I hope you’re doing well during these crazy times. Since I last wrote, I recovered from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and the 2020 election. Both left me exhausted and depleted.
We now have some semblance of closure, the assembly of a reasonably moderate cabinet under a new president-elect, and my white blood cell count is back to normal. Eating all that kale over the past year has done more than help me lose 50 pounds; it’s helped me rebound very quickly from what could have been a long-term illness. I am gateful my doctor encouraged me to adopt the nutritarian diet developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.
So, to celebrate, what do I do? Enjoy a berry kale smoothie?
The first time I ate a fresh ripe fig, I was 28 years old and worked for a Manhattan financial service firm. One of my coworkers lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and he brought in fresh, ripe green figs, a variety called Italian Honey.
Thus began my lifelong fascination with this ancient, keystone fruit.
I’ve been silent lately, more so than ever in the past, on my various blogs. Part of this is the lurking feeling that everything that can be said about 2020 has been said: COVID virus, race riots, murder hornets.
I’m waiting for Godzilla to rise from the Sea of Japan and a sharknado to arrive in August and then this year will be complete.
Just when I start to feel sorry for myself or angry at the world situation, something happens to snap me out of it. Last night, it was the man in the van.
It’s a life-changing spiritual approach that’s part of the Catholic mystical tradition. It follows the direction of one of the doctors of the faith, St. Francis de Sales.
He’s my patron, my spiritual guide, my guru. And, not coincidently, he’s the patron saint of writers.
He chose me as his daughter (I’ll explain the term sometime soon) as far back as 1982, but I didn’t have anyone to explain to me what or why I was so drawn to the name “Francis.” Throughout my life, little signposts led the way to his teachings, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I encountered Francis de Sales in full, and it changed my life in radical ways.
He’s like water trickling on a rock: gentle to the point where you feel as if his teachings are borderline sappy. How can they be effective when they are so…kind?
But they are. Oh, they are. If you want to change from the inside out, read the teachings of St. Francis de Sales.
January is the month dedicated to St. Francis de Sales. His feast day is January 24. I’ll be sharing throughout this month what Salesian spirituality means to me, what it is, and how it changed my life.
Once upon a time, there was an eighth-grader named Jeanne (that’s me). She had big dreams, this young lady, as she sat in Sister Helen Edwards’ class. She scribbled stories about purple dragons and castles down into a notebook she carried with her and she packed issues of Writers Digest checked out of the public library into her satchel to read after her work was finished.
I had discovered I wanted to be a writer in the 6th or 7th grade. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember where I was, and how I felt.
I’d taken a book out of the library. It was a science fiction story (I love good sci-fi) and a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. Back in the early 1980s, the choose-your-own-adventure stories were very popular.
They worked like this: the first chapter or two of the book is like a typical book. But when you reach the end of the chapter, you are given two choices. Should you go through door number one or two? If you choose one, turn to page X. If you choose two, turn to page Y.
The plot changes depending on your choices.
I remember excitedly reading and then feeling betrayed. The science-fiction elements had all the sophistication of a Saturday morning cartoon. This was classified as a ‘teen’ book and I was about 12 years old. I was furious at the way the author of the story spoke down to the reader as if we were dumb just because we were kids!
In Catholic school, we are pushed into making our Confirmation, one of the seven sacraments, in eighth grade. I had doubts. I wanted to wait to confirm my faith. My parents and the nuns, however, had other plans, and so I was herded along with the crowd of 90 or so kids into the process of confirmation preparation.
As part of our confirmation preparation, we were asked to choose a saint name. At baptism, as infants, we are given our name by our parents. We cannot choose it. Confirmation is the time when we can choose our own name, a name reflective of a saint we feel drawn to, someone to emulate, someone to be.
I was drawn to the name “Francis.” Every time I thought or prayed over the name, “Francis” came up.
But the only St. Francis I knew was Francis of Assisi, and while he’s a wonderful saint, he isn’t mine. I’m not drawn to him.
I chose “Joseph” instead and let it go.
In high school, I had a motto on a piece of paper taped inside my locker next to pictures of big-haired heavy metal stars and my friends. It became the motto I added under my picture in my senior yearbook.
You cannot be anyone but who you are.
Many years later, while reading the letters of St. Francis de Sales, I came across one of his most famous quotes:
Be who you are, and be that well.
St. Francis de sales
Somehow, my spirit already resonated with the saint’s words…he was calling me to be his daughter, but I had yet to listen.
