Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday: Starting Lent Simply

Lent is upon us. It’s a time of prayer and increased awareness of Jesus and the suffering he endured in order that we all might be saved. Some people think of it as a dreary, sad time. I can see how some people might feel that way. After all, it’s more serious at church on Sunday (no “Alleulias” are sung), people are fasting and not eating meat on Fridays, and giving up things they usually enjoy. A good friend of mine gave up all sweets, as she does every year. That would be very difficult for me, seeing as I love, love, love anything with sugar! Another friend of mine decided to make a greater effort to be nicer to the people she loves, and to try not to lose her temper so easily.
Lent is a time for simpler things, and about making ourselves better. Some of you may have soup suppers at your parish, which consist of a simple meal of soup and bread. Maybe you prepare simpler meals on Fridays, meatless dinners without all of the extra trimmings. Others decide to keep it simple by going out of their way to do things for other people, things they might not normally do. Maybe some of you make the effort to go to Mass more often. Definitely, praying more is a simple but wonderful thing we can do during Lent to make us more aware of Jesus.
A funny thing happens when we get closer to God. St. Therese was right when she said that the nearer one gets to God, the simpler one becomes. When you love God with your whole heart and strive to make Him a part of your life in all things, all of the time, you become simpler, more childlike. St. Therese always said that she wished to be little, like a child, simpler. She said that being childlike is the way to get to Heaven. What does it mean to be “childlike”? Well, children are trusting. They trust that Mom and Dad love them and will take care of all of their needs. Both children and adults can also be that trusting with God, our Father. We can trust that He will take care of all of our needs, even if things look bad and we don’t exactly feel that God is near. He is, and He wants you to put simple trust in Him for everything.
Children also love unconditionally. Think of a baby who needs her mother to meet every need of hers. She loves her mother no matter what; even if Mom forgets to change her diaper (oops!) or lets her cry a bit too long in her crib (time to nap!). When the wet diaper is changed or Mom comes in to bring her comfort, the baby is happy to see her. She loves her even though Mom goofed up or didn’t come running in. After all, it’s still Mommy, and the baby loves her no matter what. We should love God in that way, no matter what. I have friends who have been through very hard times, and you know what? They love God even more today. They love him unconditionally and He loves us in the same way.
I know most of the readers of my books, Olivia and the Little Way and Olivia's Gift, are children. St. Therese always wants us to stay that way, using her Little Way to do so. Sure, we all grow up physically, mentally, and emotionally, and that is the way it is supposed to be. But when it comes to God, especially during Lent, Therese reminds us to be like little children. The closer you get to Him, you will be simpler. Life will be less complicated because you won’t let little things disturb you. You will love God like a trusting child, letting Him take the lead in your life. “The nearer one gets to God, the simpler one becomes.”
How simple — how little — can you be this Lenten season?

This article is also published on

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

God Always Knows What He Is Doing

Writers are funny; we all have our little idiosyncrasies and ways we get ideas. I talk to friends about their kids, pray a lot, study my own kids, and ask them questions. But as funny as it sounds, the Good Lord likes to send me ideas when I'm driving my minivan around town. And I think this is very ironic because I can't exactly write them down at the time, of course.  But it just so happened that when I was just starting to write Olivia's Gift, the sequel to Olivia and the Little Way, I asked myself what I wanted to see Olivia do. Perhaps I was even driving at the time!  Immediately God gave me the answer: Have Olivia go to Confession.  Yes, take the reader along with Olivia, right into the box!  I told some people about it and, they were a bit stunned.

"Really?" one said.  "You're going to bring the reader into the confessional with Olivia?"

"Yes!" I exclaimed.  "I can't think of any fiction book that has done this for kids. Can you just imagine: the reader watching Olivia celebrate the sacrament that nobody else gets to see? It's so private, but I think the readers will love going along with her. It will help them feel more comfortable when they go.  If they see Olivia go, then maybe it will help them when they go. I want the readers to see how beautiful it is."

But even as I said it, I knew it would be the toughest scene I'd ever have to write. 

"What do you think?" I asked, excited yet growing a bit uncertain the more I thought about it.

"You know what? I think you should do it," my friend said. 

I knew it sounded like a crazy idea, but I loved it for that very reason.

Still, I was nervous. And doubtful. Maybe I wasn't meant to write this. It might be too private of a topic.  If I was going to do this, I had to do this right, and it haunted me for a while. I know there are books for kids that describe the sacrament and what it's all about, but I had never, ever seen one that had the reader go along with a fictional character into this most private place.  It had to be handled just so.  And the hardest part?  The obvious: I've never been in the confessional with anyone else, of course!  I only had my own experiences to go on. 

