• By Theresa A. Thomas

    About 15 years ago, when all my children were still at home, I contracted a severe upper respiratory infection. One of the side effects was that I completely lost my voice. Not for a day, but for close to a week I could do no more than whisper, and even that took great effort. Consequently, I did as little talking as possible and tried to communicate in nonverbal ways. I’d point, smile, motion, even write. Sometimes, however, I just had to say something, and I tried to use as few words as possible and spoke the only way I could, softly. In a whisper.

    After a few days of communicating this way, whispering, something interesting happened. My children starting whispering back. They weren’t sick. They had voices. They just started responding in kind to the way they were spoken to. When I turned the volume down several notches, they all did, almost automatically. They also seemed to pay more attention to what I was saying to them.

    That was a revelation to me. There is great power in the way one speaks, and speaking softly and simply had generated a soft and simple response from my own children.

    “If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper.” That was the slogan of a Coty perfume advertisement in the mid 1970s, and I found it to be true. That week that I lost my voice, I ironically found it.

    I’ve observed family dynamics over the years and discovered that when I behave a particular way, it sets the tone for the entire family. If I am gruff, my family tends to be gruff. When I am at peace, they are too.

    What an amazing power the mother of a family has on the lives of her husband and children. If only all mothers knew this and could harness this gentle power right, how much better everyone in the family would be!

    St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

    It’s true, isn’t it? It’s harder to be quiet, sometimes, than it is to be loud. It takes much more strength to respond in gentleness to provocation, for example, than to pop off in anger. Who has more control: a person angrily forcing his or her opinion on another, or one who speaks humbly and sweetly and convinces not by force, but by persuasion?

    You’ve likely heard the old story Aesop’s fable of the wind and the sun. The wind, with its brusqueness, could not get a man to take his cloak off. The sun, with his warmth, could do easily.

    Father John Hardon, whose cause is up for beatification and canonization, had this to say about the power of gentleness in his “Spiritual Biography”:

    “Where anger flares up, gentleness calms down. Where anger is a bursting flame gentleness is a gentle rain. Where anger asserts itself and crushes, gentleness embraces and quiets and soothes yet as we hear these and similar descriptions of gentleness we are liable to make the mistake as I dare say so much of the modern world makes the mistake of identifying gentleness with weakness.

    In a column for The Real Presence Association, Father Hardon wrote: “A gentle person is a meek person. So most people think that a gentle person is a weak person. It is just the opposite. In order to be truly gentle, and that does not mean soft or sentimental, one must be strong. Only strong people can be gentle, because gentleness restrains strength by love.”

    Everyone benefits from being gentle, but gentleness is particularly important for the woman, the wife and mother who is the heart of the home and who sets the tone of the family’s mood. A woman’s sweetness, her femininity, her holy gentleness can make a huge difference in the demeanor of the family’s members.

    A woman needn’t be afraid that she will lose her voice if she lowers it, if she speaks softly, if she is gentle. On the contrary; in her gentleness there is actually strength and power, the power of love. Gentleness is like an attractive and fertile field where the seeds of truth can take hold. There is great strength, potential and power in gentleness.

    A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prv 15: 1).

     

    Posted on May 2, 2017, to:

  • By Theresa Thomas

    I want to share something very personal and, in my mind, significant and relevant to readers, but I don’t want to come off as braggy or know-it-all. In fact, there are so many things I don’t know that I hesitate to share this for fear of it being misconstrued in some way: but gosh darn it, it’s a good lesson for all of us, I think. If in some small way it helps someone feel encouraged in his or her own life of raising children and making ripples, then it will have been worth the risk of oversharing. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me just begin.

    Last weekend our daughter competed in a large dance competition in a major city. In this particular competition there are two divisions: classical and contemporary. Classical means a variation from a classical ballet is danced; contemporary can include classical music not from a ballet or other kinds of music — from drums to lyrical, pop to instrumental. Having attended this particular competition for many years, my husband and I have noticed that a number of the contemporary selections increasingly tend toward what we would classify as dark, negative, and somewhat depressing, and sometimes the costumes on the young girls are tight and skimpy; immodest in our opinion.

    When the time comes around for our daughter to choose a piece, the question always comes up, “What can showcase your skills?” Even more importantly, we ask, “What is uplifting?” “What brings joy?” And most of all, “What gives hope and reveals true beauty, representing the art form in a way that is pleasing to God?”

    Several years ago an older ballerina from our daughter’s dance studio chose an “Ave Maria” arrangement and vocal to which to dance in the contemporary division of the competition.  It was so lovely. The dancer even earned a Top 12 designation. This inspired my daughter, and she has enjoyed trying to find pieces to which to perform that are similarly stirring and authentically beautiful.

    One day my husband was playing Andrea Bocelli on his iPod and he had the idea that his song “La Vie En Rose” might be a nice piece to which our daughter could dance in competition. He suggested it to her and she immediately liked the idea. Another daughter, who also danced ballet for many years, is an aspiring choreographer, and she committed to working with her sister to create a piece that would showcase her sister’s talents, while aiming to express hope and beauty.

    The girls spent many hours upstairs in our school room playing the Bocelli music over and over, working on combinations and moves until it seemed just right to them: joyful, full of love and hopefulness. Then, they went to the artistic director in order to get permission to enter it in the competition. The girls were nervous approaching the director because they were both so young, and typically only experienced choreographers work with the dancers to create an entry piece.

    At the end of the nerve-wracking demonstration of the ballet piece, the two sisters, dancer and choreographer, turned to their studio’s artistic director hopefully to see what she thought. Neither could read her face: It was blank. Suddenly it turned to a smile and the director exclaimed, “I loved it!” She said they could enter the piece.

    For months afterward our daughter worked diligently on her piece; alone, with her sister and under hours of instruction with her dance teacher. She chose a feminine, rosy, skater dress and a French beret as a costume. Finally, the date of the competition arrived.

    Our daughter positioned herself on stage and when the music started she floated across the stage, performing the advanced choreography to the beautiful melody. She seemed to have everything going for her; just a sequence of difficult turns at the end and she would be finished. But alas, in the middle of a complicated turn, she fell flat.

    As heartbroken as she felt inside, our daughter stood up and finished her dance. Surprisingly, despite the fall, the piece earned a Top 12 designation. There was something there the judges liked. Still, she was not happy with her mistake.

    That was last year. This year she wanted to bring the piece back and execute it perfectly. For many more months she worked under the expert supervision of a new artistic director, who helped her tweak certain moves and improve her technical skills. She rehearsed over and over.

    The competition was this past weekend and I’m happy to say this time she did not fall. In fact, she won. Out of more than 100 entries, she didn’t just make Top 12, she came in first! Obviously this made me happy for her, on account of her hard work. Having fallen the year before, she came back and succeeded — something that made me pleased.

    You see, little girls — the auditorium was full of them — saw our daughter win in a modest, lovely dress, performing to music that was uplifting and about love and joy. This will likely, I hope, impact their choices of music next year and maybe even years after. Maybe other girls never thought music like this would work at such a competition, or they just never considered it. Maybe they did consider it, but dismissed it because they weren’t used to seeing it and seeing it move the judges and win. At any rate I would like to think this little outcome may help in just one small way change some of the competition entries for the better. I hope and pray my daughter inspired other little girls, just as an older girl once inspired her.

    We all can help bring about a positive change in culture. We are all called to make ripples, positive ripples, ripples in the little ponds in which we reside, if even for a moment. We must keep trying, encouraging and aiming to be good examples, even not knowing the outcome.

    Mother Teresa once said, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” We need to leave the outcomes to Him and concentrate on doing what we know is right. But I wanted to share something I experienced this weekend very personally — sometimes God will surprise us, and we find that faithfulness and success can beautifully meet. For that, and for those moments, I am grateful.

     

     

     

     

     

    Posted on February 22, 2017, to:

  • By Theresa Thomas

    I thought I might let my 19-year-old tell you something in her own words.

    “I was praying about a word that God might give me to focus on this year, because my mom had told me before that every year she receives a word through prayer around Advent and then that word plays into her life somehow during that year. She feels God is calling her to focus on that word, usually associated with a virtue. So anyway, I thought maybe God was calling me to receive a word too.

    “I was praying about it and the word ‘stay’ kept coming into my mind. I wasn’t really happy with that word, because I didn’t think it could relate to my life at all.

    “’Stay’ as in ‘stay in school?’ ‘Stay’ at my college, Saint Mary’s? ‘Stay’ in Indiana? I didn’t know what it meant. But I kept praying about it, and I would receive it during and after Mass; so I thought maybe it meant, “stay at Mass,” pray a little longer or stay in Adoration. And so I would.

    “One day I had gone to the Grotto at Notre Dame with my friends and was praying there. I had just lit a candle and offered it up for some intention that I now can’t remember. But I knelt down to pray and as I finished my prayers I heard the word ‘stay’ in my mind again.

    “I really didn’t want to stay at that moment, because I had prayed for everyone I wanted to; but I thought, ‘OK, God, I’ll stay.’ So I said another Hail Mary for one of my family members and as I was finishing, I heard someone crying and turned to see next to me a girl. The sobbing got louder and louder. I didn’t know why, but she was kneeling there, just sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to do, so I quietly got up and went over to my friends and told them about it. I wanted to see if the girl was OK and I felt like we should approach her, but I didn’t want all of us to go up to her at the exact same time because that might be overwhelming for her.

    “After a minute or so, I walked up to her and asked if she was all right.

    “She was still uncontrollably crying and could barely get it out that no, she wasn’t OK and that she was going through something really hard. I stayed there by her, with her, and asked if I could pray with her and for her. She said ‘OK,’ and I asked her what her name was. She told me. Then I said out loud, ‘God, give (girl’s name) the strength to get through this problem she is having. Please help her be alive with Your plan and help her have good support of her friends and family. Help them to encourage her and help her through whatever struggles she is dealing with.’ Then I said a Hail Mary with her.

    “We made the sign of the cross and stood back up to just sit there at the grotto for a few minutes, and we talked. I found out this girl was also a Saint Mary’s student, and I asked if she wanted to come with my friends and me on the bus back to campus. Turns out the girl is somebody I’d gone to (high) school with, but that she was two or three years older than me so I didn’t really know her. She rode the bus back with my friends and me, and it ended up being fine. She actually laughed on the way back at something one of my friends said.

    “Looking back now, if I hadn’t stayed when I felt prompted, I wouldn’t have been able to comfort this girl; I wouldn’t have been able to talk to her. I wouldn’t have been able to pray with her. And she said she really needed prayers. I told her I’d be praying for her for a while.

    “So, I still don’t really know this girl. I haven’t seen her in a while. But I am still praying for her and I have to believe it is helping. I also know she must be one reason I got the word “stay” that night in my thoughts. She is what the word was there for, at least that one night. I think I need to continue to listen whenever I hear God telling me in my heart the word ‘stay,’ which I’m sure now is my word for the year. I need to stay and pray and wait to see what God has in store.”

    Posted on January 17, 2017, to:

  • By Theresa Thomas

    I had a special project I was working on for my family for Christmas this year. I’d been mulling over the idea for a long time and finally this year decided to just do it. It’s a time-consuming and personal gift — I can’t give the details, seeing as I’m still hoping it can be a surprise at some point — and I was very excited about putting the whole thing together. I thoroughly researched what I needed to do, gathered what I needed to gather and gave myself plenty of time to complete the task, I thought.

    It turned out life happened in an unexpected way this month, though — nothing tragic or particularly extraordinary, but just enough that I didn’t end up being as efficient and productive as I’d hoped to be in compiling this gift.

    You see, eight of my nine children decided to come home for Thanksgiving, which thrilled me. It also entailed a whole bunch of home cooking. (My sneaky plan, since they have become adults and three have moved 2,000-plus miles away for work, is to put the effort into completing old-style, home-cooked, memory-inducing meals to reel them back in to this part of the country. So far it hasn’t worked, but I keep trying.)

    When the kids come home I usually put together a little itinerary. Sometimes this is a Google document. Other times it’s in email form. I’ll outline proposed activities for the group, which is kind of tricky since the age range is so vast — 11 to 29. What happens is everyone writes back with suggestions for family-building group activities, times for such activities or mentioning something they need to do or someone they need to see. I’ve learned over the years to block out mornings for everyone to sleep, tend to personal goals and provide workout times. Dad usually cooks big breakfasts and people come and go to do their individual things. Planning ahead helps everyone in a big family to have this sense of togetherness without it being stifling, which is a real concern because A) There are so many of us, B) Four offspring are adults off on their own, who aren’t used to having someone else schedule their time, and C) Kids often perceive their parents to be controlling when really those parents are only trying to make things run smoothly. But I digress…

    My point is, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with hearty meals, good conversation and lots of bonding activity in the form of college basketball attendance, family bowling, a movie night and old-fashioned euchre games … but it also naturally took away from any sort of possibility of working on my Christmas project for them.

    Then, dear husband informed me he had a work trip to Kentucky planned for the entire next week. I have an amazing and helpful husband, which means when he is gone I not only miss him personally, but I also miss the help he normally provides, including a great deal of driving and picking up kids in the evening. With this help not available, for the last week I have literally spent two hours daily at least, here and there, driving, just dropping off and picking up kids.

    My daughters dance each year in their local ballet studio production of Nutcracker, and rehearsals were heating up. Often, the girls’ rehearsal times did not match. Then there were trips to purchase their needs for the show and extra trips back when pointe shoes unexpectedly “died” and black, not pink slippers were needed for the younger one just for one scene. A moment of panic ensued when reordering a shoe quickly proved impossible because of a manufacturer glitch. A revelation occurred that shellac would serve to stiffen the shoes in a pinch, so I squeezed in a trip to the hardware store to get that, then painted the insides of the shoes. Twice.

    During that same week, one of my high-school-aged daughters had the nerve to start running a fever, then became hugely sick. The first trip to the doctor indicated a severe sinus infection, but the antibiotic didn’t work, so a trip back was necessary. Poor thing. All I could do is bring her tea and empathize while handing her horse pills. Then came extra helping with homework: “Mom, will you quiz me?” “Could you help me organize my thoughts on this part of my paper?” “I don’t get what Plato was saying here.” (Really.) “Do you remember Punnit squares?” One night, as the clock was approaching 10 p.m. or so, I had just sat down to work on the project and I heard a knock. “Mom, can I talk to you about something?” Of course.

    And so, here we are. The deadline has passed for my project to be completed and arrive on time. To my dear children, I would like to say this:

    I’m sorry you won’t have the amazing, personalized, handmade Christmas present that I planned and tried to finish for you this year. Maybe you’ll get it before the New Year’s arrives, or maybe not, but I’d like to think that the reason for my lateness will make your waiting worthwhile. I tried to give you my best when you needed it, moment by moment. I helped you, tended to you, simply loved you the best I could these last few weeks, and if that means I missed out on giving you the homemade surprise gift I’d planned, so be it. I hope you will understand.

    Somehow I think they will.

    Theresa Thomas is the wife of David and mother of nine children. Watch for her newest book “Big Hearted Families” (Scepter) and read more on her blog: http://theresathomas.wordpress.com.

    Posted on December 20, 2016, to:

  • By Teresa Thomas

    I’ve been yearning for simplicity lately. Have you? During this Advent season, I suggest we turn inward and even backward a bit, to create for our families an old-fashioned, blessed, wonderful Christmas. Here’s how.

    Put Christ at the center 

    To have a wonderful, blessed, old-fashioned Christmas we must, of course, keep Christ where He belongs — in front. Stores and advertisements on television, the Internet and radio feed modern materialism, and we ourselves sometimes inadvertently do things that take away from the true meaning of Christmas too. Even though we may be well meaning, if we prioritize the purchases, plans and meal details before considering spiritual aspects and how to guide our families toward gratitude and a deeper relationship with Christ, we will find ourselves frazzled and missing out on the best part of the season, Christ himself.

    There is nothing wrong with decorating; enjoying some of the secular trappings of the holiday is fun, of course. But, if anything takes away from our ability to hone in on prayer time, preparing our hearts and leading our families in that direction, we need to ditch it!

    Putting the Nativity set in a conspicuous place of honor and making time for quiet prayer and contemplation daily will do wonders for keeping the focus where it belongs, on Christ. You can find Advent devotions in any Catholic bookstore, online or in real life, but you don’t need them. Put the family Bible next to the Nativity set and spend a few minutes reading the story of Christ’s birth from each of the Gospels each night with your children. Read the little children age-appropriate books while snuggled on the sofa before bed. Pray the rosary. Attend an extra Mass during the week. Take the family to confession. Make a Jesse Tree. Use an Advent calendar. Focus on being kinder and more patient and doing little acts of love for your spouse, children and those around you. It’s catchy, and you’ll find that Christmas cheer spreads rather quickly when you start it yourself.

    Give to others

    It’s somewhat easy to toss in canned goods or an old coat for a food or clothing drive, often much harder to do something for someone in your own little circle of acquaintances; but oh, it is so much more meaningful! Is there a struggling college student or young person you know? Send him a cheery note of encouragement and tuck a $10 gift card inside. Are you at the drive through of your favorite coffee or bread shop? Ask the cashier how much the person behind you owes. If it’s affordable for you to do so, tell the cashier you’d like to pay for the person behind you and to simply tell them “Merry Christmas.” Offer to babysit for a young mother for a couple hours so she can do some Christmas shopping. Bring some homemade cookies to the neighbors. Gather a group of friends or family members and arrange to meet at local nursing home, with prior approval of the activities director. Sing traditional Christmas carols as residents eat their meals, or go door to door and pass out candy kisses. Stay and talk. Does someone in your family play the piano? Do that for the residents too. Double your dinner recipe one night and drop off some food at the rectory with a card. Call your mother just to say “hi.”

    Be creative

    Make colorful, construction paper chains with your children. You can make these Christmas countdown chains, and remove a link each day until Dec. 25. Some families cut red and green rectangles that will make up the links and leave them in an easy-to-access spot. Family members write any good deeds they do each time they do them, then fold and tape the link to the others. The long chain at the end of the season will be a reminder of all the loving things your family has done throughout the season. On Christmas Eve you can place the paper chain on the tree or drape around the manger scene as a gift to the Christ child.

    Get out and about. Go ice-skating at a local rink. Host a cookie exchange. Invite friends over for eggnog and to play cards. Make a date with your spouse to window shop or look at the Christmas lights. If your town has a manger scene, take your kids to see it. The University of Dayton in Ohio has a large Marian library and a large crèche collection. These Nativity scenes are displayed every year before Christmas and are wonderful to see.  Find out what is available in your city by checking with colleges, museums and your local park department. You might be surprised to find some wonderful displays and activities right in your own backyard.

    Bake from scratch

    Pull out those dusty, handwritten recipes that came from your grandmother and make treasured treats for your family. Don’t have any? Call your mom or mother-in-law and ask for some old family standbys. What’s even better, if you have young children or grandchildren, invite them to help you bake. Freeze the goodies for Christmas Eve. There is something incredibly special about making recipes that are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation. You may want to tell stories while you bake, memories of your grandmother or own childhood Christmases.

    Lower expectations

    The Advent and Christmas seasons can be a time of stress and high expectations. Be realistic in what you expect, whether it relates to how much you think you must accomplish or what to expect of a relative’s words or behavior. Repeat in your mind as much as is necessary, “Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. What else is, is.”

    Lastly, simplify, simplify, simplify! You know your own limits. If buying gift cards instead of actual presents for some people on your list means you can spend more time preparing your heart well for our Lord, or with your family in meaningful interaction, don’t hesitate to do so. Choose those traditions that have meaning and value to you and yours, remembering the true meaning of Christmas, Jesus’ birth. Prioritize, then let go. No one can do everything perfectly and with no glitches. No one. Focus on what counts most.

    If you do these things, then, when the wrapping paper litters the floor on Christmas morning, when dinner has been eaten and relatives have gone home, you can look back gladly and with confidence that you have created a most meaningful Christmas for your family. When you and your family put Christ as the center, you will experience great joy and peace, even in the hectic details and imperfections of life. What’s more, when you focus on the right things, you know that Christmas morning is just the beginning, not end of the liturgical Christmas season. Thank God. Literally.

    Have a very merry, blessed, wonderful, old-fashioned Christmas!

    Posted on December 6, 2016, to: