When your family lights the first candle of your Advent wreath, you start out on a journey of waiting for the birth of Jesus. If you live in a northern country, during Advent, the days grow shorter and winter arrives. At the same time, animals and plants are getting ready for their winter journey, the long wait until spring.
How will they find food? How will they stay warm?
Become more aware of nature's Advent by taking a walk during the first week of Advent. Maybe you can even see some nature from your window.
When I walk in winter, I feel peaceful, but I also feel compassion—some living things seem to struggle. I've been inspired by All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss. But I've added observations from the plants and animals I've seen around my home. Here are some ideas of what you and your family could look for:
Sunrise and sunset: Look at the weather app on your phone and write down the sunrise and sunset each day as you get closer to Christmas. What do you notice?
Chickadees: Do you see small black-capped birds flying from tree to tree? Perhaps they are remembering the treasures they've mapped out all year long. Chickadees stash seeds all around our backyards, parks, and forests to keep for later—their own woodsy pantries. In wintertime, they have to remember where they placed each one in thousands of hiding places. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to see them digging out some of their buried treasure. (To see pictures of chickadees and find out if they live in your area, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/ and search for chickadee.)
Dusk birds: If you walk as night as falling, you might see many tiny birds all landing in one tree or even crowding into a hole in a tree trunk. We once saw a flock go into an icy evergreen surrounded by crowds of cars in a Safeway parking lot in Truckee, CA. In the 20-degree weather, the tall evergreen shook from all of the tiny wings beating. We could even hear the twittering noise over the shopping center's holiday music.
Birds can raise the temperature for sleeping much higher than that of the air outside by finding a hole in a live tree or huddling together with other birds. We shivered below as we pushed our shopping cart but they were warming up together above. See nature.org's blog for more.
Berries and other fruits: Look for berries or other fruits on a nature walk—even in winter. Do you see berries that look like little snowballs? In Oregon, snowberries come out in October but last through rainy months until winter. Robins and other thrushes (robin-like birds) and even deer eat them. Near my house, they grow at the edge of a forest near a sidewalk. I like to imagine deer walking on the sidewalk and feasting on marshmallow berries.
When you find berries, don't pick them. Leave them for animals that need food.
You might find something red, the fruit of wild roses. Birds, squirrels, and even coyotes like these rose hips much better than rose petals.
Deciduous trees (trees with leaves): Observe the trees on your walk. Have all the deciduous trees lost all of their leaves? Can you now see old nests? The picture below is an old squirrel nest.
Although the trees seem dead, like skeletons, they are hibernating in a way. The cold causes two problems: less water and the chance the tree could freeze. When the ground freezes, the roots can't bring water to the leaves. The large leaves on the tree would let too much water escape. So, the tree lets go of the leaves.
In the cold, the bark acts like a blanket to help keep the tree from freezing. Like a puffy jacket, spaces full of air inside the bark help warm the tree. Inside the tree, where there is less water, its cells change, becoming stronger and glassier and fighting against freezing.
Evergreen trees: Evergreen trees are a symbol for an uplifted spirit, according to Scottish tradition. They do have leaves—their needles are actually leaves. They don't lose them, because they are tough, narrow, and covered with wax. Because of this shape and coating, they don't lose water.
A pet cat: Even a cat gets ready for winter. When you pet your cat, do they feel furrier? Cats grow more fur starting in the fall as there is less sunlight each day.
The more you look, the more you will see the changes of winter all around you. How are you getting ready for winter?
Things to Do
My family and I once went on a boat trip to try to see dolphins and whales. The tiny boat chugged along, and soon, we lost sight of land. Fog stayed around us. It colored the water gray and stopped us from seeing far. I love boats and water, but I felt scared. I lost my feeling of which direction the land had been. We couldn't find the dolphins and whales, and our only friends seemed to be a few dark seabirds that flew overhead. But were they flying farther out to sea to find food? Or toward land perhaps to rest?
Of course, our boat captain had instruments he could read to find his way. Long ago, sailors could find their way using stars and compasses.
But how do we find our way when we don't know what to do? Maybe when something has made us sad or angry? St. Jerome, a wise saint, talked about St. Mary, mother of Jesus, as the star of the sea. He said that she can help guide us when we don't know what to do, the way that stars once guided sailors. We can say a prayer asking Mary to help us, and we can call her by the special name, Star of the Sea.
Even today, boats, like our whale-watching boat, head home to safe harbors where churches named St. Mary Star of the Sea wait to welcome tired ship captains, fisherfolk, and sailors. There are churches named after St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Astoria, Oregon; Brookings, Oregon; Sausalito, California near San Francisco; and near San Diego, California. St. Mary waits to welcome people all along the Pacific coast and along coasts around the world. She also waits to welcome all of us in prayer.
This month's blog post is a bit of fun inspired by counting penguins while I've stayed at home during the pandemic. At Zooniverse, you can volunteer virtually to contribute to scientific research projects, and kids and adults can help monitor penguin populations as they reviewi photographs. I also read about a Cornell Ornithology Lab activity for kids to get moving by imitating bird motions.
So, here's a short and silly poem about penguin movement illustrated with some Penguin Watch photographs available for educational purposes.
Move Like a Penguin
Take a tummy pillow slide
from couches to carpets
to an icy tide.
Waddle through shiny snow.
Wave your paddle wings
and wiggle your cold claw toes.
Crunch a frozen trail.
Where will you go?
Tell your penguin tale.
Photos from https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/penguin-watch/about/education, accessed April 2020
Catholic churches are spreading the news of a wonderful idea for Palm Sunday morning: Place any green branch, such as a simple one from your own garden, in a window or on your door on the morning of April 5. The Missionaries of the Holy Spirit have started this idea as a way of connecting us all in our celebration when we cannot go into churches.
I am already ready with the palm branch I received from a beautifully painted box outside Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Beaverton, OR.
While thinking about Palm Sunday, I went on a "signs of spring walk," an idea suggested by the High Desert Museum of Bend, OR. Searching for nests, nibbled grass shoots, half-eaten pine cones, and budding trees helped me to stop checking my phone for news updates as I fell into the calm of nature's updates. Sounds of squeaky hummingbirds and croaky frogs replaced the text buzz of the phone. I plan to take this walk again on Palm Sunday.
Nursing home residents are some of the most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from coronavirus. At this difficult time, even their friends and families may have to stay away to keep them safe.
One way to help is to send cards of support. Children can draw pictures on homemade cards and write simple notes that they are thinking of both residents or staff. Adults can also send cards.
This USA Today article covers medical advice that sending items through the mail does not risk the health of residents. Be sure not to lick any envelopes. Simply Google the addresses of any nursing homes in your community.
If you want to write to Oregon, healthcare workers are battling the virus at the Oregon Veterans' Home in Lebanon and Regency Park Assisted Living in Portland (the Cedar Mill area near Beaverton). Sadly, one of the honored residents, a veteran in his 90s passed away from the disease.
Here is the text from a Facebook post from the Oregon Veterans' Home:
"Our honored residents and staff at the Oregon Veterans' Home have been overwhelmed by the kind words and supportive messages that have been posted online over the past few days. If you would like to send a more tangible sign of your encouragement and support for our honored residents and hard-working staff, a postcard or letter would mean the world to them.
Please send postcards or letters in an unlicked envelope to ATTN: Operation Well Wish, and please specify in parenthesis if your letter is for (Residents) or (Staff). Please do not address letters to specific residents or staff members. Address:
ATTN: Operation Well Wish (Residents or Staff)
Oregon Veterans' Home
600 N. 5th St.
Lebanon, OR 97355"
Here is the address for Regency Park where at the time of this post, three residents and two staff members have tested positive:
Regency Park Assisted Living
Attn: Activities Director
8300 SW Barnes Rd
Portland, OR 97225
Thank you for reaching out even as we have to stay in to keep these treasured individuals safe.
In a time when many of us have to remain apart for social distancing, in faith we still know that we are connected in spirit. One of my favorite saints/blessed holy ones, Blessed Julian of Norwich had a vision that Jesus surrounds all of us like an enfolded or wrapped blanket. We can trust that Jesus is always with us to protect us.
Making a friendship bracelet is an easy and tangible way to show a circle of caring, protection, connection, and love. Jonah Larson is a young crochet enthusiast who has inspired me, my nephew, and a worldwide community with his lessons and patterns. Jonah's passion for crochet has helped him focus his attention in school, express his creativity, and connect with friends around the world. Find his friendship bracelet tutorial here.
