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Our second daughter is eight. Eight is old. (At least, at our house it is.) And, eight? Eight is great!

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It means someone that you can send to the craft cupboard to “upgrade” the Jesse Tree ornaments, mostly by themselves and unsupervised. Ok, maybe a bit supervised.

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It means being able to reach the Jesse Tree above the piano without help.

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It means being able to start muddling through the missal during Sunday Mass. To muddle through seems to be defined by the Mirriam-Webster dictionary as “to achieve a degree of success without much planning or effort.” Tell me about it. I’m finding that doing a quick run through the missal before Mass greatly increases the chances of Missal Success and decreases the Great Sadness Caused by Missal Failure and Confusion. But maybe this is just my daughter.

It means being able to follow along with the hymns using the hymnals. Even if it takes almost the entire song in order to find the number in the book.

It still means needing to be reminded to be reverent by kneeling up or standing up straight at Mass, to listen and not get distracted, but it seems to mean not needing to be shushed as much. And she doesn’t throw down the hymnal, run down the aisle or need to be taken to the foyer. Praise. The. Lord.

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It means a more advanced version of the Faith and Life book that her little siblings are using. This yellow book is for kids in grade three. Smaller type, more detail, wonderful artwork.

It means a small session with Mama or Daddy after bedtime prayers to work through a simple examination of conscience before going to sleep. I was kind of hoping this would work itself out without any supervision – along the lines of “Ok. Don’t forget to examine your conscience before going to sleep.” But it worked just as well as “Ok. Don’t forget to brush your teeth before going to sleep.” They seemed to need a bit more hand holding and instruction before they could a) do it themselves when prompted, and b) develop the habit and remember to do it without prompting.

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It also means that they’re not likely to rough-house beside the ridiculously breakable Advent Wreath Situation and break the candleholders. No, that would be the six-year old. In cahoots with the five-year old.

Sigh.

Everyone has always told me to cherish these moments when the kids are little because it goes fast. And boy am I ever finding that it does. It goes very fast.

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Right before bedtime, after the kids are in pajamas and all the teeth have been brushed, there’s some time for reading books. Sometimes they choose. Sometimes we choose. While the reading kids are now off in their own corner with “big kid” books, the non-readers (or the not quite reading) are still willing to snuggle and listen to a story or two.

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Sometimes I choose this book. I say that I’m only going to read just one chapter.

Our Heavenly Father is actually a grade one religion textbook, from a series called “Faith and Life” that is popular with many homeschoolers. The kids don’t seem to mind, and I find that I can simply read it without having to paraphrase it to make it more engaging and understandable. The level works well for my current SK and grade one little persons. Each chapter is pretty short and is accompanied by a beautiful image.

Sometimes it’s the first time they’re hearing it, but sometimes the kids know the story already. Where did they learn it? From us, from school, from the nice people who run the Time with God programme at the parish, from Mass itself. It’s neat to see them get excited when they put it all together, all these great stories that form our faith from different parts of their life, from different people in they know.

“Read the next one!”
“You mean, ‘Please read the next one.'”
“Please read the next one?”
“For sure.”
“And the one after that?”
“Maybe.”

The lovely folks over at SaintlySages have been doing a series of posts on kindness from Frederick William Faber’s Kindness. This often-tired sometimes-tending-to-grumpy mama appreciates the heads up as we head into the craziness of the school year, when there is a temptation to steam-roll over our kids as we Try To Get Things Done Just Put Your Shoes On Fer Cryin’ Out Loud. Got to remember to do things kindly. Even if we’re late. Even when we’ve made a big mess. Even if the baby is crying. Jesus, please, please help me be kind.

“Here is a grand material for sanctification. Nevertheless, such materials are hard to work up in practice. It is weary work cleaning old bricks to build a new house with. These are difficulties, but we have got to reach heaven, and must push on.”

Yes. Sigh. We must push on.

A quick search revealed that Father Faber’s book is available online (see right margin for links to various formats). I will add reading it to my list.

This is the Summer during which we’ve gone from a Not Yet Reading family to a Most of Us Can Read sort of family. Our eldest has been reading for a few years now, but there’s something about having two of the kids reading. Suddenly, there’s someone to share the stories, the wonder, the jokes, the scary bits. It’s brought dinner discussions to a whole new level. (Not that the previous level has disappeared. Some of us are still learning that when the food enters our mouths no one needs to see it again.)

bigkidbooks

We’ve been so excited about this new phenomenon that we’ve been collecting all the “big kid” books (i.e. books with not that many pictures and very many words) on a special shelf. In particular, I wanted to share a few of the faith-themed books that we’ve been enjoying.

