December 28, 2011

Going to Confession Is Like Brushing Your Teeth

“Brush your teeth,” I tell my kids every night.  And why wouldn’t they?  Everyone knows brushing your teeth wipes away the detritus left in your mouth after a full day of eating and living.  Whether healthy or hedonistic, your daily culinary activities inevitably leave dirt, film, or some other undesirable gunk on your teeth.  Plaque buildup, dentists call it.  We all want to show others a brilliant smile, so we clean our teeth regularly.  It won’t make your teeth perfect, and you’re going to have to brush them again tomorrow.  But, for now, it expunges the day’s dirt and makes them shine.

Well, going to sacramental confession is a bit like that.  You go to confession to wipe away the sins that have accumulated since the last time you went, whether that was 40 days ago or 40 years ago.  It won't make you perfect and you're going to have to go again in your lifetime.  But, for now, *poof!* your soul has a brilliant shine!  Pure as the day you were born!  All your sins are forgiven.  Really!

Sure, you have to do some penance for the temporal punishment due to sin, but you also have to spit after you brush your teeth, to get rid of all that gunk you just scrubbed off, don’t you?  And you have to rinse out your toothbrush and wipe up the sink a bit.  No one is embarrassed by that sort of clean up.  In fact, in my house, that kind of tidiness is downright praiseworthy!

So seriously, regarding confession, why are you embarrassed?  Why don’t you go?  Who’s going to know?  I mean, when was the last time – in all of known recorded human history – that you heard of a priest running outside the church to put up a hand-lettered sandwich-board sign listing all the sins someone just told him within the confines of the sacred seal of the confessional?  He can’t.  Not, “He won’t.”  He can’t.  The solemn seal of the confessional is sacred, and the priest is forbidden to share anything you might reveal, no matter how mundane or incriminating.

Not anything.

And believe me, if you are a student of history with even half an imagination, it doesn’t take much to dream up some of the colorful offences many historical figures might need to have confessed.  I don’t want to name any names, but…..

No, never mind.  Let’s not add “gossip” to my own lengthening list.

Fortunately for most of us, there’s virtually nothing we can say in confession that genuinely would shock a priest.  Do you think he’s never heard sins like yours before now?  And if he has – say, from you the last ten times you were there – so what?  You have to brush your teeth again every day because you engage in a fairly steady daily diet, right?  Well, so too are your other living habits.  Fairly steady.  Same stuff, different day.

This, I think, is the other side of confession:  Am I too boring?  Do I have enough good material?  I mean, really, does Father want to hear for the forty-eleventh time that I yelled at the kids, took the Lord’s name in vain twice, gossiped inappropriately, and didn’t listen to my mother?  Well, I have it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth that a priest would be appalled if every time you went into confession you came up with new and exotic sins to confess.  Just what sort of unstable eccentric life would you be living then!?

People brush their teeth every day to rid themselves of the normal accumulated filth that is detrimental to their oral health and inhibits their ability to share a sparkling smile.  We're all very attentive to the needs of our teeth. So why wouldn’t you take such good care of your soul?  After all, ultimately, your teeth just will be used for identification purposes when you’re dead.  Your soul will live forever.  And do you know precisely where your soul is going to live forever?  If you’re like me, you want penthouse accommodations, but more realistically will be enormously grateful if you even can slip in the back door to Purgatory, because then you’re only going up from there!

Remember who made you?  God made you.  Why did God make you?  God made you to know, love, and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him forever in the next.

So go to the Divine Dentist, visit the Divine Physician.  Let him clean your soul.  Let him make your soul sparkle and shine like new, so that you are fit to reside in His presence for all eternity!

Don’t let pride prevent you from lasting peace.  Don’t let the devil make you think that your sins are so uniquely profound or insignificantly mundane that the priest is going to laugh you out of the confessional and then run to post them on Facebook.  This is a sacrament, not social networking.  What do you think the priest actually is going to say, “Weeeeell, I don’t know.  Is that your final answer?  Let me think about that absolution thing.”  Of course not!
With a good confession, true contrition for your sins, and a firm purpose of amendment, you will hear some of the most beautiful words in the English language:

“God, the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins through the ministry of the church. May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Please, go to confession.  Hurry.  Don’t wait.  Because Our Lord is waiting for you.  An outpouring of grace and mercy awaits you.


And while you’re on your way to confession, please, forward this post to someone you love, maybe someone who might not have been to confession in a while.  That way, years from now, you can smile at each other in heaven!

BONUS POINTS:  I found absolution in Latin!

Deus, Pater misericordiarum,
qui per mortem et resurrectionem Fílii sui
mundum sibi reconciliavit
et Spiritum Sanctum effudit
in remissionem peccatorum,

per ministerium Ecclesiae
tibi tribuat
et pacem...

Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis
in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

December 25, 2011

"Yes, Virginia....."

New York Sun, 1897
Editorial Page

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

“I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”  -- Virginia O’Hanlon

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.      
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.   
“He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.    
“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
“You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
“No Santa Claus?  Thank God he lives and lives forever.  A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.   
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”

From The People’s Almanac, pp. 1358-9.

Francis P. Church’s editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” was an immediate sensation, and became one of the most famous editorials ever written. It first appeared in the The New York Sun in 1897, almost a hundred years ago, and was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.
           Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O’Hanlon recalled the events that prompted her letter:

“Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn’t any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.
“It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in The Sun. Father would always say, ‘If you see it in the The Sun, it’s so,’ and that settled the matter.
“ ‘Well, I’m just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,’ I said to father.
“He said, ‘Go ahead, Virginia. I’m sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.’”

And so Virginia sat down and wrote her parents’ favorite newspaper.
Her letter found its way into the hands of a veteran editor, Francis P. Church. Son of a Baptist minister, Church had covered the Civil War for The New York Times and had worked on the The New York Sun for 20 years, more recently as an anonymous editorial writer. Church, a sardonic man, had for his personal motto, “Endeavour to clear your mind of cant.” When controversial subjects had to be tackled on the editorial page, especially those dealing with theology, the assignments were usually given to Church.
Now, he had in his hands a little girl’s letter on a most controversial matter, and he was burdened with the responsibility of answering it.
          “Is there a Santa Claus?” the childish scrawl in the letter asked. At once, Church knew that there was no avoiding the question. He must answer, and he must answer truthfully. And so he turned to his desk, and he begn his reply which was to become one of the most memorable editorials in newspaper history.
          Church married shortly after the editorial appeared. He died in April, 1906, leaving no children.
          Virginia O’Hanlon went on to graduate from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts degree at age 21. The following year she received her Master’s from Columbia, and in 1912 she began teaching in the New York City school system, later becoming a principal. After 47 years, she retired as an educator. Throughout her life she received a steady stream of mail about her Santa Claus letter, and to each reply she attached an attractive printed copy of the Church editorial. Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81, in a nursing home in Valatie, N.Y.

Come Close to the Crib

Let us come close to the crib.
If you love riches, you will find the gold that the kings brought;
if you are looking for the smoke of hours, you will find that in the incense;
and if you take delight in the delicacies of the senses,
you will find the delicate perfume of myrrh that pervades the stable.

Be rich in love for this adorable Saviour,
respectful in the familiarity with which you relate to Him,
and delight in the joy of experiencing in your soul
so many inspirations and affections,
because you belong exclusively to

(St. Francis de Sales)

December 20, 2011

Meditation of James Francis Cardinal Stafford on Infant Death

Following is a letter to Miki Hill from James Francis Cardinal Stafford on the unexpected passing of Miki's two year old grandson, Charles Daniel Hudson Hill, who died in his sleep on Sunday night.  It is shared here with permission:

Dear Michele,

C.S. wrote to me about the death of your two-year old grandson.  This represents a very harsh reality for you, your son and his wife, their innocent young son now dead, and the whole family.  Many stumble before it.  Encompassed by such darkness, many are tempted to reject outright the prophetic word of God and of His Son, Jesus.

 How do believers get beyond their anguish and numbness before such an event? They should rush to the word of God in long prayer and reflection begging for knowledge and wisdom. They should climb the steps of the "ladder" of lectio divina (holy reading). The four steps are the following: reading, meditating , praying, and contemplating the Holy Word of God in Sacred Scripture, both  individually and in community.

The call of the prophet Isaiah (Is. 6) is a good place to begin. It concludes with a definitive answer. Before reaching that ending, however, the text carries great irony. At one point we seem left with the question "How long???"  In reality, the whole text of Isaiah six is a part of the apophatic tradition of revelation. (God reveals himself through negation - e.g., the revelation of God's glory takes place on the summit of Calvary where we contemplete the Cross and the pierced Heart of His Son.)

So, before the cold indifference of the universe where innocent children die, believers are first driven to cry out to God, "How long?" We deserve something better than this. God's answer to this complaint is, "Until ......termination."  "'How long?......Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men,and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. and though a tenth remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth and an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.'"  (Is. 6: 9-13)

At first the story of the prophet's call  seems to oscillate between rejection and acceptance and finally terminate with divine destruction. But the very last words contradict that seeming interpretation. They need to be heard and studied closely. They indicate  that the final words from God to Isaiah's complaint are not of death and destruction, with only the dead stump remaining after a fiery conflagration. The divine oracle concludes with the stump and its unexpected, surprising hints of new growth.

That last line is brief, "The holy seed is its stump."  But, it represents the wonderful, enduring response of God: before the harshness of life, including the experience of the death of the young and innocent, a holy seed arises from the stump! God's response is not a quick and easy answer; it is not cheap grace. But, at the end, there is divine comfort, there is consolation; there is a holy seed  arising miraculously from the stump. After the terrible numbness and incomprehension, the stump of the great, felled tree is seen to give forth something completely unexpected. It will come in the form of those disciples (in this case parents, grandparents, etc.) who hear the word of God under horrific circumstances. They listen attentively to the words of Isaiah and attend to the mysteries contained in the life and death of Jesus and place their total trust in God. From their total faith in God the Father, there will be a new growth coming forth.

I will pray that the Spirit of God with whom disciples are anointed in Confirmation may plunge you deeply into the mystery of new growth from a dead stump.

+ Cardinal Francis Stafford

On Infant Death

As we await the imminent arrival of the tiny Infant Savior on Christmas Day, please allow me to share with you a devastating and inspiring tragedy that continues to unfold.

What an immeasurable grace and blessing it has been to talk with Miki Hill today.  If you are in the greater Baltimore Catholic homeschool community, you might know Miki and Tim Hill.  Their two year old grandson, Charles Daniel Hudson Hill (“Charlie”), passed away in his sleep unexpectedly Sunday night, after going to bed with a slight fever.  Miki and her children were driving back this evening from the funeral services in Chicago when we spoke.

Miki noted that the human sorrow of this tragedy is severe nearly to the point of being unbearable.  While any other death seems to pale in comparison to the loss of a child, I shared with Miki my recollection of when I first experienced someone close to me dying.  For days thereafter, I looked around at normal life and gaped in stupefied horror.  Why were people still driving?  Why were they still shopping?  Still eating?  Still talking?  Still……living!?  Didn’t they know that someone magnificent and vital to my existence had just shuffled off this mortal coil?  Didn’t they know that it really was the end of the world as we know it?  Why didn’t the Earth stop spinning on its axis in acknowledgement of the enormity of this tragic loss?

“Yes, that’s it!” she said.  “It.  Is.  Staggering.”

And yet, Miki observed that God definitely is in control.  From such far-flung places as seven continents and the Vatican, God has provided their family with enormous and frequent consolation.  “See?” she asked in wonder.  “The more we let go of the arrow, the further it will fly.”  Little Charlie has, indeed, flown far.  Straight to heaven.  And apparently he’s going to drag a lot of other people there with him eventually, as there were at least six priests hearing confessions at his viewing, “because Charlie wanted everyone to get to heaven.”

