• 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:

  • My oldest son came to visit for almost a week, from all the way across the country. It’s been almost a decade since he has lived at home, if you count the college years. He has a successful career, a life very exciting and dynamic and full of surprises in a big city. He lives in sunny southern California, which boasts ideal weather, and lots to do … so much more than what there is here.

    A mother looks forward to the day she works herself out of a job, and the task of officially raising a child is complete. But then, when the day comes, the independence of her offspring is bittersweet. Yay! She thinks … well, kind of.

    No one tells her when she is rocking her little lad, spooning Gerber’s best into his cute, little scrunched up mouth, or helping him learn to tie his shoes or ride a bike, or advising him on politeness before his first formal dance, that there really and truly will be a day when there’s not much left for her to do for him. Part of her wonders, when he is a full grown adult, what role she could possibly play in his life then. Deep in her heart, longingly, she asks herself, “How can I draw him back, now and again? What, with all he now has, can I possibly offer that he’ll need or want?”

    While my son was here, I couldn’t soak up enough time with him. I did mostly what I normally do — I cooked a lot — steaks, traditional Lebanese food, and eggs and sausage every morning. We went bowling as a family, to the movies, and even had a night playing euchre. My son took his sisters to the coffee shop and pondered life with them. Still, I had this lingering feeling that it wasn’t enough, that it didn’t compare to the sparkly and exciting life he created for himself in a city far away.

    One late afternoon, I spontaneously asked my son, “Hey, do you want to go cross-country skiing? You could use dad’s skis, and we could just go here on the property?”

    My schedule is usually pretty tight. If I’m not busy with housework and schooling, then I am so with driving, and organizing and otherwise managing this busy household. But I know time with my son is precious and rare, and the snow on our acreage was beginning to melt, so I pushed the other demands aside, and waited hopefully for my son’s answer.

    “Yes!” he said.

    My son, at the ripe old age of 28, had never been cross-country skiing, but you know, there’s not much to it. You don the boots, step into the skis, use the poles for guides and just start gliding. He was game.

    Living on the West Coast, he did not own a proper winter coat, so he rummaged through his old closet to find his wool letter jacket from high school and an old knitted hat from the ‘90s. I found him some gloves and grabbed the ski equipment from the pole barn. Melt my heart — he was my boy again!

    “How do you do this?” he asked, after snapping his boots to his skis.

    “Just start out walking, in long, gliding steps, and alternate using the poles to balance, pull or brace yourself.”

    Off we went in the fresh air, glistening snow and setting sun.

    I’ve been told that women relate best and bond deepest over intense conversation, and that men do so over a shared activity. That’s why women can sit in a coffee shop for hours with a friend, bonding intimately, and guys prefer hunting, golfing, fishing — that sort of thing — with their buddies to cement their friendship. Well, I’ll tell you that cross-country skiing is the best of both gendered worlds. The activity is vigorous, but not so much that you can’t hold a great conversation, and nothing beats being able to stop to take a picture or enjoy a beautiful view of sunlight filtering through trees. The snow makes sounds muffled and soft. This natural insulation effect is calming. It’s a perfect set up.

    My son and I chatted about principles, talked about religion and pondered life while gliding down little hills, and skiing in sync over a flat trail, and putting in more effort up a small incline. There was a chance for a bit of chivalry on his part too; he offered his hand when I misjudged my skill and went too fast, plopping down on my rear end on the shiny, white snow.

    We stopped to look at animal tracks. “What do you think those are?” he curiously asked.

    “Hmmm … big dog … or coyote. Wait, those are definitely coyote.”

    “Well, there’s a bunch of them.”

    “We’ll get in before dark.”

    By the end of an hour and a half, the temperature dropped and we were cold, wet and laughing. I had toppled again, no doubt my bad knee contributing to my demise. It was time to go in.

    Before we left, we lingered to look at the reddish orange and pink cloud streaks decorating the sky like a painting, as the sun began to drop low on the horizon. For a moment we stood together in silence, admiring God’s handiwork.

    “I like it out here,” my son said.

    “You can breathe,” he paused. “You can think.”

