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The most precious of gifts: listening

My December column for the Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com

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I created a video for this post with a musical backdrop and images to inspire you. You can read the text below:

Recently I wrote a post about dealing with the noise, busyness and general chaos of the Christmas season. Our involvement in the many worthwhile activities of decorating, cooking, entertaining, party-hopping, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, volunteering our time and treasure to charities, and spending time with our families can make our heads spin. I proposed that a renewed focus on the season of Advent, with its call to simplicity and quiet, would make a wonderful antidote.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

A reader responded with an unexpected comment: “I have the opposite problem. I would love a bit of noise and chaos at Christmas.” Jay described her situation of caring for a homebound mother and a disabled husband, with other family members living too far away to visit. Suddenly my assumption that a quiet Christmas was best for everyone felt arbitrary. “Quiet” can assume many forms, including loneliness and isolation.

I immediately wrote back to Jay, attempting to offer some consolation; I wanted to do something to mitigate her circumstance. In the writing I realized that I too understood the ramifications of a Christmas “gone quiet.” My own family circle has grown noticeably smaller over the years with my parents gone and my sister, brother-in-law and nephews scattered across the country. Although the circumstances were different, Jay and I ended up sharing a common problem.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

Jay responded to my letter, opening up about her situation. Because of her husband’s disability, it is nearly impossible for them to visit friends. In fact, in order to see her mother on Christmas day, she has to leave him behind. She waxed nostalgic on the past, writing, “we had such a lovely time with the cousins and aunts and uncles when I was a child, and when we lived closer by.” She wrote of longing to help others, of getting a tree only to leave it unadorned and of the futility of buying gifts when no one really needed anything. She gently berated herself in her longing for Christmases past full of Santa Claus, gifts and overeating; as a teacher in the Methodist church she is keenly aware of the true meaning of the day.

However, as we continued to write back and forth, I noticed her mood quickly shifting from laments to gratitude. Jay began recounting her blessings, most notably the love she has for her husband and mother. I could feel the warmth of that love coming across the Atlantic from her home in Ipswich, England to mine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. It was then that I began to understand the power behind listening.

I had entered into the correspondence assuming my usual role of problem solver; I was going to make everything better! It soon became clear however that I was meant to be a friend; to listen to and acknowledge another person’s life story. It was not about me solving a problem and looking like a hero; it was about Jay needing someone to be fully present, listening with mind and heart. Paying attention to her life rather than mine required humility.

Yet, once I surrendered to the idea, I could see God’s grace unfolding. The focus of our letters changed from melancholic remembrances to gratitude for the blessings we both enjoy. Gratitude fueled action with Jay vowing to get into the spirit by attending a couple of get-together lunches and taking in a local concert of carols presented by her town’s brass band. I, in turn, volunteered to join a band of Christmas carolers in our parish, and inquired about taking communion to nursing home residents. Jay and I are exchanging gifts through the mail. Listening has turned strangers into friends.

Comfort by Beverley Goodwin (Flickr) Jay and I love watching online kitten cams together.

Comfort by Beverley Goodwin (Flickr) Jay and I love watching online kitten cams together.

Our correspondences caused me to examine myself: why do I insist on giving people what I would not want for myself? When I share my heart with someone, I don’t want judgment or unsolicited advice or easy answers. Many problems cannot be solved but rather, must be endured. I just want a sympathetic ear. Doesn’t it make sense then that sometimes my family and friends, neighbors and even strangers just want someone to accept where they are at that very moment and sit close by, saying nothing?

I experienced this recently as another friend shared with me the pain of watching her best friend slip away behind the fog of dementia. I empathized, recalling my mother’s mental deterioration and personality change, but decided that it was best just to let her talk. We ended our conversation in silence, looking at each other with misty eyes.

Jay taught me how to do that.

If I were to sit on Santa’s knee, I would say: “St. Nicholas, please ask the Lord to help me grow in grace as a good listener.”

For listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other.

Note: It turns out Jay and I have something else in common–Foster Dad John’s Critter Room!

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Give a gift of kittens to your friends while supporting a no-kill cat shelter – 20% Off on The Critter Room Memory Book!

Wondering what to give your cat-loving friend?

How about giving twice with just one purchase?

