The Soul ProjectWeek 2: Blessed Are They

rosary and burlap photo with wordsThis week around the dinner table, our family has been discussing the Beatitudes. In Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle’s book, Feeding Your Family’s Soul: Dinner Table Spirituality, she gives us a list of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the  kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3-10)

According to O’Boyle’s book, the word beatitude means “a state of deep joy and happiness”. So my challenge has been to explain to my children how things like persecution, mourning, and poverty will make them happy.

The secret is in the seeking.

We must teach our children, both by word and example, a zeal for the faith–a burning desire to bring others closer to Christ. I found I was asking myself things like, “Do my children see me praying often enough? Do I talk frequently with them about how to speak up for what they believe in? Do I find ways for them to actively live out the Beatitudes?”

This week, our family focused on two of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” and “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”.

One of our dear school teachers lost her husband this week after a long, hard battle with cancer. Discussing his passing in light of the Beatitudes gave my children a deeper understanding of the importance of comforting and praying for their teacher and her husband. Our whole family attended the Rosary–something I might not have normally had the courage to do with all six kids!  But the simple teaching in O’Boyle’s book helped even our youngest children to understand that praying the Rosary was a way to provide comfort to a friend who was mourning.

The second Beatitude we focused on, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” sparked an especially good conversation point with my 13-year-old. I had heard recently from a mom-friend that some students in my teenage son’s Catholic school class were talking about abortion and suggesting that it was acceptable. My friend and I weren’t totally sure where this idea was coming from, or how many students were talking about it, but it made me realize that my husband and I need to be having the abortion conversation with our children before their peers do!

It’s so easy to assume that when our children attend Catholic school, go to Mass regularly, and associate with other Catholic families, that they “just know” where the Church stands on big issues like abortion. But we, as parents, need to teach them these principles. My husband and I try to foster a culture of life within our home and family, but our children still need to hear Church teaching clearly in conversation with us.

My son said he hadn’t heard any talk about abortion from his classmates, but I still started a conversation with him about the gravity of abortion and how important it is to speak up if you ever hear anyone condoning it.

Pro-life activist Monica Miller told a story in one of her talks at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference this summer. She was getting ready to board a plane when she spotted someone who had a notorious career as an abortionist just feet away from her. She said she wasn’t sure what to say to him, but she knew she had to say something. She walked up to him, handed him her recently published pro-life book (Abandoned: The Untold Story Of The Abortion Wars), and simply told him that he had to stop what he was doing. Perhaps she hadn’t convinced him to change his ways by the end of their conversation, but what courage! She couldn’t NOT say anything! And hopefully she planted a small seed of conversion in his heart.

These are the types of children we need to be raising. After all, they are the next generation of voices for the voiceless. When my children are tempted to remain silent or are fearful of how others will respond, I want them to feel like Jeremiah when he was tempted not to speak of Jesus: “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” (Jer 20:9)

It should be more difficult for our children to remain silent about Jesus than to speak of Him. This is the seeking that will make them happy in spite of persecution. This is the purpose that will drive them even when their goal seems impossible. A discontent with sin will motivate them to seek what truly satisfies–to comfort those who mourn, to fight for justice for the most vulnerable, and to restlessly pursue the rest of the Beatitudes until, one day, their hearts finally rest in God.

Copyright Charisse Tierney 2017

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The Soul Project: Week 1

soul project image

It started with the bickering. It was the first Monday of the school year, and the day was already feeling long when I picked my children up from school.  Tensions escalated as we approached the dinner hour. My 8-year-old daughter erupted over something and stormed down the hallway, slamming the door to her room. I breathed a sigh of relief when my husband got home from work, took our fussy baby, and distracted the other children from all of their arguing. My 8-year-old finally emerged from her room and seemed to have cooled down a little, and I was able to resume dinner preparations in a rare moment of peace.

But just when I thought our evening was looking up, the baby spit up all over my husband while simultaneously creating a toxic waste of a diaper. My four-year-old, having witnessed all of this, promptly walked into the kitchen and threw up all over the floor. And it was at about this time that my husband and I realized our 13-year-old had slinked off to play video games without permission.

So…put baby and four-year-old into the bath, discipline the 13-year-old, console the 8-year-old, all while yelling at my 6-year-old to “Stay out of the kitchen until I can clean up the throw-up!” Dear God, please don’t let anyone else throw up!

As I mopped up the mess, I looked at the book on my kitchen counter and remembered. This was going to be The Night. The night we sat down to a peaceful family dinner and started the prayers and conversation starters in the book Feeding Your Family’s Soul : Dinner Table Spirituality by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle.

In the midst of a busy family life, there never seems to be an ideal time to intentionally teach our children about our faith. We attend Mass, but it’s often a panicked rush out the door during which we realize that someone is missing their shoes. We pray before bed, but the raspberry-blowing baby has everyone giggling the entire time. We sit down for a family Rosary, but the tired toddler is screaming and using the Rosary for anything but sacred prayer. I want to read stories of the saints to my children, but between homework, piano practice, and bedtime exhaustion…when?!?

Maybe the chaos is a blessing in disguise. As a family, if we are going to live our faith, we have no choice but to act on it during the messiest times of life. We have to squeeze bits and pieces of focused discussion and instruction in when we can, and use the rest of our time to actually live our faith. We have to practice patience with each other when we’re all tired and hungry. We have to take a few minutes to set aside a portion of our family’s meal to share with someone in need. And we have to take advantage of time in the car together to pray a decade of the Rosary.

We’re living the missionary life in the heart of our domestic church. And Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle’s book is a help-mate along the way.

So, after I cleaned up the throw-up last Monday evening, I finished getting ready to feed my family’s bodies, and then I grabbed Feeding Your Family’s Soul and prepared to do just that. I want my children to know their faith; I want them to always embrace the Church and her teachings; I want them to become saints and get to heaven. But those things will be much more difficult to achieve if I don’t take consistent steps to help them.

Feeding Your Family’s Soul gives our family simple steps to follow–steps that seemed simple and do-able even after an especially chaotic afternoon. In each of the 53 chapters of her book, Donna-Marie gives a short dinner time prayer, a brief lesson on an aspect of our Catholic faith, some points from a related saint, and a plan to put the lesson into action over the next week. There are also some fun recipes to try with your family. It’s easy. It’s flexible. And it works! The discussion questions have opened up lively conversation at our dinner table, while also giving us focused, Christ-centered reflection. Sometimes my children have a lot to say in answer to the reflection questions  at dinner time. Other times, they bring up an idea for carrying out the “dinner table teaching” long after the dishes have been washed and put away.

The purpose of the book is already evident in the climate of our home. Most evenings, we only get around to briefly discussing one reflection question, but it sets the tone for our actions for the entire week.

My goal is to work through all of the chapters in Feeding Your Family’s Soul over the next year. Watch for more “Soul Project” posts as I chronicle our successes and learning moments while we grow in our faith.

Copyright Charisse Tierney 2017

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Matters Of The Heart: The Healing Power Of A Mother

mom-and-zelie-before-procedure 

When my baby daughter was born with a heart valve defect, she had to be on oxygen for a few weeks after we came home. This meant we had a lot of extra equipment, like oxygen tanks, an oxygen concentrator, and a monitor to measure her body’s oxygen level.

Watching the numbers on the monitor fascinated me. Every time I held her, and especially when I nursed her, her oxygen levels went up. I mentioned this observation to her cardiologist, and he responded, “Well, of course. Because when you’re holding her she’s very relaxed.”

I’ve always known that it is good for babies to be held, and I’ve always believed that a newborn instantly recognizes her mother’s touch, but my baby’s oxygen monitor proved that my touch caused a measurable and positive physical response!

Man and woman were created for communion–communion with one another, and communion with their Creator. Our babies recognize what their mother’s (and their father’s) bodies mean: “a witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs.” (St. John Paul II, Theology of the Body 14:4)

When we “just” sit with our babies, when we’re “just” holding our babies, or when we’re “just” nursing our babies, we are doing profound work. It is in our embrace that our babies are enveloped in the Love from which they came–the Love of the Holy Trinity. It is in our embrace that they recognize the Divine. And, because body and soul are one, this soothes our babies’ souls and nurtures their bodies.

Mothers, while we can’t heal every wound through our touch alone, be assured that it is your touch that brings your babies (big and small alike) closer to God. It is part of that great mystery of motherhood–the mystery that evolves while one body begins within another.

So many people today seek worldly recognition, prestige, and power. But there is no greater recognition than that which comes from your own children, nothing more prestigious than being given the title of “mother”, and nothing more powerful than the ability to grow and nurture a new life.

When I was in the PICU of the hospital with my daughter just after her birth, and then again after her open heart surgery, I held her for hours. It was the only way she could remain calm, sleep well, and heal. When our children rest in our arms, they rest in God’s Love–and there is no better place for healing and growth than that.

