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Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester lives and works in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York. Website URL:

Book review: 'Little Lessons from the Saints'

Little Lessons from the Saints: 52 Simple and Surprising Ways to See the Saint in You.” By Bob Burnham. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017. 216 pages. Paperback: $9.95; Kindle: $7.96; Nook: $8.49.
 
Over the years I have seen, read and studied many books on the saints. What piqued my interest about this one, however, was the subtitle: “52 Simple and Surprising Ways to See the Saint in You.” It’s a subtle thing, really, having to do with verb tense.  I wasn’t being invited to “become” a saint at some future time (if I just worked hard enough). Rather, I was being asked to recognize my own saintliness, here and now, in the present moment.
 
“We are called to imitate the saints because we are called to be saints,” author Bob Burnham explains. “But here’s the secret: we are already saints, albeit imperfect ones, for Christ lives in us, and we live in Christ. The saints teach us how to see that truth more clearly.”  What this book does, therefore, is invite us to become more fully who we already are.
 
The number “52” in the title is not arbitrary either; it is designed to match the number of weeks in a calendar year. Although Burnham assures us that the book can be used “any way you want,” he also provides a blueprint for how to get the most out of the stories and meditations it contains. In essence, each week the reader spends time with one saint, meditating on his or her life and how their charism is present in our own lives. For those new to meditation, the author gives some useful advice on how to proceed, step by step, and what to expect along the way. 
 
“Experience has shown me that meditation is never free from distractions,” he says.  “It is rarely a peaceful repose or an escape from reality. Rather, meditation is an exacting discipline.”
 
Perhaps because Burnham is himself a catechist, he then includes a brief section entitled “Little Lessons for Teachers,” outlining how the book can be used with students in the classroom, whether that is in a Catholic school or a CCD setting.  He notes that the saints are presented in a specific order by theme – surrender, freedom, pilgrimage, hospitality and loving knowledge -- echoing the specific lesson we can draw from each of them as our own spiritual journey unfolds.
 
The lessons, as promised, are “little” in as much as they are short, occupying only two or three pages at the most, thus making them perfect for those who may not have unlimited time to sit with a book of meditations. That does not mean, however, that they lack substance. He often relates to even the most familiar saints in a way that startles the reader into thinking something new about them. When talking about the martyr St. Charles Lwanga, for instance, he notes that for most of us, it’s the everyday martyrdoms that we need to embrace. “It’s not…persevering in faith in the face of persecution, even if it means death... as if the only way you can show your love for and dedication to Christ is if you are being persecuted…The lesson I have learned from the lives of martyrs is simpler: I should not complain.”
 
Saints, Burnham concludes, “are not superheroes with magic powers. They are not idealized versions of what people should be. They were real people who chose to take the gospel seriously.”  Whenever we do the same, we are following in their footsteps.  “Any time I show love and compassion, I am a saint,” he says. “Whenever I show patience and understanding, I am a saint. … My goal is not to be canonized someday— my goal is to live the Gospel today. If I do that, I can look in the mirror and see a saint every day!”
 
Author bio:
By his own admission, Bob Burnham is “not a scholar or a theologian, nor am I ordained. I am just a guy named ‘Bob’ who takes seriously the counsel of the Blessed Virgin Mary when she said to the servers at the wedding in Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you’ (Jn 2:5).” A Secular Franciscan and a spiritual director, he works as a freelance editor and writes about the spirituality of commuting on his blog, mtransit.org. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in Bartlett, Ill.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Reflections on fall

The first hard frost changes everything.
 
It tends to come to my garden a bit later than it does to a friend’s garden 10 miles further out, but come it does, and I can see its unmistakable arrival first thing in the morning from my bathroom window. In the night it has formed fanciful patterns on the glass and turned the front yard crystalline white; I know then that the last of the vegetables I was hoping to eke out for another week or so are beyond eking. The frost has had its way, and the season has come to its inevitable close.
 
Later, when the mid-morning sun has dissolved the chill, I go out to survey what is left. Stalks droop and leaves are shriveled; what was once so green has gone a shade of grayish brown. It is a melancholy sight, and both mourning and gratitude get mixed up in my mind – mourning for what is past, but deep gratitude that there was ever a splendid garden there to begin with. 
 
And make no mistake, it was splendid.
 
To the untrained eye, it would seem as if everything is now over and done with, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is if I’m to have another cup of coffee, it won’t be inside next to a cozy wood stove but right out here next to the compost pile. The new season is about to begin, and I have work to do.
 
The most important thing any gardener grows in a garden is the soil, and that process has to begin long before the first shoots of spring appear. That’s because it takes time, time for old things to break down and break apart, to return to the soil they originally came from so that new things can grow from them. That’s the brilliance of the compost pile – last year’s tomato vines become the rich humus for next year’s tomatoes. Dead leaves from the now bare trees are shredded to eventually enrich the lettuce patch, and all those dried egg shells contributed by the neighbor’s chickens will show up next summer as deep purple eggplants.
 
Then, having been cleaned and turned and composted, the garden slips into a much- deserved slumber. Frost gives way to snow, with storm after storm laying down nature’s thick blanket, and for at least four months, the garden is silent and asleep.  Nothing is happening.
 
Or so it seems. 
 
The seasoned gardener, however, knows better, which is why January’s seed catalogues fan the flames of both faith and hope. By March, grow lights appear indoors even as temperatures outdoors hover around freezing, and soon tiny plants in converted yogurt cups send out their first hopeful leaves. Outside, the snow that hid the garden so well now melts into the soil, nudging it awake, and vegetable beds, so tired in the fall, are warm and fragrant with earthy possibilities.
 