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Now You Can Read Bible Stories
We received this set of books many years ago, before any of the kids could read. I suppose these aren’t really “big kid” books but I find both readers and the “read-to” crowd really enjoy these. I think the readers like the independence of getting to sit and very, very slo-o-o-wly absorb the story at their own pace, complete with daydreams and distractions – facilitated by fantastic retro-vintage illustrations. I personally like them since I find that I don’t have to paraphrase the stories on the fly so much to make them make sense.

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Saint Catherine Laboure: Mary’s Messenger
This book begins with the story of the young Catherine who loses her mother early in life and turns to Our Lady. One of our kids’ Godmothers gave us this book and it continues to fascinate our children. I believe that it might be a combination of the carefully rendered watercolour illustrations that they just pore over and the wonderful storytelling (and story). For whatever reason, this is a well-loved little book at our house.

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Once Upon a Time Saints
I researched and read a number of reviews online and chose this book as an introduction to the lives of the saints. The stories are lively and really do bring the saints to life. I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was to read through the various stories – the author really has a gift. From the number of times that I’ve had to remind someone to put it away, it seems as if others do as well.

I’m learning that, especially in the long, hazy days of Summer, if you have it around, they might read it. Purchasing used books online and from the neighbourhood thrift stores can makes the process a bit more affordable. Watching the kids curl up and read is a delight.

Sometimes we find ourselves in darkness. For whatever reason, whether it be sickness, ongoing personal tragedy, the mounting stress of holiday “responsibilities,” or maybe just plain old loneliness, this can be a difficult time of year. Sometimes the three purple candles and one pink candle just isn’t enough to dispel it. Or, if you’re house is already resplendant with shiny Christmas decorations and enough lights to make Toronto Hydro smile, or if you’re out and about in the brightly lit malls, all the lights might serve to create a stark, stark contrast with your personal difficulties.

If you’ve ever tried to comfort a hysterical and crying toddler, you might have said something like, “It’s ok. I’m here. It’s all good. I’m here. Nothing to be afraid of.” In the child’s misery, it takes them a while to feel your arms rocking them back and forth. It takes them a while to hear your voice. For what seems like forever, they are blind to you. But after a while, they do notice your presence. Sobs turn to sniffles, sniffles to steadier breathing. Their little body might relax against your arms and the darkness is dispelled.

For me, an old paperback entitled The Wonder of Guadalupe by Francis Johnston served as that motherly hug during the darker parts of this Advent season. I found myself reading about this fascinating miracle a few days after the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe

“Listen and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son,” Our Lady says at some point to Juan Diego. “Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Our Lady, even tired and pregnant with Jesus, has room on her lap for me. (I can attest that there is room on the lap of even the most pregnant person for a sad, little person – maybe even two.) She has room on her lap for all who struggle with darkness. Even when we forget, blinded by our grief, she knows and will never tire of reminding us that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, who is the Light.

Sometimes it takes me a while to notice her presence. But it’s always better when I do. Better and a little bit brighter.

From our perennial favourite, St. Francis de Sales:

As to the examination of conscience, which we all should make before going to bed, you know the rules:

  1. Thank God for having preserved you through the day past.
  2. Examine how you have conducted yourself through the day, in order to which recall where and with whom you have been, and what you have done.
  3. If you have done anything good, offer thanks to God; if you have done amiss in thought, word, or deed, ask forgiveness of His Divine Majesty, resolving to confess the fault when opportunity offers, and to be diligent in doing better.
  4. Then commend your body and soul, the Church, your relations and friends, to God. Ask that the Saints and Angels may keep watch over you, and with God’s Blessing go to the rest He has appointed for you.

– Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales


Dear Saint Francis de Sales, I’m stressed, anxious, worried…

Having heard that I was a fan, a good friend gave me a worn out little book called Spiritual Letters of Saint Francis de Sales.

I smiled as I read the first letter, which seems to have been written just for me. In it, the good saint says Girl, chillaaaax.

“…God is not in the great and strong wind, or the scorching fires of agitated feeling, but in the soft, almost imperceptible, breeze of calmness and gentleness.”

“…strive to be as a little child, who, while its mother holds it, goes on fearlessly, and is not distrubed because it stumbles and trips in its weakness. So long as God holds you up by the will and determination to serve Him with which He inspires you, go boldly and do not be frightened at your little checks and falls, so long as you can throw yourself into His Arms in trusting love. Go there with an open, joyful heart as often as possible;–if not always joyful, at least go with a brave and faithful heart.”