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Matters Of The Heart: How It All Began

zelie-just-bornShe seemed perfectly healthy just after she was born. The labor and delivery were hard work, but worth the reward of meeting our beautiful daughter for the first time in the peaceful setting of a free-standing birth center. My husband and I reveled in the glow of her first hour of life. Her big, dark eyes were wide open, taking the outside world in. I delighted when she took to nursing immediately, and thrilled at the feeling of bonding with my baby.

Then, everything changed.

Right after one of her feedings, our baby girl Zelie was lying in bed next to me, alert and looking around. Then, suddenly, she closed her eyes, went limp, and started turning blue.

“She’s not breathing,” I said to my husband, not believing that what I was saying could possibly be true. Rob quickly picked her up, flipped her over, and started rubbing her back. Thankfully, she started to cry and her color came back. We told my midwife what happened, and she checked Zelie over again. Her lungs seemed clear, and we weren’t quite sure what had happened.

And then it happened again. And again. We knew something was wrong.

My midwife listened to her heart and heard a “significant murmur” that she hadn’t heard just after birth.

After that, everything happened so fast. The call to a doctor. The ambulance arriving. The drive to Wesley Hospital NICU in Wichita. The machines. The tubes. The doctors. The wondering. The waiting.

And, finally, the consultation with a pediatric cardiologist via video conference around 2am at Zelie’s bedside in the NICU. We finally had an answer.

Our Zelie had a heart valve that had never formed properly. “Severe pulmonary stenosis.” Lots of big words meaning that one of her heart valves was so small and constricted that blood and oxygen could not flow properly, leaving her with too little oxygen in her lungs and body. Leading her to stop breathing and turn blue.

Amidst the cardiologist’s explanation of my daughter’s condition, my spinning, tired thoughts realized that we were dealing with something rather serious, but fixable–and something that meant a transfer to a bigger, more specialized hospital.

Before leaving for Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, we had Zelie baptized by azelie-hospital-baptism local priest. I didn’t want her going under general anesthesia to have a catheter poked into her heart without receiving her first Sacrament. The NICU provided a beautiful baptismal gown made from a donated wedding dress and there, hooked up to her machines and medications, our little girl officially entered into the graces of the Catholic Church.

I was in a fog. I had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and now she was being prepped to fly on an airplane to another city, while my husband and I drove behind. I had just been nursing her only hours before, and was now told that I couldn’t feed her due to potential complications with the medicine she was taking.

All we could do was move forward in faith that God would give us the strength to handle whatever the future held.

Rob and I arrived in Kansas City and checked in to the Ronald McDonald house right across the street from Children’s Mercy Hospital. We immediately knew we were blessed to have a room there, as the house was beautiful and would provide for all of our basic needs (and then some!) during Zelie’s stay in the hospital. What a relief not to have to worry about where we would sleep or get our next meal while under so much stress already!

mom-and-zelie-before-procedureThe next several hours were a whirlwind of learning more about our daughter’s condition and the procedure she would undergo Christmas Eve morning.

Then Christmas Eve came.

We arrived at the hospital early to see Zelie before she was prepped for her heart catheter procedure. At this point, I felt like every moment with her could potentially be my last. The doctors had assured us of the high success rate of the procedure, but there were also serious risks associated with putting a 2-day-old under general anesthesia and poking something into her heart.

While in the pre-op room, we were suddenly bombarded with a list of the risks and asked to sign a consent form, in the midst of which Zelie had another episode of not breathing and turning blue. I’d held it together fairly well until then, but as I said goodbye to my new baby girl, the tears started flowing. And I started to pray harder than I ever had in my life.

I waited for Zelie in the Ronald McDonald family room in the hospital while my husband drove back home to pick up our other children and bring them back for Christmas.

I had a small private room to wait in during the two hour procedure so I could lie down and rest my post-birth body. I clutched my Rosary and the tears flowed. With each passing decade, I received updates about Zelie. And soon after finishing my Rosary, I got a phone call that Zelie was done and that it “went great!” What a relief! She came through well, the ballooning procedure had stretched open her valve, and she is now on the road to recovery.

After spending about a week and a half at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Zelie and I finally got to come home. That week and a half was filled with experiences and small miracles that I will never forget, many of which I hope to share in future posts.

But, for now, I will end this part of Zelie’s story by saying we are grateful to be home, and thrilled that she is progressing well after the heart catheter procedure. She has been blessed with the fruits of a multitude of prayers!

zelie-coming-home

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Preparing For Christmas, Preparing For Baby: What The Final Weeks Of Pregnancy Can Teach Us About Advent

empty-manger

I recently read an article in Our Sunday Visitor that was summarized: “Prepare for the coming of Jesus as you would prepare for the birth of your own child.” God has granted me a unique perspective during this year’s Advent season, as I am, indeed, expecting the birth of my own child–and my due date is Christmas Day!