So for a long time, the scene didn't get written. Our adversary was all over me.

"How's the Confession scene coming?" a friend asked.

"It's not," I answered.  "Let's change the subject!"

Every time I'd sit down to write it, I'd shake my head.  I really couldn't believe I was doing this, yet I knew the idea had come from God (as all of my Olivia ideas do!) and I knew He put that idea on my heart for a reason.  I did not want to let Him down. What does the great saint Padre Pio teach us? "Pray, hope, and don't worry!"  In this case, it would be "Pray, hope, write it, and don't worry!"

God knows what He is doing, even when I don't, I told myself. So I prayed for the help I needed write this very important scene, one of the most important scenes in the book, in my opinion. I wanted my readers to know just how precious—and healing—a gift the Sacrament of Reconciliation truly is, so that they would use it throughout their whole lives to grow closer to our loving and forgiving God.

The scene came to me, and I wrote it. I was so pleased with how it came out, but I still didn't know how it would sit with my readers. What would they think? Had I gone too far with Olivia?

Not long ago, I received a lovely letter from a girl I'll call Nicole. She wrote:

"...but most especially chapter twenty-three of Olivia's Gift when she goes to Confession and is totally nervous.  I also feel nervous when I have to go to Confession. But your book really helped me see that we shouldn't be nervous because Confession is a celebration, a joyous occasion. I put several quotes from the book in a notebook and decorated it with holy cards. I also put a Padre Pio sticker on the cover since he is the patron saint of making a good confession..."

After I had a good cry, I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. 

God always knows what He is doing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Power Of A Holy Hour

"Neither theological knowledge nor social action alone is enough to keep us in love with Christ unless both are proceeded by a personal encounter with Him. Theological insights are gained not only from between two covers of a book, but from two bent knees before an altar. The Holy Hour becomes like an oxygen tank to revive the breath of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the foul and fetid atmosphere of the world."

— Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Saturday, February 4, 2012

He Already Knows

"I have not the courage to force myself to seek beautiful prayers in books; not knowing which to choose I act as children do who cannot read; I say quite simply to the good God what I want to tell Him, and He always understands me."
—St. Therese, in Story of a Soul

Thursday, February 2, 2012

She's So Funny!

I think St. Therese has a great sense of humor. Stories are told of how she used to keep the sisters entertained with her stories in the convent during recreation time. After all, Sister Marie of the Angels said, "Her head is full of mischief to play on anyone she pleases. Mystic, comic, everything. She can make you weep with devotion and just as easily split your sides with laughter during recreations." She also loved to do impressions, a skill she learned from her father! Perhaps Little Therese was taking a cue from the great Carmelite St. Teresa of Avila, who once wrote, "God, deliver me from sad-faced saints!"

"I always find a way of being happy," Therese wrote in her autobiography, Story of a Soul. And even in her pain and suffering, she wanted to make others laugh.

From Fr. Pius Sammut OCD:

We know that Therese, like her father, was a great mimic and even in Carmel she often entertained the Sisters with imitations of others. The younger sisters in the community were always disappointed when she was absent for recreation because then they said it was going to be boring without her.

Though she was the one facing death, Therese took it on herself to cheer up the other sisters with her sense of humor. Mother Agnes tells us "She was always cheerful in spite of her sufferings. She began amusing herself by talking about everything that would happen after her death. Because of the way she did this, when we should have been crying, she had us bursting out with peals of laughter. I believe she'll die laughing."

They cut her finger nails. "Keep them," she said, "someday someone will treasure them." She performed little skits for them with her drinking glass. Once when Mother Agnes was sitting at the foot of the infirmary bed, Therese told her she had come up with a new sign of affection for her that she never received from anyone else, and lifting up her leg she brushed Mother Agnes' cheek with her foot! Another time she called to Mother Agnes, "Give me a kiss, a kiss that makes noise; so that the lips go 'smack'."

When the chaplain refused to give her Extreme Unction one day because she made a special effort to sit up and be ready, and he decided that she looked too well, she said to the sisters "Well, I'll just try to look sicker next time!" When she confided to another priest all the temptations she was having in her trial of faith, he said to her "Don't think about that; it's dangerous." And she said "That wasn't too helpful!"

She teased the attending physician a lot... who kept changing his diagnoses on her... She told him that nevertheless he wasn't going to prevent her from going to heaven but that she would have her revenge on him and keep him on earth longer. And in fact he died at the ripe old age of 81, so she got her revenge! She joked with the sisters about being the one to try out the new cemetery plot. And when they were talking about how they would arrange her in the coffin, she said "Well, put the candle in my hand but not those candlesticks--they're too ugly!" *

I have my own funny stories about Therese to share, but I'll tell you my favorites.