Miki and I agreed that, particularly in times of trial such as this, we are enormously grateful to have been born “cradle Catholics,” because I for one never would have been smart enough to choose Catholicism myself (as my brilliant husband The Convert did).  Whatever would we do without the transformative grace of the sacraments!?

Miki is firm in her conviction that her amazing little grandson, while being a beam of light in their lives, truly was not made for this world, which his mother must intuitively sensed, for she always called him her “cherub.”  In the face of such simultaneous vulnerability and strength, I can only submit the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln:

“….I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.  But, I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found….I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost.” (Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, November 1864)

Thus, with Miki’s permission, I will share with you in the next post Francis Cardinal Stafford’s consoling meditation to Miki on the tragedy of infant death.  May his words bring us God’s peace.

“Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  (II Corinthians 4:16-18)

December 19, 2011

Christmas Cookies

Here you go, folks!  My favorite roll out sugar cookie recipe, just in time for Christmas!  The beauty of this dough is that you and the kids can roll out, bake, and decorate them immediately.  I like to bake a bunch, ice them in white, let them dry on the table overnight, then let the kids paint details on the next morning.

For Easter, you can make eggs and go to town decorating them in fancy colors and sugar crystals.  For autumn, you can swirl orange/red/yellow paint on leaf shapes.  For Christmas, the easiest thing to make is white snowmen with a hat, and features and buttons dotted on.  Green Christmas trees also work well, because you can use mini-M&Ms, nonpariels, or mini-red-hots as ornaments.

Enjoy!   :-b

1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
1 egg
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. flour

Cream butter, sugar, and egg.  Add baking powder and vanilla.  Gradually add flour.  Mix well.  Form dough into ball and roll out approximately a 1/4 portion onto floured surface.  Cut into shapes w/ cookie cutters.  Place on non-stick baking sheet or parchment paper on sheet.  Bake at 400 degrees for 5-7 minutes.

2 c. confectioners sugar
1 tbl. meringue powder
2-6 tbl. water

Beat confectioners sugar and meringue powder at low speed.  Add water slowly, 1 tbl. at a time, mixing well after each one until desired consistency is achieved (thick, but slightly runny).  Tint with PASTE food coloring (liquid food color will alter the texture).  Cover with plastic wrap or a wet paper towel to prevent drying out while using.  Apply with small spatula or artist's paint brushes.  Thin with warm water, if needed.

December 14, 2011

Jejunia Quattuor Temporum (Fasts of the Four Seasons - EMBER DAYS)

Throughout the year in the Western Church, Ember Days are four quarterly groups of three days within one week (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), set aside specifically for prayer and fasting.

The Ember Weeks are as follows:
  • Between the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent
  • Between the 1st and 2nd Sundays of Lent
  • Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
  • Week beginning the Sunday after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th)
The term is a corruption of the German Quatember, derived from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren (a circuit or revolution, from ymb, around, and ryne, a course running), relating to the annual cycle of the year.  In Latin, it is rendered quattuor anni tempora (four seasons of the year) or jejunia quattuor temporum (fasts of the four seasons), in Irish Gaelic as Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth (days of the four times), and in Welsh as Wythnos y Cydgorian (Week of the Processions).

The most accepted origin is the early Church’s practice of assigning a holy purpose to Roman or Celtic pagan holidays, in this case calendar and harvest festivals.  The earliest known mention is in the writings of Philastrius, Bishop of Brescia (died c. 387), Pope St. Leo the Great (A.D. 440 – 461, who wanted to bring the grace and discipline of abstinence from meat to every season of the year), and Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604, who is believed to have fixed the timing).  The current schedule was established by Pope Blessed Urban II at the Councils of Piacenza and Clermont, 1095, and can be remembered by this clever mnemonic device in Latin:

Dant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angariâ quarta sequens feria

or in old English:

Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie
[Lent, Pentecost, the Holy Cross, and St. Lucy]

The Ember Days began on the Wednesday immediately following those feast days.

The Church originally mandated fasting (only one full meal per day, plus two small meatless meals) on all Ember Days, and the faithful were encouraged (but not required) to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  On February 17, 1966, Pope Paul VI’s decree Paenitemini excluded the Ember Days as days of fast and abstinence, and their observance now is up to the discretion of the local bishops conference.  Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496) is credited with associating the Ordination of clergy to Ember Weeks.