640 critter room memory book banner1For a limited time during this holiday season, The Critter Room Memory Book Volume One is being offered at a 20% discount – now just $15.95 for this 68 page book chock full of:

  • tons of color photos from Foster Dad John, “Mr  Ripley” (James Petts) and Tam Woods  including closeups of your favorite kittens and mama cats. Lots of Facebook screen shots.
  • an interview with Foster Dad John by Connie of “Tails of Foster Kittens”
  • fan art by Cazul R, “Thorn” and Sandra Andreasen
  • kitten collages by Nicoya Grobman
  • fan fiction by Jill Pickford and Annie Staats
  • remembrances of Peter and Honey

Purrfect Pals, the fabulous no-kill cat shelter that sponsors The Critter Room receives $7.15 for each book sold.

Check out these sample pages:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ruth Ludlam recently reviewed The Critter Room Memory Book Volume One  on Amazon:

I have been watching the Foster Kitten Cam and share the experience of the community described in this book. It seems to me that different people understand the kitten cam in different ways. Some just enjoy seeing cute kittens. Others learn about cats and fostering. Susan Hoyle Bailey shares my perception of the kitten cam as a force for the good in the lives of all involved. The experience brings out empathy, altruism, and generosity in the viewers, and we learn these qualities from Foster Dad John and from each other. I watch for more than just loving the kittens and cats; I watch because I know this is a community with a positive impact on the world. I would like to think that the goodness shared in the community ripples out and touches the lives of others, even those who really don’t get why we watch and care so much.

Thank you for expressing the goodness of the kitten cam community so clearly, and sharing your thoughts with the world.

Introduce your friends to the wonderful work done by Purrfect Pals including their Foster-Prison program which is now socializing two of Foster Dad John’s kittens, Ellen and Luna.

Get The Critter Room Memory Book Volume One for the cat-lover in your life or treat yourself to a copy.

Another way to give to Purrfect Pals is to buy copies for them to sell in their store–they receive the donation from your purchase plus the sale of the book in their store. You can send your books to:

Purrfect Pals
230 McRae Rd NE
Arlington, WA 98223

Thank you for your support of Purrfect Pals.

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It’s all about the “Yes!” A review of “The Grace of Yes” by Lisa M. Hendey

catholic mom logoI have known Lisa Hendey for many years. Her site, Catholicmom.com, hosts over 150 contributors and has won accolades and awards from grateful Catholics around the world. The site is all about the reader, a rarity on the internet today. A vibrant community thrives there as a result. I am honored to be one of Catholicmom’s contributors.

the grace of yes 640I am pleased today to review her latest book, The Grace of Yes: Eight Virtues for Generous Living, published by Ave Maria Press.

Quick read; buried treasure

Lisa Hendey is the neighbor next door, the friend you confide in over a lingering cup of coffee. The Grace of Yes reads in this friendly voice but don’t be deceived–although this book is a quick read, there is much treasure to be found between the lines.

Authentic struggle

The Grace of Yes is a departure from Hendey’s other books, employing a memoir style. It is a story her legion of fans have longed to hear. She is authentic and honest in sharing her struggle to live a deeper life of faith, stemming from the goal to live generously for others, and for herself.

It is a life of the bolder “Yes, I will!” as opposed to the safer “No, I won’t.” It’s a life lived in full partnership with her Creator; it’s a life that any of us can live if we desire it.

She lives this grace of yes through eight different virtues:

  • belief
  • generativity
  • creativity
  • integrity
  • humility
  • vulnerability
  • discerning the right time to say “no,” and
  • rebirth.

Digging out the deeper meaning

The Grace of Yes is a book that calls you back for a second, more thorough reading. Having a sense that God was trying to tell me something, I journaled through the book on my second go-around. The result was 16 pages of notes constituting an extensive examination of conscience. Hardly the outcome I would have expected from such a seemingly simple book! It was a rich, exhilarating and thought-provoking experience.

Those dreaded words!

In exploring the eight virtues, Hendey is advocating several things which Catholics especially have seen as rather onerous:

  • fidelity
  • obedience
  • discipline
  • confession

And a new way of looking at them

I no longer view these words as oppressive negatives, forbidding a life of excitement, adventure and yes, even fun. I now look upon these words as the necessary tools to achieve all of that and more: a fulfilling, meaningful existence where I can make a difference in the lives of others around me.

