Do You Have These 5 Traits of a Spiritual “Head”?

A Checklist for Husbands and Dads

silhouette-1082129_960_720Statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrates that parents are the number one influence on the faith lives of young people. More specifically, study after study finds that the role of the father in particular is critical in handing on an active spiritual life to his children. Without a strong spiritual head to guide them, children can so easily be lost to our culture that deprives them of the meaning, purpose, and hope that only Jesus Christ can provide, in and through His Church.

Growing up, I was so grateful to have a dad who was (and is) very dedicated to spiritually leading his family, and I’m blessed to have married a man with a similar passionate commitment. I know our children will look to him—as I do—to see a model of Christ’s sacrificial love and humble leadership in our family, since men are called to demonstrate Christ’s love for the Church within their families in a special way.

So what are some traits of a strong spiritual head of a family?

  • An attitude of surrender. Strong spiritual heads are willing to hand over control to God, recognizing that He is the one who is King over their lives, their families—screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-11-56-02-ameverything. They recognize that it is a sign of true masculinity to call on God for guidance and to surrender to His will.
  • Humility. While our culture may tout pride as a masculine virtue, strong spiritual heads model the virtue of humility for their families, making daily steps to conquer their desire to be right, or to seek acclaim and accomplishment, instead opting to devote time to showing their families how to give credit and glory to God, seeking to please Him first and foremost.
  • Boldness. Strong spiritual heads are bold about their Catholic faith—at home, at work, and in public. They aren’t afraid to make decisions in light of their faith and to let others know that they are Catholic, not just in name, but in active practice. 
  • Openness to fellowship. While the prevailing norm is to think it a feminine activity to have meaningful conversations about life, faith, and family, strong spiritual heads recognize that they shouldn’t try to go it on their own when it comes to spiritual hands-992896_960_720leadership. They acknowledge the importance of seeking accountability, encouragement, and fraternity with other men and make it a regular habit to do so.
  • Friendship with St. Joseph. Strong spiritual heads often cultivate beautiful devotions to Our Blessed Mother, but they also lean on the intercession of St. Joseph to help them in their immense task of caring for their family’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, as St. Joseph gallantly did for Mary and Jesus.

Okay, men, how are you doing on living out these traits? We women and children need your bold headship in the family, as the Church needs the leadership of Christ.

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How to Give a Christmas Gift to Both Jesus AND a Friend/Family Member at the Same Time

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-8-05-42-pmThis Christmas, I wanted to give some of my family and friends a gift that not only meant something to them, but also helped those in greater need this Christmas season, attempting to answer the Matthew 25:40 call to serve the Lord through serving the “least of [His] brethren.” I asked a number of my loved ones what their favorite charitable organizations and causes were, and I made a donation to one of their favorites in their name/honor. Then I printed out this handy little snowflake card letting them know! I put their Charity Christmas Gift Cards in the mail, along with my traditional Christmas cards, but these simple snowflake printable cards would make great present-toppers on wrapped gifts, too!

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How to Make a Difference in the Life of a Fallen-away Catholic You Know

*This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.

I’ve worked for Catholics Come Home, the international media apostolate working to invite computerfallen-away Catholics and others home to the Church, since its founding in 1997. This has afforded me, personally, the opportunity to dialogue with hundreds of fallen-away Catholics who contact the organization after seeing a Catholics Come Home TV commercial or stumbling upon the CatholicsComeHome.org website. Those who reach out to the apostolate via email, phone or mail make up a small but strong sample of the millions of people that Catholics Come Home has reached out to in less than a decade, and they have taught me a lot about those who leave the Church.

The messages I receive from these inactive Catholics range from cordial to scathing, and it didn’t take me long in this ministry to see that there are common threads in their conversations. Many of these people are hurting; many are angry; many are lost. All have stories; all have reasons for leaving — reasons ranging from “I just drifted away” to “I don’t believe in these teachings” to “Someone in the Church wronged me” (with the first and the last reasons being most common).