The following are some ways that my pregnancy is teaching me how to find hope, not only amidst the aches and pains of the third trimester, but also in the chaos of the Advent season.

1. Slowing Down

I make big babies.  My biggest baby was nearly ten pounds at birth, and I remember times during that pregnancy that I would walk into a room and hear an audible gasp at my…well…hugeness. I’m grateful for my big, healthy babies, but they take a lot out of my normally small frame.

As our family prepares for Christmas this year, I can only handle putting out a few decorations at a time. I won’t be able to hike around much (if at all) at a tree farm to find the “perfect” Christmas tree, and spending hours in crowded stores Christmas shopping? Forget it.

I’ve had to slow down, I’ve had to create space, I’ve had to minimize. But rather than despairing that I can’t get my kids many gifts, or that I can’t bake dozens of cookies, or that my house won’t be clean come Christmas Day, I’m finding hope that I’ll teach my children to crave the joys of heaven, that I can nourish their souls with conversation while I sit and rest, and that we’ll see the joy of new life outshining dusty tabletops and smudged mirrors.

2.  Immersion In Prayer

By slowing down, I’ve found more time for prayer. Prayer is something that becomes more essential as I prepare for a new baby. It is God who sustains and grows this new little being. It is God who gave us the gift of His Son Jesus, and it is God who continues to loan us His children–to bless us, to teach us, and to help us grow in holiness.

Through prayer, we allow ourselves to enter into the wonder of Advent.  We find time to ponder the child God gave us–the child Mary surrendered for the good of the world. During pregnancy, prayer leads me down a path of trust, hope, and surrender. It brings me comfort as I sense the communion of saints working together to protect my child. It fills my heart with a longing to meet and raise my baby, and, most importantly, to raise my baby to one day be united with God in heaven.

So, too, does prayer during Advent remind us of our priorities.  It carves out space during the busyness of the season so we can breathe, surrender, and hope with gleeful anticipation for the One who can truly satisfy.

3.  Fasting and Sacrifice

I love coffee. And sharing a bottle of red wine with my husband. And DOING: caring for my family, bustling about to my older children’s activities, exercising until the sweat drips down my back.

During pregnancy, I have to think about someone other than myself every second of every day and with every decision I make. There are moments when giving up things I enjoy is difficult, but most of the time, it’s pretty easy. After all, this is my baby. I wouldn’t even think of putting my baby in danger, because I am filled with the hope of delivering a healthy child who will bring our family joy. A child who will make every sacrifice, every muscle spasm, and every contraction completely worth it.

Is this how we think of baby Jesus during the penitential season of Advent? Are we willing to make some sacrifices in order to show our Savior the kind of hope that He gives us?

4.  Stay Awake!

Sleeping soundly becomes difficult during the last weeks of pregnancy. Body aches can come on with a vengeance in the dark of the night, baby’s kicks are getting stronger, and even mild contractions wake me up, making me wonder Is it time? This is the question Jesus reminds us to ask throughout Advent and the rest of our lives. “Stay awake! Be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Mt. 24: 42, 44)

We are reminded to be vigilant and hopeful, that in any given moment, God would catch  us perfectly fulfilling His will and ready to join Him in heaven.

5.  Emptiness–Where Hope Flourishes

In preparation for our sixth child, I’ve found myself emptying rather than filling. We’re trying to make room. Thin the toy supply, only keep the baby clothes we really need, and focus on simply cleaning the home we have rather than major remodeling or adding another room.

So, too, during Advent do we clean our homes and our souls in preparation for our King. Our family has an empty manger and minimal decorations out right now. We’re planning times to receive the Sacrament of Confession. We’re making ourselves empty.

Because there is nothing like looking at those specially chosen baby clothes that are waiting to be worn. And there is nothing like looking at the empty manger that waits in hopeful expectation.

It is in emptiness, in the deepest sense of longing, that hope can truly flourish. It is only when we see the nothing that we can truly hope for the something. And during Advent, we can rest in the promise of something that is worth slowing down for, worth sacrificing for, and worth seeking through prayer and vigilance. The promise of a Savior, wrapped up in the joy of a baby. This is our hope.

