Thursday, May 27, 2010

Party Planning Tips for the Tired and the Poor

If God hadn't made me the mother of four children, I would be a professional party planner! I was made for cheerful conversations and party hosting!

This week, however, I thought I'd finally reached my limit. I'm pregnant and tired. I'm still recovering from Hannah's First Communion Day on May 1st which maxed out both our energy levels and our finances. This week I found myself exhausted at the thought of planning two birthday parties (one for my husband, one for Mimi) in the midst of multiple doctor visits and an end of the year home-school review.

I thought my husband's 38th Birthday would be a dud.

An amazing thing happens when you pray, however. Jesus can do anything-including birthday part planning! Here's my story.

I took the kids to cheap birthday section at Target and gave them 10 dollars. They had total creative control for the decorations for Jon's surprise party. We got an Iron Man table cloth, funny birthday hats, those crazy plastic parachute guys and a pin the tale on the donkey game. Then when my husband came home for lunch on his birthday we yelled "Surprise". Lunch was so simple. I didn't even make a cake. It didn't matter! The kids were so excited about "their" party for Daddy that everyone had a great time. Jon enjoyed a great pick-me-up in the middle of the work day.

As for my gift, I used the theme from the "5 Types of Love Languages" from my current read, "How to Love Your Kids." My goal for Jon's birthday was to try to love him in each of the 5 different types of love in one day: physical touch, affirmative words, quality time, acts of service and gift giving. The first three are easy, those are my primary love languages and I do them naturally for my spouse all of the time. The last two languages were a challenge. Through prayer, I found a $20 gift at Target which really touched Jon's heart.

My favorite part of the day was coming up with acts of service. I have such low energy at this stage of pregnancy that I'm physically limited in what I can accomplish in a day. Yet I chose two of the most "guy-like" things on my husband's long To Do List and did them as a special gift.

The funniest part was registering the warranty for our new computer online. Of course, the Office Depot website was written in computer geek instead of normal English. I stood there for the longest time debating about whether my computer was properly classified as COMPQ_COM, or COMPQ_COM.SYSTEM. Then I had to find the serial number which had me crawling around on all fours with my giant belly. It was so hard to find where the manufacturer had hidden the serial number on a solid black computer tower. I was so out of my element but it felt great to give a hard act of service to my husband.

Then I ordered us a new modem box from our telephone company. Our current one has a short in it and we'd been meaning to order a replacement for about 3 years. To order a free replacement I had to sit on hold with an operator in India for about 70 minutes. Do you know how long 70 minutes can take when you have 3 young children in your house? The kind lady from New Delhi kept telling "Thank you for your patience Mrs. Benjamin. I will need to place you on hold again for another three minutes while I complete your order...." Meanwhile, there are blood curdling screams emanating from my children's bedroom. I kept wanting to say "I don't know if I have another 3 minutes. We might be making an immediate trip to the emergency room!"

But all that hard work was worth it! My husband was SO excited to get a new computer part from UPS this morning.

On his big day, my husband felt so loved and appreciated. A day based on the five love languages! A great birthday party idea for tired, cash-strapped but oh so loving Catholic spouse!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Life With a Future Nun

Hannah was messing around with a rock star game on Barbie this morning when she said "Mom this is a perfect song about God!"

I felt a little cynical that Mattel could compose the "perfect" song about God, much less that such a song was the background track to "So You Wanna Be A Rock Star!"

My cynicism vanished over the next few minutes as Hannah kept exclaiming, "That's so right!" and "That's just how God works!" after each and ever lyric.

I was shocked listen to the lyrics closely and hear that Hannah's take was true.
"I feel connected . . . protected....
like your standing right with me all the time.
You're near me. You hear me.
And everything else is gonna be alright!"

A happy little girl song that so expresses what it means to be a Catholic in Communion with God.

If you don't believe me, listen to it yourself. See any obvious references to the Eucharist and the Divine Intimacy of Catholic life?

Katharine McPhee-Connected

Life is just more fun when there is a future Nun in your house! I don't know how many "Jesus is the real boyfriend" pop songs that Hannie and I will be bopping around to in the future, but I hope it will be many.

You Might Be Catholic If. . .

As you pretend to eat a plastic cupcake at a make-believe tea party, your 2 year old suddenly shouts "Stop that, Mama, Stop! You can't eat until after you pray!"

(I wonder how many times I've said that same line at our dining room table during my toddler's short life? Maybe 6,000?)

Happy Birthday Jon!

Dear God,

It's me, Abigail. Thank you for creating my husband! He is one of your most wonderful creations. He is my best friend. He is my short-cut up the holy mountain to see your face. Please grant my husband joy, hope and peace on his 38th Birthday!


Your little mountain flower,

My Johnny,

...doing one of the he does best...

hugging daughters!

So glad he gets another daughter to hug this August!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why I Love My Husband- Part II

I spend the first forty-five minutes of every morning praying side by side with my husband. We are Carmelites. Our intense prayer life is our service to the Church. We're not the Dominicans. We're not the Jesuits. We're not the "pin-heads" as we affectionately call these orders. Instead, a Carmelite's humble service to the the whole world is to pray.

It is absolutely unbelievable to have your spouse and your best friend act as your prayer partner.

A dear friend, the one who actually JOGS each night, asked me recently how I managed to stick to my 5:30 AM prayer routine. "It's my husband," I answered. Every morning Jon rolls out of bed and heads to our living room for prayer time at the first beep of the alarm.

Some mornings I keep my sore, pregnant body in bed. Then Jon's empty spot in our double bed starts to taunt me. I start to feel like a lazy bum for missing Morning Prayer while my equally tired husband is off doing our hard Carmel work. If desire to talk to God doesn't get me up in the morning, than the silent witness of my steady husband does.

My husband is the one who prays our Prayer of the Quiet beside me each morning. He's the first person I talk to about the insights I've gained from reading the Divine Office. By speaking our prayer intentions out loud, I come to know the inner map of my husband's heart. I know who has hurt him at work and who he is struggling to forgive. I know when he's feeling remorse over a bad day with our son. I know how much he loves our unborn daughter. I know how much he hopes for his Mom and his Sisters to convert.

You can talk about all of these issues calmly over dinner, of course. (Then again, who has leisurely conversations at meals where multiple young children are present?) Yet a joint conversation with God is something different. Something Holy. Something Intimate.

If you have a Catholic husband, please use your built in "prayer partner" on a daily basis. You don't need to pray as long as we do. (We're the weird Carmelites who pray for the whole world, remember). However modest, a strong, steady prayer life with your husband will make a huge difference.

Try to pray a single decade of the Rosary together. Do your Daily Act of Consecration together at the doorway before your husband lives for work or say your Act of Contrition next to him at night. Small, simple prayer rituals that are REGULAR will kick-start both your faith and your marriage to a whole new level.

Home Education: Easy Math Games

Next week I have my home-school review. This semester I really pushed the limits of unschooling. For most of the Spring Semester Mom was either hugging a toilet, howling on the floor in back-pain, or unconscious with allergy symptoms. 2010 was truly the year of the "child led curriculum." I made 3 trips to library the entire semester and I didn't have time to artfully 'strew' interesting projects around the house. As I compile my kid's work for their portfolio review, however, I'm shocked that unschooling works. My kids did actually learn stuff. Here's a quick review of our math work.

2010 was the year I officially pitched Math-U-See. I thought this was a dazzling math program when Hannah was 4. Unfortunately, it's still set up in a typical "linear", classroom type manner. Hannah got stuck on "number placement" which is covered in lesson 2. She's got her numbers memorized up to 30, but she doesn't see the relationship between 0-9, 10-19, and 20-29. With their cute "decimal street" pictograph Math-U-See promised me that this was an easy concept to master. Instead, Hannah and I have sat on this issue since the first month of Kindergarten.

Thankfully, I realized that Math is a great subject to home-school on the fly. I've got a mental note on where both of my kids are stuck in Math. We sort of dance around learning different concepts and wait for that one concept to fully gel in their mind. For example, because Hannah has really figured out that the numbers 31-39 model the number 0-9, I just simply don't go over number 30 in any of our math problems. So instead of learning to count to 100, we've actually stayed in the small numbers and learned DIVISON this year!

It's shocking to me, but division can make complete sense to a 1st grader! At least for Catholic siblings! My kids entire focus in life is to make sure that all the Benjamin siblings get an equal share of candy, gum, toys, etc. I made up a super fun Division Math Game. We took our large collection of rubber bouncy balls and our four Zhu Zhu pets. I asked Hannah to close her eyes and then placed different numbers of Zhu Zhu pets and bouncy balls in front of her. "Can you make sure that each Zhu Zhu pet gets an equal amount of balls for the party?" Then I had Hannah record her answers with the division sign and different colored pencils for the pet and the balls. The color change kept her consistently dividing by the right number.