    I nodded, imagining his apartment and the big city lights that awaited him. His world there was bustling, exciting … intense, hard. His work was competitive and building a career was tiring. His old home here, by contrast, is forever welcoming, full of love … and God’s natural beauty. It is an oasis I can offer. It is something I can forever give. I began — right then — to understand what I can still offer this young man. Family. Peace. Love. An encounter with God. I can offer him the comfort, no matter how old he is or how many kids he eventually has, of a past, a present and a forever HOME.

    Posted on February 2, 2016, to:

  • A child was found wandering the big, bustling and grey city. She had been separated somehow from her mother. A kind passerby stopped to help the crying child who could only say they were going to buy bread. Thinking immediately of the specialty Italian bakery up the street, the kind gentleman decided to head in that direction and find the child’s mother. How hard could it be? “Well, what does your mother look like?” the man asked.

    “She is beautiful,” is all that the child said.

    “Can you tell me more? I need to know more to help.”

    The child thought for a moment and then slowly answered.

    “She has curly hair that flows. Her eyes are sparkly blue; she is like a queen. She is the most beautiful woman in the world.” The child whimpered softly, her own eyes looking off in the distance to the image in her mind.

    The man walked with the child up the street towards the bakery he had thought of. The woman shouldn’t be too hard to find, based on that description. Most of the people in the crowd were nondescript. Halfway up the block, he spotted a striking young woman with golden hair, which flowed over a neat navy pea coat with shiny buttons. She was very pretty and young. This must be her!

    “Well?” he asked the child hopefully, pointing to the woman and moving toward her.

    “No, no! That’s not her,” the child answered sadly. “That’s not her. She is way more beautiful than that.”

    The man slightly surprised at hearing this and still holding the hand of the lost child, continued to work his way through the crowded street. He glanced at the faces he passed — an older gentleman, a middle aged woman with glasses, and then yes, there was a younger lovely woman on the corner calling, “Dear, dear! Come here at once!”

    That must be her! The man’s heart soared, thinking this woman was calling to the little girl whose hand he held. But before he could ask the lost child, a lad of about seven leapt into the woman’s arms and the two hurried along. The little girl, sensing his eminent question shook her head.

    “She is way more beautiful than that,” she said.

    Up and down the street the man and the child went, searching, searching … but to no avail. A half hour passed by and the man finally decided he needed to take the child to the police station. He was having no success and the more time that passed by the less likely he was to find the child’s mother. The child was crying hard by now and the man felt badly for having to take her to the police station, where she surely would feel afraid. But what choice did he have?

    The man with the sobbing child rounded the corner to the station with a large sign in front which read “Metro Police, Station Number 12.” and entered the cold, glass-doored building. There were desks and seats and lines and people. The child shrieked, pulled away from his hand and ran.

    “Mommy! Mommy! Mama!” she cried and he followed her through the crowded room as she ran to a portly, plain woman whose hair was pulled back in a bun, in a tattered coat, holding a simple loaf of common bread. The woman dropped this loaf, let out a little shriek and clasped the child tightly to her chest. “Oh, my goodness! Oh my child!” she cried happily.

    As the man approached the two hugging one another the woman looked up at him. Her face was devoid of makeup and her plain features would strike no one. The skin around her eyes was slightly wrinkled, appearing to be from happy squinting. And her eyes … he saw that her eyes were the most beautiful, sparkly blue, but mostly kind, very kind and animated. As tears welled up in them, he detected love and tenderness. Under the woman’s old hat he saw brown, curly hair, pulled up with bobby pins. Her child’s coat, neat and clean and new was in direct contrast with her own, tattered and torn. Clearly she had sacrificed for her little girl.

    The little girl cried out to the man, “It’s her! It’s her! It’s mama! Isn’t she the most beautiful woman in the world?”

    And the man smiled. “Yes,” he said to the child softly, “yes, she is.”

    Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God. — 1 Peter 3:3-4

     

    Posted on December 29, 2015, to:

  • Advent preparation didn’t start out the way I had hoped.

