Three Crosses and Silhoutted Person in Prayer at Sunrise
Conversion, Lent, Metanoia

Lent: Are You Giving Up or Taking Up?


So it’s lent.  The question used to be: What are you giving up for lent?  Now, people are asking: What are you going to do for lent?  Instead of “giving something up,” many suggest we “take something up.”

The thing is that both of these questions can be good ones, and in both cases, our responses can miss the point.

The term “lent” comes from a word meaning “spring” or “springtime.”  In the south, the whole of spring is a beautiful season of warmth, light, and growth.  In the north, it’s often drab and dreary: muddy, cold, and barren trees well into early May.  Many a blizzard has fallen after March 20th.

Regardless of where you live, the idea of spring is the season of rebirth, promise, and hope.  Spring is when we see nature go from death-to-new-life.

Lent is about that death-to-new life transformation of springtime.  Like Jesus’ time in the desert, it is a 40 day spiritual journey.

Interesting aside:  Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days; Moses for 40 years; Noah endured the rain for 40 days…  Ever wonder why 40?  For the ancient peoples, the number “4” carried the significance of an “earthly” meaning.  We have four seasons, the four directions (North, South, East, and West), the four elements of the body, and so on.  The number “10” means “a great many,” and the more zero’s the greater the many.  So the number 40 signifies a great many days/years, all over the earth.  The number “3” signifies divinity (not just the Trinity, but think about all the times when people in Scripture were selected in groups of threes).  When “3” and “4” –heaven and earth– come together, it signifies perfection and completion.  Numerically, this happens in two ways: 3 + 4 = 7 and 3 x 4 = 12.  Thus, 7 days of Creation, forgiving 7 times 70 times, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles… a perfectly, complete number.

Getting back to Lent… Lent is literally a 40 day period, but since it’s 6 1/2 weeks, it doesn’t look like 40 days on the calendar.  There are 46 days from Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, but the six Sundays during Lent are not counted because we dedicate Sundays to celebrating the Resurrection.

The idea of lent is to spend 40 days on a spiritual journey of transformation and growth.  It’s about inner-conversion, or metanoia (in Greek), turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel.

That principle–spiritual growth–should be at the heart of whatever lenten promise we make.  Here’s a great starting point: Is there some sinful practice that you can (and should) give up?  Do that.  

For many of us, those sinful practices are embedded in our daily lives.  It’s harder to nail down a promise to be less judgmental or distracted, so we choose something concrete like “giving up soda” (or candy, or wine, or Facebook). There is nothing wrong with giving something up for lent. Especially not if we approach it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.  Take “giving up soda,” for example:

  •  If you’re a person who is addicted to soda, give up the vice of the addiction through the practice of abstinence, with the hope that you will ultimately be able to better practice the virtue of temperance (moderation, self-control) in the joy of Easter.
  • Maybe you’re not addicted, but rather you’re a person who enjoys soda… then anytime you might find yourself wanting a soda, use that “desire” as a reminder to pray.

This approach to lenten sacrifice reflects the ancient Christian practice of asceticism which involves self-denial and abstaining from worldly pleasures.  Asceticism is an opportunity to take something that we may be somewhat attached to (like candy, or soda, or television, or electronic devices, or Facebook) and redirect that obsessive energy towards God.  Ascetic practices serve to open us to new life in God.

One way things go awry is when we focus only on the torture of denial without the promise of hope, joy, and transformation of Easter.  We are a people of the Resurrection, not a people of Good Friday.  It is one thing to remember Jesus’ sacrifice and share in Christ’s suffering.  But “giving something up” misses the point if it doesn’t help us to grow spiritually.

The “taking something up” crowd also needs to keep in mind the purpose of spiritual growth.  Take up a practice of reading Scripture, or praying the rosary, or attending daily mass.  Do something positive in your prayer life, for sure, but do it as a matter of inner-conversion not as a self-improvement project.  Make the attempt to integrate this positive behavior into your daily life permanently.

So maybe the better question to ask is: Whether giving up or taking up: how are you growing in faith and spirituality this lent?

