• 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:

  • By Teresa A. Thomas 

    Less than five weeks ago, I had a partial knee replacement. I’m on the young side to need this procedure, but family heredity, an extremely active life, many pregnancies and, I suppose, a bit of bad luck all contributed toward the demise of the cartilage in my left knee. I was limping and in pain. According to my doctor, my leg was slightly starting to bow out, which would only make the leg deformed if nothing was done. What’s more, I had gone from a several-miles-a-day walker to barely being able to make it down to the end of the 1,000-foot driveway. Cortisone shots had temporarily eased my symptoms, but that’s what it was doing: easing the symptoms, not solving the problem. It was time to bite the bullet and submit to the long-term solution — surgery to get a new knee.

    I am generally anxious about medical procedures but for this one, I was really nervous. I had heard stories that knee replacement recovery took longer than other joint replacements and that the pain was worse. A physical therapist told me that rehab after the operation was not going to be a walk in the park. “If a patient feels pain in physical therapy with a shoulder, for example, we might stop. But with knees we have to have you push through the pain or you won’t regain your mobility. Full healing usually takes about three months.”

    Long story short, I discussed options with the doctor, weighed the pros and cons, got my husband’s input (“This is long overdue — do it!”), and got a second medical opinion. On June 24 I entered the hospital and had the surgery done.

    Since I’m less than five weeks post-op, I can’t speak of this in a total reflection mode. In many ways I’m still recovering, still doing physical therapy daily. According to the physical therapist, while I am ahead of the timetable of healing, walking and bendability of the knee (— measured in degrees — I’m theoretically not even halfway through. Nevertheless, in this short span I’ve learned a lot, and I’d like to share a few observations and thoughts from these last few weeks.

    I can understand why some old people are really grumpy. Like someone who is recovering from major surgery, older people often move slowly, are in pain and are often frustrated at their lack of abilities. They surely must look at people who are breezing through life with health and vitality and pine for the time they had that gift too. When someone with health and vitality complains over something trivial, it must be annoying. Unlike a younger person who is recovering from major surgery, older people cannot look forward to becoming young and fully healthy again. While they may and can improve their muscles and energy to a certain extent, their progressive age limits them permanently. This must be frustrating and depressing.

    When you are recovering from major surgery, you become temporarily dependent on your loved ones to help you. In the first week after my surgery, I remember asking one of my family members who was walking toward me if it would be okay to please fetch me a fresh ice bag from the freezer for my knee. I asked nicely and in the sweetest way possible. When this person ever-so-slightly sighed and ever-so-slightly grimaced before saying “OK” and turning around to retrieve the bag, I cringed. I knew this person was annoyed. I also knew I didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t want to be in a position to ask a favor. I didn’t want to trouble this person, but I couldn’t really get what I needed for myself. It pained me to see that it annoyed my loved one, who may not even to this day know that I noticed that small evidence of exasperation.

    If I felt this in my temporary situation, how must an elderly person, who faces dependency and daily help with small things permanently, feel? How must he or she cringe at needing to be helped to the restroom, or aided in getting dressed. And how depressing it must be if an old person has a caregiver who is not kind, or who is not patient? I’d be a lot more than grumpy if this were my lot. No wonder some older people are. Can you blame them?

    This surgery and post-surgery experience continues to teach me many things; maybe I’ll share more in a future column. But today I’m mostly pondering on the value of kindness and generosity and of offering a favor with a willing spirit and empathetic, cheerful heart. This temporary physical setback of mine has given me permanent empathy for the elderly. It helped me realize that another’s dependence is an invitation for those near him or her to grow in love. The giver and givee can be gifts to one another.

    Posted on August 17, 2016, to:

  • By Theresa Thomas

    Last night, my husband and I gathered with our daughter and many other graduates and families at St. Matthew Cathedral for the baccalaureate Mass of Marian High School. Since my daughter sings in the choir, we got to sit up in the choir loft with her, a first for us, although she is our sixth Marian High School graduate.

    Perched up top with a bird’s eye view of the beautiful Mass, I could easily see all the graduates with their families. Some came with young children. Others were seated with older people, presumably grandparents. Some, like us, came just with their graduates, no doubt enjoying the special Mass and time with one another that this event afforded.

    As I looked out over the group I felt a deep appreciation for our shared Catholic faith, and that my daughter had the opportunity to spend the last four formative years with others who also value our faith so deeply and strive to make it a priority in every day life. I thought of the unique gifts and talents of this particular group of graduates, many with their remarkable gifts and talents already being developed and shared.

    More important than the accomplishments in academics or athletics, awards, recognitions, and appointments, however, is the development of virtue and character. As I looked at the graduates I know personally, it occurred to me that many of those exceptional young men and women are well on their way to developing that, and I was so proud of them, even though they are not my kids. Some of them I have watched grow for years. What a gift.

    Then I began to ponder the characteristics of parents who raise such kids. In having watched graduates for more than ten years now (an advantage of being an “older” parent who has been at many graduations), I’ve come to notice a pattern of parenting that has pretty good results. The following is not an exhaustive list, of course, but it is my opinion that parents who raise exemplary kids share some if not all of the following characteristics:

    Parents of exemplary young people gave their attention and time to their kids but did not do everything for those young adults; they taught them then stood back. These parents made their children earn their grades, their money, their own reputations. They let them live with the consequences of their actions, which sometimes meant a short-term fail, but which gave them the best opportunity for long-term success.

    These parents taught their children to serve others, not just in clubs and associations and things that “counted” for a college resume, but in real life situations when someone was hurting and needed them. They learned, as St. Francis de Sales said, “Great occasions for serving God come seldom, but little ones surround us daily.”

    The parents of remarkable children gave those children time to explore and develop their interests and talents. They encouraged them to try new things. They supported them in their endeavors. They told them not to give up when things didn’t go as planned and reminded them that they didn’t have to be the best but to simply do their best.

    Most importantly, the parents first and foremost valued their faith and brought their children to God — at Mass, in their Catholic school, and in their daily lives. They demonstrated, through their actions, that putting God first is a priority that supersedes all others. “Seek first the kingdom (of God) and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Mt 6:33) In a society that values self-gratification, these parents often sacrificed much to offer their children an opportunity to know truth, beauty, and goodness Himself.

    As I looked out of the choir loft last night, I also thought of the tumultuous times, and the sometimes-dark world, that meets the graduates of 2016. But Bishop Rhoades put my thoughts where they needed to be regarding that.  In his beautiful homily, he quoted J.R.R. Tolkein from the Lord of the Rings. Frodo said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandolf answered, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

    God has chosen the time in which each of us is born and will live. For the graduates of 2016, it is the perfect time for which to begin their adult lives in the world, bringing their gifts and their goodness. They are ready.

    Posted on June 1, 2016, to:

  • By Teresa A. Thomas

    I registered my eighth child at the high school of my youth today. A familiar smell which brought me back to being 15 years old faintly and suddenly filled my nostrils as I opened the same heavy doors that were opened in the fall of 1977 when I entered as a freshman. I passed the area that was the bookstore, where my mom and I had stood to get my algebra, English and other books so many years ago, and where today I stood with my young daughter. She had the same wide-eyed look on her face that I must have had more than three decades ago.

    As I entered the guidance office, I noticed the same cinder brick walls, the same funky colored doors that were there when I was as a student. A flood of memories filled my mind- memories of being 15, 16, 17, and barely turning 18 before I graduated. I thought of the people I knew then, the feelings I had. I was nervous, excited, shy, and hopeful. During my four years at this school, I made friends, studied hard and sometimes, admittedly, not so hard. This school was a place where I made mistakes, and learned some lessons about life, God and simply myself. It would be at least a decade after graduating before I felt I really came into my own, but the beginning of my independence, real life learning and personal choice for God began here at this Catholic high school.

    While I have visited this school many times over the years as seven other children began and (some by graduating) ended their journey through there, today was different. I was feeling a little nostalgic anyway and the tangible reminders of being young and naïve and a rush of nameless emotions swept me back to a time when I was the age of my daughter.

    What would you say to your younger self if you could go back to high school? I thought about what I might say to my younger self, and it went something like this:

    Try hard, but don’t worry. Please don’t worry so much. You’re not perfect. No one is. You’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. Just do your best. And smile. Try to bring some joy and levity to those around you. 

    Don’t be so guarded. Take a chance, a few risks. Open your heart. And love. Love people! Say hello to the girl in the back who stands alone. Ask her if she’d like to join you at the lunch table and don’t worry what your friends may think. Don’t be afraid to talk to the boy who sits behind you in math or in front of you in study hall. He’s probably as nervous as you are. If you fight the shyness you could make a friend, maybe for life.

    Try something you’ve never tried before, a club, a sport, something. Force yourself to sign up. I know you’re scared. Do it anyway. Challenge yourself in a class, in a subject you don’t particularly like. When you learn it you may like it … or love it. Embrace learning now and take the first step in truly making it your own. Your education is not for your teachers, your GPA or your transcripts alone. It is for yourself. It is for life.

    Go to the Mass before or after school. Take advantage of Confession when it is offered. Grow in faith with your classmates. It is a gift to be surrounded by people with the same beliefs, especially in this world, which can be so cold and so secular. 

    Remember to be kind. Oh, the world needs more people to be kind! There will always be smart people, athletic people, popular people, but what the world really needs is more kind people.

    Try to project yourself in the future and look back at the present, as past. What might you wish you had done? Do it.

    Some day you might look back and wish you had done some thing, said some thing, hadn’t done some thing or hadn’t said some thing. So what? This is normal. This is life. You are the architect of your future. God has a plan for you, and these early years are all part of it. Embrace what is before you. Dive in! Relax.

    At the time of high school, we are so young. We don’t know yet who will be touched with tragedy young, a disease, a death or some other sadness. Life happens with its times and trials and great winds that shake us to the core. I think of two things this day, when I walk through the door with my second youngest daughter, about to embark on high school:

    One: listen to the words of St. Sister Faustina: “A humble soul does not trust itself, but places all its confidence in God.”

    And two: dream big, my little girl. Life can be hard and we can’t change the direction of the wind, but we can choose to adjust the sails, courageously embrace life to the fullest and to walk confidently with God.

    It is time to begin. For all of us. This I realized today, from going back.

    Posted on March 30, 2016, to:

  • By Theresa Thomas

    What do I have to offer that is worthwhile for others to read? What words can I write that have not already been penned? Is there anything original left to say? Is it vain to try? Of what use are my thoughts; aren’t they simply lost in a crowd when added to the silent yet confusing cacophony of written words already inked? If someone needs an answer or inspiration, he can pick up the work of a sage or literary great and find enlightenment on almost any subject. Saints and philosophers have done a much better job than I ever could of expressing something true and inspiring, something that honors God and perhaps helps someone navigate through life.

    This is what was swirling in my head as I sat uninspired at the desktop computer, trying to come up with some thing that would honor God, reveal some small truth, or encourage someone to find meaning in life, or a way to serve the Lord, in my column. I had carved out some sacred time, late at night, to write, (with the goal of being helpful) but the contemplations were stale … no, not even that. They were absent. The knowledge of my smallness in the world was enough to silence words, quiet my thoughts and still my fingers at the keyboard.

    I felt humbled and alone.

    I looked around. If it were daytime and my children were sufficiently occupied, I may have gone outside to walk, or sat by a window and looked at the landscape and plentiful birds that hopped, flew and perched on the property, finding inspiration in a quiet prayer. But it was dark, and snowy, and the birds were certainly hiding away so I simply sat.

    Have you ever felt like that, in your own little world, just a bit useless? The joy of your work dulled? Like a musician with no notes, an artist with no color, like an arid riverbed parched, water evaporated from the heat?

    Ironically, in this emptiness lies the treasure — the gem, the truth: The barrenness can be a gift, and in it we can be closest to God. It is not until we are empty that God does His best work in us.

    A cup is useless if it is already full. We must empty our thoughts and our very selves so God can fill us up again. If we are full of us, we can’t be full of Him.

    The Artist needs a blank canvas to fully fill with His colorful masterpiece. The Musician needs silence to arrange notes into His perfect melody. The Master Writer works best with a blank sheet. And our Lord needs our souls, unattached to our own thoughts and inspirations, to fully reflect His.

    To fully be a channel of God’s grace, by which others can hear His voice, know Him, see Him, encounter Him, we become less, so He can become more. This realization, in the silence, slowly crept over me, that God is fullest in the pregnant pause, the white space, the silence, the rest. We encounter Him when we are empty and it is He who fills us completely.

    His Light penetrates our darkness.

    Irony of ironies as I was putting this on paper, I realized the nothing becoming something was actually occurring. When I emptied my thoughts, when I did not depend on myself, God gave me something of value to say.

    We can be channels of God’s grace in our creative work, but also in our every day life. The secret is to empty ourselves of our desires, relinquish control and listen to that still small voice, which belongs to the one who is Truth, Beauty and Goodness. When we are empty, He is free to fill us, and then we can bring Him to others.

    We need never worry that we won’t have the right things to say, that our best efforts are not enough. He takes the lowly, like Moses, and the imperfect, like Peter, and the sinner, like Mary Magdalen, and in their lacking, in our lacking, He offers bounty … if we humble ourselves to accept it.

    “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I will make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” (Is 43:18-19)









    Posted on March 9, 2016, to: