Doing the Most With and For the Least This Christmas

I considered whether this post didn’t belong in November, the month in which Catholics traditionally remember the poor souls in Purgatory. Is a reflection on conversion, sacrifice, and the last things too melancholy for the pre-Christmas season?

But “pre-Christmas” isn’t really a season. A marketing device maybe, but not a true season and definitely not a liturgical season. The more I thought, the more I became convinced that Advent is a perfect time to meditate on sin and conversion.

  • Isn’t the Christmas season, despite its joy, a time when many experience sadness and longing for Christmases past and suffer anew the loss of those they loved?

  • What better preparation is there for Christmas than conversion of heart?

My brief visit to our hometown at Thanksgiving played like a succession of soft, if persistent, calls to a more profound prayer, sacrifice, and conversion on my part.

The pump was primed, so to speak, by what I’d been reading. I’d finally begun a remarkable little prayer book offered to me months ago for my review: St. Faustina Prayer Book for the Conversion of Sinners by Susan Tassone (aka “The Purgatory Lady.”)

I’d simultaneously been reading and critiquing a manuscript by my friend and fellow author Theresa Linden. Tortured Soul, which I can’t wait to see published, is a supernatural thriller, which deftly – and very creepily! – brings to life the plight of the poor souls in Purgatory. Especially those who have no one to pray for them.

As I shuffled through my mother’s recently vacated, nearly empty home, gazing at the remnants of a fifty-year marriage, four children, grandchildren, and decades more of life, I uncovered tangible reminders of a soul’s worth.

Family photos of my mother and father with her eight siblings (two were already deceased) and their spouses. My mother alone is still with us.

A rickety night stand drawer with banded stacks of memorial cards marking the entrance to eternal life of dozens of my dad’s family and friends. A necrology in blue pen on yellow legal paper of celebrities and movie stars from my dad’s youth. Tucked in my mother’s dresser drawer, a list of the family members she’d faithfully, annually enrolled in the Miraculous Medal Association. On her desk, envelopes marked remembering her husband, my dad, in perpetual Masses.

Veterans Cemetery

While we were in town, we took our children to the cemeteries to visit family members’ graves. Under gray November skies, no flowers decorated the graves. Only dead leave skittered in the wind, collecting in front of the headstones.

This is our end. Ours and everyone we love. Everyone we despise.

Death is a great equalizer.

We prayed for our family members, and my daughter, who had visited our parish cemetery with her classmates the week before, recited a traditional prayer for souls:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And may perpetual light shine upon them. And may all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God,  rest in peace. Amen.

And then our son surprised us by repeating it, in Latin. (So maybe the staggering tuition bills for Catholic school are worth it.)

I’m convinced that though this may be the most financially-strained Christmas I’ve experienced, I am rich with treasures I can give.

  • What better way is there to remember our loved ones than by praying for them?

  • What greater kindness can we offer the stranger, those living and deceased, than to pray for them?

  • When has our culture, ravaged by violence, predation, hate, immorality, and cynicism, so desperately needed our prayers and sacrifices?

Even my easy, comfortable life is ripe with opportunities for simple prayer and sacrifice. I have here, on my desk, a printout of all of those killed by sniper fire in Las Vegas in October. A little photo and a little obituary. Every person and every grieving loved one left behind an opportunity.

When I ignore the urge to check my cellphone, stay in the slow lane, listen through the song I don’t like, or smile through a child’s ramblings, I can do good.

When I reject a handful of pretzels, keep a snide remark to myself, or squeeze in a decade of the Rosary rather than mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, I can do good. God can take those little things united to Jesus’s sacrifice and do something great with them.

For my own soul, I hope. For the conversion of my family. For the souls of loved ones who have gone before me. And for those in most need of my prayers.

I can’t cover that with tinsel or top it with a red bow. It’s not easily wrapped, doesn’t jingle, and won’t fit in a stocking.

But I’m pretty certain its value exceeds whatever any one of us will find under our tree Christmas morning.


Under the Catholic Child’s Christmas Tree: A Book-Giving Guide

Child Xmas Book GuideDuring Advent, the Christmas books are slipped off of the shelves for bedtime reading. Our hodgepodge collection includes Christian and secular Christmas stories, old and new. Some are cheap Scholastic books about characters who are little more than a cog in the marketing machine. (Those, I try to avoid.) Others are classics we relish every year.