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Article, Human Dignity, Justice

They’re Children, Not Chickens


Two Moms go to a playground with their kids, ages 2 – 4.  One child asks his mom to help him use the fire pole, so she holds him the whole way down.  The second child asks the second mom for help.  She says, “I’d be happy to teach you how to do it, but I’m not going to do it for you.  Do you want to learn?”  Second-Child hesitates before agreeing.  Second-Mom explains how to reach out, hold the pole nice and high, then step out while holding on, wrap feet and legs around the pole, and gently loosen the hold to slide down.  She guides her son’s grip, holds her hands out to catch him in case he needs it, but tries not to actually do the work for him.  By the third try, he’s doing it with enough confidence that she can sit back and watch.



Have you seen the posts about “Free Range Kids” popping up around the internet lately? Most recently, the Washington Post highlighted an incident involving Maryland parents letting their kids go out and play without supervision, someone saw the unsupervised kids, called the police, and CPS got involved.  Much of the commentary that I’ve read centers around anecdotal evidence: my own childhood involved unsupervised play… and this is what I do with my kids and it works… And then there are the parents who ask “What’s wrong with a little parental supervision?”  The nature of the discussions can lead you to believe it’s all about choosing-your-own parenting philosophy.

The thing is that as a Catholic, as a Christian, as an educator, and as a parent, I feel like we’re missing the opportunity to talk about something deeper here.  There’s a principle of social justice that applies to this discussion.  A principle that extends from the Seven Major Themes of Catholic Social Teaching: subsidiarity.

When we talk about subsidiarity, we tend to focus on government–on the smaller, local level and the larger, national level.

The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (CCC, 1883, which quotes St John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and references Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno)

Essentially, subsidiarity is about responsibly allowing people to do for themselves what they can, intentionally limiting intervention yet assisting when needed, and doing so with the common good in mind. It’s about empowering people, and it respects human dignity.

Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 57)

Subsidiarity is the balance that reasonable people are calling for when faced with the negative extremes of too little involvement (neglect) and too much involvement (hovering, helicopter parenting, or micro-managing).  Our notion supervision needs to be infused with principle of subsidiarity.

With subsidiarity, we teach our children to participate in the world around them.  We guide them on how to make decisions.  We use our judgment as we incrementally increase their sense of freedom and responsibility.  And in doing so, we guide them into responsible adulthood.

So “free-range kids”? I regret the necessity of the phrase “free-range kids.” They’re children, not chickens.  But I understand the point author and blogger Lenore Skenazy is trying to make.  She offers the label as a commonsense approach to parenting that rejects the negative extremes of neglect and helicopter parenting.  In her book and through her blog, Skenazy’s intent is to help parents raise safe, self-reliant children–an intent which is keeping with the principle of subsidiarity.

I really appreciated Catholic blogger Simcha Fisher’s post about “Raising Safe, Independent Kids” on the National Catholic Register.  She highlighted sympathy for parents who have been criticized for encouraging unsupervised play, while also offering a clarification on the realities of CPS, and concluded by offering solid, reasonable advice for parents.

Subsidiarity is not about compromising safety.  But it is about releasing fear.  We shouldn’t make decisions–about parenting or otherwise–based on fear.

Fear leads us to hovering, micro-managing, and helicopter parenting–practices that give us the illusion of control.  Fear prevents us from living and loving freely, and it robs our children of their sense of freedom and responsibility.

What is it that Scripture says about fear?  Oh yeah.

Be not afraid, I am with you.  (Isaiah 41:10)

“Playground ©”

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The back of church pews
Conversion, Forgiveness, Grace, Humility

Modeling Humility


Looking for a resolution you can stick to in the New Year?  How about modeling humility?

You know how most Catholics prefer to sit toward the back third of the Church?  Not my family; we sit in the front pew.  For one thing, the pew at the front is almost always available.  For another, it helps my kids (and me) pay attention when we can actually see what’s going on.  The problem, as you might imagine, is that the boys behavior is on public display.

As this post is about modeling humility–not perfectly behaved children at Mass–I’d like to make it clear: we don’t have that good-behavior thing down.  I’ve made two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress with regards to Church-behavior, but we are far from having “arrived.”

Two-Steps Forward

  1. I finally realized that growling whispered threats between pursed lips to SIT-STILL-AND-BE-QUIET was probably not helping them to develop a positive attitude toward Mass.  So I changed my language: Everything we say and do at Mass needs to show respect and reverence to God.
  2. I encourage my boys to use the Magnifikid or the Missalette to follow the Readings as well as all the rest of the Mass prayers.  Because participation shows reverence and respect.

One Step Back

So there we are, last Sunday, sitting in the front pew, and both boys are having a particularly difficult time being reverent and respectful.  Their bodies are either slumped jello or, with their ever-growing bodies and gangly legs, they’re sitting on our laps, inappropriately snuggling and being playful… essentially doing everything except paying attention.

And then my 8 1/2 year old starts to pick his nose. Digging deep. Never ending. I smack his arm and fish a pack of tissues out of my purse. He twists it to form a cotton sword, and goes back in. I grab another tissue, whisper-growl to knock it off and pay attention. There’s a back and forth about picking the crumpled tissues up off the pew and floor. Eventually we get to the winning moment: we’re holding hands for the Our Father, and while his left hand is in mine, his right is back up his nose.

All I can think about is how he’s about to shake people’s hands during the Kiss of Peace and then receive communion in-between nose picks.  I squeeze his hand past the point of discomfort, he starts to yelp in pain, and I hiss at him to go to the bathroom, clean up, get himself together, and come back when he can be respectful and reverent.

Because respectful and reverent was exactly what I was being.

When he eventually came back from the bathroom, I leaned over and whispered, “I’m really sorry for hurting you. That wasn’t my intention. I lost my temper, and I’m sorry. I want to help you, not hurt you.”  And with that, he covered his face with his jacket and cried.  And hugged me.

Modeling Humility

When I model humility to my children, I show them how to take responsibility, apologize, and make amends.  Because, yeah, they’re not perfect, and neither am I.

When I model humility, I admit my imperfections, but don’t allow them to be a reason to stop showing up and trying.

When I model humility, I embrace the truth… however messy or embarrassing.

When I model humility, I can invite you into my home and practice hospitality, even though my couch is covered in laundry and my floors haven’t been vacuumed in… a while.

Humility doesn’t mean putting myself down.  It means owning who I am – gifts and flaws, sin and grace – and my need for God.

As a parent, as a spouse, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, humility is the pathway to love in the midst of tension, arguments, and unrest.  Humility is the antidote to pride and resentment.

I’ve been practicing modeling humility for a while now.  It keeps working… in part because I keep screwing up.  Gifts and flaws, sin and grace, right?

“The Back Of Church Pews ©”

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A Joyful Heart
Advent, Humility, Joy

Preparing, Waiting, and Joy


I love how life teaches me about faith.

Advent is about waiting and preparation.  I know that.  I knew that.  Except I didn’t really get it until the year I was pregnant.  That was the year I encountered the blessed waiting of Advent as an expectant mother in her first trimester.

Up till then, my “preparations” were focused on gift-giving and party-attending.  Don’t get me wrong – I planned, prepared, and purchased gifts from the heart.  I organized Christmas caroling at the nursing home for my high school students.  I participated in Giving Trees.  It wasn’t that I was self-centered and materialistic… I just didn’t get the whole waiting and preparation thing.

But that Advent when I was pregnant with my first child, I sat at Church one Sunday, ever-so-aware of how nauseated I felt, ever-so-aware of the little life growing inside me, and ever-so-in-awe of the path that lie ahead. Preparation wasn’t about nursery colors, registries, and baby names.  It was about preparing our lives–and our marriage–to receive and raise a child.
New Born Alex

Fast forward nine years.  I thought I knew what waiting and preparation were about.  And then, on December 1st, the day after the First Sunday of Advent, my husband came home with the news that he was being furloughed.  Furloughed is not unemployed; you technically keep your job but aren’t allowed to work until the company can afford to pay you.  He’s an aerospace engineer, working for a company contracted by NASA… How long would the furlough last?  Until contracts were signed and there were funds to pay for his position.  Possibly in a day or so… possibly 4-5 weeks.