Seeking connection in her own time, Julian became inspired to share sixteen visions that she experienced when she fell so mysteriously ill that those around her felt she would die. After she recovered, she decided to start a new life of prayer, living alone in a small room attached to the Church of St. Julian, where she gets her name today. She gave advice to those who came to her for help and began recording her visions. Her "showings" are the first woman-authored book written in English that has survived until today. To learn more, visit the Friends of Julian.
In Frozen 2, Elsa, her sister, and her friends find a way to live in peace and balance with four "spirits" of nature: water, earth, fire, and wind. While at first, the theme of the story did not seem to relate to the Catholic faith, I began reflecting on the beauty of God's creation in these four forces. As I remembered the imagery from the film of simple symbols that reflect water, earth, fire, and wind, I began to think about Catholic saints who also represent these aspects of creation.
So, while enjoying the movie and creating a remembrance of water, earth, fire, and wind symbols, think about these four saints.
Earth: St. Francis
Lived in Italy in the early 1200s
St. Francis turned away from a life of wealth to pray with the poor and in abandoned places, in nature, and near animals. He found that he could have conversations with God in nature. One of his prayers is, "praised be you my Lord with all my creatures." He saw God's creation in all of nature around him, and he even considered the earth to be his sister. Pope St. John Paul made him the saint of ecology: the study of the ways that living things relate to each other and their environment. This wonderful website, Praying Nature with St. Francis of Assisi, is a guide to following St. Francis outside into contemplation.
Fire: St Brigid
Lived in Ireland, 500s
St. Brigid convinced a king to give her land for a monastery in the 500s in Ireland—even after he had told her "no" many times before. She and the sisters who followed her began burning a fire at the monastery to show the light of the Christian faith. St. Brigid wanted to connect to a tradition that had gone on before when priestesses had lit bonfires on the hillsides to honor a goddess. For hundreds of years, the sisters kept their fire burning until monasteries were attacked. But more importantly, they kept the fire of faith alive in their hearts.
Inspired to create a symbol of peace, Brigidine Sisters in modern times have started the tradition again, and it has become so important in Ireland that even the Irish President helped light the flame! President Mary McAleese said that the modern St. Brigid's fire connects the history of pre-Christian, Catholic, and Protestant Irish people since the light once glowed before divisions into these different groups.
Wind: Pope St. John Paul II
Lived from 1920-2005, born in Poland
"The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." --John 3:8
Pope St. John Paul II was born of the spirit. Like the wind sounding from place to place, he traveled the globe, spreading a message of hope to people in over 130 countries (https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/03/22/legacy-john-paul-ii). He kept journeying even as he became older and suffered from Parkinson's disease. With the Holy Spirit guiding him even in times when he felt in pain, he inspired the faith of millions. Because I am a tiny part in this story, Pope John Paul II is one my favorite saints. Before I was Catholic at the age of 25, I was fortunate to attend an outdoor Mass where he presided in Manila, the Philippines, one of the turning points in my decision to become Catholic as an adult.
Water: St. Veronica
Lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus
St. Veronica overcame fear to help Jesus at a time when he most needed compassion, when he walked carrying a heavy cross. She saw sweat and blood on the face of Jesus and wished to hand him her veil to wipe it away—a simple comfort. But Veronica must have felt frightened that if she offered help, the soldiers guarding Jesus might punish her. And she wouldn't have been used to taking off her veil in front of others.
Alone in the crowd, she did reach out and give Jesus her veil to take away the water dripping on his face. And this simple act made her a saint.
Make a Frozen 2 Symbols Banner
If you and your children have enjoyed Frozen 2, the elements in the movie can remind you of Catholic heroes, too. Here is a craft you can make to remember the movie and the saints (and there are others whose stories touch earth, fire, wind, or water!).
You will need:
Hopefully without giving plot points away, I'd like to share a favorite moment from Frozen 2 when Anna, who after experiencing a devastating loss and reflecting for some time alone in a cold cave, decides nonetheless she must venture out to help save her kingdom. Despite tragedy, she must do "the next right thing." She takes one small step forward out of the cave toward rescuing those she cares about.
This moment reminds me St. Ignatius and his way of making decisions through prayer. In Ignatian spirituality, there are times of desolation, feeling farther from God, and consolation, feeling closer. During times of desolation, it can be harder to make decisions that follow God's call. But through prayer, it is possible, and kids can do this, too.