But perhaps the most-shared feeling or expression in the many correspondences I have fielded over the years is this: Almost all of these fallen-away Catholics want to know that someone cares.

handsThey want to know that someone cares that they left. They want to know that someone not only notices their absence, but also is actually saddened, or at least affected by it. Sadly, many, if not most, of these inactive Catholics have never found anyone to express this concern to them.

So I make an effort to tell fallen-away Catholics who reach out to Catholics Come Home that they are missed, and their brothers and sisters in Christ — including me — want them home and that their Heavenly Father in particular wants them to again be a part of the Catholic Church that Jesus Christ founded.

As a unity in the Body of Christ, a living organism, we aren’t the same without them, and we care that they are away.

It never ceases to amaze me how even the seemingly hardest of hearts in an initial correspondence can be turned around after hearing that someone, anyone, cares about them and about their leaving the barque of St. Peter.

I’ve been moved to tears more times than I can count by people who seemed bent on spewing their rage toward the Church and have then responded to my reply with words like, “Thank you for answering. You are the first person to respond to me … and to care.” Some of these people have admitted attempting to reach out to other people or organizations, seeking a listening ear or an extended hand of welcome, only to be further disappointed by the fact that not only did they exit the Church without a single person knowing that they had gone, but they also couldn’t find anyone to help them explore the possibility of returning.

So many of our fallen-away family, friends, co-workers, relatives, neighbors and even strangers whom God puts in our path are desperately wanting to know that they are missed. Many just need to hear it from one person — and that one person can be you.

When you come in contact with people away from the Church, I encourage you to do two rather simple, yet important, things.

First, tell them they are missed and that you care that they are away. I used to think it sounded cheesy to say that out loud or in writing, but I discovered that it really was what so many of these people wanted to hear. I add the caveat that you must mean it. Your words, tone and demeanor must be genuine. They need real empathy.

churchSecond, invite them home. Often, when we ask people who return to the Church, after coming across a Catholics Come Home commercial or the website, why it is that they came back, they respond, “Because you invited me.” Don’t miss the opportunity to extend the invitation that may be the catalyst in that fallen-away Catholic’s journey back to Christ and his Church.

Pope Francis has warned of the danger of Catholics being “backseat Christians.” Don’t take a backseat when it comes to welcoming fallen-away Catholics home. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to people whom you can encourage on their faith journeys. That is certainly a prayer that God loves to answer. And when God puts that beloved, wandering child of his in your path, remember the words of the King in Matthew’s Gospel: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

How to Prayerfully Examine Your Day

Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Daily Examen continues to be a beautiful practice within the Church’s great tradition of spiritual exercises. The reason why I do it, though? It’s practical, simple, and it works.

tcht_series_medI have a number of different prayer routines throughout the day, but when bedtime approaches, I’m pretty beat. Any prayer that’s too lengthy or structured sometimes puts me to sleep (the Rosary, for example–which I consequently try to pray earlier in the day). Any prayer that’s too free form (just me attempting to listen or talk to God) usually leads to mind-wandering, generally provoked by exhaustion. So Scripture reading followed by the Examen has become my ideal immediately-before-sleep bedtime prayer practice.

The Examen is an excellent, simply structured way to connect with God each day. Approached with an attitude of openness, it allows you to prayerfully review your day in God’s presence, expressing gratitude, recognizing your shortcomings, reflecting on your spiritual victories, and seeing how God’s will is at work in your life. Finally, it allows you to make a hopeful resolution for the day to come.

Here is the simple formula I follow for night prayer based on the Examen. I put it into a printable card format that’s nice for keeping on your nightstand or in your Bible. (Laminating it is even better!)

the EXAMEN printable

My friend, Randy Hain, also has a great post on how to pray the Examen throughout the day, which is another great idea.

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How to Amaze Jesus

*This article originally appeared on the IntegratedCatholicLife.org.

