St. Philip Neri

Drawn to St. John Henry Newman’s homily on today’s Saint by the Magnificat, I found this compelling account of his life I’d like to share:

Nothing was too high for him, nothing too low. He taught poor begging women to use mental prayer; he took out boys to play; he protected orphans; he acted as novice-master to the children of St. Dominic.

He was the teacher and director of artisans, mechanics, cashiers in banks, merchants, workers in gold, artists, men of science. He was consulted by monks, canons, lawyers, physicians, courtiers; ladies of the highest rank, convicts going to execution, engaged in their turn his solicitude and prayers. Cardinals hung about his room, and Popes asked for his miraculous aid in disease, and his ministrations in death. It was his mission to save men, not from, but in, the world…

To draw the young from the theatres, he opened his Oratory of Sacred Music; to rescue the careless from the Carnival and its excesses, he set out in pilgrimage to the Seven Basilicas. For those who loved reading, he substituted, for the works of chivalry or the hurtful novels of the day, the true romance and the celestial poetry of the Lives of the Saints. He set one of his disciples to write history against the heretics of that age; another to treat of the Notes of the Church; a third, to undertake the Martyrs and Christian Antiquities;—for, while in the discourses and devotions of the Oratory, he prescribed the simplicity of the primitive monks, he wished his children, individually and in private, to cultivate all their gifts to the full.

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St. Philip Neri, Pray for us!

The Nightmare

Last night I woke up in a cold sweat after horrific nightmare. It was so vivid and traumatic, I don’t want to recount it here except to say that it dredged up all kinds of memories about our miscarriages and other difficult pregnancies.

After I came out of it, I lay in bed, feeling nothing but dread and a heavy spiritual oppression settle over me. It was so intense I reached over to make sure my wife was still in bed next to me and that I hadn’t woken up in some terrible, lonely place. It took a real effort of will to get out of bed, fumble with the light, and look around to assure myself that all was well. I splashed some water on my face and then thought, “Why am I doing this? This feeling is not going away.” So I grabbed a bottle of holy water that stands on our dresser and applied it liberally: my forehead, my pillow, the room itself…I just slung that stuff around as best I could. Then I lay down, said one St. Michael prayer and…

…I was out like a light. I slept beautifully and woke up this morning, refreshed and ready for my work week.

Today I am incredibly thankful for sacramentals, those physical reminders of God’s overwhelming love for us. Whether it’s holy water, saint medals, blessed rosaries, or blessed candles, I think most of us are not relying on them enough. Like the big S Sacraments, these are gifts given to us freely, and to let them gather dust is a shame. So after my little spiritual skirmish last night…you can bet everyone and everything in the house is going to get a good sprinkling in the next few days.

 

Cursing the wind

Training for a half marathon can be mentally freeing on the days when you have good runs. Other days, it can be frustrating.  Yet there are days when it can be both – on the same day, on the same run.

Saturday was one of those runs. My longest run before Grandma’s Half Marathon next month, I was staring at the prospect of 12 miles. Six miles out, six miles back; literally uphill both ways. There was a northwest breeze that promised to help keep me cool as the sun rapidly warmed the land.

My route took me southeast of town along the Heart River and into the bluffs above the bottom lands and the Missouri River.  It’s a beautiful run any day, but Saturday morning was crisp, sunny and bright. I headed southeast along the ancient river where thousands of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Indians once made home. Lewis and Clark came right up through the Cottonwoods seeking to make contact with friendly natives after being put to flight by the fighting Sioux to the south.  It was right here in these parts while exploring the Big Muddy’s western banks that the Corps of Discovery met its first grizzly bear in 1804.

The bike path from town to the state park six miles south follows a rusted old Northern Pacific line that sought to unite isolated cattle towns in west-central Dakota Territory with the big city of Bismarck. A few miles south of here, the rails and ties disappear into the overgrowth of a grade that has long been abandoned, no longer making its way to its terminus. However, the railroad had laid claim to the first modern conquest of the upper Missouri River when it built the High Bridge across it in 1882, opening  wide the path from Minnesota to the Pacific. The bridge still stands on its original piers and receives use daily by trains hauling grain, oil, and coal east on the main line.