Through Hendey’s stories of her own life and others who have inspired her, I have developed new definitions for these words:

  • Fidelity simply means being faithful, giving our best effort to everything we do.
  • Obedience is another word for “yes,” agreeing to go along with whatever God has in mind for us while trusting that he always has our best interests in mind.
  • Discipline is a tool, a means of creating healthy new habits which lead us closer to our real selves and to God.
  • Confession is the unloading of our failures, dumped into the lap of God who will wipe them away while granting us his kiss of peace and forgiveness.

Yeses that stretch

lisa m hendeyHendey explores the various “yeses” in her life that have propelled her in a most unexpected direction. From claiming her Catholic faith as her own, to marrying, having children and sacrificing a career she loved, to finding a new path in her life that led her to become a noted blogger, best-selling author and journalist traveling to Rwanda for Catholic Relief Services, Hendey is at times painfully honest about her motivations, ambitions and failures. She also acknowledges her triumphs in a spirit of gratitude, attributing them to the lifelong working partnership she has with God. With every experience she is stretched, sometimes to the breaking point, as she experiences the rich growth that comes when you give yourself away unabashedly.

The little things that get in the way

The sense I got from reading this book was that the details of life really do matter. Hendey seeks to live a life of fidelity, keenly aware of how those little details can either help her to lead more generous life or grind that life to a halt.

There are those little sins, the ones committed without a thought, the ones that fall through the cracks, straight out of our memory, brushing by the conscience on the way out. We don’t like to talk about sin today; it’s another one of those “onerous” words; strictly out of vogue. Yet an authentic life where yes means “Yes!” and no means “No!” hinges on those details. Hendey’s stories of self-discovery gave me the means by which I could examine my own life with honesty and humility.

An honest examination

In journaling The Grace of Yes, I came up with an extensive list of questions that I intend to compile into an examination of conscience. It is a honest examination but one that promises growth and renewed life rather than an oppressive burden of guilt. I have maintained privately for a long time that a new examination of conscience is badly needed, one that invites repentance (which simply means turning back to our loving God). One that helps us catch those sins that fall through the cracks. One that will motivate me to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation more often. One that inspires hope.

A new spiritual discipline

I have since added a new spiritual discipline of examining myself twice daily; already I am becoming aware of those pesky little sins. I am beginning to catch them and confess them; I expect one day soon I will even stop committing them. And that will be a day of celebration!

The Grace of Yes is a simple book with simple truths. Do yourself a favor: read it once for fun and then sit down and read it again prayerfully with pen in hand.

It’s time to dig for buried treasure.

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Breaking News: Pope Francis to come to America, and he will speak in English!

pope francisVAnd – he will be speaking in English! Here are details, courtesy of Father James Martin, SJ on Facebook: Pope Francis coming to Philadelphia.

Be sure and catch his visit to the Philippines, scheduled for January where he will be speaking English in public for the first time: Pope Francis in the Philippines.

Personally I am psyched about being able to watch Pope Francis preach and speak in English. Now I can put together his wonderful hand and facial gestures with the words. Wonderful!

Stay tuned and let me know what you think on my Facebook page. Let’s talk! :-)

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Dreading the holidays? Finding your secret quiet space in the midst of the noise and chaos

Here we go again! Daylight savings time is over, the decorations are up in the stores: the march towards Christmas begins.

And there’s so much to do!

  • from decorating our homes …
  • to cooking, entertaining and party-hopping …
  • to buying and wrapping gifts … and mailing them …
  • to making out cards … and mailing them …
  • to volunteering our time and giving to our favorite charities …
  • to spending time with family …

All good but …

Don’t get me wrong; all of these things are worthwhile, so long as we do them freely and we have the means to do so.

But …

  • What about people who are hurting financially and feel the pressure to buy gifts?
  • What about those dealing with complex family relationships who are obligated to spend time with that troublesome parent, sibling, aunt or cousin?
  • What about people (like me) who have no talent in cooking, decorating and entertaining but are expected to do them anyway?
  • And what of the poor souls who work in retail and are bombarded with the holidays 24/7?

Do the demands and the frantic pace of Christmas make you want to withdraw
to a quiet and peaceful space? How do you find that space?

There is a best-kept secret in our churches, that of the Advent season. Beginning after Thanksgiving, Advent presents a quieter and simpler approach. It’s a spiritual safe haven where we can retreat, be quiet and prepare for true purpose of Christmas, that of welcoming God come down as a human child to live among us.