A second fun Math game involves Addition. We get a thousand Oriental Trader magazines at our house. I told Hannah to pick out party favors for an imaginary party.I asked "How much money does Mommy need to give you to order your supplies?" We cut up pictures of the items and glued it on some paper. (I rounded up the cents on each item into whole dollars.) Then I asked Hannah to add up the cost. There was even a handy graph with Greater, Less Than and Equals Signs to estimate the shipping cost.

Another fun way to teach "Greater or Less Than" is to play the card game War with your kid. Write a Greater Than Sign on a small piece of paper and place a Less Than Sign on the other side. On a separate piece of paper make the Equal Sign. Explain that the Greater Than Sign is a hungry alligator who always wants to eat the bigger number. (We put teeth and eyes on our Greater Than Signs). Play War. Each time you finish a hand, ask the kids to place the hungry alligator facing the right way. If you tie, bring out the equal sign.

A big break-through I had this year was how to teach Math to a left-handed kid. Hannah has a terrible time with reversing her numbers. In Math, if you reverse a "2" and a "5" you automatically get zero credit for your work. Hannah also just hates handwriting in general. We ended so many Math session early because of her total frustration with writing "boring" numbers.

What finally worked for me was to separate Hannah's Math lessons into several steps. Step A: I just let Hannah talk through a problem, no hand writing required. This lets us focus purely on her understanding of the concept. We usually do about 10-15 oral math problem before moving on to written ones. Step B: I get Hannah to record some problems in her "scientific journal." I let the handwriting look messy. I let the numbers get all reversed. Step C: I tell her that we need to record some of our work for her "teacher" (our home-school reviewer.). I get a fresh sheet of paper. I also have a number line with the numbers 0-29 written out.) At this point, we recopy her work in a slow, careful manner. I always prompt her "Did you mean it to be a 2 or a 5? Look at the number line and decide which way the number needs to point."

With this new method we "officially record" less than 10 problems a day. However, our Math lessons are SO much easier! I'm really happy to stress that Math needs precision. If Hannah wants to do well in Math (a subject she naturally loves) she needs to make herself double check her answers. This is one of the most amazing reasons to home-school! No one else is going to care as much as a parent. Hannah's got a natural ability in Math, but her brain is also giving her some stumbling blocks. It's so beautiful to take the time to give her the skills and coaching that she needs to succeed in a favorite subject.

Viking History Unit

An amazing thing happen this year, the entire Benjamin family fell in love with Cressida Cowell's "How to Train Your Dragon" series. We're currently doing bedtime story time with Book Five. This imaginary series based on the heroic misadventures of a young Viking named Hiccup, his dragon Toothless and his best friend Fishlegs are wonderful. My kids are all still non-readers, but these books have made reading a family adventure.

Our love of all things Viking have also made for interesting Catholic History lessons. Here are some highlights.

The Viking Era starts with a raid on the Irish Abbey of Lindisfarne in 787. The Vikings had a thing for attacking monasteries and killing unarmed monks. (If the grown-ups want a good laugh, check out the theories proposed for these "harmless" historical facts in the Adult Viking History Section. My favorite theory was that the Viking attacked Christian monks preemptively because they were horribly afraid of the Baptismal Font.)

One notorious Viking raid leads to interesting ethical questions. In around 900 AD, the Viking leader Hestein attacked the Italian town of Sarzang, thinking it to be Rome itself. Seeing that he was outnumbered, the Viking leader hatched a terrible plan. Hestein asked the local Bishop to baptize him, pretending to have a change of heart. That night, there was wailing from the Viking ship. The Vikings told the Bishop their leader had died in the night and asked for the Bishop to conduct a Christian Funeral Mass. Feeling pity for his former enemy, the Bishop consented. In the middle of the Funeral Mass, Hestein suddenly rose out of his coffin and killed the Bishop with his sword. All the Viking mourners throw off their cloaks, reveling their swords and started murdering everyone in site. The entire "baptism/funeral" request had been a ploy by Hestein to enter a heavily fortified town. This event gave a great springboard for my kids to talk about "loving your enemies" even when they trick you. We all decided that the Bishop did the right thing in in offering Baptism and Funeral Rites to his enemy, even if it ended up destroying his entire monastery.

Thankfully, the Vikings all ended up converting to Christianity.* One of the most interesting acts of conversion in Catholic history happened to Vikings. In 1000 AD, the entire settlement of Iceland voted democratically to accept Christianity. One leader proposed "Some of us believe in the old Gods. Some of us believe in Christ. It is not good for our people to be divided, therefore let us vote on whether we should all become Christians." There are many interesting stories of how Kings or Emperors were converted and then brought Christianity to their respective countries. I don't think there is another country which became Christian through a democratic vote.

*(We excuse our beloved Viking hero Hiccup for not being a Christian since we assume that he lived before St. Olaf and the mass conversion of Danish Vikings.)

For a kid-friendly lesson on how to dig up Viking Era Artifacts check out this great Dig It Up game from the BBC.

Movie Review-Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

If you haven't heard about America's most recent Saint, Father Damien, go rent the movie "Molokai". (This movie is even available as an instant download from Netflix). Saint Damien was a 19th Century Belgian missionary who ministered to a remote colony of lepers in Hawaii. The cast is filled with big names, including Peter O'Toole. I found this movie to really make me reflect profoundly on the nature of the priesthood. I left with a new appreciation for the Sacrament of the Sick, and the tender love the Church has for those souls who are in mortal peril.

Why I Love My Husband

On Friday, I had a hard day. A high pollen day, a lower immune system due to pregnancy and prohibition against taking any allergy meds equaled troubled. I took the kids out for an early morning playground run and completely exhausted all my strength by 9 AM. For the rest of the morning I sat in an armchair trying to keep my head upright. There was no school, no laundry, no cooking and no toy pick-up. Occassionally, I managed to corral agitated, allergy-suffering siblings into separate naughty corners.

When my husband came home at 12:00 there was no lunch waiting for him. Instead of his usual lunch of home-made bread and soup, Jon meal consisted of a single cup of coffee.

As we sat down to the dining table together with our coffee cups, I apologized. "Sorry, honey. I've felt awful all day. I haven't been able to do anything. I didn't teach. I didn't bake bread. All I've done today is babysit."

My husband, who is my help-mate in every way especially in my spiritual life, said "Only Babysitting! Babysitting is everything! The world outside this house is filled with so many scary and dangerous things that threaten young kids. I'm so thankful everyday my kids are safe at home with you. I never, ever have to worry about them when I go off to work. If all you did everyday is babysit for our kids, that is more than enough!"

Isn't Jon a sweetheart?

Just wanted to pass that message along to all the weary pregnant Mamas out there. Don't worry about providing clean floors or nourishing meals. If all you get done is babysitting next week, be proud of your contribution to the Kingdom of God!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Prayer Help: Acts of Spiritual Communion

No one can get to Daily Mass everyday (and the mothers of young, squirmy children can get their brood to Daily Mass almost never!) There's an easy way to make sure that we never miss out on the spiritual benefits of attending Daily Mass, however. On days that you're homebound, simply read the Scripture readings of the day and reflect on them in your heart. (I like to look up the Daily Mass Readings on Then say a simple Spiritual Communion Prayer like the one listed below.

Spiritual Communion Prayer

My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You.

These acts of Spiritual Communion really work! You'll receive all the graces that Jesus was going to give you at Daily Mass. (One of the ladies in my Carmel group actually sticks out her tongue to receive Jesus during her Acts of Spiritual Communion. She says it helps her visualize receiving the Eucharist if she acts the same at home as she does in Church.) Invite your husband to join in this prayer session and make Acts of Spiritual Communion a part of your family's early morning routine.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Modern Day Penance

I'm off to the Pediatrician for a "Well Child Visit" this morning. This is my first of three visits over the next three week period. I've got to schedule annual physicals one at a time since my spirited kids can't handle more than 20 minutes hanging out in a doctor's office.

The joys of Modern Day Catholic life. The stares! The questions! "Are you really going to ruin the lives of these sweet children by having YET another baby?" Remember when a trip to the ped with your eldest baby was relaxing because you got tons of credit for not feeding a toddler Soda?

Modern Day Penance, Baby! At least I get to offer it up to save souls!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Carmel Life


Today at Carmel, we studied our "Rule of St. Albert" adopted by the Carmelites in 1209. Pretty ancharic stuff right? Not at all! Take a look at this rule:

"No religious is to call anything his own but everything shall be in common."

Guess how I got to my Carmel meeting today? In my new ZipCar! This car sharing service is amazing. ZipCars are parked all over D.C. You simply reserve one online for $10 an hour (this fee includes free gas), walk to the car, open it with your eletronic key card and drive off! A perfect fit for a big Catholic family who uses public transportation yet still needs a car for occassional trips out of town.

So here Jon and I are, 21st Century Third Order Carmelites, living out our ancient rule to "not call anything his own but share everything in common."

(Abby with her big belly! Still have 12 weeks to go!)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

St. Isidore the Farmer

Today is the Saint Day of one of my husband's favorite Saints, St. Isidore the Farmer. St. Isidore got in trouble for going to work a half an hour late each day after he attended Daily Mass. The saints employer was about to complain when he realized that there were angels doing St. Isidore's farm work for him! Because he went to Mass, St. Isidore was able to work twice as much as any of the other field hands!