In order to protect the railroad outpost burgeoning in central Dakota, the US Army sent two companies from the 6th Infantry to build a post atop a bluff overlooking the ruins of a Mandan village. Shortly thereafter, the 7th Cavalry followed, lead by its infamous commander, Colonel (ahem, call him “General”) George Custer.

Running along the bluffs, the meadowlarks, pheasants and robins serenaded me, as they likely did the 7th Cavalry with Custer leading them west out of the Missouri River valley on a May morning 140 years ago. The men that marched west that May morning never returned to this valley, they found their way into the history books and infamy. I was not to bear such a fate, and for that I should have been thankful.

The entire outward run, the wind gusted over my right shoulder and across my face, but mostly behind me. As I reached Cavalry Square and began my about-face, I noticed the state and Union flags snapped straight out away from me. I was turning headlong into the wind.  This is North Dakota, buddy. Buck up.

I turned smack into the teeth of a 25 miles-per-hour wind and I was looking at 6 miles of this new adversary.  This is North Dakota, its windy here; you know that.  No big deal. There were hills and trees that would surely break some of the wind for me.  How bad can it be?

I found out how bad. And every time I figured the wind couldn’t get any harder or worse; it did. It seemed that every little turn in the path, change in grade, shelter promised by trees just served to square me up directly into the wind a little better.

I muttered something under my breath and into the wind.  The wind laughed back. This brought about another choice word or two. The wind blew them back into my face. The futile curses, complaints and mutterings continued on and on for miles until I reached my car.

Though done with my run, I felt that my senseless anger at the wind served only to create an occasion of sin for me. So I found myself in line for Confession on Saturday afternoon. The priest in the confessional pointed out that little things build into larger things, and how those mutterings underneath my breath are really small ingratitudes, which can build into larger ones.

Reflecting on his words in the church afterward, my first reaction was, what on earth could I ever be thankful about the wind for – especially a 25 mph one?  Then the reasons I should have been thankful flooded down. First off, that wind kept me cool both ways. I didn’t need to be cooled as much on the out route, but when I’ve run that route on warmer or calmer days, the hills have me sweating and bemoaning the heat.

Next, in an ironic way, that wind served as motivation for me. I felt horrible the last two miles of the run. For as peaceful as the first 6 miles were the first 4 back into the wind and hills were a killer on the mental aspect. Add to that the fact I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet and all my thoughts were focused on just quit; just walk; slow down; all the while, the wind taunted me, I’m going to beat you. I didn’t want to be beat. Not by my aching stomach, and not by the North Dakota wind. I don’t think anyone would have sympathy for a guy who quit running because the wind was too strong. You live in North Dakota, buck up!

Finally, I’ve heard horror stories from friends who’ve run the Grandma’s half marathon. When its nice – its hot and you’d die for a wind. When its windy, its Gitchie Gummie-windy, with rollers and breakers and all. So on one hand, I may be longing for this very wind in a month when I’m running. On the other, I may be running into a Lake Superior gale and, if so, thank God I know what its like to run into a 25 mph wind!

As Taryn said last week, “we are told to give thanks to God “in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), not just when the going is good.

I guess I should have been thankful after all.

As I walked out of the church, the wind caught the door and whipped it out of my hands. Instead of muttering under my breath, as I had earlier in the day, I just smiled.

Thanks for getting the door for me.” I chuckled and this time, the wind laughed with me.

Our Pentecost Cuisine

As long-time readers of the blog know, one of my favorite things to do is cook for my family. An even better thing to do is cook with my family. This Pentecost, I wanted to make something new and special for everyone, so after Mass, my girls and I bought some asparagus, and after the kids were up from naps, my second child and I hunted around online for some tasty recipes.

She just turned four and adores cooking with Dad. So we put on our aprons, opened the kitchen windows to enjoy the spring air, and got to work. She was bursting with questions. “If you eat this raw, could you get sick? Why don’t we eat the peel? Is this good for your body?” We worked happily side by side, and she was so proud of the results. “That smells good,” she declared as we put the finishing touches on our main dish, and a few minutes later, she beamed as Mom, big sister, and baby brothers exclaimed over it in various ways. And I was so proud of her, her willingness to just go with an unfamiliar recipe and make something really memorable.