In a series of blog posts, I will be presenting some of that treasure through songs, videos and readings in the hopes that this will lead you into that quiet space within yourself, the “inner room” where Jesus encourages us to go when we wish to pray.

Carry it with you

Advent introduces  you to a gift, a sacred space which you can carry around inside of  you long after Christmas is over. It’s a place to go to when you need to recharge your battery. It’s where you will find the endless welcome and acceptance from a God who longs to lavish love and mercy upon you.

Jesus retreated regularly to his inner room to be with the One he loved most. We can do the same.

Click here to listen to the Advent music I will be spotlighting.

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The reviews are in! Update on the success of The Critter Room Memory Book Volume One

Thanks to all of you who have ordered The Critter Room Memory Book Volume One – so far we’ve raised over $900 for the Purrfect Pals no-kill cat shelter (exact figures – 102 books sold, $910.68 USD; £17.20 GBP; €17.28 EUR).

Here are reviews from Amazon, :

5 star graphic
I just wanted to let you know that I received my book today. All I can say is….. MARVELOUS!!! This book is a wonderful reminder of all the work and effort John puts into all his fosters. I laughed, I cried. I remembered. The only John left out in his interview is how Dorian flirts with each Momcat. LOL This is great fundraiser for Purrfect Pals. I can’t wait for the next volume. Well done to everyone who was a big part of the creation of this book.
A lovely book! Perfect for any fan of The Critter Room or, really, anyone who loves cats and kittens. Looking forward to Volume 2!
Received my book yesterday and had to look it over on the spot. In a word: PAWSOME! Even if you are not a follower of The Critter Room, the stories about these kitty families, coupled with the tireless efforts Foster Dad John and Purrfect Pals, is absolutely heart warming. I love the fact that you have their early days chronicled in front of you and can the follow them on Facebook to see where they are today. Can’t wait for Volume 2!
What a wonderful book. Foster Dad John and Purrfect Pals will touch your heart.

Double the Donation!

How about buying two or three extra books to send directly to Purrfect Pals so they can sell them in the store?  That doubles the donation and exposes more people to the book. Contact Connie Gabelein on the Purrfect Pals website to let her know of your intention and to find out the shelter’s address.

What inspired me to make the book

1. Two kittens – Ray and Arthur (now Ace) – I wanted high quality prints of these two adorable guys:

ray and arthur

2. All the wonder fan art:

L- Honey welcome Peter by Cazul R; R - Sheba reads to Honey and Peter by Sandra Sarah Bjødstrup Andreasen

L- Honey welcome Peter by Cazul R; R – Sheba reads to Honey and Peter by Sandra Sarah Bjødstrup Andreasen

 3. The fan fiction by Jill Pickford and Annie Staats which includes “Over the Bridge” and Ray’s letter to Trillian.

Now I have my scrapbook of memories and many of you do as well. Grab your copy of The Critter Room Memory Book Volume One if you don’t have one yet, donate copies to Purrfect Pals or give some as gifts – Christmas is coming … :-)

Thanks for all your support of Purrfect Pals!

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An image of peace for your Monday

From today’s daily readings;  Psalm 131: “In you, O Lord, I have found my peace.”

I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me. (verse 2)

If your world is swirling around you in chaos and busyness; if you’re feeling oppressed by life; if you’re just fed up: place yourself in this image and the words of the Psalmist and let the Spirit of God comfort you.

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Remembering Jesus through a fragrant aroma–reflections on Ephesians 4

In looking over the readings from today’s lectionary, I just had to share this lovely excerpt from Ephesians 4:

“Brothers and sisters:
Be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”

640 flowers1Take a moment and think of a favorite aroma. It could be summer flowers or grass just mowed. It could a pork roast, slow cooking all day in the oven. It could be the scent of your child fresh and clean from a morning bath. It could be the smoke of incense rising up in church, reaching for heaven.

Think about your favorite scent and then think about Jesus and all he has done for you. How he taught you through his words and deeds. How he has consoled you or healed you in the past. How he has enveloped you with love.

Perhaps now he seems far away even though he is always inside of you. Scents are powerful triggers for memories–think of that favorite aroma and then think of Jesus. Perhaps then he will not seem so far away after all.

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