We also give each child a book as part of their Christmas gift. As the kids grow older, the books grow longer, and I’m more frequently looking for selections from my fellow authors at Catholic Teen Books.

Here are some ideas that I hope will find a spot under the Christmas tree of a child you love.

Little Lamb Finds ChristmasLittle Lamb Finds Christmas by Cathy Gilmore

The Nativity written from a lowly animal’s perspective is not unique (see The Christmas Mouse below.) But instead of the cutesy rendering normally found in such a book, Little Lamb Finds Christmas has more than a touch of realism: an accurate description of a manger, stinky animals, and illustrations picturing the Holy Family not as Caucasians, but closer in features and skin tone to how they likely appeared. A refreshing take on the Christmas story. (Picture book.)

7 Riddles to Nowhere

Seven Riddles to Nowhere by A.J. Cattapan

This is the kind of book I imagine a kid unwrapping  Christmas morning and then devouring over the course of a lazy Christmas Day by the light of the Christmas tree. With a series of riddles to solve, kids will find this difficult to put down. (Middle grade chapter book.)

The Other Side of ChristmasThe Other Side of Christmas by Beth Gully

Hands down this is the most unique Christmas book I’ve read! The Other Side of Christmas is an ambigram book. Read the contemporary story of Christmas, then FLIP IT UPSIDE DOWN and read the biblical message of the holiday. Kids and adults alike will marvel at the author’s creativity on each and every page. (Picture book fun for all ages.)

Roland West, LonerRoland West, Loner by Theresa Linden

A terrific introduction to Theresa Linden’s books for Catholic teens! No reader can resist shy but earnest Roland, bullied by his brothers and alienated from his peers. Readers will relish his story as  he forges friendships both in his new school and beyond. (For middle schoolers and teens.)

Saint AnastasiaThe Forgotten Christmas Saint: Saint Anastasia by Susan Peek

Long-overlooked patroness of martyrs Saint Anastasia gets center stage in the story of her life and death, including her friendship with Saint Theodota. Her story, delivered in a conversational tone, presents both her suffering and miraculous survival. (Illustrated story for early elementary-aged children and littler ones with good attention spans.)

Rosa, Sola by Carmela Martino

Rosa, Sola by Carmela Martino

A tender story of hope, loss, and family life. The mid-20th century setting in a large Italian-American Chicago family grounds the story in the reality that life is filled with heartbreak but also enduring love. Poignant and memorable.  (For middle grade readers and middle schoolers.)Finding Patience

Adventures of Faith, Hope, and Charity: Finding Patience by Virginia Lieto

An attractive story that will help children understand the virtue of patience – not just the short-term “wait until I’m done” patience, but the long-term, “God hears and answers our prayers in His time, not ours” patience. Includes a delightful twist that will leave you smiling (Picture book.)

Little StarLittle Star by Anthony DeStefano

We’ve had anthropomorphic animals at the Nativity, now a star! The story, with warm, Christmasy illustrations, depicts the Christ child’s humble birth from the perspective of the Star of the East (which may also sit atop your Christmas tree). Even more interesting, the star goes supernova! (Picture book.)

The Christmas MouseThe Christmas Mouse by Stephanie Jeffs 

A mouse goes on an adventure via a boot and a book, finding himself transported to the night of Christ’s birth. He becomes a witness to the Nativity, glorying in the Messiah’s birth. (Picture book with a  lot of text. May not hold the youngest children’s attention.)

Joy to the World

Joy to the World: Christmas Stories and Songs by Tomie dePaola

This treasury makes a lovely gift! It includes several Christmas carols as well as three of Tomie de Paola’s Christmas books: The Night of Las Posadas, The Story of the Three Wise Kings, and The Legend of the Poinsettia (my personal favorite). If you’ve never read Tomie de Paola’s books, now is the time to start! (Picture books.)

Molly McBride and the Plaid Jumper

Molly McBride and the Plaid Jumper by Jean Schoonover-Egolf

Lovely illustrations accompany the sweet, sometimes humorous story of Molly McBride as she overcomes her kindergarten apprehension – from meeting new friends to donning that plaid jumper. Chock full of simple lessons, this is a great read aloud. Teaches children the role of uniforms and the importance of what we wear, the nature of priesthood, and the overriding lesson of God’s unconditional love for us. (Picture book.)

(Yes, I know that’s ELEVEN, but I accidentally included eleven in my other Christmas shopping guide, and I like to be consistent. ;-))

Photo credit: Gareth Harper


An Open Book

An Open Book CatholicMom

Welcome to the December 2017 edition of An Open Book, hosted both at My Scribbler’s Heart AND!

Rise of the Fourth ReichDuring our Thanksgiving travels across Pennsylvania, my husband began listening to The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Secret Societies That Threaten to Take Over America by Jim Marrs. I confess to only half listening in the car, but I know that the book traces the legacies of the high-ranking European Nazis who made their way to corporate America at the end of World War II.

Making RoomI just finished reading Billie Jauss’s soon-to-be-released book Making Room: Doing Less So God Can Do More (available for pre-order). I first met Billie through 10 Minute Novelists and was blessed to meet her in person a couple of years ago at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. (Her husband, Dave, is a coach.) Making Room recounts her spiritual journey from a busy life filled with her own priorities to an intentional life with God at the center. The author’s pitfalls and suggestions for overcoming them will resonate with women who want more from their relationship with Christ, but can’t seem to order their lives to make that happen.

The Christmas TrainAfter seeing approximately 1,594 previews for The Christmas Train movie on the Hallmark Channel, I stumbled across the audiobook on Hoopla. The more audiobooks I listen to, the pickier I’ve become about narration. So far, actor Tim Matheson’s narration of The Christmas Train by David Baldacci has been excellent! I’m only a few chapters in and a few anachronistic details threw me off course, but so far, so good. I’m in Christmas reading mode and looking forward to the remainder of the book.

God's FavoriteMy son read the Book of Job and God’s Favorite by Neil Simon during our Thanksgiving travels. As you might guess, since the author is Neil Simon, God’s Favorite is a  play, and it’s a modern look at Job. It’s short, and, my son said, very funny. Adding it to my to-read list.

Destination BethlehemMy fourth-grade daughter is reading a book I originally bought for her brother and read aloud. Destination Bethlehem by Shannon R. Altman and Christine M. Winkelman makes perfect Advent reading.  Two boys travel from Palestine to Bethlehem at the time of the Messiah’s birth. Its twenty-four chapters can be read one a day during the month of December in anticipation of Christmas.

Plain GirlPlain Girl by Virginia Sorensen became another Thanksgiving travel read. I guess the title should have tipped me off, but with only a desk on the cover of the library version my daughter borrowed, I didn’t realize the book was about plain folk. The premise is an Amish girl, Esther, attending a public school.

Poppleton in WinterMy kindergartener is going through easy reader books quicker than I can keep up with!  While at the library this week, I introduced her to Poppleton in Winter by Cynthia Rylant. The simple, humorous stories feature a pig (Poppleton) and his friends Cherry Sue (a llama) and Hudson (a mouse). I highly recommend Poppleton for beginning readers.

The Promise QuiltMy  youngest child brought home The Promise Quilt by Candice F. Ransom from a blanket-themed story time.  This sad, but ultimately hopeful, story centers around a Civil War era girl whose father dies in battle. The red shirt he left behind becomes the family’s means of achieving the dreams he had for them. Touching.

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Catholic Christmas Book-Giving Guide: Ten Picks for Your Holiday Shopping

Xmas Book Giving Guide
I perused the books I’ve read this year and have come up with ten that would make excellent Christmas gifts!

Six are fiction, and four are nonfiction, because fiction is my favorite (and I make no apology for that).

I noted whether a book would be best for a particular age or gender. The novels, written by Catholic authors,  would appeal to most anyone – whether of strong or little faith, Catholic or otherwise. The nonfiction books would appeal most to Catholics who practice their faith, at least to some degree. Continue reading

Digging Deeper, Growing in Virtue Through Fiction

Contemporary authors, particularly independently-published authors or ones published by small presses, face seemingly unlimited obstacles to finding readers for their books.

Some are as simple and as critical as quality. Some fall under personal taste or prejudice. Readers have many valid reasons for rejecting a book.

For authors, it is a multifaceted  problem including everything from marketing to the widespread availability of free entertainment.

Writers in my Catholic fiction niche have additional obstacles. The secularization of society, the predominance of Evangelical Christianity in American publishing, the hunger for Catholic catechesis following what author Mara Faro calls “the Felt Banner Years,” and, finally, what I’ll call the Tolkein/O’Connor factor. (The belief that everything contemporary falls short of these Catholic literary greats and is therefore not worth reading.) Continue reading