Whenever Jon is overwhelmed by the shear multitude of tasks at his job, he prays for help from St. Isidore the Farmer. This Saint has been helping my husband make it reliably home each night at 6 PM for almost 5 years. Pray to him! He is great!

More info from "Saint of the Day" on Google
"This saint was born in 1070, in Madrid, Spain. His parents were deeply religious. They named their son after the great St. Isidore, archbishop of Seville, Spain. We celebrate his feast on April 4. Isidore's parents wanted to offer their son a first-rate education, but they could not afford it. They were tenant farmers. Their son would spend his life in the same occupation.

Isidore went to work for a rich land owner in Madrid. The man's name was John de Vargas. Isidore worked all his life for Mr. de Vargas. He married a good girl from a family as poor as his own. The couple loved each other very much. They had one child, a boy, who died as a baby. Isidore and his wife offered to Jesus their sadness over the child's death. They trusted their son was happy with God forever.

St. Isidore began each day at Mass. Then he would go to his job. He tried to work hard even if he didn't feel like it. He plowed and planted and prayed. He called on Mary, the saints and his guardian angel. They helped him turn ordinary days into special, joyful times. The world of faith became very real to St. Isidore, as real as Mr. de Vargas' fields. When he had a day off, Isidore made it a point to spend extra time adoring Jesus in church. Sometimes, on holidays, Isidore and his wife would visit a few neighboring parishes on a one day pilgrimage of prayer.

Once the parish had a dinner. Isidore arrived early and went into the church to pray. He arrived in the parish hall late. He didn't come in alone. He brought a group of beggars, too. The parishioners were upset. What if there wasn't enough food for all those beggars? But the more they filled up their plates, the more there was for everybody else. St. Isidore said kindly, "There is always enough for the poor of Jesus."

Stories of miracles began to circulate about this farm worker saint. Isidore was totally unselfish. He was a loving and compassionate human being. He is one of Spain's most popular saints. Isidore died on May 15, 1130. In March, 1622, Pope Gregory XV proclaimed five great saints together. They were St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri and St. Isidore the Farmer.

Caring for the gifts that surround him marked the life of this saint. He let his faith in Jesus and the Church light up his whole life. Perhaps we can make an effort to share the gifts we have especially with the poor."

A Saturday With the Sisters

We just returned from a fun "Family Day" with the Sisters of the Servants of the Lord. Family Day is a chance to visit the sisters at their novitiate house in rural Maryland, play carnival games, eat food, go to Mass and pet some horses. It's a beautiful thing about Sisters. You befriend one and suddenly you're considered "family" by all of the Sisters in the order for the rest of time!

Because of our lack of a car, we haven't seen the Sisters since they received their veils in December at the National Basilica. (If you have the chance to watch a Sister receive her veil or make a promise it's such a moving experience. This year an 18 year old woman from our local parish joined the order and we all cried so many happy tears at her Profession Mass!) Today, however, we had our new ZipCar so we were able to travel to the rural convent with ease. It was beautiful to catch up with the Sisters with their new names and their new blue habits. All the Sisters rubbed my "bump" and gave me updates on their prayer life.

I heard the most amazing story. Sister Servant of the Cross is a twin. When I spoke to her in October she asked me to pray for her twin brother, named Anthony, who might be discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Today, Sister Servant of the Cross told me that things were going amazingly well. Her brother is currently in the Air Force and he was able to make a brief visit home to the States to stay with his Sister in the convent for a few days. She set Anthony up with a priest in her order and he told Anthony to pray the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and visit a seminary in while he was stationed in Rome.

The twin brother just finished an amazing retreat in Rome. It was so insightful that he elected to stay for five extra days! He recently called his twin Sister to say "you've been praying for me! Exactly what have you been praying for?" Sister told me joyfully, "I just told my brother, I've been praying for your happiness and that you find peace in your life . . ." Sister laughed and told me "I didn't tell him that I've prayed hard for him to become a PRIEST in my same ORDER!"

So sweet. I've nicknamed the twins St. Scholastica and St. Benedict in my mind. Please pray for all vocations, especially to the priesthood and religious life. It is absolutely amazing to see all of these young girls from all of America, shining with happiness in their new lives.

There is no better place to have a picnic when your pregnant and the mother of many small children than at a convent. I kept losing Alex and Maria among the acres of farmland. Every time I mislaid a kid, there would be a cheerful voice calling out "He's over here Mrs. Benjamin!" At a convent, there are forty pairs of hands to help your brood and forty pairs of eyes to smile at your big belly. I wish every family gathering was as relaxing as Family Day with the Sisters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Leaving the Good For the Better

My husband has a unique talent. He paints.

The fact that my husband can churn out amazing oil paintings on interesting subjects was probably the number one factor in getting me to turn over my actual phone number to a stranger I'd just met in a smoky college bar.

When a shy boy in a baseball cap asked me for my phone number after spending 20 minutes chatting about our homes in Upstate New York, my time in Law School and his major in Painting, my first thought was "I've got to see those paintings Jon is talking about!"

I've watched Jon paint outdoors in a camper trailer. I've watched him paint with a newborn strapped to his back. I watched him disappear for hours in a home-made studio inside our apartment storage locker.

My husband can paint. He's happy and vibrant and alive whenever he finishes an oil painting. His paintings are deep and mysterious and Catholic. I love having my husband's paintings hanging up all over our house.

When my husband got a normal 9 to 5 job after we moved to Washington D.C. four years ago, he suddenly stopped painting. There wasn't time or energy to paint at night. Two kids aged 2, 1 and a wife who suffered a sudden miscarriage seemed to suck up every second of Jon's time on the weekends.

As the wife of a former artist, I felt confused and lost. I missed the status of my husband's job as an Art Professor. I missed holding the stem of wine glasses at Gallery openings. I missed the "hipness" of being a painter's wife.

During this time of transition an artist named Christina lived in the apartment two floors above us. We watched our neighbor go from struggling hack to a painter who sold elaborate oil paintings for $10,000 each in NYC galleries. The transformation in her work occurred, Christina assured Jon, solely as a result of forcing herself to paint three hours every night after work.

For two years, every time I ran into Christina at the mailbox I received a large scolding in her thick Russian accent. "Jon MUST paint. He must paint EVERYDAY. You are his wife! You MUST make sure this happens. Jon can not waste his talent."

I'd stand there, blushing, holding my colicky newborn Maria and feel like such a failure. Why couldn't I be a better wife? Why couldn't I manage our home life better in order to give my husband a half an hour to paint everyday.

Thanks to her increased income from painting sales, Christina eventually moved into a more expansive apartment building. However, I simply traded Christina's fellow artist scoldings for one from a fellow Carmelite.

One of the ladies in my Carmel group, Diane, is an accomplished artist. At our first meeting she decided to jump start Jon's failing painting career and immediately enrolled him in several local art groups.

It was incredible because I watched my husband have a sort of St. Joseph transformation. Suddenly, painting wasn't something oddly abandoned. Painting was deliberately rejected in favor of his vocation.

After a few painful weeks, Jon stopped going to art group meetings. He stopped asking for painting supplies. He told our Carmel friend "I'm a father of young children. This isn't the season for painting right now."

Instead of dreading the mailbox run, I now started dreading running into Diane the artist at Carmel meetings. "You've got to get Jon to paint!" she'd say. This time instead of money or fame, my fellow Carmelite used the God excuse. "God gave Jon a talent. He has to use it! Think about how many souls his paintings can touch!"

My secret pride and vanity left me feeling shaken and ashamed. We were supposed to be proof that Artists can have a holy family life AND a talented career. Yet here we were, totally abandoning our painting and writing skills in order to parent little ones. And we wanted even more babies! As a married couple, Jon and I had become the suburban cliche that every student dreaded in Art School.

As most painful events that wound my pride, my feelings about Jon's lack of painting sat quietly with God and healed on their own. Jon's oil paints gradually gathered cobwebs in our pantry. Gradually, I stopped feeling physical pain whenever I happened upon Jon's unused art supplies. Instead, I started to feel a bit of awe that my husband loves God, me and our children MORE than he loves to paint. After joining Carmel, Jon kept telling me "If I've got an extra twenty minutes in a day, I'm using it to pray. I'm not going to use it to paint."

As a typical sign of the vast difference in my own spiritual development and that of my husband, the person who I'd uncharitably avoided for the past four Carmel meetings is the very same person who currently tops my husband's list of prayer intentions.

This morning while making oatmeal, my husband announces "I've prayed a lot for Diane this week. I'm really worried about her. I hope you'll join me in praying for her today."

Pray for Diane? I sputtered in my coffee cup "Why are you praying for Diane?" Shouldn't you simply run away from her like I do during every Carmel meeting from here to eternity?