Now that I’m traveling a lot for work, I don’t get to cook with her as often as I’d like, which made the afternoon even more special. And while we were cooking together, all I could think was, “If I can just teach her the joy of a simple thing done well, that will be all she truly needs to grow into an extraordinary woman.” I am convinced that all the saints knew this secret: that a simple thing done well can be more pleasing to God than all the grand designs in the world, if only it is done out of love. As Brother Lawrence once wrote,

In the ways of God thoughts amount to little whereas love accounts for everything…I flip my little omelette in the frying pan for the love of God, and when it’s done, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the floor and adore my God who gave me the grace to do it, after which I get up happier than a king . Our sanctification depends not on changing our works, but on doing for God what we would normally do for ourselves. 

I wanted so badly to remember this afternoon of cooking that when I wrote down the recipe, I named it after her, and in honor of Mary. I hope every time someone in our family takes it out of the recipe box, they remember her and Our Lady:

Poulet Immaculata

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2.5 lbs. chicken thighs, bones and skin removed
  • 1 sweet yellow onion, chopped
  • 2/3 cup of white wine (we used 1/3 cup cooking wine, 1/3 cup sauvignon blanc)
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 3 tbsp. low-fat sour cream
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 tsp. of cornstarch
  • chives, snipped for garnish
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat oil in skillet and pat chicken dry, salt and pepper both sides.
  2. Place chicken in open skillet, browning each side (about 5-8 minutes)
  3. Remove chicken and place in glass baking dish. Bake in oven at 450F for 15-20 minutes (internal temp. to 165F).
  4. In skillet, cook yellow onion for two minutes. Scrape up any browned bits left over from chicken cooking and mix well. Add wine and simmer for two minutes.
  5. Add rosemary, sour cream, and broth. Simmer  for two minutes.
  6. Add 1/2 tsp. cornstarch, dissolved in 1/8 cup of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer until thickened.
  7. Add sauce and onions to chicken in glass baking dish. Bake for 5-10 minutes. Remove and serve, garnish with chives.

Bon appetit, and may God bless us all this Pentecost!

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The Best of My Days

For Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me a “Best of my Days” journal. Created for a busy mom with no spare time, the journal contains a card for each month with a list of dates down the left side. The point is to write a short phrase or sentence about the best thing to happen each day of the month. I was excited to receive such a sweet gift and then promptly forgot about it until March. I found it hidden under a stack of papers and have since been trying to remember to fill it out each day. Some days are simple, like the day my son received his first Holy Communion. Other days, while not as momentous, have been filled with beautiful moments, like the day we planted a garden together as a family.

But I have found that the most important days to record are the ones where I really have to pause and reflect. What was the best thing that happened on the day that consisted almost entirely of four cranky children battling colds and doing their best to let me know they are miserable? I think and think… until suddenly I remember the moment when I was standing in the kitchen nearly in tears, stewing about how ungrateful my children are, when my six-year-old appeared on the steps. “Mom…?” He pauses. I’m certain he is about to blame me for the fact that he has lost his socks for the fourth time that day. I brace myself… “I love you, Mom.” And that’s all.

It’s a moment that could have easily been forgotten if I had not taken the time to search for it at the end of the day. But search I did. So instead of going to bed annoyed and angry at the crummy day I had, I can take a breath and be thankful for that little moment of grace.

Gratitude has never come easily to me. When things are tough, I let myself wallow in the muck for far too long. But I believe that this practice of remembering just one beautiful moment at the end of each day could help me in my journey to cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving. We are told to give thanks to God “in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), not just when the going is good.

I recently heard the virtue of trust defined as “giving praise and thanksgiving to God in all things” I have always had difficulty understanding and living trust, but it helps me to think of it in this way.  If we really trust God, we will receive every moment he gives us with praise and thanks. We might not understand why we are being led down a certain path, but we know he is a good God so we continually praise and thank him. I hope that my little exercise in being thankful will help me to grow in trust in the one from whom all blessings flow.

The Vanishing Neighbor and the Local Church

I’ve been traveling a lot this past month, so I’ve had some time to catch up on podcasts. One that particularly struck me was Episode 176 of the Art of Manliness podcast, where author Mark Dunkelman discusses his book, The Vanishing NeighborDunkelman argues that all people have three relationship orbits. The first orbit contains those who are closest to us: family and dear friends. The second orbit contains our acquaintances: those who we might see at a PTA meeting or the local bar. The third orbit contains those with whom we share a common interest, but who are not necessarily close to us geographically. Dunkelman discusses how technology has allowed us to remain closely tethered to those in the first orbit and strengthen bonds with those in the third orbit, and maintaining relationships with those in the second orbit has become less important to most of us because we feel such a strong connection with those in orbit one and three. Maintaining acquaintances in a neighborhood, school, or town is more challenging since we don’t necessarily share the same hopes and dreams.

I’ve been thinking about how all of this relates to the local church. As American social life changes (see Bowling Alone for more), it is easier and easier to surround ourselves with those with whom we agree on pretty much everything, and at the same time, we can lock out those with whom we disagree. For Christianity, I think this is more of a problem than a solution to a problem, since our Gospel mandate is to “go and make disciples of all nations.” If we surround ourselves with fellow Catholics who think as we do, we will never meet those who are open to the message of Jesus, but who have not received that personal invitation to know Him, which is crucial to authentic conversion.

With this in mind, I think it may be time for some challenging conversations with my wife, family, and close friends about how we want our society to work, and whether or not it is time to do everything we can to resist the trends of The Vanishing Neighbor.

The Work of Jared Zimmerer

Since joining my parish’s men’s group back in November, I’ve been thinking and praying more about what it means to be a man of God (not just person of God). Those who know me know I am not a classic “man’s man”. I don’t hunt, fish, or play sports, nor do I put a lot of time or effort into traditional male hobbies like small engine repair, woodworking or…well, you get the idea. However, like a lot of men, my life revolves around my faith, my family, and my career (hopefully always in that order!). Jared Zimmerer gave an amazing talk about how men can become more fully alive by training their bodies, brains, and souls. It’s only 45 minutes long and well worth the time:

Considering checking out his entire body of work here.

On rooting for Carson and finding inspiration for my daily work

And now for something completely different…

You should see North Dakota today. After 4 straight days of rain, the sun has begun to shine. The ground is green, the sky is blue…and everything in between is green and gold.

Its NFL draft day and a local kid from across the river in Bismarck is projected to be the number one or two pick overall tonight in Chicago. Humble, faithful and hardworking, Carson Wentz went from an undersized high school quarterback to a two-time NCAA National Champion in Division One’s Football Championship Subdivision as quarterback for the North Dakota State University Bison.

Bismarck boy who likes to duck hunt leading NDSU to its 5th straight National Championship

The last month has been a unique experience – with the exception  brief hiatuses for the state political conventions and a Collegiate National Hockey Championship – the buzz has been all about Carson.  Despite its land mass (19th largest state) and the recent Bakken oil boom, North Dakota is still a small state (47th most populous). Everyone knows someone who has coached, played with or played against Carson.  His incredible rise to the top of the football world – however short lived it will be – has created a definite sense of community. The whole state is pulling for Carson tonight.

Despite all this, Carson keeps deflecting the attention away from himself. He says he was blessed with good coaches, good teammates, a big brother who was better than him at everything. He was blessed. Period. He seems to be taking it all with a grain of salt because he knows nothing is guaranteed, this can all pass away. Indeed it all will. He’s been preparing for this moment his whole life and he’s ready, but at the end of the day its just football. “I just keep telling myself, don’t make it bigger than it is,” he told ESPN last month.

Its been a good reminder of what hard work and dedication can lead to. That kid pictured up there may be going to bed tonight $20 million richer than when he woke up this morning. But as his Twitter account reminds us with almost every tweet, he’s playing for a bigger reward and a more important audience.

Tonight I’ll be watching excitedly to see where Carson goes, but his rise and hard work have served as a reminder that we are all called do what we do in our daily lives with such dedication and determination, and to strive for our best everyday.

Searching for Peace

This school year has been one of major ups and downs. We are in our fourth year of homeschooling and I feel like as much of a rookie as the day I started. There have been weeks where I feel as if everything is under control and our lives are flowing smoothly, and there have been weeks… maybe even months… where I felt as if it was all crumbling beneath me. Homeschooling is a lifestyle not for the faint of heart.

From a big move into our new home, straight into the holidays, followed by a winter of traveling and morning sickness (we are expecting #5!), I feel like I’m just finally starting to get my bearings again. But it has been hard not to feel like giving up at times. I find myself daydreaming about dropping half of my children off at school for eight hours a day, entrusting their education to a building full of knowledgeable professionals, and it sounds like a dream. No more self-doubt. No more worry. No more comparisons. A break from my children who are driving me crazy, driving each other crazy.

Then I pause and reflect for a moment. Self-doubt? Worry? Comparisons? These are not just the realm of the homeschooling mom. These are the specters that haunt every mother, every parent, in every aspect of parenting. Putting my children in school will not solve any of my insecurities as a mother. And separating myself from them will not solve the problems that are cropping up in our relationships.

I can write about this now from the vantage point of a couple weeks of beautiful, fruitful schooling. We are momentarily living a life of peace and rest, my patience is returning, I have a renewed desire to inspire my children to learn. I am looking forward to being with my children in the morning. And yet I know the whispers will return, telling me I’m not good enough, I am failing my children, my children are failing me, we are failing as a family. I will get angry, I will yell and cry, my kids will yell and cry, and I will want to give up.

But something important has finally begun to creep its way into my heart. In his book Searching For and Maintaining Peace, Fr. Jacques Philippe reminded me of the words of Jesus, “Without me, you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5). He did not say that we can only do a little bit without him, or that if we work really hard on our own we can maybe accomplish something worthwhile. Jesus himself said that we can do nothing without him! Rather than depressing or overwhelming me, these words comforted me in a new, unfamiliar way. Philippe goes on to say that we should not be a bit surprised when we fall, when we fail. We are human and that’s what we do. But if I continually grasp the hand of Christ, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13).

My new prayer throughout the day has been simply this: “Jesus, I can’t do it without you. Help me.” No fancy words, no striving to fix what’s wrong, a simple admission of my incapability. I won’t tell you that things magically improve when I say these words, but the relief that comes with placing my fear, anger, and frustration in his hands has helped me to take steps toward finding inner peace. I have not become Supermom overnight; instead, I have discovered that becoming Supermom is no longer my goal. My goal is to allow Christ to flood my life with so much peace and joy that it can’t help but overflow into the rest of my life.

Moonshine Abbey and Sacred Nonconformity

This past Friday I attended the world premiere of Moonshine Abbey, a musical comedy written by Deacon (soon to be Father) Kyle Kowalczyk. (For the past few years, the students at the Saint Paul Seminary have been writing and producing original theatrical works.) Moonshine Abbey is the story of a small monastery in the rural United States, the lazy monks who reside there, the alcohol they make, and what happens when Prohibition becomes the law of the land. And yes, the following photo is a picture of Elliot Ness dancing with monks:

Seminarians perform during a dress rehearsal for the play "Moonshine Abbey" April 10, 2016 in Brady Education Center Auditorium. The cast of the play was comprised entirely of St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney seminarians, and was written and directed by SPS seminarian Kyle Kowalczyk. Front row from left: Max Mauch-Morff and Kyle Kowalczyk.

(Copyright University of Saint Thomas)

On a deeper level, however, the play is about what happens when one’s traditions do not conform to the civil law. Once they are confronted with legal trouble, the monks begin shaping up, returning to a life of prayer and work, and in doing so, they gain the strength to face the trials and tribulations that face them. While the play is lighthearted and full of one-liners, slapstick, and hilarious original show tunes, it also examines the interplay between conscience, society, and morality. At the heart of this interplay are two versions of the same song. The first, “The Confraternity of Sacred Nonconformity,” is sung by a number of monks who don’t really care to follow the rule of their superior. However, after the monastery is threatened by Prohibition, “The Confraternity of Sacred Nonconformity, Part II” is about how the only rule one needs conform to is the law of God. The first song is a tongue-in-cheek anthem about thumbing your nose at religious authority, while the second is about conforming to the only law that matters.

In an eschatological sense, the monks come to realize that the only laws of man they need follow are those that are in accord with right reason, meaning those that have their root in God anyway. So they happily continue to distill their liquor (quite openly, I might add!) and wait to be arrested. There is a beautiful truth in their decision to do so; it’s courageous, and their arrest makes a mockery of the unjust law they are protesting in the first place. I left smiling, but also wondering: if it came down to it, would I have the courage to do the same? Maybe it’s time to double down on prayer and work in my own life so that, if that level of persecution ever comes, I will have those spiritual reserves to draw on!