Ok, I was paraphrasing a bit. I am definitely a long way away from going about life with the fearlessness of a little child. Too many worries, too many fears. Gotta work on that.


Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

From The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as “The Little Flower”:

“I assure you that the good Lord is much kinder than you can imagine. He is satisfied with a glance, with a sigh of love… In regard to myself, I find it easy to practice perfection, because I have learned that the way to Jesus is through His Heart. Consider a small child who has vexed his mother by a display of bad temper or disobedience. If the child hides in a corner through fear of punishment, he feels that his mother will not forgive him. But if instead, he extends his little arms towards her and with a smile cries out: ‘Love, kiss me, mamma, I will not do it again,’ will not his mother press the little one to her heart with tenderness, and forget what the child has done? And yet, though she knows very well that her dear little one will misbehave again at the first opportunity, that means nothing if the child appeals to her heart. He will never be punished…” (my emphasis)

I have mentioned to my kids that God is much, much nicer than Mama. They didn’t look that impressed. “But is He much nicer than Daddy?” I assured them that yes, God is much nicer than Daddy. Now that is something.

I found a copy of Saint Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life on my parents’ bookshelf back in university. It floored me then and has rarely left my bedside since, which is highly amusing since it was written some four hundred years ago. It is uncanny how relevant his writing has been to my life, how specifically he writes about my particular struggles, how helpful his centuries-old advice has been. How could someone from the 16th century have had such a clear window to my modern soul?

Here is a section from chapter VIII, called Gentleness towards others and Remedies against Anger:

I mean, that when we feel stirred with anger, we ought to call upon God for help, like the Apostles, when they were tossed about with wind and storm, and He is sure to say, “Peace, be still.” But even here I would again warn you, that your very prayers against the angry feelings which urge you should be gentle, calm, and without vehemence. Remember this rule in whatever remedies against anger you may seek. Further, directly you are conscious of an angry act, atone for the fault by some speedy act of meekness towards the person who excited your anger. It is a sovereign cure for untruthfulness to unsay what you have falsely said at once on detecting yourself in falsehood; and so, too, it is a good remedy for anger to make immediate amends by some opposite act of meekness. There is an old saying, that fresh wounds are soonest closed.
– Introduction to a Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales

That particular bit of advice has (I’m sure) saved my children from being thrown out the window countless times. Lose temper. Yell. Pray. Calm down. Say sorry. Humbly ask for a hug. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m currently praying to cut out steps 1 and 2 (the losing temper and yelling part). The book isn’t particularly directed towards parents, but the road to becoming a better person is the same road to becoming a better parent.

Which is to say: I highly recommend this book. So do all sorts of other people, it seems. I can imagine that the 400-year old writing style might be a bit much for some people, but do give it a try if you’ve never read it before. I found a neat site where you can read the full book online, for free.

I spied this beautiful art book about Fra Angelico (1395-1455) on the clearance table at our local Chapters bookstore and couldn’t resist. Tonight we found ourselves with some extra time before bedtime (maybe that was on purpose) and the “three and up” group got a chance to leaf through the book together.



(If you look at the left carefully, you’ll see Adam and Eve having to leave the Garden of Eden, seemingly unrelated story from the Annunciation…)

We talked about Jesus’ wounds. We talked about angels. We talked about halos. We talked about the Annunciation – a theme that Fra Angelico painted multiple times. Our conversation bounced around from topic to topic, each topic inspired by the beauty of Fra Angelico’s work, who “never handled a brush without fervent prayer[note]“. When we were done, I closed the book and it went back on the shelf. Considering the sorry state of many of the books on the shelf, I think the fancy art book will be in for a surprise. But after the initial shock of being “loved” as only a three-year old can, I’m sure it’ll settle in fine. After all, not many fancy art books will get to bring kids in to the life of Jesus like it’ll be able to.

I found a site where you can leaf through the first few pages of the book. Not enough to do justice to all the great art that’s in it, but it gives you an idea.


Blessed Mother Teresa by Anna Bhushan

As a parent in the midst of the craziness of raising a family, I often find that I am in need of reinforcements. Fortunately, God puts them where and when I need them. I just have to pray that I recognize them for what they are. When I was younger, I came across a book of days called The Joy in Loving: A guide to daily living with Mother Teresa. In it, Jaya Chaliha and Edward Le Joly compiled 365 small pieces of Blessed Mother Teresa’s writings, one for each day of the year. Many years later, I haven’t tired of reading it, again and again.

