A Time to Dance – Celebrating the Carnival Season

Image by Hannah Alkadi from Pixabay 

“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens… A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)

The Church orders these times, or seasons, for us through the ebb and flow of the liturgical year. The Church year contains periods of ordinary time interspersed with the penitential seasons of Advent and Lenten fasting and festive celebratory feasts, most notably Christmas and Easter.

As Lent approaches, many Catholics celebrate the Carnival season beginning with Epiphany, which occurs on January 6, also known as “Twelfth Night,” as it is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Carnival season, with its festive-colored beads, parades, and rich foods, continues for several weeks until Mardi Gras Day, or “Fat Tuesday,” which is the eve of Ash Wednesday. During carnival, which, translated, means “farewell to meat,” early Catholic Christians used up all of the rich foods in the home, such as meat, eggs, milk, and fat, to prepare for the Lenten fast, which was considerably more austere at the time. Although Mardi Gras has, in places, become more wordly and secular, the intent of the feasting and celebration of the season is to rejoice and, in a sense, “live it up” for time to prepare mentally, physically, and spiritually for the rigor of Lenten fasting and abstinence. From the festive parades to the elaborate balls and rich foods, Mardi Gras is about celebration. However, the feasting has traditionally ended at midnight, as the costumes are put away and the revelers awake on Ash Wednesday to enter into the more somber and pious period of the Lenten season.

Mardi Gras has its origins in 17th and 18th Century Europe and made its way across the Atlantic with French settlers. Although New Orleans is notorious for its Mardi Gras festivities, many claim the celebration of the feast was actually held first in Mobile, Alabama. In 1702, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville established the settlement of Mobile, or “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” as it was originally named, and Mardi Gras was celebrated in the new colony the very next year. However, some say the very first American Mardi Gras took place a few years earlier on March 3, 1699, when Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville reached a spot near New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day and named it “La Pointe du Mardy Gras.” It is said that New Orleans followed suit after its founding, also by Bienville, in 1718. Mardi Gras has since evolved into the energetic and elaborate festivities which occur today in New Orleans, Mobile, and the surrounding areas, and it has since migrated to other parts of the country as well.

The rich symbolism of Mardi Gras can help us to remain focused on Christ as we enjoy this period of feasting and merrymaking. The season is surrounded by visible signs of Christianity, which serve to strengthen our devotion during this time. At Epiphany, many indulge in King Cake, which commemorates the coming of the three Wise Men to the newborn Infant Jesus after his birth. The Mardi Gras colors themselves – purple, green, and gold – represent the characteristics of justice, faith, and power, respectively. In the center of the King Cake can often be found a plastic baby, signifying the Christ Child. With it, we are reminded to continue to rejoice at the birth of our Savior, as we transition to the more ascetical practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving that we will begin to undertake during the upcoming forty days of Lent.

Many people have a renewed interest in reviving the original Catholic purpose and practice of the celebration of the Mardi Gras, or Carnival, season. It should be a time that families and communities gather to experience friendship and fellowship in a joyful and wholesome manner, in anticipation of the more prayerful and penitential time of Lent. It is necessary to have times of rejoicing and celebrating to balance the hardships and trials that we all face in life. St. John Paul II remarked that, “God made us for joy. God is joy, and the joy of living reflects the original joy that God felt in creating us.” We should recapture the rhythm of the liturgical year by fully engaging in and enjoying our festive seasons, as well as participate in the sacrifice of the penitential ones.

Mardi Gras is an excellent time to come together as a family or community and enjoy the gift of life that we have been given. If your geographical area happens not to host parades or festivities for this season, you can create your own by baking your own King Cake or pancakes, which is another traditional Mardi Gras indulgence. Families with children can create their own Mardi Gras masks, decorated with traditional colors of purple, green, and gold, or can dress up in costumes to commemorate the day. The idea is to revel in the day, preparing for the change in seasons which occurs at midnight before Ash Wednesday.

In an article from Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family, Maria Von Trapp comments that “It should be our noble right and duty to bring up our children in such a way that they become conscious of high tide and low tide, that they learn that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4). The rhythm of nature as it manifests itself in the four seasons, in day and night, in the individual’s heartbeat and breathing—this rhythm we should learn to recognize and to treat with more reverence.”

Maria Von Trapp is encouraging us, as Catholics, to recognize and respect the times and seasons of the Church year, and to observe the feasts and seasons within the family, so that we can live out our Faith and enter into the rhythm of the liturgical year. In this way, we are participating in and becoming the kingdom of God on earth. Mardi Gras should never be reduced to just a time to “party.” If we only celebrate Mardi Gras without Ash Wednesday and Lent, the celebration becomes meaningless and loses its value and the satisfaction that is meant to be experienced from it. We may have “fun,” but will we truly experience the deep joy that comes when we comprehend the essence and significance of the feast that we are celebrating?

Spiritual Communion – Rekindling the Fire of Faith

Image by Jacques Uhlemann from Pixabay 

There are days like today, for me, when we are overwhelmed with the tasks of our vocation as mothers and don’t get to do everything we set out to do. With one sick child home from school, homeschooling another, and my husband out of town on business, today is definitely “one of those days.” The house is not in order and there are dishes in the sink and it’s already almost 5 o’clock, so there’s not much chance we will go to bed in a clean house. Besides all that, I just had to wrestle a pork chop from our Shih-tzu Ollie’s mouth, who had stolen the discarded meal from the garbage!

Another symptom of a chaotic day is not getting to go to Mass like I try to when able. Today, I remembered to make a short spiritual communion since I could not get to Mass, and this helped to bring me back to being focused on Jesus and less stressed and anxious. I was also able to offer up my anxiety, frustration, and dryness to the Lord and know that, in turn, my difficulties are being united with his suffering on the Cross and can be used for the salvation of my soul and the souls of others.

St. Thomas Aquinas described a spiritual communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament [in Communion at Mass] and in lovingly embracing Him as if we had actually received Him.” It can be done any time or place, and a formula like the one below can be used or you can speak to the Lord in your own words. I’m so grateful that we have devotions like these that we can use any time or place to draw closer to God and rekindle the fire of our faith. As St. Jean Vienney encouraged, “spiritual communion acts on the soul as blowing does on a cinder – covered fire which was about to go out. Whenever you feel your love of God growing cold, quickly make a spiritual communion.”

An act of Spiritual Communion:

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

Little Women and Letting Ourselves Be Loved

When I was a girl, my mother gave me a gift of a beautiful hard-bound copy of the classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was one of my favorite books, and so it was with great joy and anticipation that took my girls recently to see the newly-released movie Little Women. Coming from a family of four daughters myself, the story has always resonated with me and elicits reminders of my own childhood memories and adventures with my three sisters. What a blessing to now be able to share a story that so greatly influenced me in my formative years with my daughters!

The story is the delightful tale, loosely based on the author’s own family life, of the coming of age of four sisters in Massachusetts during the Civil War era. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, with their wise and benevolent mother, navigate the wartime absence of their father while spreading their wings and developing into womanhood, facing the joys and pains of life and sisterhood together as a family. There are so many inspirations and lessons which can be drawn from the story. However, an outstanding theme is the evolution of the protagonist Jo, headstrong, courageous, and independent, from fiercely self-reliant and resistant to love and marriage, into the receptive and womanly figure she becomes at the story’s end.

Jo, a gifted writer, strives to provide for her family in her father’s absence while resisting marriage to her friend and closest companion, Theodore Laurence, or “Laurie.” Without disclosing any spoilers, suffice it to say that Jo learns over time of her natural desire for love and companionship from others and how she needs to allow herself to accept love and affection.

Like Jo, we often charge through our days nurturing and providing for our families, friends, and others we come into contact with, forgetting our need and desire to receive love and caring from others and from God. Just as on an airplane we are instructed to put on our own oxygen mask in case of emergency before helping others, we need to be open to receive the love and mercy of God for ourselves before we can effectively extend it to our families and others around us.

The French Carmelite contemporary of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, famously encouraged her mother superior in her farewell letter to “Let yourself be loved.” With these resonant words, she was reminding her superior, and us, that we should be ready to accept God’s love in spite of our weakness and sinfulness. This involves a radical realization of the immensity of God’s love and mercy and the openness to receive it.

Letting ourselves be loved by God sounds simple enough, but we often resist him for various reasons. Often, we feel our unworthiness and hesitate to believe that he could love us because of our sins and faults. Contemplating Jesus’ suffering on the Cross, however, should help us realize how deep and complete his love for us is. We can also remember the treasure trove of messages which Our Lord conveyed to St. Faustina concerning his Divine Mercy. One example is when he instructed her to, “Tell [all people], My daughter, that I am Love and Mercy itself. When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls.” (Jesus, Diary (1074) The words of Jesus and his sacrifice on the Cross assure us that if we are seeking God, we should not have a servile fear of him, but rather, run to him and readily receive all he has to offer. Similarly, we also resist human love at times. For Jo in Little Women, the journey of her life and the events which took place helped her to begin to understand her need for human love.

Times have changed, but God never does. Just as Jo March in the 1868 setting of Little Women felt her weakness and dependence, we also today experience the same desire to be loved by God and others. The world tells us we must always be strong, independent, and successful to be loved, but God’s message is different. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” he says. (Matt 11:28 NAB) We need each other, and the world will be a better place when we learn to humbly love and care for one another and to depend on God to be our source of strength and our provider.

Every Life Brings Love

Today, January 24, we celebrate our third child Genevieve’s birthday. Eleven years ago today, I held my newborn baby with tears in my eyes as I watched the March for Life taking place in Washington D.C. My heart was overcome with emotion as I cradled her in my arms and fed her, so thankful for the new life I held close to my heart.

I can only imagine the fear an unplanned pregnancy would bring to any mother who found herself pregnant, yet not feeling able to provide for the child she carried within her. By God’s grace, I was married and we were ready to welcome and support our children when they arrived; yet I realize that not every pregnancy comes at the most opportune time. To these mothers, we offer our daily prayers, support and love and say, as President Trump said today at the 2020 March for Life, “Every life brings love!” God has a way of helping us through the most difficult and heart-wrenching situations and bringing good out of every hardship, if we only trust him and follow his will for our lives and for the life of every unborn child.

St. John Paul II so beautifully addressed us, “America you are beautiful . . . and blessed . . . . The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life.”

Winning the Game of Life

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay 

My children (and husband!) really like video games. Although I often discourage this addictive habit in favor of them choosing to be active and play outside, I must admit there are times when an exciting round of Legend of Zelda or Animal Crossing has brought our family together, in the same room, and provided evenings of family entertainment. Recently, the winter weather and a bout of a flu-like illness resulting in several sick days has given us opportunities for several rousing video game marathons in our living room. I realized that gaming is not all bad, as it brought us together, in one room, for some family fun and healthy competition. Upon examination, I was even able to draw some parallels between the video game world and the pursuit of the spiritual life.

In video games, there is usually a conflict of good versus bad; a battling of opposing forces. Similarly, in life, we battle the destructive forces of evil in the forms of the world, the flesh, and the devil, in our daily lives. We are reminded of the battle between St. Michael and the devil in Revelation: “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” (Rev 12:7-8) We must be on guard against the temptations and pitfalls that can lead us astray from God and living a holy life. As in gaming we try to destroy the evil forces that threaten our survival, in the spiritual life, we work diligently every day through prayer, the sacraments, and living good lives, to attack and eliminate the temptations of the devil in our lives, and our own vices and faults, so that we can become more Christlike.

In gaming, as in life, we are working toward an ultimate goal. We are pursuing a victorious end – to win the game and obtain a triumph or successful end. We can and should look at our lives as a pursuit of the ultimate goal of heaven. It takes commitment and perseverance to achieve this goal and it is not achieved easily. We give time and attention to our relationship with Jesus and work diligently toward becoming saints so that we can win the crown. St. Paul encourages us to compete well to the end to win the prize of heaven. “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. (1 Cor. 9:24-25) Are we disciplining ourselves daily and keeping our eyes on the “prize” – to achieve the ultimate reward, life in heaven with God?

When playing video games, you are usually given several lives, or chances, to obtain the objective of the game. In his great mercy, God also extends many opportunities for us to rise and begin again when we fall. One of the greatest gifts we have as Catholics is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where we can be cleansed of our sins and begin again. In essence, we receive a “new life” with which we can start over after every defeat. As Our Lord instructed St. Faustina,“Tell souls where they are to look for solace, that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy [the Sacrament of Reconciliation]. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated.” (Diary #1448) When we approach the confessional, we receive a chance to begin anew with a clean slate and to correct our sins and faults through penance and a change of heart.

Even though I wish my children would opt more often for active pastimes, I am trying to look on the bright side and see the benefit of sitting indoors and working a Nintendo controller on days when there are no alternatives. I have loved basking in our warm living room this wintry season with my family, experiencing the time we have together. Despite my hesitation and misgivings, we have certainly created some special moments that I will fondly remember.

Our Lady of "Quick Help"

Replica of the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, St. Pius X Church, Lafayette, Louisiana

In this age of immediate gratification, our phones are updated, information is received, and goods and services are delivered, quickly, if not instantly. In the blink of an eye, our physical needs are met. We forget, however, that God can meet our spiritual and physical needs quickly – in an instant, if he wishes to. He often does so through the prayers and intercession of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Today, January 8, we honor Mary under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, or “Quick Help,” and, as we remember instances of her speedy and miraculous intercession, we are reminded to call on her in our times of need.

The title dates back to 1727, when a devotion to “Notre Dame de Prompt Secours” spread among the Ursuline Sisters and the people of New Orleans, who invoked her for protection and assistance. In 1812, facing a horrific fire which was consuming the city of New Orleans, the Ursuline nuns, in a desperate act of faith, placed a small, gold statue of Our Lady in the window of their convent facing the fire and pleaded, “Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us or we are lost!” Suddenly, the wind changed direction and the convent was miraculously saved.

Three years later, during the Battle of New Orleans, in which the Americans were greatly outnumbered by the British, these same nuns stormed heaven for a victory. They received word during Mass on the morning of January 8, 1815, that the American troops, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson, had managed an astounding defeat over the British. Once again, the quick answer to prayer was credited to the Blessed Virgin, under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. To thank Our Lady, the nuns promised to celebrate a Mass on the anniversary of the victory, January 8, a tradition which continues today.

Because of the miraculous intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, she has been declared the patroness of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. The crowning of the miraculous statue was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1874. Pilgrims visit the exquisite statue today in New Orleans at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on State Street.

These stories of long ago can serve to inspire and encourage us to seek the powerful and speedy help of Mary in all of our needs and petitions. She is still the same vigilant mother interceding for her children with Jesus and obtaining timely answers to our prayers, if only we call out to her in faith and trust as the Ursuline nuns did years ago. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, she is still today invoked as “Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.” As she assented to her role in God’s Plan at the Annunciation and faithfully fulfilled her purpose standing by the Cross, she continues her mission today. “Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation …” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 969)

Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us!

Gethsemane and Advent – Preparing Our Hearts through Prayer and Fasting

Image by falco from Pixabay

Years ago, I received an unusual visit from a woman selling religious prints. On her suggestion, I purchased an image of Jesus kneeling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. I kept the picture and wondered about its significance over the years. Only later did I understand its relevance to my life.

Today I see this image of the Agony in the Garden as God as a sign of God preparing and strengthening me for the difficulties I would encounter on the road ahead of me. Obtaining the picture was a reminder to me to continue to be faithful to prayer and fasting as a means of preparing for the future. The scene of Jesus in the Garden is normally associated with Lent and the preparation for Good Friday and Easter. How can the remembrance of the Agony in the Garden apply to the season of Advent? As Jesus retreated from the world to the Garden to prepare in prayer for his darkest hour, there are times in life when we are called to wait and pray in preparation for the events of life so we can gather strength and courage to do God’s will. Advent is a time of prayerful preparation for the coming of the Infant Jesus into our hearts at Christmas. Just as Jesus withdrew from the world to prepare for his Passion, the Church invites us to take time to retreat from the busyness and bustle of the commercial aspect of Christmas to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through prayer and sacrifice.

At times, the path of silence and contemplation can seem to be a difficult and lonely one. Jesus experienced loneliness and anxiety when he discovered that his closest friends were asleep while he prayed to the Father in the Garden. While the world tells us to find our joy in constant noise and activity around the Christmas season, we hold a priceless secret – that true peace and joy are to be discovered in Him alone. We find this peace and joy when we follow St. Teresa’s of Avila’s advice and frequently “take time to be alone with him who we know loves us” through prayer. Only when we commit to time with him will we be able to hear his voice and recognize the many ways he communicates with us through the working of the Holy Spirit. If we commit to daily reflection during the Advent season, our hearts will be prepared to welcome Jesus at Christmas time.

John the Baptist exhorts us, in the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! (Matt 3:2) and to Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Matt 3:3) The gospel reading from Matthew for the First Sunday in Advent also emphasizes urgency and reminds us to watch and pray to be ready for the coming of Christ. The reading concludes with the passage:

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Matt 24:42-44)

In addition to time for prayer, fasting is an important component of preparation and “staying awake” for the coming of the Child Jesus at Christmas. Most of us are blessed with everything we need and more; we experience abundance without the pain of poverty and need that the less fortunate in the world experience. It is necessary to make conscious sacrifices and to deny ourselves of some conveniences and sense pleasures during the season of Advent to remain fully awake and aware of the voice of the Lord speaking in our hearts. When we make sacrifices and experience need and deprivation, we unite ourselves with Mary and Joseph in their poverty, as they traveled to Bethlehem and as they searched for a place to welcome the Christ Child.

When I see the image of Jesus in his Agony, it still today reminds me of the necessity of prayer and penance at all times, but especially in times of preparation, as in Lent and Advent. Through prayer and fasting, we are purified from the effects of sin and remain open and ready for God to bless us with his gifts of peace during the Advent season and at Christmas. Let us prepare our hearts and encourage our families to do the same as we await with joyful anticipation the coming of Our Lord at Christmas.