Avoiding a Post-Easter Spiritual Letdown

Easter Letdown

Easter night I was tucking my boys in, and we were having a discussion about Easter, comparing it to Christmas, and I was making the point that though Christmas has more decorations and gifts, Easter is still the most important Holiday of the year. One of them summed up the discussion with the question:

“Why isn’t New Year’s at Easter?”

That got me to thinking. Regardless of the liturgical calendar, there is an argument to be made for starting a New Year at Easter. It is, after all, the Resurrection. A rebirth. A renewal.

The Easter Letdown

How many of us see the Easter season as “Yay! No more fasting and Penance! Great! Now I can eat chocolate again!”? It becomes a bit gluttonous for me – I really love those Cadbury Creme Eggs, especially at half price. I tend to have a spiritual let down and revert to the same bad habits I had before Lent. Somehow, I don’t think that is the point of the season.

Easter Resolutions

What if we made Easter Resolutions? I don’t mean that we should treat Easter like Lent and come up with a new set of penances. Lent was a time for reflecting on the Passion, a time for solemnity. Easter is the Resurrection. It’s about joy. Can’t I make some positive resolutions? Some joyful resolutions?

What if I resolved to smile every day at the first stranger I encounter?
What if I resolve to wrestle with my kids three times a week?
What if I resolve to finally watch “For Greater Glory”?
What if I resolve to join a positive online Catholic discussion group?
What if I resolve to take my wife out on more dates?

In short, what if I resolve to love Jesus more by getting to know Him better and by loving more the people around me? If I do that and really make it happen, then maybe the lessons I learned over Lent won’t vanish with the leftover Easter candy.

I want to be a resurrected me, not the same old same old.

Consoling the Heart of Jesus – My Lenten Retreat

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This year for Lent I am reading/doing the retreat Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael Gailey.

Fr. Gailey wrote Consoling the Heart of Jesus in an attempt to create a version of the Ignatian 30 day spiritual retreat that would be suitable to perform over a full weekend or slowly over a period of time. He says that he hopes to make the fruits of the Ignatian retreat available to ordinary people who have jobs and families that they cannot leave for 30 or even 8 days.

What is really exciting me about this is that to do this, Fr. Gailey has incorporated the Little Way of St. Therese, the True Devotion to Mary of St.  Louis de Montfort, and the Divine Mercy as communicated to St.  Faustina.  These are three of my most beloved devotions. I talked here about the congruence between St. Therese and St. Louis de Montfort.

The other aspect of this book that I am looking forward to, is that I believe it will give me insight into our Holy Father, who of course is a Jesuit and who would have been formed in an Ignitian 30 retreat. Hopefully I will learn enough to share in a later post!

Help Me Choose the Cover for my Novel!

I am having a 99designs.com bookcover contest for my historical fiction novel Aachen, and I have narrowed it down to 5 designs.
Please help me choose at this link.
Thanks!

Back Cover Blurb for my Novel: What Do You Think?

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The Cathedral at Aachen

I’m deep into the process of having a cover done for my historical fiction novel Aachen, and I need a blurb. I would love to get your feedback!

Here’s the best blurb I’ve come up with so far:

The life of an 8th century peasant is,  as they say, “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Young Stephen of Orlans, though indentured and in poverty, has been raised from childhood to want something different. He longs to be a man of learning and dreams of studying at Charlemagne’s famed Palace School at Aachen.

After returning from a traumatic campaign, Stephen has the chance to attain his dream. But how can he take monastic vows when the sins of war have shattered his faith in God? And how can he leave Orlans when he is falling in love with a beautiful milkmaid with a scandalous reputation?

In the 8th century, scandal and betrayal are concealed by the thinnest of veils, and the path to reaching your dreams may be the most treacherous path of all. In his quest for redemption, Stephen will be forced to make decisions he will likely soon regret.

Decisions he will have to live with forever.

Stay tuned. I’ll be soon posting a poll on the top 5 designs from my book cover contest at 99designs.com!

Thanks for the feedback!

Science Gives Us a Little Way to Measure Holiness

Occasionally science gives us little glimpses of deeper truths that we normally wouldn’t associate with the scientfic method.

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A recent study of acts of selfless love shows that such acts – acts of self-sacrifice or charity with no expectations of reward – don’t bring us the same kind of pleasure that romantic love brings.

Romantic love tends to light up the same reward areas of the brain that are activated by cocaine. But new research shows that selfless love—a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others—actually turns off the brain’s reward centers.

It isn’t news that the two types of love are different. We even have different words for them: agape for selfless love and eros for romantic love. We are all called to have agape for our fellow man, but we may or may not be called to eros for a spouse. And if that eros does not naturally transition to agape, we may find ourselves not feeling any kind of love for our spouse.

What is interesting here is not just that the two types of love bring about two different brain responses, but that acts of agape actually turn off the response centers that lead us to such great enjoyment of eros.

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So the holier we become, the less need we have of “the warm fuzzies” of your typical Hollywood romantic comedy. It’s almost as if the physiological response to passion, the triggering of those reward centers, is some kind of crutch, a crutch that teaches us to love in spite of ourselves. As we become more and more capable of selfless love, we use the crutch less and less until, finally, we can throw it away.

I still enjoy those puppy dog moments with my wife. Yes, we still have them. But I am even happier during those quiet moments where we sit together, not talking, just being. Those moments where we just simply fit together and everything seems right with the universe. Those are moments indeed when the Peace of the Lord is truly with us.

Violent Video Games Delay Development of Moral Judgement in Teens

If you needed more reasons to keep violent video games out of your home, here it is. New research shows a clear connection between playing violent video games and a lack of moral development in teens.

What struck me most about this particular article was not the confirmation of the obvious – that video games are bad for kids – but one throwaway comment by the author of the study.

Bajovic concedes that “prohibiting adolescents from playing violent video games is not realistic.”

The notion that it’s unrealistic for parents to prohibit destructive behavior in their teens is self-evident to a Science Daily journalist and accepted by a researcher in teen behavior. It’s a pretty common delusion. I know parents of 2nd graders who can’t say no when their kids ask for a smartphone. I have had other parents tell me to just send my kids to public school. You can’t keep them from being exposed to that stuff anyway, right?

It’s so wrong-headed it makes me want to hit my head against the wall. Our kids don’t have to play video games. They don’t have to be sexually active. They don’t have to try alcohol as a minor.

As parents, we must have a firm loving hand. We need to show strong moral leadership. We have to keep them away from bad influences and surround them with positive.

It’s a ton of work, it requires sacrifice, and there are no guarantees. Our children are humans with free will, after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless to try. Car seats and seat belts aren’t guaranteed either, but we’d never consider not using them.

Be strong and protect your kids while you can. They’ll enter the big bad world soon enough.

Forget the New Year’s Resolution. Try Writing a Family Strategic Plan Instead

Litany of Broken Resolutions

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I used to make New Year’s Resolutions. The same ones year after year. They were always broken, usually by mid-January.

The problem is that New Year’s Resolutions typically are little more than good intentions and wishful thinking. Neither gets you anywhere except frustrated and disappointed. But every year we keep trying. We keep telling ourselves that this is the year we will keep that diet, stick to that exercise regimen, or drop that bad habit for good.

Then one day my lovely and intelligent MBA wife introduced me to the concept of strategic planning and proceeded to apply that concept to our family life. With that strategic plan we are able to make substantive long-term changes (for the better!) to our family life. And it’s not at all hard to do.

Writing Your Family Strategic Plan

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What is a strategic plan? It is a method of figuring out what you want to accomplish, why you want to accomplish it, and how you are going to accomplish it. You start out at the highest level with the big “why”, the mission statement. Then you write down a vision for the future. Then you break down specific objectives designed to meet that vision. Then you write down steps, or goals, that will help you to achieve those objectives. Does that sound hard? If so, lets take it step by step.

The Mission Statement

Most businesses have mission statements. These represent the business’s raison d’etre, its reason for being. Usually it is something that seems, from the outside, to be either self-evident or rather meaningless. Something like “To meet the needs of our customer’s and employees with integrity and excellence”, but perhaps with more specifics.

But it’s not meaningless. It is a yardstick by which any action can be measured. The business decision makers can determine if any particular action furthers the mission, works against it, or is a distraction from it. It helps keep the focus.

A family needs a mission statement too. What is the purpose of your family? Why did God put your family here on earth? It is not an easy question to answer.

It took us quite a conversation to write our first mission statement, and it evolved over the first couple of years, especially as our faith matured. But we now have a mission statement that accurately reflects our family and that I believe will do so for years to come. Here it is:

To be witnesses of Jesus Christ within our family, in our community, and throughout the world.

Simple, isn’t it? It wasn’t when we started. It took awhile to distill our mission into what is, on the face, rather simplistic. That process, however, told us so much about our family life, and it gave us a renewed focus and determination toward simplicity of life. Hopefully your mission statement will be just as succinct and just as meaningful to you.

The Vision

Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? This is your vision.

Take some time to discuss with your spouse where you see your family in a year. In five years. Perhaps you want to move closer to extended family. Perhaps you want to get out of debt. Perhaps you want a reinvigorated faith life. Perhaps you want a stronger marriage, or more children. If you see yourself exactly as you are now, that is a perfectly wonderful thing.

Be specific. If you want an employment change, what kind of employment do you desire? If you want to move, where? If you need a bigger house, how big?

This should be a fun and enriching activity for a couple. You likely shared your dreams of the future when you were engaged or first married, but for many, those conversations get overwhelmed by the day-to-day effort of living. So take your time, and enjoy it. Remember to make separate vision statements for one year out and for five years out. Here are some questions that might guide you. (I am presuming you are married.)

How many children will you have?
Where will you live?
Will you and/or your spouse be working? In what field? At what job?
What will your relationship be like with your extended family – parents, in-laws, etc?
What will youu faith life be like?
What kind of lifestyle will you be living?
What will your kids be doing?
Is there some sort of vocation that you wish to be engaged in?
Are there any major changes to your life you desire or foresee?

You can write it any way you like, in a list format or a narrative paragraph or some other way. Try to keep it realistic, but don’t be afraid to be ambitious. Try to avoid materialism. Remember that this vision will represent the kind of person you will be. If your vision is focussed on money, so will you be.

Objectives: Breaking It Down
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Now that you have a one year and a five year vision, start thinking about how you are going to get there and what you need to accomplish this year to make that vision a reality. But to do that, you need to break it down into pieces you can get your arms around.

What are the important parts of your life? Each of these will have an Objective.

The key areas of my family’s life are:

1. God and Faith
2. Marriage
3. Children
4. Careers
5. Education (both children and parents)
6. Recreation
7. Health and Wellness
8. Finances
9. Household
10. Community Service/Charity
11. Extended Family
12. Time Management
7. Finances
8. Recreation

Setting an Objective

Each area gets an objective. This objective is a little bit like a mission statement for that part of our life, its guiding principle. Just like the mission statement, it should be succinct and should accurately reflect your most cherished values. And just like the mission statement, it should not change from year to year, once you really have it nailed down. For instance, our objective for our children is:

“Build a legacy of faith through the generations.”

Pretty simple, but everything we do for our children leads back to that one statement.

The Steps/Goals
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Now to the meat of it. Here is where you lay out the specific things you are going to do to meet the above objectives and to reach the vision you set out for yourself.

These will include steps to take daily, weekly, or monthly, as well as one time goals, possibly with a due date attached. For instance, in the above example, we have a goal to keep our kids in Catholic school. We also have a goal to maintain family faith-based rituals to strengthen their faith. We also have specific goals for extracurricular activities that will strengthen their character and self-discipline as well as let them make the best possible use of their God-given talents. One goal is to involve the children in weekly service projects. Another is to ensure that each child is taking lessons on a musical instrument.

Don’t put steps here that are vague. Saying “eat less” won’t get you anywhere. Steps here should be of the type where you can say, with no uncertainty, whether or not it was accomplished or at least whether progress toward it is being made. If you don’t yet know exactly what to do but have a general idea, put in a planning task such as “create meal plan”. This plan would then be a supplement to the strategic plan.

Finally, these steps should be realistic. Don’t make commitments you are pretty sure you won’t be able to meet. Therein lies frustration. You may find you need to adjust your one-year or five-year vision if the steps you need to take aren’t do-able. Perhaps scale the vision back and make your one-year vision a little more intermediate.

Following Through

No plan is worth the effort if it isn’t carried out. There are several necessary steps toward following through.

1. Log both the specific dates and the recurring tasks on your calendar.
2. Review your calendar (as a couple) daily, weekly, and monthly.
3. Review the strategic plan (as a couple) once a month.
4. If you are straying from the plan, consider revising it to either make the goals more realistic, eliminate items that have become moot or obsolete or add steps to remove roadblocks.
5. Reward yourself when you have accomplished one of the more difficult steps.

Don’t get discouraged if you fall behind in any particular area. This is a plan, not a “resolution”. You work toward the plan until you complete it, even if it takes longer than you originally thought. And don’t be afraid to decide that you were wrong, that one or more of the objectives you wrote down wasn’t really what God had in mind for you. Part of this whole activity is a process of discernment, giving you a framework on which you can struggle to find out just what it is that God wants of you in the here and now.

New Years doesn’t have to be a time for false promises or the cultivation of future disappointments. It can be a catalyst for real change, and a Family Strategic Plan can be a road map to that change.

Humility and the Holy Family

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One of the virtues of the Holy Family that I try to emulate is humility. It’s a challenging virtue, and easy to forget in this competitive, success-oriented world.

It’s so easy, in the day-to-day effort to grow in holiness, to become judgemental and preachy, especially toward those who don’t seem to share my values. “I can’t believe she dresses like that for Mass.” “Their children are completely out of control. They probably let them watch too much television.” “You can tell they’re using contraception. Otherwise they’d have had another child by now.” “I’m just glad we’re not like that.”

It plays out in the abortion debate too, with some pro-lifers more focussed on condemning than saving, overwhelmed by their anger at the injustice of it all.

We all do this, to one extent or another. It’s in our nature, and it’s certainly an integral part of our culture. We like nothing more than holding up others’ faults to make us feel better about ourselves.

The thing is, we may very well be “correct” in our assessment of others. The young woman may be dressed inappropriately for Mass. The family may be letting too much culture rot into their home, with the resulting influence evident in their kids’ behavior. The couple may be using contraception. But self-righteously pointing that out – and basking in the pride that we aren’t like them – will win no converts and help no one get into heaven.

What that will lead to is our own humiliation. For when we sin – and we will – others will see that as a confirmation that we were full of hot air. That all that talk of holiness was just another attempt to one-up the next guy. That it was all a lie. And we will be like the television evangelist caught in adultery or theft or some other scandal. Just another holy roller with skeletons in our closet.

Instead, we have be aware of our own sin (the log in our own eye). And we have to publicly acknowledge it’s presence and our need to overcome. We have to be little in our own eyes, and our words and actions should acknowledge that littleness. Then we can become an example to others of following the path to holiness. Then any good actions we do point to Jesus and not to ourselves.

The Holy Family – Joseph, Mary, and Jesus – is a perfect example of this humility. Mary did not go around preaching to the other mothers in Nazareth, pointing out their faults, making sure they knew that God had chosen her to be His mother and not them. Joseph did not try to become the next great rabbi or get followers of his own. Instead they tried to obey God’s will the best they could. They suffered the humiliation and scandal of a pre-marital pregnancy. They lived the life of a simple carpenter’s family, all the while keeping knowledge that would change the world held close in their hearts. They knew their limitations, that all the good that was to come would come from God and not from them.

As parents, this humility is doubly important. Our kids know our faults. We can’t hide them. If we aren’t genuinely humble, our kids will think (and possibly rightly so) that all our “religion talk” is simply a way for us to control and manipulate their behavior. I think that a lack of parental humility is one of the quickest ways to ensure that a child leaves the faith as an adult. During those difficult, rebellious teenage years, they will be quick to jump on any hypocrisy, any “do as I say, not as I do.”

If I tell them not to drink but put down four beers every night after dinner, they will find no reason to avoid drinking when they have an opportunity. If I tell them to be pure and then they find pornography in my internet history, they will decide that porn must really be ok. If I tell them not to lie then brag about cheating on my taxes, lying and cheating will become second nature to them. If I tell them they better love Jesus but they see no love for Jesus in my actions, they will put Jesus in the box with Santa and the Easter Bunny and walk away forever.

If, however, I tell my children that I am weak. That I make mistakes. That I am a sinful man just as St. Peter was. If I tell them these things and say that with God, however, I am working to overcome those weaknesses and that He is making me a better man. Then they will see the reality of the journey that I am on and the journey that God is calling them to. Hopefully they will decide that is a journey that they want to take.

I wrote this post for the Feast of the Holy Family, which was this past Sunday. Obviously, I didn’t finish it in time. Just another example of where I don’t quite measure up to where I want to be. And that’s ok. If I was perfect, I wouldn’t be here, I suppose.

Advent is Upon Us

Hard to believe there are two purple candles already burning on my kitchen table. Hard to believe that Thanksgiving has passed and the leftover turkey is a pleasant memory. Hard to believe I haven’t posted since October.

It is a time for reflection and preparation. Our Lord has given me opportunities for reflection that I would rather He hadn’t: health issues kept us busy throughout the month of November. Kept me from blogging. Put us way behind on our decorations. (Yes, that’s important!)

It has put me in a reflective mood, though. The little worlds we build up for ourselves can come crashing down so easily. When we treasure the wrong things, we are crushed when we lose them.

In this life, nothing is more important than faith. In this world, nothing is more important than family. Sure we treasure those things in our thoughts and promises and declarations. But what about our actions? Do we treasure them in our actions? Or are we dismissive and impatient? Do we neglect, thinking that God and family will always be there, but this TV show/game/work opportunity will be lost if I don’t act now?

Treasure every little grace from God. Treasure every moment with your family. That is the best way I know to keep the oil in the lamp, ready for Him to come.

Blessed John Paul II: Teacher, Hero, Saint

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I am thinking today of our former Holy Father on his memorial. He was an inspiration to me as I converted. Earlier I described my conversion story, but what I didn’t mention then was that during my “searching” period in Italy, I actually saw Pope John Paul II. I was on one of my weekend jaunts to Rome, when I happened upon a very large crowd in St. Peter’s Square. After a bit I figured out that the Pope was speaking right there in the square! I couldn’t get close – he was barely a white speck to me – but he was a discernable white speck, even in the 35mm photograph I took and still have today.

To many in the world, I fear that John Paul II was just another historical figure, akin to a politician, one of those characters of the cold war who are only interesting because of the times they lived in. I fear they think the Church is canonizing him just because he was Pope, and that maybe they canonize anybody that was Pope. He was so much more.

He was a teacher. His books are marvelously accessible, and he broke such important theological ground, both in his work as a bishop and cardinal, particularly with respect to Vatican II, and as the Holy Father. He gave us a much more profound understanding of human sexuality, of our roles as male and female, and especially of the family.

He was a hero. This is a man who became a priest durin the Nazi occupation of Poland, a bishop during the communist regime. He risked his life on a daily basis to bring the faith to others. And once he had the world stage, he made the boldest statement of all. He could have stayed safely in the Vatican, out of controversy and out of harms way. But he went to Poland – almost forced himself there against the wishes of the communists. And he took them to task on their own turf. He gave the people of Poland – and the people of all Eastern Europe – a voice, and he was one of the great catalysts for the miraculous changes that seemed to take place overnight.

He was a Saint, no doubt about it. He met with and forgave the man who tried, and almost succeeded, to kill him. He suffered at the end of his life, in a very public way, showing the world that old age, that the slow decay of disease cannot and does not take away an ounce of a person’s humanity or value, and he stayed at his post until the most painful end.

I am so lucky to have lived during the lifetime of such a man. If only some fraction of his holiness might rub off on me I would be assured of finding my way to the feet of our Lord when my time comes.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!