There was a Catholic blogger who wrote about Jennifer Fulweiler’s “Saint Generator.” It’s a fun way to pick a saint to learn about during the upcoming year. In 2009, the blogger said that Francis de Sales was her saint. At the end of the year, she wrote a second post about how he changed her life. She also mentioned that he was the patron saint of writers.
Curious about him, I looked through my husband’s Classics of Western spirituality library. He had a book of the letters of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, the two founders of Salesian spirituality. Intrigued, I began reading.
By the end of the letters, I’d underlined, highlighted, and taken so many notes that the pages were blue and red with ink.
Francis de Sales had finally connected with me…or I had listened to his call…and I had become his spiritual Daughter. Four hundred years after his death, he had won my heart and mind to his approach to living the gospel life.
The two books to read to get to know Francis de Sales are his letters and Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve included a link to the Kindle complete volume of all 15 books he wrote. It’s only $1.99. Best $1.99 you’ll ever spend.
Francis wrote Introduction to the Devout Life around 1600 as an answer to the crying need of the time for the laity to have a way to put into practice the spiritual devotions and exercises available to those studying for the priesthood. While a young man studying law in Paris, Francis came across the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He decided to adapt them to the laity of the time.
It’s hard to imagine but when Francis was alive, from the late 1500s to the early 1600s, people thought that only those who lived in monasteries or convents or who devoted their entire lives to spiritual practice could become saints.
Francis thought differently. Saints, he wrote many times in different ways, aren’t only found in convents and monasteries. They are found in the kitchens, the stables, the shops, the alleys, and the castles of the world. In other words, anyone can become closer to God through daily devotion.
He set about writing a book to help people put into practice what he had taught and preached. That book, The Introduction to the Devout Life, contains short chapters, each a spiritual exercise, to put into practice to draw closer to God.
I read the book and began each exercise. After a month, I felt changed…my heart, renewed. My spiritual life deepened. I developed a new outlook on life.
It is difficult to put into words the changes wrought in my soul after following the great saint’s advice and spiritual teachings codified in a 400-year-old book.
I can, however, tell you that a friend who was Episcopalian asked me for good spiritual reading. I recommended Introduction to the Devout Life. A year after Bob read the book, he and his family converted to Catholicism. A year later, he says he feels the same spiritual charge I do….there is something truly magnetic about this book.
Why, you may wonder, would anyone “need” a book of spiritual exercises or a saint to show them how to be closer to God? Many Protestant friends question the Catholic tradition of saints and following their teachings. What is different about Francis de Sales’ writings and approach that you can’t find in the Bible itself?
Some of us (that would be me) need an interpreter for the Bible. I need someone to take what’s packed in its pages and bring it to my level. It’s the difference to me between reading through a book about cooking and actually cooking the meal myself. I need a recipe to guide me to make the flourless chocolate cake. I can buy the cake, I can read about making the cake, I can enjoy a friend’s version of the cake, but if I’m to bake it myself, I need someone to take the instructions and make them understandable for an amateur cook like me.
Spirituality is like that for me. I need lessons. Show me how to love. Show me how to pray. Show me what it means to fast, to pray, the be meek and humble. Does it mean I have to sell my car and my house and live on the streets? Or be like Mother Theresa and live in the gutter with the lepers? Jesus and his disciples sold all they had and gave it to the poor. Is that what I have to do, too?
Francis explains so much in his books. Throughout the month of January, I will try to write from the heart, as I think Francis would have wanted me to do, and to write about an aspect of Salesian spirituality that speaks to me.
Salesian, by the way, is just the adjective form of his name, Sales.
I hope these ramblings help someone who, like me, yearns to grow deeper in holiness, to love God more fully, but who doesn’t understand how someone in 21st century America can translate everything in Christianity into do-able tasks. I hope that they resonate with you.
And if you want to read the books that changed my life, here they are:
“Not that old thing.” My husband frowned at the tarnished brass ring. Foil fluttered from one of the four candle holders, a remnant of Advents past and my attempt to keep a candle in place. They never fit well in the cups.
“Can’t you buy a new one?”
“This was my mom’s.”
“I know, but…”
“But it’s a cheap Advent wreath she bought at Woolworths in 1962 for their first Christmas in their new home,” I rummaged in the box for the purple and rose candles.
How could I explain to my husband what the old, warped brass Advent wreath meant to me? How, coming home from school on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the wreath would be on the silver tray, candles in place, plastic greenery adorning the tray, the box of matches waiting for me to light the first candle. How we would save the church bulletin to read the prayer over the wreath, and how the wavering flames marked the days until Christmas.