In the face of difficulties, doubts and objections, trust in Him. He will not let you down. If God does not grant the means, that shows He does not want you to do that particular work. If He wants it done, He will give you the means. Therefore do not worry.
– entry for February 14

When I find myself getting increasingly distracted by stuff, or in need of some Splash of Cold Water Type of Perspective, the frank words of Blessed Mother Teresa are the perfect antidote. They stop me in my tracks and redirect me to what matters.

It is easy to smile at people outside your own home. It is so easy to take care of the people that you don’t know well. It is difficult to be thoughtful and kind and to smile and be loving to your own in the house day after day, especially when we are tired and in a bad temper or bad mood. We all have these moments and that is the time that Christ comes to us in a distressing disguise.
– entry for January 29

She reminds me time and time again that there are people who have been put in my life who need me, who need my love, who need my gentleness – that in caring for my family, I am caring for Jesus. I recently put up a small watercolour print of her near my computer where I work as a reminder to be gentle and kind. In the gentleness and kindness department, I need all the help I can get.

The fruit of silence is prayer,
the fruit of prayer is faith,
the fruit of faith is love,
the fruit of love is service,
the fruit of service is peace.

Lions are a big part of my family lore: one of the houses on the walk to Grandma’s house has two cement lion statues in the front, and we greet them each time we pass. Greet meaning roar. There’s nothing cuter than a toddler roaring their heart out at a cement lion. This winter we (read: I) have actually dug out the poor lions out from under a mountain of snow on a couple of occassions. (We sort of know the lions’ owners and were pretty sure they wouldn’t mind us liberating them from their icy prison.)

A book about Daniel came into someone’s radar and we began reading it at bedtime. The first few times we read the story, we couldn’t finish the book for the number of questions everyone had. To them, it was a new story… a super strange story. Crazy kings? Not allowed to pray? Thrown to the lions? To be EATEN? Where they bad lions? While the younger ones were more focused on the lion aspect of the the story, the older ones were thoughtful. They had never heard of the concept of not being allowed to pray. Understandably, praying was still a have to do rather than a got to do. (Unless it’s singing “Hail Mary” – that seems to still be a treat.)

“Why didn’t he just… not pray? Wasn’t he afraid of being eaten?”
“I guess he didn’t think he could not pray. Praying to God is just like talking to God. Can you imagine if someone told you that you weren’t allowed to talk to me?”
“That’s just silly.”
“Isn’t it? Do you think we would be brave enough to do what Daniel did?”
“Probably not.”
“Well, I guess that’s why we pray…”

I find myself thinking about prayer as a have to do rather than a got to do sometimes. Now I have two cement lions to remind me of this privilege that I too often take for granted. Two cement lions and a little one-year old who thinks cows roar. And pigs. And ducks. And sheep.

As we’re putting away Christmas things, I thought I would share two Christmas books that we enjoyed this year.

The Story of Christmas by Vivian French, illustrated by Jane Chapman. This book was a simple and sweet (yet accurate) telling of the Christmas story. It read really nicely without sacrificing any of the details of the story. I didn’t have to ad-lib at all. Here’s the part in the beginning with Gabriel and Mary, to give you an idea of what it’s like:

At first Mary was frightened, but Gabriel told her not to be afraid. “God sent me, he said. “God has chosen you to be the mother of His baby. His name will be Jesus.”
Mary smiled. “I’m happy to do whatever God wants,” she said.

I’m happy to do whatever God wants. Isn’t that a great way of simplifying “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it to me according to your word”?

The Little Drummer Boy, illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. The classic song with really expressive illustrations. Complete with the score. Can’t tell you how many times we sang this song over the holidays.

There’s just nothing quite like a real, live pregnancy for promoting the Civilization of Love* with your little ones. But a book that “chronicles the nine months between conception and birth” with amazing photographs by Lennart Nilsson is pretty good, too. We found a second-hand copy of Being Born online, and it continues to be one of the favourites at our house.

*Civilization of Love: described here by Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Families.

But far richer and more complete is the concept of love illustrated by Saint Paul. The hymn to love in the First Letter to the Corinthians remains the Magna Charta of the civilization of love. In this concept, what is important is not so much individual actions (whether selfish or altruistic), so much as the radical acceptance of the understanding of man as a person who “finds himself” by making a sincere gift of self. A gift is, obviously, “for others”: this is the most important dimension of the civilization of love.

I admit it. I’m a snob. I tend to assume that nothing good can come out of glittery, pink, princess-obsessed paraphernelia. I try to weasel my way out of reading anything from a particularly pink volume we have that has all the Disney princesses on the cover. A few weeks ago, I relented.

“Probably nobody gave the Beast time-outs when he was young. He just never learned how to be good.”

This from one of my kids after we finished reading Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Ya just can’t judge a book by its pink and frilly cover.

We recently got our hands on a second-hand copy of the grade two book of the Faith and Life Series, Jesus Our Life. The Faith and Life Series is a popular religious education series for grades one to eight. More about it here.

I sat down to read it with my six-year old and three-year old. The first line of the first chapter is “Do you know who God is?” My three-year old scrunched herself into a ball and made fists with a look that said, “Oooh this is going to be GOOD!” As I read each line the book offered about God, both children were glued to me, eyes wide open. They even convinced me to do the end-of-chapter questions.

I never would have guessed that reading an old textbook would be so exciting, but I guess someone in junior kindergarten and grade one don’t have the same baggage adults have about school. Or about God.

This series of books is used by many homeschoolers and, although I’m not homeschooling, I’m thinking that it might be neat to go through the texts in parallel to what they might be learning at school and at the parish.

PARISH NEWS!
With the end of the summer, the Time With God Children’s Program will be back in session during the 10am Mass. It is available for children in JK to grade three.

bread

Baked by Daddy and his helpers

It took me a while to wrap my mind around this one: allowing my children to help me with household chores is an act of generosity.

My husband is usually the one in the kitchen with two little kids, perched on chairs and soaking wet, “doing the dishes”. Or with a child covered in flour “making bread”. I struggle with giving them a chance to be involved.

“Can I pour myself water?”
“No, I’ll do it.”

“Can I mix the tuna salad for you?”
“No, it’ll make a mess.”

“Can I help you clean the toilet?”
“NO! I mean, no. No, thank you. Not the toilet.”

In his book, Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, David Isaacs describes a different kind of generosity: sacrificing efficiency and peace in order to let my children take risks, try things out, make a mess.

I’m getting better. Just today, I remembered to let my three-year-old perch herself on a chair to sort the clean cutlery into the drawer. I could hear her chanting to herself “…big spoon, big spoon, small spoon, knife, fork, fork…” The six-year-old was scraping food bits into the garbage and handing me plates to load into the dishwasher. They must have done this before because they weren’t that bad… probably with my husband.

There is a revolving door for good books in my life these days. Just recently, a wise person lent me The Temperament God Gave You: The Classic Key to Knowing Yourself, Getting Along with Others, and Growing Closer to the Lord by Art and Laraine Bennett. The authors propose that people can be (very roughly) classified into four temperaments (or combinations of those four). My husband and I persevered and did the long quiz at the back to find out many things that we already know, and a few surprises that really shed light on a few challenges that I’ve been having with parenting. Apparently some of my children and I are different. (Yes, folks, she CAN be taught.) For example, they may not be as motiviated by a challenge as I am and may even shrink away from it naturally. Nothing motivates me like a pressing deadline, while pressing deadlines simply paralyzes one of my kids.

The neatest thing about this book is that it offers many concrete ideas of helping little people on their journey of faith — ideas on how to lead each temperament closer to God. Each child will have their unique challenges and motivations and I need to open my eyes and really get to know what makes each of them tick.

Retro Bible story books

Retro Windfall
We recently received a pile of Bible story books a foot high (the pile, not the books). Good friends were cleaning out their basement and found these books, which were well-read favourites back in the day. The illustrations are definitely retro, but what struck me was how well written they are. Perfect for reading, I don’t find that I have to adlib half the story to make it clear. I’ve placed the stack in a conspicuous place and find little people sitting quietly looking at the pictures once in a while. Definitely a good purchase if you see these in a garage sale or on Craigslist.

Babies and Bibles
Before this, all we had in the children’s Bible department was a large cartoony board book. Each story was reduced to a four line rhyming verse. The thing about verse is that sometimes it sacrifices clarity for rhyme. Every page had bunnies. I didn’t know bunnies were indigenous to the Middle East. In any case, it was good for our purposes at the time: it’s good to have one that can be gnawed on by a one year old. Introduction to scripture? Check. Teething toy? Check.

St. Clement Children Library
At St. Clements, kids can borrow a few books to read during Mass. The bin is usually located right when you come in and is filled with good books for all ages.

What is this?

Here a volunteer parishoner at St. Clement shares her personal experiences as her young family tries to keep the Catholic faith alive in their homes, living out the promises of their Baptism. Thank you for stopping in and be sure to share some of your stories as well!

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