So we waited… and hoped… and prayed.

In the waiting, there was an absurd amount questioning (particularly second guessing financial decisions and employment possibilities) and the awareness of a humbling loss of control.  From day to day there would be a glimmer of hope, and then a “no.”  A lot of uncertainty.

Through it all, I was struck by a deep sense of perspective.  We faced temporary unpaid leave.  Many are in the midst of long-term unemployment.  Others face terminal illnesses or a tragic loss of a loved one.  Sure, we’d rather not be in this situation, but it could definitely be worse.

This past Friday, after two weeks of uncertainty, Peter went in to work for a meeting and then used up the last of his paid leave.  There was one more glimmer of hope: his company had won a contract with three-persons-worth-of-work, but it was a matter of waiting to see if they would assign it to him.

Sure enough, the answer came Saturday night while we were at his boss’s house for a Christmas party.  Praise God, Peter was assigned to part of that new project and could return to work on Monday.  Awash in joy, I couldn’t wait to share the news!
Back To Work Post

The next morning was the Third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for joy!  We light the pink candle and remember to be joyful.  Let me tell you, joy radiated from within, and it felt incredible!

Children seem to dabble in joy so easily, especially at Christmas; adults seem to struggle with stress, especially at Christmas.

We really do need that pink candle to remind us to be joyful.

Well, with this good news, I was determined to be joyful!

To be honest, although I had been setting aside money from Criagslisting old toys, I was hesitant to do any Christmas shopping until I knew whether we might need those funds in other ways.  So between Amazon and all the other stores for all the other things, I’ve been buying gifts this week.  It’s a little crazy out there.  It’s tempting to forget joy and embrace stress… after all, everyone else is doing it.

So every day this week, in the midst of every errand, I find myself pausing in reflective prayer: I am so thankful for the opportunity to do this. I choose joy.

 I invite you to do the same: choose joy!

  • How has your life taught you about faith recently?

  • How can you choose joy this week?
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Article, Informational

Moral Teaching on Torture


The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Torture Report” brings a slew of articles on the use of torture and the deceit surrounding it.  Although the report itself is 500 pages, there are plenty of sites that offer snippets of commentary alongside snapshots of the report itself.

It is difficult to read about the details.  Even the vague descriptive terms make me squeamish.  But I think that’s a good thing.  It should be difficult to read.  We shouldn’t be desensitized to the details of torture.  A visceral reaction to articles about torture reflect our recognition of the evil in the act.

“Church teaching is clear. Torture is abhorrent and can neither be condoned nor tolerated.” (USCCB, Background on Torture)

Torture is morally wrong.  It is discussed in the Catechism in conjunction with the 5th Commandment’s discussion of disrespect for human life and dignity.

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity (CCC, 2297).

Why does the Church teach that Torture wrong?

1. Torture debases the human dignity of both the victim and perpetrator.  Not only does the act of torture violate the dignity of the prisoner, but in order to participate in such vile acts, the dignity of the torturer is also violated.  All levels of authority figures who order and condone the practice of torture participate in violating the dignity of both the victim and the perpetrator.  The practice of torture “estranges the torturer from God and compromises the
physical or mental integrity of the tortured” (USCCB, Background on Torture).

“An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” — St. Thomas Aquinas (CCC, 1759).

2. The end does not justify the means. People often speculate that torture is justifiable if it ultimately renders information that can save lives, thus asserting that it is a necessary evil.

Research has shown (and evidenced in the Senate report) that information gathered as a result of torture is not reliable.

But from a moral perspective, the focusing on the reliability of the information misses the point.  Morally speaking, we must never do evil to achieve good, nor must we ever try to justify doing evil because good came out of it.  We are not entitled to achieve our goals by any means necessary.  

3. Do unto others is the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).  Essentially this is the idea that we should not do to others what we do not want them doing to us.  This is part of the reason why torture is illegal according to international law and the Geneva Conventions.

We cannot condone torturing another human being.  As a matter of faith, we must reject this practice.

Prisoners by José licensed under CC BY 2.0

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