Book Review: Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life by Julie Davis

Julie Davis sent me a preview copy of her new book, Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life, and I am very thankful to have read it. I’m mildly abashed to find myself in it, but I’ll take it.

What is this book?

When people talk about “having a relationship with Jesus” other people are left a tad lost.  A friend had a relative who’d just turned to God for the first time in the midst of a serious end-of-life crisis, but now what?  How do you help someone who’s ignored God for a lifetime to even know how to pray?  I recommended this book.

Starting with “Beginning to Pray” as the zero point, Julie walks the reader from I’ve-got-nothing all the way into the depths of the Christian life.  Each page has a quote from Julie’s epic quote journal, and then her reflection on what we weak-kneed penitents might do with that idea.  You can see sample pages on Amazon to get the idea.

Who would like this book?

Because it is such a true and grounded and approachable way to learn, or re-learn, to relate to God, I’d consider it a go-to for most new Christians.

As someone who knows and practices a whole pile of Catholicism, but often poorly, I found it helpful to start from the beginning and pray through the book a bit at a time.

I suppose the answer is: Are you ready to hit the reset button on your practice of the faith? Here it is.

Is it true Julie lets just about anybody into her quote journal?

Yeah, I think so.  She seems to follow the Adam’s Ale “Finding the Truth Wherever it May be Found” rule.

In contrast to her first book of quotes from films and other pop-culture sources, which I recommend for different reasons, this one is a collection of quotes from spiritual writers.  The contributors include some ordinary people like me, some super-big names from all the centuries, and a fair bit of God Himself.   It’s just whatever she’s read and found helpful, so there will be runs of this or that author.

The book doesn’t attempt to be a representative tour of the Greatest Hits of All Time; rather, it’s a tour of the human soul, and the quotes are ones that shine a light on this or that experience common to most ordinary Jesus-seeking Christians.

I’m quite certain, giving my presence there, that to be quoted is not an endorsement of every single thing a given author ever wrote (God excepted), it just means she found that particular quote helpful in some way.

Two Final Fun Things:

#1: Fellow Conspirator Will Duquette’s review of Seeking Jesus in Everday Life is here.

#2: My favorite quote from the book, from Fr. James Libone and stuck in my head since the moment I read it:

“Everyone wants the key to finding God.  But there is no lock!”

Cover art courtesy of Niggle Publishing.

Learning to Appreciate the Big Things in Life

So the reason I vanished from the internet like I’d been kidnapped in broad daylight is that I had to quick plan a massive trip to Europe.  (I know!)  A different day, I will write more about the how-to’s of pulling off that feat; for now just know that yes, it consumed my every free minute from the moment the opportunity opened up until the transport, lodging, and insurance were firmly established.

You understand, because you, too, have something you want to do that, if you were suddenly given the chance, you’d drop everything and make it happen.  I want to talk about what it takes to make that thing happen for you.

The One Big Thing

I think “bucket lists” are nonsense.  Life isn’t like that.  My list of priorities looks like this:

  1. God.
  2. My vocation as a wife and mother.
  3. Everything else.

#1 and #2 are inseparably intertwined — doing one means doing the other, always.  #3 is composed of all the other things that might be important, but that when push comes to shove you can pout all you want, I’m not available to do that thing you think I should be doing, if it interferes with #1 and #2.

Still, there’s a pile of good stuff behind door #3, including a long list of, “It would sure be nice if . . .” items.  It would sure be nice to have a bigger, prettier house.  It would sure be nice to visit New England.  It would sure be nice to take the kids to Mount Vernon (God-willing, that’s next summer).  The One Big Thing also sits behind door #3, but in a different corner of the Everything Else room.

We have a friend whose One Big Thing was to invest in a large, well-appointed home for his eventual wife and children.  It was so important to him that he started saving up for that house while he was still in college.   It’s not that he would have felt like he’d failed in life, or “missed out,” or that his happiness depended on having that house.  It was just important enough to him that he was willing to sacrifice a lot of other good things in order to make it happen if he could.  (And he did.)

You have some things like that.  Things that maybe are achievable or maybe they aren’t, but if you do get the chance, you’d be willing to set aside a lot of other good stuff in order to make your One Big Thing happen.