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The Importance of Piano Lessons And Other Pursuits Of Beauty

artistic-treble-clef

“I’m soooo bored!” my ten-year-old son whispered to me, as he fanned himself impatiently with his piano music.  Spending a beautiful fall afternoon listening to a piano teacher work with elementary level students probably wasn’t the most thrilling use of a young boy’s time.  So why were we here?  Why did I insist that my son sit and listen to other students, as well as work with the guest teacher himself?  Why bother with the discipline and, yes, sometimes tedious work of learning how to play the piano?

As classically trained professional musicians, my husband and I have had ample opportunity to experience the fruits of our labors.  The euphoria of performing a great orchestral work–of exposing all of your emotions; all of your blood, sweat, and tears; your past; your future; and everything that lives inside of you that can never be quite fully expressed this side of heaven–this expression, this vulnerable revelation is what helps us to be more fully human.  As St. John Paul II says in his Letter to Artists, artistic creativity allows us to shape the “wondrous ‘material’ of [our] own humanity.” (LA 1)

True, not everyone is called to be a professional musician, painter, or playwright.  But we are all called to seek and create beauty in our lives.  We are all called to “mirror the image of God as Creator.” (LA 1)  “All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” (LA 2)

Life is filled with drudgery at times.  Whether it’s a musician slogging through scales and technical exercises in the practice room, someone in the work force completing dreaded paperwork, or a stay-at-home mom washing up another sink full of dishes, Polish poet Cyprian Norwid reminds us that “‘beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.’” (LA 3)

Raising an audience to their feet after a Mahler Symphony, finally seeing the completion of a magnificent work of architecture, or having a clean kitchen table for making playdough snowmen with a happy toddler–these are the moments of beauty in our life that we seek.  These are the moments that remind us why work is good.  These are the moments that remind us of the value of sacrifice and self-donation and bring meaning to the mystery behind the man hanging on the Cross.

“Every genuine art form…is a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.” (LA 6) and “Even when [artists] explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” (LA 10)

The beauty of art can unite us like nothing else.  It gives us a safe place to express our emotions, an arena for exploring what makes us who we are, and a medium for inspiring wonder at the world around us, rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation and the miraculous capabilities of God the Creator.

We are all artists with a “‘noble ministry’ [in which our] works reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people’s minds to him.” (LA 11)  Whether that be through what we write, the music we perform, the photos we take, or our efforts to craft our family with love, we are all called to incorporate beauty–that which reflects the Truth for which we all yearn.

“This world…in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.” (LA 11)  Beauty gives us enthusiasm for life.  “Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path.  In this sense it has been said with profound insight that ‘beauty will save the world.’” (LA 16)

So why did I bring my son to a piano masterclass on that gorgeous fall afternoon?  Because when it was his turn to have a lesson with the guest teacher, every technique correction brought him closer to the beauty of the piece.  And as he released the last chord perfectly, and its harmonies resonated off of the room’s stained glass windows, he smiled.  He knew.  Something inside of him was satisfied.  And he was one step closer to saving the world.

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Exalting The Cross: A Letter To My Miscarried Baby

crucifix-at-sunset

Dear Julian,

On this day, your due date when I thought I would surely be holding you, I instead find myself holding a cross.  A cross of pain and sadness to be sure, but also, I’ve come to realize, a cross of great joy.  A cross of surrender, a cross made lighter by the wondrous promises it holds.

My children (your siblings) teach me new things every day, and you are no exception.  Through you, I’ve come to a greater understanding of the Exaltation of the Cross, the feast we celebrate today.  Yes, the cross, that splintered device of torture and agony is something to be celebrated!  For out of the death it represents arose the reality of new life that will never end.  It is through the cross that we find our way to heaven.

And if we exalt the holy cross upon which Christ hung, should we not also exalt the daily crosses which come into our lives?  Not always a joyful exaltation perhaps (even Jesus had His moment in the Garden of Gethsemane), but a submissive one–one which allows Christ’s strength to pour into our weaknesses–one which recognizes that, without Him, we are nothing.  It’s you, Julian, who has taught me that the knowledge of what I could gain is the only thing that can fill the emptiness of my loss.  It’s you who has taught me to let go of my desire to control, to worry, to try so hard, and allow God to be my strength.

I am so grateful for you, Julian.  I am grateful to have a member of our family who keeps our eyes and hearts looking ever toward heaven–who helps us long, not for the things of this world, but for a seat of purity and glory next to our Father for eternity.  It is only by losing you that our true longings could be revealed.  It is only by losing you that this bittersweet love could fill my heart and expand my faith.

Thank you, Julian, my gem, my jewel in the crown of glory that I hope to someday be worthy of wearing.  I’ll always love you and can’t wait to meet you!

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