Our breath spangled the frosty December evening as we waved goodbye. My dog, Zeke, dropped, exhausted, to his mat in the living room to dream of chasing tennis balls and his best friend, our neighbors’ boxer dog, Cinder. We’d spent a good two hours watching the dogs zoom like maniacs across the lawn chasing balls and each other. The men wandered to the back for target practice while my neighbor and I leaned on the deck rail, petting Zeke and sharing stories about horses we had known and loved.
It was a perfect Sunday afternoon.
Sundays were once like this, a day of presence, first with God in church, then with family for dinner, then with family and friends for visits or fun. Presence. I think a lot about presence the days especially as social media becomes ubiquitous and most of our interactions with others occur through the computer screen.
My grandmother lived with us and she was one of seven children, so every Sunday one of my aunts or great-aunts or uncles would visit. Visiting hours were typically two or three o’clock; if family did not visit, we piled into my dad’s 1962 blue Ford with the black hood, replaced after a car accident and never repainted, and we’d rumble to the duck pond to feed the ducks or to the playground to swing and slide and play in the fresh air.
Sometimes, if we were very lucky, there would by Jiffy Pop popcorn on the stove and a fire in the “real” fireplace in the living room. Sometimes there would be movies on television or Wild Kingdom or Disney’s Magic Kingdom and soup and sandwiches and more laughter and fun.
But always, presence.
We were fully present with one another. In those days, there were no screens other than the television screen. And even though we lived in metro New York City, there were 8 channels on the television set, and Channel 21 was iffy unless the rabbit-ear antenna was adjusted just right. My mother had no hesitation ordering the television shut off when company came, either, and it stayed silent. The soundtrack of those Sunday afternoons was the laughter from my grandmother and her brothers and sisters as they shared stories and caught up on the gossip from their huge extended family.
Stories. Presence. We have lost the art of visiting and we are rapidly as a society losing the art of being present with one another.
This Christmas season, give the gift that only you can give. Give the gift of presence. Be wholly, fully present. Keep your cellphone in your pocket. Turn off the television and the radio and the music and the internet. Tell stories. Share time together. Play a game. Play with your dogs. Organize hot cocoa and cookies and skating parties and snowman building fun and tree decorating parties and tell stories.
It is the gift everyone will cherish long after the holidays are over.
My husband held the bird’s nest out to me. “Feel the inside.”
I reached out and touched the tiny nest gingerly. “It’s soft.”
“The inside is lined in some soft moss,” he said. “And the outside is woven of coarse pine needles.”
I marveled at the perfect construction of the little bird’s nest. We’d watched the sparrows build their nest among the boughs of the nectarine tree in the orchard. Our seven cats miraculously ignored the plain little birds flitting back and forth to the low-hanging branch as the sparrows wove the sturdy little nest.
The mother sparrow snuggled tightly against her two little eggs while papa kept an eye out for intruders. They allowed us to water the nectarine, flying away but always returning to the swaying boughs where their eggs waited.
One day, we saw eggshells underneath the tree – little blue eggshells the color of a spring sky. We kept a safe distance, forgoing watering the transplanted trees for the privacy of a young family experiencing the joys of parenthood.
A few days ago, my husband realized that the nest was empty. The birds were gone. Just like that, the two had fledged, and the parents flew off to wherever birds go when they know a job is well done.
Wind displaced the nest, flinging it to the earth below where the eggshell clues had fallen. We were able to examine the nest at leisure. We studied the neatly woven pine needles, the strands of grass used to build up the sides to prevent the eggs from rolling out.
Mostly, we marveled at the ingenious way the mother bird had softened the nest just for her little ones.
In Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 11:1-13) we heard the story of Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them how to pray. And he does by teaching them to address God as “Our Father.”
Not “My father” or “Jesus’ father” – but Our Father, who art in heaven.
Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.
Ask and ye shall receive.
If a child asks for a fish, a father does not give him a snake.
If he asks for an egg, a father does not give him a scorpion.
Twelve years ago, I thought I wanted a black Labrador retriever named Molly. She was at the Prince Edward County Animal Shelter and we longed for a dog. We’d waited until after our move to Virginia to replace Mr. Foxhound, our previous dog, who was not a foxhound at all but a golden retriever mix.
Molly lounged in her kennel during our drive-by while the shelter was closed. I telephoned the animal control officer as quickly as I could. “I’d like to make an appointment to see the Labrador retrievers.”
We made the appointment and on Wednesday, April 30, drove to the shelter.
The Labradors, it turned out, were nuts.
To be fair, they were probably kept in a kennel without any socialization, but they ignored us. Molly was in a kennel with a companion and the two, when let into the play area for our meet and greet, never stopped for an instant. Nor did they greet us or even acknowledge our existence.
We rose and politely excused ourselves, letting the animal control officer know that these dogs wouldn’t do. What we thought we wanted wasn’t right for us. She asked us what we did want; what kind of dog did we think would fit in with our family?
“I have what I think you are looking for,” she said and whisked away to return with a scrawny female German shepherd.
The dog had ticks, long fur (my husband was against a long-coated dog after the Golden retriever mix killed two vacuums struggling to suck up fur embedded in the carpet), and sorrowful eyes. But she smiled at us shyly and extended a paw when asked. She sat, placed her chin on my husband’s knee, and we were smitten.
That dog, Shadow, turned out to be one of the gifts of my life. My constant companion 24/7, she chased bears off the trail for me, threw herself between me and a creepy man who stopped to talk to us on a walk and kept the deer from eating our apple trees.
Oh sure, she had her problems. She may not have been what I wanted, but she was what I needed on a deep, character-changing level. She answered the deepest need of my heart, and our relationship forever changed my life’s priorities.
God the Father gives us what we need, not what we want. I wanted a black Lab named Molly. I needed a long-haired German shepherd dog named Shadow who taught me the meaning of unconditional love, who softened my heart, who made me feel safe and loved.
Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash
Sparrows are such humble, unobtrusive birds. Most people barely notice them. Yet their morning songs often delight my senses, transporting me decades in time to when I was a child, playing in the May morning light in our driveway, digging under the privet hedge, skipping under the clothesline.
The instinct of parents is to protect, give, and nurture their young. To give them good things – an egg, a fish, soft moss inside the swell of a deep nest in the boughs of a nectarine tree.
If something as simple and small as a sparrow knows to give its children good things, then what God gives us must be wonderful indeed. Knowing a gift when we receive it – a shelter dog up for adoption, an overflowing septic tank (another story for another day), the sight of a crimson cardinal on a snowy day – is grace. Embracing it is surrendering to love; to accept that we are loved beyond measure. It is a gift and an awesome, fearful thing, to be loved by this God.
The young sparrows flew away. We see them now, testing their wings, but they return frequently to the boughs of the nectarine tree where a soft nest was prepared for them.
Our spiritual growth requires abundant springs of living water. What should we do when the well runs dry?
As a transplant myself, I appreciate how hard it is to take root and grow in new soil.
I should have recognized the signs of transplant shock in the redbud tree – and offered some salve, some support as it struggled to take root.
We moved the young sapling in the cool of an early June morning. We watered it for a while, lavishing care and attention on it in its new location.
By July, the leaves turned brown and crispy. They fluttered to the ground.
“It’s dead,” we thought.
We stopped watering it. We debated digging it up, but the heat of a Virginia summer held us back. “In the fall,” we thought, “we’ll dig it up and toss the remains in the woods.”
We forgot about the poor little redbud tree.
Then the rains came. The heavens opened and streams of water gushed from the sky in a torrential thunderstorm that poured forth over an inch and a half of rain in a short cloudburst.
And a leaf appeared.
Now one leaf, but two…then three heart-shaped leaves grew during the following days.
Our tree wasn’t dead but alive. It needed drenching showers of cool water on its roots to recover from the pain of being ripped up by its roots, dragged over the earth, and tamped into new ground. It had depleted itself and needed renewal.
I thought of my little tree today as I contemplated an email sent to me from a church friend who heads up one of the most public ministries at church. Not only did she resign from the ministry, but she also indicated she was leaving the church itself. Perhaps it would be temporary. Perhaps for good. She did not know. But she needed time and space to figure out for herself what she believed.
I think my friend is like my little redbud tree. She poured all her energy into the ministry, into leading this group and that group, into being an indispensable part of our little church community. But in the end, all this pouring forth of self left her own spiritual well dry – so dry and barren that in order to save her spiritual life, she felt she had to leave us, the church, for a while to replenish her store of spiritual grace.
We forget that people need to quench their spiritual thirst just as much as my little tree needed to quench its thirst. We need living water to heal our souls. If we are so busy we cannot drink the living water of God, we wither and die. Like my redbud tree, we dry up. We hit the spiritual dryness the saints spoke about. We fail to produce fruit.
I pray daily for my friend that she returns to the church. She’s poured out her own spirit to everyone else, and the well has gone dry, and she needs a good, quenching spiritual rain to put down fresh roots and push forth new leaves that look up towards heaven.
Pray for her, will you?
My new book, I See You – Book 2 of The Majek Family Mysteries, will be released in Fall 2019. Read Book 1, I Believe You, in paperback or Kindle. Buy your copy on Amazon.com