This Loyola Press article summarizes Ignatian spirituality for me so well. I'm eager to order Margaret Silf's book, The Inner Compass. For kids, if something bad has happened or they feel far from God, remind them to:
And remind kids that we don't have to be a princess saving a mythical kingdom to be doing small things to further the kingdom of God here on earth.
Every year LA’s Religious Education Congress is my way to renew my faith. As I travelled there this March, I felt concerned that my family and I tended to focus on bad things that happened each day. While I have had a great tradition of saying the rosary, I wasn’t very consistent with my other prayer practice of writing in a prayer journal (ironic for a writer).
But it’s beautiful that the Holy Spirit always helps. I attended a talk by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, and one of the first things he said is that the best way to be holy is to be grateful. How simple and easy this could be. I would have thought holiness required great sacrifice or acts of significant compassion.
I actually wasn’t sure that I believed him. But then he gave the example of St. Therese, one of my favorite saints, who lived, what on the surface seemed to be a very ordinary life, but who always recognized the divinity in each moment. And I suppose that is what gratitude is, understanding the grace that is present in each moment that we are so fortunate to encounter.
After this wonderful inspiration at RE Congress, I had to become practical. How could I make sure gratitude didn’t get shoved off my to-do list? I needed to find a way to put it on my phone. I found a fantastic app: Gratitude Journal 365 Pro, which at $1.99 is worth it.
With the app, you can write a short bullet list of “gratitudes” for each day and include a photo (or not). What I like is that the gratitude can be just a few quick words. Sometimes my photo is as simple as a restaurant sign.
Then, I can go back and look at a calendar view and see tiny thumbnail photos of all my gratitudes. A dot indicates when I’ve added text only. I can also look at individual days or a list view.
Here are some ways gratitude has happened for me:
But what happens when there is just a bad day? Sometimes, I’ve created a gratitude moment. I thought at first that was artificial—until I realized it became meaningful for someone else. On a Monday, nothing particularly special had happened at work. I hadn’t seen anything beautiful in nature. It was just a blah day. I had nothing to enter in my gratitude journal. Then I had the idea that I could set out a candle and flower at dinner. My daughter lit up despite the bland Mondayness. Suddenly we had a gratitude moment!
I wish that you will encounter many of them.
Create a personal mini-wreath of prayer with Tiny Saints charms, composed of just those saints who reflect what you feel in your soul. I was fortunate to find the charms at this year’s Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, CA, but they are also available online (www.tinysaints.com). First, pray about your intention. Next, reflect on the simple images of the saints. I appreciate how modern and accessible they are. Then, read the succinct descriptions of each saint’s life on the back of the charm packaging or on the website.
For me, my prayer centered on finding a bold courage to write and share my faith with others despite some obstacles within my life. I wanted to rediscover familiar saints and become inspired by new ones. Now after arranging the charms simply with some beads, I pray about the saints’ stories and powerfully sense their intercession. Here are just two:
Mary Magdalene: I had known that she had first discovered the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning. But I learned that she is the patron saint of converts. I became Catholic at the age of 27 after a non-religious childhood in a loving family with a Protestant background.
Blessed Margaret of Castello: I had never heard of her story. Her family confined her in a room attached to a church simply because she had disabilities. But she found faith and friendship with a priest. She became a Dominican Sister, serving working parents by caring for their children. This service resonates with me, since one of my greatest joys was volunteering every week at a preschool for children of families facing adversity. I can’t even imagine the strength of Margaret’s faith and boldness in overcoming obstacles.
Stories like Margaret’s continue today. In a podcast by Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, he testified powerfully how game participants vulnerably trust the world with their dreams in a way that many of us find difficult. (Find it at Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations.) Blessed Margaret must have trusted the Holy Spirit to lead her out of that dark room to a life filled with love and hope.
Your prayers are likely very different than mine, but that is the beauty of saints’ stories. We can find in them so many different threads of human experience, and I love the way that Tiny Saints bring those to us so simply.
I'm Sherry Weaver Smith, author of The Wolf and the Shield: An Adventure with Saint Patrick. I like to have adventures in getting outside in nature, crafting, and cooking as I explore our Catholic faith with my daughter. We want to be inspired by the saints!