    I thought I had done all the right things. I had cleaned our house, readying it for the correct liturgical decorations. I looked up some Scripture readings. I planned to take out some book favorites of the season for the kids. I pulled out our Advent wreath several days before the first Sunday and had purchased four brand new Advent candles a full week ahead of time. I put those candles in a safe place so I’d be ready to light them with the family on that first Sunday. But it turned out that it was too safe a place because when the first Sunday rolled around, those candles were nowhere to be found.

    What’s more, I had been so confident that I didn’t even look for the candles until dinner was almost ready to be served. Could they be in the cabinet with the decorative, scented candles? No. On top of the fridge? Not there either. How about my room? The laundry area? The junk drawer? No, no, no, and not a good dozen other places either. My girls and I frantically searched the house, top to bottom, but to no avail. My one daughter works at a Christian bookstore but by that last minute that store was plum out of Advent candles too, with a rush on them — of course — just the day before.

    Continuing the trend, I also couldn’t locate a few of the choice seasonal books I had carefully set aside (and had not looked for until just before dinner) either. It seems I had misplaced them, you see, probably while I was cleaning the basement in preparation for the season. I suspected that the books were in the newly cleaned toy room, probably in the wrong Tupperware container. By this point I was out of time and couldn’t search container by container. Dinner was ready, no late.

    Sigh.

    And so, that first Sunday of Advent, having read no books about Advent with my children, my family gathered for dinner. The plain pine Advent wreath graced our table untraditionally, with nothing but a large, green, balsam-scented candle smack in the middle of the wreath, advertising my ineptitude. At least it smelled good.

    By now you too may have experienced a bit of frustration and more than a frazzled moment or two this Advent season. If you haven’t you’re lucky. It’s hard trying to focus on the spiritual dimension of Advent with your family, while trying to accomplish the practical aspect of planning a memorable and jolly Christmas celebration and still manage the day-to-day duties and possibly deal with bad weather to boot. (Pressure anyone?)

    Perhaps you’ve not made it to Confession yet. Or maybe you’d planned on Scripture reading or a special rosary recitation each night with the family, only to have the effort thwarted by a late running sports practice for one of the kids, or an unexpected travel for work, or a dreaded case of pre-Christmas flu going around (probably because you are run down trying to get everything done perfectly). You’re stressed. You’re worried. You feel like you’re failing.

    Stop!

    Breathe. Focus. It’s going to be okay.

    There’s still time to get to Confession. Is the Nativity set up? Build your thoughts around that. Focus on praying the rosary or doing the Scripture reading just for tonight. Now is what matters. Today. This moment. Forget what you have not done and direct your efforts to what you can now. And if someone in your family has gotten sick this Advent season, simply patiently tend to him, as though it were the most important thing in the world. Because it is.

    For the remainder of Advent, remember the words of Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

    The world will not stop if you don’t attend every gathering to which you are invited. Nothing bad will happen if you change your Christmas Eve menu to something easier to cook to free up your time with loved ones. Gift certificates are just fine to give as presents, especially if it means your time is now freed up to read to a little one who is looking up at you, holding a book. Your neighbors will live if you don’t bring personalized holiday baskets to them, and your family will benefit from taking that time to pray the rosary for them and others instead.

    Peace. Calm. Joy. Still your heart and prepare.

    So your Advent isn’t perfect. Join the club. In fact, the Holy Family’s time of preparation wasn’t perfect either. The first Christmas was not, by man’s terms, perfectly and grandly orchestrated by any means. Not only did Mary and Joseph experience discomfort and likely stress at having to travel a long way to a strange land to fulfill a duty, but they also had to ‘go with the flow’ in terms of their sleeping accommodations. We may not be getting enough sleep this time of year, but at least we don’t have to lay our heads down on hay in a stable in a foreign land. Or have a baby in it. Or flee in the middle of the night because a hysterical, jealous king is after our child and is seeking to kill him.

    So gently quiet the cacophony in your heart. Let go of the imperfections that trouble you. Take your children to Confession. And once in the church, linger in the dark and quiet, your eyes raised humbly to the altar and say simply, “Come. Come, Lord Jesus” He will listen and answer. He is all we need. And this realization is the best preparation — really the only preparation we need.

     

    Posted on December 9, 2015, to: