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.
More than 120 years ago at Christmas, in a monastery in northern France, a young Catholic Sister named Therese invited her other Sisters each to give back a treasured gift to God: a song, her smile, or her heart. Therese wrote these invitations on colored pieces of paper and presented them in a candlelit ritual.
As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, we are thankful for the gifts of our talents that God has given us. But do we remember to give them back to God? To use them for his purposes? Or perhaps we have trouble noticing what our gifts are? Our family members and friends might be able to tell us.
Inspired by St. Therese's beautiful Christmas ritual, here is an idea for family members to celebrate their gratitude for each other's gifts and reflect on the invitation to discern ways to put them in practice for God's purposes.
Each family member will receive a tiny leaf bouquet or cluster of bells that evoke her wonderful qualities. As she goes forward after the holiday, she might pray about the new ways those qualities might help those around her.
Laura E Wolfe's wonderful new book from Ancient Faith Publishing, Sasha and the Dragon, frees a saint from history and brings him into the heart of a child, and into the hearts of our children. Sasha struggles with dealing with an ill grandmother and schoolmates who bully him. One night, troubled by these conflicts, he is attacked by a dragon, the fiercest monster under the bed. But Sasha's faith and prayer become real as St. Michael not only confronts this fear through a clashing battle but also gives Sasha a way to bring kindness to others as the story progresses. This picture book is a powerful allegory to inspire our children to pray to transform their fear (and all monsters under the bed) into a pathway for love.
Wolfe's imagery is beautifully spare, giving us background about Sasha, such as his move from the countryside to the city, in just a few words. Illustrations by Nicholas Malara are vibrant and powerful, sure to captivate the imagination of young readers. My only request is that I wish for more dialogue between Sasha and his grandmother or his classmates. I wish to hear more of his voice. However, this detail does not detract from the inspiration of Wolfe's theme that we are never alone in facing our fears.
Please do take a look at the book on Amazon.
I am also captivated by the information at the back of the book about the art elements typically used to portray St. Michael the Archangel in the Orthodox tradition:
I've looked at some Catholic representations, and St. Michael has wings and is holding a lance, I'm not seeing the wonderful and vibrant red color. I am fascinated by what I can learn from other traditions, and I feel so blessed to have read Sasha and the Dragon. I am inspired to visit my nearest St. Michael the Archangel parish, and after quick research, I've learned there is one in Portland, OR. And recently, they have commissioned new artwork, including a painting of St. Michael slaying a dragon. I will be going to Mass and to get a photograph.
For me and my daughter, Advent had always been a time of adventure, looking at calendars, doing activities on many days to find the joyful light of the season. Of course, we never achieved everything outlined, but we learned about saints, or did crafts, or read Bible passages together. Hopefully these were gentle adventures, and I didn't put too much of my admittedly Type A personality into it!
But this year, my daughter has turned 13. And as I brought out our Advent wreath, I reflected on the fact that we had moved from California to Oregon, and I also felt that I had not shown the best values of faith, hope, and love as I could have. The stress and pain of leaving my old home had broken me apart. Our new parish, while wonderful, is different in many ways from the one that we had left.
My daughter, who loves our new state and her school, nonetheless feels that God does not hear her. She prays but she feels that he does not help. Why is there still suffering? I answer that God suffers with us. That suffering is a challenge for us to confront with kindness. I tell her that God always helps but that we cannot always know the ways that he works—that we must wait for his story to write itself, to change, and to end. But she is not satisfied with these answers.
Please, EDGE programs in parishes, and I so appreciate the volunteers who feel called and gifted to work with age group…address the tough questions with preteens and teens. They need more than pizza and games. They are questioning their faith at the very core. This article, "Why are 10-year-olds leaving the church?", by Julianne Stanz resonated with me.
So in the beautifully creative Advent activity calendars and resources I found, I pulled out the ideas that could be appropriate for teens. I listed them in a spreadsheet, and here are some we tried, which might help in your family:
It was in the midst of finding the Giving Tree at the local animal shelter that I began to realize something about Advent with a teenager. But I had to have one other Advent experience to understand fully.
I spoke with my friends who participate with me in Centering Prayer (based on the work of Fr. Thomas Keating) as part of Contemplative Outreach of Portland. They have so much more wisdom than I do. I shared my daughter's questions about her faith, and this is what they said:
I put away my spreadsheet of Advent activities. When I looked at my daughter surrounded by cats and kittens at the animal shelter and let the wisdom I'd heard reach me finally, I realized with teenagers that we have to follow their lead. Their Advent is like finding stepping stones through a stream.
This is Laura's Advent:
The Simbang Gabi Mass was the last stepping stone of our Advent. A Filipino Christmas Novena tradition, the 8th night we attended was held at Holy Trinity Church in Beaverton, OR. I was so happy to find this event, since I became Catholic after living in the Philippines for one year when I was in my 20s. In many ways the Philippines is my Catholic home. In California, it was a little easier to find Simbang Gabi Masses. Laura has become used to attending these.
The theme of the Mass, and this is how I know (since it was what we needed) God does hear us: God never lets us down. He always hears us. He always forgives us. Hope is found in someone who simply smiles. Fr. Rodel de Mesa was an amazing homilist, and I looked over, and my daughter was crying.
Four nights ago, I had a dream that I was walking in a beautiful deep green meadow. I had found the Oregon trail. I joyfully called out to Laura. "I've found it: the right path! Come here. I'll show you."
But she didn't hear me. She should have. She wasn't far away. She turned and smiled at me. I suppose that she has to find the right path on her own.
It's a wonder that not many people know about St. Camillus, who built an order of priests who cared for the sick and dying on battlefields. These ministers wore red crosses on their black cassocks, symbols of hope in places of brokenness. Susan Peek's young adult novel helps us remember the story...here is my review.
In another great addition, A Soldier Surrenders, The Conversion of St. Camillus de Lellis, from the God's Forgotten Friends Series, Susan Peek challenges us and her protagonist, Saint Camillus, to search in our hearts for the true meaning of courage. The book opens at the heart of the story, introducing us to the most important person for Camillus, his father, who is battle-tested and inspirational. The two have been on a journey as mercenary soldiers.
Interrupting his brawling ways, due to a wound that won't heal, Camillus becomes an orderly at a hospital in Rome. Some of my most favorite scenes took place here, and I would have liked even more details of how healing would take place in the 1500s. Here, another orderly, Curzio, challenges Camillus' soldierly definition of courage as strength and honor, instead pointing out that it is mastering oneself and following the call of God. I love Peek's realism here in how she portrays characters. There isn't an easy answer for Camillus, and he can't listen fully to his friend's words at this time in his life.
With a quick pace and plot turns, Camillus sinks back to old ways of fighting and gambling as readers look into a soul, that like Camillus' wound, struggles to heal. I wondered how Camillus could ever make his way back to the places I believe he needed to needed to go.
In summary, this beautiful novel left me with two images of courage: crescent-shaped swords clashing against men paid to fight and a man simply comforting another, a stranger, in his dying moment on a battlefield. This second image is the cornerstone of Saint Camillus' eventual legacy. As Camillus follows both paths, the reader does as well, a unique reading journey. Highly recommended.
Not only has award-winning author Annemarie O'Brien created World Reads, a blog of international-themed books (see my last blog post), but she has also collected an amazing virtual library of books about kids' best friends, dogs, along with wild counterparts, wolves, foxes, and coyotes. There are stories about friendships between children and Shetland Sheepdogs, Border Collies, St. Bernards, almost all types the dogs you can think of, and my favorite, wolves.
I met Annemarie at the Bay Area Book Festival 2016, and she invited me to share The Wolf and the Shield: An Adventure with Saint Patrick, over at Dog Reads. Please see the interview at https://annemarieobrienauthor.com/2016/08/q-and-a-with-sherry-weaver-smith-the-wolf-and-the-shield/
Award-winning author Annemarie O'Brien has created World Reads, a vibrant blog of interviews from writers who have written stories set in 38 countries all around the world. Click from Afghanistan to Japan to Yemen to discover children's adventures that will inspire cultural awareness and travel dreams.
I met Annemarie at the Bay Area Book Festival 2016, and she invited me to share my latest book, Search for the Hidden Garden: A Discovery with Saint Therese, over at World Reads. Please see the interview http://annemarieobrienauthor.com/2016/08/q-and-a-with-sherry-weaver-smith-search-for-the-hidden-garden/.
"I still feel the profound and poetic impressions that were born in my soul at the sight of fields enameled with cornflowers and all types of wildflowers. Already I was in love with the wide open spaces. Space and the gigantic fir trees, the branches sweeping down to the ground, left in my heart an impression…" From Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux
In Search for the Hidden Garden: A Discovery with Saint Therese, I wanted to plant the landscape where the characters have their adventure with some of Therese's most favorite symbols. A dream I have is to bring some of these into my own garden. One of the easiest would be to paint a symbol on a white stone.
Here are some garden flowers, trees, and decorations that Therese mentions in her autobiography. You can consider adding these to your own green space, even a potted plant on a desk, a container garden, or a backyard:
Older teens and adults can discover a forgotten saint, and his lost values, through reading The Last Viking by Susan Peek. Peek offers one of the wonderful promises of historical fiction, guiding us in understanding what we have in common with those in the past. But also critical to sound historical fiction, she challenges us to consider if we've really made progress, when we compare how we might make our moral decisions with those made by compelling characters of the past, especially her hero, Magnus, an Orkney prince. I know a book resonates with me when I still am contemplating it days later, and the steps and the course the main character takes at the end challenge me.
Throughout the suspenseful plot, readers trace the paths of other characters who are well-drawn, especially Magnus's brother, Aerling, and Norwegian noble, Kol Kalison. Peek does much of this shading through a winning way with dialogue. At times, some action scenes take place "off camera," which I might have preferred to have described real time, but the author may have done this to create more suspense and to keep the pace going. I also would have liked to read a few more details of setting: the landscape, the warships, and their weapons, but again Peek's great way with dialogue and quick pace won me over. A last point about the writing is that since there is a particularly violent scene toward the end of the book, parents of younger teens who are a bit more sensitive might want to read ahead to ensure it's appropriate.
In short, Susan Peek has found her calling—to allow us all to discover and now remember holy men and women through her God's Forgotten Friends series. Through the gift of her storytelling, I'll always remember St. Magnus's singular strength, not the triumph of battle but the mercy of forgiveness.
Year of Mercy: It seems that St. Magnus can be a wonderful guide for us in this Year of Mercy. This novel is also particularly appropriate for young men—who might not otherwise be connecting to this theme. It could be a great gift.
Tracing History: The characters in the novel travel from Orkney to the coastal waters off Norway and Wales. Even Scotland is a setting. Other islands are mentioned. Teens can research history and geography as a jumping off point from the novel. Just a quick Google search revealed at least several churches in Britain dedicated to St. Magnus, and I'm eager to try to find at least one on my next trip!
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!