.* I do not know if she is still among the souls in purgatory, but I do know that I have a Christian duty to perform the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead. As I mulled and prayed about my dream, unwilling to go back to sleep, my alarm went off. We were going to an early daily Mass. After Mass we went to the cemetery and visited the gravesite of my deceased great-grandparents, grandparents, and great-aunt and uncle. My husband, three children, and I prayed for these souls, and I plan on visiting their grave again when we visit St. Louis next.

We are all called to pray for the dead.  With All Souls’ Day coming on Saturday we have an opportunity to earn indulgences for the souls in purgatory in several extra ways, in addition to the prayers we can pray all year round:

From the Manual of Indulgences (Fourth Edition, 1999)

A plenary indulgence (full remission of temporal punishment due to sin), applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who
1. on any and each day from November 1 to 8, devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, if only mentally, for the departed;
2. on All Souls’ Day (or, according to the judgement of the ordinary, on the Sunday preceding or following it, or on the solemnity of All Saints), devoutly visit a church or an oratory and recite an Our Father and the Creed.

A partial indulgence (partial remission of temporal punishment due to sin), applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who
1. devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead,
2. devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Eternal rest.

Requiem aeternam
Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. (Order of Christian Funerals)

Please also note (from Fr. Z’s blog):

Requirements for Obtaining a Plenary Indulgence on All Souls Day (2 Nov)

  • Visit a church and pray for souls in Purgatory
  • Say one “Our Father” and the “Apostles Creed” in the visit to the church
  • Say one “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary” for the Holy Father’s intentions (that is, the intentions designated by the Holy Father each month)
  • Worthily receive Holy Communion (ideally on the same day if you can get to Mass)
  • Make a sacramental confession within 20 days of All Souls Day
  • For a plenary indulgence be  free from all attachment to sin, even venial sin (otherwise, the indulgence is partial, not plenary, “full”).

You can acquire one plenary indulgence a day.

So, this week of All Souls’, get thee to a cemetery, and say a few extra prayers for the dead at Mass on Sunday. Intercede for them, and they will intercede for you!
*From the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Indulgences:
1478    An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.
1479    Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.”

Originally posted at Truth and Charity…