It turns out that Diane is horribly stuck on a painting she's doing of a Catholic saint. "Every time I see her she looks worse and worse. I want to tell her that all this stress clearly isn't God's will. She should just take a break from painting and wait to start up again when she feels called to begin. A break for 10 days or 10 months doesn't matter. What matters is that we always have peace when we paint. Nothing is worth fighting God's will like this! . . . But Diane isn't ready to hear all of that. I'll keep silent and just pray hard for her instead."

My husband stopped puttering around the kitchen and had an intense moment of self-reflection. "Diane doesn't have kids. That's why it is so hard. I learned how to stop painting because I had people who physically needed me. I learned how to paint inside God's will the easy way."

Jon's self-confidence amazed me. I asked him many questions about his own pause in painting. Jon insisted that he felt clear and certain. He's a husband and father in the model of St. Joseph. He performs acts of self-sacrifice with great joy.

Moreover, my husband is a clear-eyed Carmelite. To him, it's useless to paint without the help and approval of God. Anything you paint for your own pride, your own vanity, your own sense of legacy is simply JUNK.

To Jon, it's obvious that God would never ask a young father to stop playing legos with his only son in order to paint a few oil paintings that might make him a famous artist one day. In the same manner, God would never ask a blocked, frighten painter to keep painting, no matter how "holy" the subject of her painting.

While I talked to my calm, clear husband, I had an amazing insight.

Everything we worried about sacrificing in Art School was wrong!

It's not noble to forsake your wife and children to spend massive hours trying to become the next Vincent van Gogh. In fact, if you asked Vincent to choose between his life and my husband Jon's sweet family life, Vincent would choose being a family man in a second.

After all, Vincent was an ignored, poor painter during his life with a chopped off ear. His paintings only became famous works of genius after his death. During his lonely earthly existence, I have no doubt that Vincent would have adored possessing my husband's sweet Catholic life.

I could just hear Vincent shrieking in my ear "You want your husband to leave a faithful wife, beautiful children and direct contact with the Divine in prayer in order to spend a few extra hours in front of a blank canvas with some smelly oil paints! What are you thinking? I'm only spending hours painting because my time with prostitutes is so unfulfilling!"

"Vincent van Gogh would have preferred living my husband's quiet, humble and totally fulfilling life," I thought this morning at breakfast.

Today, I'm praying for Diane and for Christina and for all of my artistic friends. I pray for the artsy boys who double pierced their chins and consented to vasectomies out of the fear of sacrificing their Art to Fatherhood.

I give thanks to God for my husband, a man of St. Joseph's own heart.

I pray that all fathers have the courage to leave the "good" of the Church Finance Committees or the Promotions that Require Tons of Business Travel, in order to find the "better part" of Marriage, Family Life and Time Spent with Christ in Prayer.

Prayer Help: Fasting

Easter Season is coming to an end and that means it's time to start up fasting again.

(Did you know we Catholics a six week excused break from doing ANY fasting or penance during the Easter Season? We can't fast while the Easter Bridegroom is with us! I've made sure to cook a meat dish for my family each and every Easter Friday.)

Fasting and Prayer go together, hand in hand. When you find yourself having trouble praying for a difficult family member or co-worker, try fasting once a week for them. You'll be totally shocked at how quickly your love will increase for "the difficult to love" people in your life.

I can't remember which Saint said this, but someone said "The penance that the Devil hates the most aren't all night prayer vigils or frequent whips of the St. Catherine Wheel. What angers the Devil most are fasts from food, water, and sleep."

Food. Water. Sleep.

Every single parent knows what it means to "fast from sleep." My husband and I joke that our beloved St. Martin of Porres (the man who could fly!) had an elaborate system of penance where he'd sleep on a board and wake himself up at 2 AM to whip himself on the back.

Here's my elaborate system of "sleep fasting": be pregnant, wake up with vomiting at 2 AM, have a five year old have a bad dream at 3:00 AM, have a toddler who wishes to share your small bed at 4:30 AM.

St. Martin de Porres and Me, on a similar sleep penance schedule. Mine even counts a little"more" because my sleep fasts aren't self-imposed, they are imposed upon me.

My Carmel teacher also reminds us constantly to fast from the little things. She says "if you're waiting for the bread in the toaster and think, I can skip buttering my bread this morning in order to help sinners: DO IT!"

As members of the universal priesthood every little fast of ours helps others. So skip the milk in your coffee. Give up using ice-cubes on a summer day. Pick up litter that you didn't lose. Every little bit helps!

For me, fasting helps me grow in the virtues of patience and gentleness. If I'm cranky because I haven't eaten lunch during a fast, it's easier to remind myself not to lose patience when my 7 year old has an extremely slow home-school session. Since I'm fasting for Christ, it's easier to remind myself mentally "don't take this out on Hannah".

All of that past fasting work has really helped now that I'm in the "involuntary" fasting part of pregnancy. My patience during bad morning sickness days and bad back-pain days is so much better because I've had practice!

I think of fasting now as purposely using my heavy cross-trainer shoes. Back when I ran track in high school, we used to use our heavy running shoes for our regular training sessions. We saved our slick, light-weight running cleats for the actual track meets. Whenever I suited up in my shiny cleats, after hours of running in dirty cross-trainers, the first 800 meters felt soft and easy.

If you want more patience during long car trips or major crying sessions in Target, use fasting to train your body to stay calm, holy and cheerful even when you're physically stressed. Purposeful fasts are the "cross-trainer" shoes of motherhood.

If you find yourself needing extra patience on the hard days of motherhood (and who doesn't) try to add a little fasting to your prayer routine: wait 15 extra minutes before taking a drink when your thirsty, eat unbuttered toast, skip dessert, fast until 5 PM on a normal Friday or (for us pregnant gals) try to cheerfully offer up our suffering during morning sickness. Every little fast helps!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Another Benefit of First Communion

Our First Communicant now acts as a personal trainer in regard to her parent's spiritual muscles. Last night was rough one for my husband. We got to bed late and I came down with the stomach flu in the middle of the night. My sweet, concerned husband lost a lot of sleep while helping me.

This morning we both stumbled out of bed at 5:30 AM to do our daily Carmelite prayer routine. My husband said that he was going back to bed when we finished and skipping Daily Mass at 7 AM.

At 5:45 AM, Miss Hannah ran out of her bedroom shouting "Did I miss it? Did I miss it? Daddy, you've got to take me to Mass this morning!"

I laughed at my stunned husband. You give a kid a taste for the Eucharist and you've get an early morning alarm clock for the rest of time! :-)

Daddy and daughter headed off to early morning Mass and had a great time together. Our Irish priest, Father Valentine was back after a trip to Lourdes. It was a such a treat to see Jon and Hannah's shiny face after Mass at the breakfast table this morning.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

St. Jutta's Feast Day

St. Jutta was a contemporary of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. She said there were three things that can bring one close to God "painful sickness, exile from home in some remote corner of a foreign country, and poverty voluntarily accepted for God." (Lives of the Saints, pg 178)

More food for thought that my Carmelite vow of poverty seems to be the easiest route of St. Jutta's three options!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hitting the Restart Button

This day started out terrible!

I couldn't sleep last night. The baby is pushing out my side abdominal muscles and every sleeping position became uncomfortable after 5 minutes. I spent most of the night sleeping on the floor, going in and out of bad dreams. At 5 AM, I had another eye emergency. My husband came out of bed to help me. I repaid his kindness by getting into a snippy fight with him.

"I'm going to pray!" I shouted over my shoulder at 5:25 AM, and banged two pillows against our bedroom door.

Under the makeshift alter to our Blessed Mother, I arranged myself on the floor with the pillows under my sore stomach and tired head. I started out my Carmelite prayer of the quiet in an awful, awful mood. My husband came out to join me in a few moments. It took everything I had not to hiss at him as he lovingly rubbed my sore back.

I yelled at God a lot this morning. I knew I was slipping further and further into sin, but I didn't really care. Everything in my life seemed wrong, impossible and awful at the same time.

After five minutes of quiet prayer, I said sorry to my husband. After fifteen minutes, I truly felt sorry. And by the end of my half in hour, I wasn't sure where I was with God, or how I was going to get through the day, but I knew I loved my husband and that my marriage is a great blessing in my life.

It was 6:06 AM in the morning. We sat in the dark and talked about attending Daily Mass. Suddenly, even with a scratched eyeball, a sore stomach and dark circles under my eyes, I knew I was supposed to attend Mass today.

At 6:26, the whole family waited at the bus stop. We haven't attended Daily Mass together since I was eight weeks pregnant. It felt great! Hannah got to receive Jesus for the 4th time. Maria crawled under the pews and Alex couldn't only be gotten out of bed this morning with bribes of candy. Still Mass was beautiful.

As we rode the bus home, I felt like I'd hit the "restart" button on my day. The reading today was St. Paul, warning us that we must face many hardships to deserve heaven. It's okay that the daily life of a Catholic extracts every single ounce of physical, emotional and spiritual strength from me. The the King of the Universe is always ready to give me a "refill" at 7 AM each morning.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hannah's First Communion Part II

A beautiful day...

to taste Jesus for the first time!