 
If the first hard frost changes everything, it’s the last hard frost that changes them even more.
 
 

Book review: 'The Discerning Parent: An Ignatian Guide to Raising Your Teen'

“The Discerning Parent: An Ignatian Guide to Raising Your Teen.”  By Tim and Sue Muldoon. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2017. 193 pages. Paperback: $13.55; Kindle: $12.87; Nook: $10.99.
 
From both my experience and the experience of other parents like me, it seems there are two times when we actively seek out books on how best to do our job of raising children. The first might be called the pre-emptive consult, when we know a life change is coming and we want to be prepared to meet it. The second is when we are in the midst of a crisis and desperately need some help and support in order to weather it constructively and well.
 
Tim and Sue Muldoon’s latest book, “The Discerning Parent: An Ignatian Guide to Raising Your Teen,” falls into both categories. Not only does it help prepare parents for the exhilarating but sometimes frightening ride called nurturing teenaged children, but also it serves as a reassuring touchstone when things might not be going as well as everyone had hoped.
 
Although the book is filled with sage advice gleaned from both the authors’ personal and professional experience, it is not a “how-to” book in the sense that there are check-off lists of techniques and activities that will “do the trick” in the face of difficulties. Rather, it leads parents on a faith journey that is as much about their own spiritual growth as it is their children’s.
 
For those not as familiar with the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Muldoon’s begin with a definition of discernment.  “Discernment,” they explain, “is a refinement of the practice of listening to God’s music in a world full of noise. We love that image: it suggests that what each of us is doing in discernment is using a tuning fork to ensure that the tune we play is in harmony with the music of God.” That’s because the goal, ultimately, is to not only for parents to find their own rhythm with God, but to help their children do so as well.
 
Because of the nature of the discernment process, it is suggested that the book be reflected on in small “doses,” no more than one or two concepts at a time. This reflection will then naturally lead to thoughtful action or, as the authors put it, “show(ing) your teen what your faith is; don’t just talk about it.” Action will then come back to still more reflection and discussion, which results in further action -- and so the process will continue and grow.
 
The book addresses six areas in the lives of both teens and their parents: the discernment process itself, developing a deep prayer life, establishing a strong and healthy sense of self, growing in responsible freedom, understanding the gifts of the body as means of divine grace and meeting life’s challenges in the company of God.  Each chapter includes quotes from Ignatian Spirituality as well as prayer and questions for reflection.
 
Perhaps one of the most comforting thing parents will take away from this book is the reassurance that “God calls us as we are. We need not be perfect people to be great parents.”  Even if, after all our efforts, our children wander from the faith or seem to move in a very different direction from what we had hoped, we need to remember that it is God who works alongside them in ways we may not yet know.  “God is free to act in our teens’ lives, and our teens are ultimately free to say yes or no to the various ways God is working to invite them,” the Muldoon’s remind us.  “Our role is to be faithful to our vocation as parents: to pray for our children, to educate them, to lead them toward good choices. Perhaps the way they are responding to God is still hidden to us and will reach fruition after we have died. Part of our faith, our discernment, means allowing that relationship to unfold.”
 
Author bio:
 
Tim Muldoon is a theologian and the author and editor of several books on Ignatian spirituality, marriage, and family. A professor for many years, Muldoon has taught at Mount Aloysius College and Boston College and speaks frequently at colleges, universities, schools, parishes, dioceses and retreat centers.
 
Sue Muldoon is a therapist and religious educator who has worked in clinical, collegiate and parish settings. Her work has focused on young adults and children.  They are the parents of three children.
 
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

Jesus, Mary and the rosary

There’s an old jewelry box at my house; it’s tucked away in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and it’s full of rosaries. Almost all of them have some sort of story attached to them, which is one of the reasons they are still with me – that and the fact that just about all of them have been blessed. They form a kind of spiritual anchor for me, and every once in a while I take them out and look at them, running my fingers over the different styles of beads and crucifixes, remembering who they came from or in what circumstances they came my way.
 
One of my earliest encounters with the rosary happened when I was four years old, and I’m sorry to say that it was less than devout. My mother, and many of the other women in the parish, belonged to the Legion of Mary; among other things, they used to do a “block rosary” once a week.  This meant that each member took a turn hosting the prayer at her house. I’m sure that coffee and dessert were also involved, but what sticks in my memory isn’t the food but rather that circle of women, all kneeling on someone’s living room rug, reciting the rosary together.
 
One of the weeks when the gathering was at our house, I was allowed to stay up way past my bedtime and pray with the ladies. This may have been a lapse of judgment on my mother’s part, because before the first decade was concluded, I decided it would be great fun to fall over sideways on the carpet. It was, in fact, so amusing that I did it a few more times before I finally stayed down for the count and fell sound asleep. Needless to say, I was tucked into bed long before the coffeecake was served.
 
Thankfully, as I grew older, my appreciation and respect for the rosary also grew.  When my CCD classmates and I made our First Communion, for instance, one of the gifts each of us received was a rosary, and one of the things that made it special was what it was made of. Rather than crystal or wood or something like that, these beads were white and glowed in the dark. That might not seem like a very big thing, except when you are seven and monsters have visited you in your dreams; then you could always find your rosary, glowing gently on the nightstand next to the bed. Many nights Mary lulled me back to peaceful sleep as I clutched the beads that protected me from things that went bump in the night.
 
I went through the rosary box recently, and it was like a visit with old friends. But mostly it was a reminder of how protected and loved I am. Life, on occasion, presents different “monsters” to me now, but praying the rosary reminds me that, no matter what happens, Jesus and Mary are never far away.
 
 Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 
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