Pray!  Fast!

Esther 4:16 (Esther fasted three days without food or water)
II Samuel 12:16-18 (David fasted seven days without food)
Isaiah 58 (what is a proper fast before God)
Matthew 17:21 (prayer and fasting are linked)
Acts 9:9 (Paul fasted three days)
II Corinthians 11:27 (Paul fasted often)

December 5, 2011

Hebrews 13:2

So it happened not once but twice today -- the Lord put us in a position to share a moment of blessing with someone else.

We were in the adoration chapel at our church, and I had left momentarily with my youngest two children, who needed a potty break.  Suddenly, my other son came dashing into the bathroom, waving a $10 bill at me.  "Mom!  Mom!" he gasped, eyes nearly popping out of his head.  "The lady gave me this!  She said to take us to lunch at--- " here he blinked incredulously and gave an intake of breath suitable for the magnitude of the news he was about to impart.  "....McDonald's!!!"

Whoa.  A rare treat for us, indeed.

Puzzled, I returned to the adoration chapel and exchanged grateful tears with a woman who was there praying, who missed her own grandchildren and greatgrandchildren dreadfully, all of whom lived several states away.

"Enjoy them," she admonished sagely, wiping her cheeks and nodding toward my kids.  "I know I miss mine."

I felt joyous and awful, all at the same time.  How right she was.  How frequently do I outright ENJOY my kids?  Really just toss care to the wind for a moment and sit down and giggle with them?  I resolved to do so more often this Advent season.

(See?  It's ALWAYS worth it to squeeze in a visit for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, even if you can only pop in and say "Hi!" to Him for a minute.  He's ALWAYS glad you're there!  .....yes, YOU!  You and your whiney kids....probably especially the whiney kids.  Jesus never said, "Let the children come to me -- oh, except for the whiners."  Go and gain the strength you need as a mom to guide your children in His peace.  After all, He made 'em.  Let Him help you form them!)

Later, in a store parking lot, we pulled into our parking space next to a woman who was seated in her car talking on her phone.  Two beautiful rosaries hung from her rear view mirror, one blue with an antique cross, the other white.

Hmmmmm, I thought.  Shameless promotion or an opportunity for grace, I wondered?  Should I give her my business card, or pray a silent prayer instead and mind my own business?

I opted for both.  Something....imperceptible in her demeanor gave me the answer.  Before I even realized I had decided, I was breathing a prayer and tapping a fingernail gently on her window.  She paused, startled, and rolled it down a bare inch.

"Hi!" I grinned, slightly embarrassed, but now determined.  I pointed to her rearview mirror.  "I noticed your rosaries hanging there, and I make rosary bracelets,"  I raised my arm and wiggled my wrist, showing her mine and proffering my business card through the tiny crack with the other hand.  I shrugged, "in case you need a present for someone special for Christmas!"

Well.  Not exactly smooth, but the message was there.

She took my card, gave me a polite smile as if I was the village lunatic who had just escaped and was holding a knife, then quickly rolled up her window.  Well, who could blame her, I thought.  But, as I unloaded my kids, I saw her still talking on the phone, now reaching out her hand to finger the crucifix hanging from her rearview mirror.

We left the store and returned to the parking lot well over an hour later.  As we approached our van, I noticed the woman's car still was there, but she was gone (probably gone to request police protection).  As I was loading my kids back into the van, I turned to see her re-appear, now opening her own car door to leave, too.

This time, she smiled at me openly and broadly.

"Thank you for talking to me earlier," she began.  "I needed that.  I, uh....I was....I was having a bad day."  She nodded and seemed at a loss for further words, so she shrugged and smiled again.

I grinned back.  "Well, not any more!" I assured her, and nodded at the rosaries suspended in her car.  "You just keep close to your rosary and the day can only get better!"

Be an angel to someone else today, and allow someone else to be an angel to you!

Advent Blessings!

"Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it."  (Hebrews 13:2)