One Sunday afternoon, I was giving a talk to a group from the St. Francis Family Center, through Catholic Social Services of Oakland County, MI. Some ladies had organized a benefit tea and had asked me to speak to their group about St. Therese. I thought it was perfect since the motto of this foster parent agency is "Live Deeper, Love Wider." Sounds just like our friend Therese, no?

During this time, I had been praying for a rose from our friend for a special intention I had. I don't even remember what it was at the time, just that I had been asking Therese for a rose. And I wasn't getting one.

I showed up at the tea and it was quite lovely. There were some foster children there who spoke and I happily gave them autographed books. They were amazing, sweet children. When it was time for me to speak, wouldn't you know it: The microphone died. So there I am trying to speak to a large group of ladies and my voice is barely audible. That was a bit discouraging, since I have a voice that doesn't carry well (and I have kids!). I did the best I could and was happy to hear as I signed books afterward that the ladies did, indeed, hear what I had to say! Although the event went well and was enjoyable, it was a rainy, gloomy day and I was feeling a little disappointed and overwhelmed at all of the little tasks mothers have to do at home to prepare for a new week ahead. I kept wondering why St. Therese hadn't sent me my rose yet.

As I was packing up my things and saying goodbye to all of the nice ladies at the tea, one of the ladies said to me, "Did you have any refreshments? Come and sit down! There are plenty."

She motioned for me to sit down and so I did, even though my mind was full of the things I had to do once I got home. Moms are like that.

She pushed a pretty floral teacup toward me and poured some hot water into it. It was then that I noticed that the teacup had roses on it. And the teabag at my place had "Red Rose" printed on it, with a picture of a red rose. And then I noticed that the centerpieces at each table were...roses! I had to laugh, but St. Therese was not done with me yet. Just in case her message wasn't clear enough, she came at me with one last, emphatic try: In the cloakroam, as I searched for my raincoat, I came across a black jacket on a hanger. Embroidered on the front were the words: "St. Therese of Lisieux." And a large red rose was embroidered on top of that.

"Okay, okay! I get it, Little Therese! An entire shower of roses are in this room!" I had to laugh.

And I had been too preoccupied with what I had to do that day that I didn't even see!

There are many days I feel I'd like to sit down with her and have a cup of coffee (did she drink coffee? I know as a child she liked hot chocolate for breakfast, like every good French girl!) and a croissant and just laugh and talk. Since we can't do that, she sends me these little "incidents" to warm my heart.

Another time, I was driving to a busy suburban town in Detroit for a doctor's appointment. I always leave plenty of time for driving there, parking, etc. since I know what a busy town it is. I was pretty smug that day, thinking I would arrive nice and early for my appointment. When I got downtown, I pulled up to the parking garage I usually park in, only to find out that it was closed and under construction! Because of this, there were absolutely no parking spots available on the side streets. I drove around and around the town at the noontime rush hour, finding nothing. I'd have to park really far away, and I knew that I would be fairly late if this craziness continued.

Just then I remembered a cute little granny who loved St. Therese telling me that she used to imagine St. Therese sitting in the back seat of her car as she drove around looking for a place to park. She used to ask the saint for help finding a spot. I thought that was very funny. Imagine, picturing St. Therese riding around in the back seat of your car!

But that cute granny's story came to me then as I frantically searched for a parking spot around town. Yet, I couldn't bring myself to do it. All of the serious problems in this world, and I'm going to bother her with something like this? No, I couldn't do it. It didn't seem important enough.

I drove around and around, finding nothing. I was getting desperate. I just couldn't be late for this appointment!

It was time to trust. So I gave in. I pictured her in the back seat of my car.

Yes, I really did.

"St. Therese, please help me find—"

I couldn't even finish my sentence. A car began to back out at the perfect time for me to slide right in, then and there.

St. Therese, you are so funny! That's one of the many reasons why I love you so much!

"... whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter into it." Mark 10:15

St. Therese, childlike and simple in joy and suffering, pray for us!

* (c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD.

The Greatest Love Story Of All Time

"The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host."
—Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What Are Your Children Reading?

"A lot of people think, Well, this has increased my child's desire to read. Better your child be illiterate than read garbage...and this is why the Catholic Church has such a treasure of the lives of the saints...that's what's going to make your children heroes in the spiritual life: saints."

—Father Donald Calloway MIC
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