We know well the words that the centurion speaks to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof…” (Matt 8:8). We say them at each and every Mass. But have you ever taken time to reflect on the words following the Roman officer’s remarks to Jesus? Can you remember the words that the Gospel uses to describe Jesus’ reaction to the centurion?

eucharistJesus is amazed (Matt 8:10).

Can you imagine what it would be like to amaze Jesus? Astonishingly, we know that the word “amazed” is used only once in Matthew’s Gospel—this is it. So amazement isn’t a regularly mentioned habit of Jesus in the Gospels. Secondly, God is, well…God. I imagine it has to be pretty difficult to amaze him. But somehow, the centurion did.

From reading this passage we learn that the thing mentioned here that amazes Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the faith of this centurion—a Gentile—an officer in the enemy army! So it is great faith (no matter who exhibits it) that amazes Jesus.

Back to the Mass. Just before our reception of Holy Communion, before we receive Jesus under our own ‘roof’, we repeat the beautiful words of the centurion here in Matthew’s Gospel. Why? I think the Roman centurion is a model for us of how to approach Jesus. He humbly petitions Him, and then has full faith and confidence that Christ will respond to His need in the way that Jesus knows is best. How many times in prayer do you approach Jesus with both a problem and a solution? Admittedly, I’m a master at this. But what a truly faithful, humble servant does is to present a situation to Jesus and then remain open to His will, His solution. That’s exactly what the centurion does; that kind of faith amazes Jesus.

The Transubstantiation is the supreme way that Jesus amazes us at each and every Mass. But what if the next time you’re at Mass, you think of reciting these words of the centurion and receiving the Holy Eucharist as an opportunity for you to amaze Jesus?

Every moment before Communion we stand face to face with God, as the centurion did. We, too, have an opportunity to place our petitions before Him, coming to His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity and awaiting His answer to our needs. We also have the opportunity to pray: just say the word, Jesus. To possess an unshakeable faith in Christ’s ability to be our solution to all of our needs—perhaps all of us, in this way, can amaze Him, too.

How to Make a Home Altar

Home altar - catholickatieThough many aren’t familiar with it in modern America, a home altar has for a very long time been considered a staple feature in a Catholic home. The home altar is meant to serve as a central place for prayer and religious practice in a Catholic household. Most of us have designated places to eat, sleep, work, exercise, and play at home – why not have a designated, special spot to pray, both individually and together as a family?

Here’s an easy how-to for helping you set up your own home altar or prayer space:

1. altar and bookshelfChoose a place and surface. Find a spot in the home for your prayer space or altar, easily accessible to everyone. Ours is in the family room, in between a bookshelf containing a number of adult and children’s spiritual books, holy water and rosaries (right in picture), and a “prayer chair” below our icon collection (left). (You can also consider having smaller altars and spaces in each of the bedrooms, especially for the kids, which they can design uniquely for themselves.) As far as surfaces go, you can use a shelf, desk, end table, mantle, nook…pretty much anything. We used a medium-sized square end table.

2. (Optional step): Get some linens. I like the idea of having linens on the altar to dress up the table and to coordinate with the liturgical year. (I took pictures of our altar during Lent, so we have a plain white table cloth underneath a purple strip of cloth that I had cut for less than a dollar at a fabric store. I also have a green and a red cloth strip.) This is an optional step because if you are using a shelf or mantle, you may find it preferable to decorate without the linens.

3. Adorn the altar. Collect religious items from around your home to put on the altar. You may also want to consider investing in some of these items if you don’t have them; they make great family gifts on special feast days! You can make the altar as simple or as elaborate as you prefer (we opted for simple with young kiddos). Here are some things you can put in your prayer space or on your altar:

  • altar close upCrucifix
  • Bible (with or without a stand)
  • Prayer books, prayer cards, a missal, or a Catholic book of blessings and prayers
  • Catholic icons and/or art (of Jesus, Mary and the saints; on or above the altar)
  • Statues
  • Rosary(ies)
  • Candles
  • Holy Water
  • Blessed salt
  • Incense burner
  • Seasonal items like pictures of the Stations of the Cross during Lent, Advent wreath or Advent candles, a manger scene during Christmas, a Paschal candle or lamb during Easter, Baptismal candles, palm branches from Palm Sunday, pictures of saints on their feast days, etc.

4. Have your home and altar or prayer space blessed. If you haven’t had your house blessed, have a deacon or priest come bless the whole home, including the altar or prayer space. At least take your crucifix from your altar to Mass with you one Sunday and have that blessed.

altar5. Pray around your home altar! Take time during the day (we like to gather as a family after dinner) to pray around the home altar. This is a great time to light candles, read from the Bible, offer prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, pray a decade of the Rosary or a chaplet, learn about a saint or a feast day you are celebrating, or sign a hymn. Try and take little moments throughout the day to look at the altar or prayer space and offer a quick prayer and turn your mind and heart to Jesus. Just don’t let that special spot go unnoticed and unused!

For some home altar inspiration and ideas beside my own pictures here, check out Pinterest and these prayer space pictures from CatholicMom. Having a home altar or prayer space is a great way to make your home more of a domestic church!

One last thing…Recently, during Ordinary Time, I added a small altar/prayer table to my home-altar-catholickatie-comtoddler son’s room so he has a special place in his own room where he (and we together) could pray when he gets up in the morning, before nap/rest time, and before bed time. (Obviously a good habit for your children to form even if you don’t put a prayer table in their room!) Anyway, he loves it! I kept it pretty simple, and his favorite element is the statue of the Good Shepherd. I added a prayer card with a simple Scripture verse next to it, which he memorizes, that I will rotate every month. I’m enjoying the mini altar in his room as much as he is!

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Why I Didn’t Get My Doctorate (And Some Tips for Being at Peace With God’s Will for You)

A lot of my friends with whom I graduated from high school are getting their PhDs right about now. Which made me ask myself–again–the other day, “Why didn’t I get my doctorate?”

The short answer? Because I had kids.

To be more accurate, it was because God had different plans for me than I had for myself. Story of all of our lives, isn’t it?

When I was in graduate school, I was at the beginning of my five-year plan—you know, the new five-year plan I had developed after the previous five-year plan didn’t work out. After graduating with my masters in theology, I would immediately enter a doctoral program, get my PhD (something the overachiever, straight-A, too-concerned-about-what-I-was-doing-and-not-enough-about-who-I-was-becoming student in me had always expected to do), and then teach. Of course, I wanted to get married and have kids, and I suppose that I assumed at the time it would seamlessly happen concurrently…or something.

I met my husband after my first semester in graduate school, was swept off my feet—and unpredictably swept out of state—and now find myself, five years later, looking back at the altogether different five-year plan that God accomplished during that time, which involved getting married, having two beautiful children, writing a book, moving several times, and dabbling in other ministry work in my “free” time (is that what you call spare and fleeting moments as a parent of little ones?). In other words, in the past five years, nowhere was doctoral work to be seen, and it doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon…not as I see it right now, at least.

And I am absolutely at peace and happy with that. 

This peace and happiness is actually quite strange to me, considering I had never pictured myself at home with my kids singing the alphabet for the twenty-sixth time today, while simultaneously wiping drool off my shirt and laughing at my kids trying to poke each other’s cheeks. I thought of a future much more scholarly.

But, more times than I can count, God makes a point of demonstrating to me that His plans are always better than mine. His plans usually allow me to tap into my gifts more appropriately, bring me more joy, have a greater impact on others, produce less stress, and draw me closer to Him. His plans usually make me less selfish and more holy. His plans usually draw my attention away from myself and toward others, most especially toward Him.

Thankfully, in spite of my own (stubborn) free will, I often get diverted from the course of my own plans onto His path for me, and it’s often only in looking back that I can see the fruitfulness of it. I see that through prayer and openness, I sometimes intentionally and other times stumble onto the path of true peace of heart.

That’s where my tips for you come in. If you’re wondering how to find and remain in God’s will for you, try these simple but crucial practices:

  1. Pray. St. Rose of Lima says, “When God is consulted sincerely, He gives a clear answer.”
  2. Be open. Really, actually remain open to what God wants and not just what seems most comfortable or appealing to you at the present moment. It’s amazing how your heart molds to be in joyful conformity with His will when you let it.
  3. Consult logic, your feelings, and your imagination. Don’t just latch onto one of these without the others. They all play a role in peaceful discernment of God’s will.
  4. Seek guidance! Of course, God is the ultimate advice-giver in the process of discernment and finding and living within His will, but seeking counsel from spiritual directors and other wise mentors is not only helpful, but often necessary in the work of uncovering and being at peace with God’s will for you.

You know, I can’t imagine what life would be like right now if my nose was still perpetually in a book and my body in a chair in some classroom for the n-teenth year of my schooling (if you are in that phase of life right now, hoorah! God must have some amazing plans for you on that path). When I was in school, though I love and am always craving to learn, I was a rather anxious person. Now, I have so much more of that deep-down sense of peace and a constant appreciation for the absolute love I have for being in the thick of family life, with more scribbles now hanging on the wall than academic degrees.

Today, make peace with where God has put you right now. Or, if you are on a divergent course, find God’s path for you and start trekking on it, even if it feels scary or unplanned. There you will find His grace to meet you, and, as always, He will exceed all of your expectations.

Like Going Up the Down Escalator

I have a few crisp memories of my grandparents on my mother’s side. One of them is a replaying, over-a-decade-old mental video of Grandpa trying to walk up the down escalatorescalator, when he realized that Grandma, my sister, and I had—like girls do—changed our mind at the last minute and decided to stay on the upper floor of the mall.

“John!” Grandma ‘yelled’ in her loudest inside voice, which was no louder than my quiet inside voice (which is actually probably louder). “Come back!”

Grandpa saw us at the top of the escalator, and thought he’d attempt the climb.

He made it up a couple of downward escalating stairs before he realized he was pretty much staying in the same spot on the escalator.

Frowning adorably at his defeat, he turned around and let the escalator take him down to the bottom floor, where he turned around and began the upward ascent toward his wife and little laughing granddaughters.

What Grandpa had going against him was momentum. Naturally, his body wanted him to move with the momentum of the escalator, instead of against it. When he tried to move against it, the sum result was: he didn’t really do much moving at all.

~ ~ ~

How often do you find yourself thinking, “I want to be as good at X as so-and-so is!” A friend of mine is a master sewer. She decorates her house with quaint homemade pillows, adorns her nieces and nephews with classy baby clothes, and is so crafty it hurts me to look at all of the curtains I purchased—not made—that hang from my window. I want to be as good at sewing as she is.

sewingBut the reality is, when I get a thread in one of my hands and a needle in the other, or a hand on the sewing machine dial and a foot on the pedal, the sum result is a clump of disastrous multi-colored knots. That is, if I get that far. It is more likely that I’d quit after I spent my week’s fortune on the materials, but before I started any actual sewing.

Certain crafts make it clearly evident to me that I am moving against the momentum of my gifts and talents. The secret to being successful at the things you do, to be the best fill-in-the-blank (writer, dancer, listener, counselor, teacher, sewer…) is to move in the direction of the already-evident momentum in your life. I came to the realization some years ago that my momentum has me moving most easily in the direction of writing and speaking. Not only do I have the most success when I move in the direction of my momentum, but I also have the most fun.

God has given you unique gifts and talents, and when you use them and hone the skills that make you the best at whatever those gifts and talents are, you’re happy—no surprise to God, of course. He’s the one who makes the momentum you sense like a big “hint, hint” for you.

How do you know which gifts and talents to pursue? Well, what do you find yourself doing most often? What brings you joy? What do other people tell you that you are especially good at?

Don’t try to be someone else or to be the best sewer when you’re a writer (unless you’re great at both, and then maybe I do wish I were you…). When you get tangled up in all of that, you’ll only frustrate yourself trying to go up a down escalator.

St. Catherine of Siena says that if you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze. Of course, the ultimate of “what you should be” is a saint, but I think her statement applies to the gifts and talents to. Blessed Mother Teresa was the best caregiver of orphans and the poor, and she set the world ablaze. She moved in the direction of her God-given momentum.

Try it. Find excellence in multiplying the talents God gave you. Go up the up escalator.

How to Get Out of a Spiritual Slump

If only our spiritual lives were always as animated and forward moving as we’d like them to be. But most of us find ourselves repetitively moving in and out of spiritual slumps, riding tcht_series_medthe highs and lows of following Christ amidst the trials of the present world.

So how do we get out of those trying spiritual ruts? Here’s a quick list of hacks to get your spiritual life moving again:

  1. Pray. Prayer is, of course, the first and best answer to just about every problem we have – first and foremost the spiritual ones. Pray to God to help you out of your spiritual slump, to increase fervor and persistence in your spiritual life, His grace working along with your cooperation. Start your day or prayer times with simple, pleading words such as “Lord, change me” or to mimic St. Peter, “Lord, save me.” Jesus loves to shake people out of their spiritual ruts and normal grooves. He does this all throughout the Scriptures; remember the woman caught in adultery? I’m thinking she had a pretty different spiritual life after allowing Christ to turn her in another direction. Jesus has no less desire to come into our spiritual lives and do some tune-up work, too.
  1. Seek guidance. Don’t feel like you have to tackle a phase of spiritual dryness alone. Seek counsel from a spiritual director, a priest at your parish, a trusted and wise friend, or even from a good spiritual book (for example, Dan Burke’s Navigating the Interior Life). Fr. Jacques Philippe’s beautiful book, Thirsting for Prayer, has lifted me out of many a prayer slump.
  1. Act. This is such an important step in climbing out of a spiritual rut and, sadly, a step that is so often forgotten or not given priority. If you want to move forward in your spiritual life, praying about it, talking about it, and planning to grow all have their proper roles in the process, but you must actually do something! Choose a devotional and commit to it. Don’t start next week or at the beginning of the month; start now. If you are going to read Scripture more, set a reminder to pick up your Bible first thing when you wake up in the morning. Want to take advantage of the Hour of Mercy? Pray the Divine Mercy chaplet today in the 3 p.m. hour. If you are going to practice charity so you can see Christ more easily in others, do a work of mercy right now. Instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish a sinner, bear a wrong patiently, forgive willingly, comfort the afflicted, or pray for the living and the dead today. Then repeat. But, whatever you do, don’t overdo it. If you make too many spiritual commitments at the onset of your journey toward improvement, you’ll likely follow through with very few (if any) of them. Start small and focus on moving forward in baby steps, rather than giant leaps.
  1. Change things up. When it comes to physical fitness, doing the same form of man on mountainexercise every day can eventually put you at a physical standstill. The same thing happens in our spiritual lives. So mix things up a bit. For example, go outside to pray in nature or go out of your way to pray in the adoration chapel if those aren’t traditional prayer spots for you. Count your blessings at the beginning of your prayer time, as opposed to skipping straight to petitioning God for your needs.
  1. Have patience and trust. Look for lessons in the “dark night” or spiritual dryness that you are experiencing. How is God trying to work through this difficulty rather than solely in spite of it? Many were surprised to learn after her death that Mother Teresa experienced years of spiritual dryness…and yet look at the great devotion she had in the midst her own “dark night”! Have patience that God is working in your life, and trust Him. Do not lose faith, even amidst confusion, trusting that faith in Jesus is even more important than understanding His methods.

St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote, “In times of dryness and desolation we must be patient . . . putting our trust in the goodness of God. We must animate ourselves by the thought that God is always with us, that He only allows this trial for our greater good, and that we have not necessarily lost His grace because we have lost the taste and feeling of it.” So pray, ask for help, do something (even something different than you’re used to), and never lose hope that God is always with you, in times of spiritual fruitfulness and in those slumps, too.

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