The Things We Set Aside

So I’ve been thinking about taking my kids on this trip since I was sixteen years old.

(Yes, that’s right: I wasn’t dating anybody, I hadn’t yet met the man I’d eventually marry, it would be another decade before the first child was even born.  I was sixteen years old and walking along a misty tree-lined alley leading up to a historic French chateau, and I knew that one day I wanted to share that moment’s experience with my future children.)

Everybody has a different financial picture, so this isn’t a talk about how if you just do what I do you can have your big thing.  But I want to make it clear that there’s a long list of good, worthwhile things we’re forgoing to make the One Big Thing happen.  On that list:

  • All superfluous purchases.  I was going to bring home flowers for Valentine’s day, but I need that $2.99 to be in the bank this summer.
  • A laptop that works.  My trusty Surface Pro has given it up, and thus one of the reasons I don’t write as much lately is that I don’t have a computer I can take to another room when the family’s all home, and I do have to jockey for time on the shared machines.  So basically I’ve made the decision that something I really love, writing, is just not going to happen as much as I’d like, for a while.
  • A new-used car.  Our minivan has 170,000 miles on it.  The doors either don’t lock or don’t open or sometimes both.  The paint job is Green and Black Cheetah because we’ve filled in with primer where the original finish is rusting out.  There is no interior carpet anymore, just bare metal with strategically-placed rubber mats.  We’d been planning to upgrade to something conceived this millennium, but my mechanical engineer tells me we can get that baby to 200K, no problem.  So that’s what we’ll be doing.
  • Living room furniture.  When we updated the circa-1985 paint in the living room and hallways this Christmas, we donated our couch and recliner, from the same era and in the same general condition, to other worthy recipients.  What’s there instead?  Lawn chairs.  Really nice ones, yes: They’re the ones we got from Lowe’s on clearance and had previously been using to kit the screen porch.  They just got promoted to a full-time, permanent gig as Chief Living Room Furniture.
  • More house space.  Eventually that minivan is going to need to be replaced.  Good thing we just painted, because this family of six is going to be squeezed into the three-bedroom ranch for a long time to come.

I mention that last one not because it’s a big deal (I know larger families living in smaller houses), but because to a lot of people, a spacious home is their One Big Thing.

You just have to know yourself and know what trade-offs fit the kind of person you are.  No matter how rich you are, you can’t have everything you’re able to want.  We all have to prioritize, and give up some good things in order to have other good things that are more important to us.

Seizing the Day

I’m not omnipotent nor omniscient, and neither are you.  There’s no telling what will happen between now and the end of June.  Perhaps our plans all come to naught.  One of the ways you know you’ve hit your One Big Thing is because you can honestly say to yourself: Even if this doesn’t work out, I have to try it, because I will always regret not having taken my chance when it came.

[Tip: If you are making a significant financial investment in anything, get that investment insured.  You can insure a house, a car, a boat, a musical instrument, and yes, even a trip.]

In our case, what happened is that we were thinking about taking a much more reasonable, but still-ambitious, stateside family trip.  That was another thing we’ve always wanted to do and here we were: The kids were at the ideal age, my health was finally decent again, there was a slot when we could take the time off and make it happen.

So we talked about a variety of other, much more sane choices.  Then one day I came to my senses.  I told my husband: I would rather not go anywhere this summer, and save up for as long as it takes to make my One Big Thing happen.

And he briefly set aside all reason and scruples and determined that he really, really loves me, and that maybe we should talk about this.  I pointed out that I’ve been talking about doing this trip since as long as he’s known me, and also there has not been a single time in the past decade when I was physically able to make it happen.  Our son graduates high school next year.  If I wanted to do it, now was literally the only time.

So I did it.  Trip is booked.

File:1138357639 3c5c483074 o Haut Koenigsbourg CC by Fr Antunes.jpg

This is where we’re going.  Photo by Fr_Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. And no I won’t be live-blogging it, because: I don’t have a working laptop.  That’s fine.  My One Big Thing wasn’t “taking the internet on this trip,” it was, “taking my kids on this trip.”  I don’t recall ever giving birth to a computer, thanks.

On Prayer and Coloring: At Play in God’s Creation

Cover Art courtesy of Franciscan Media. Click through to go to the ordering page.

I accepted a review copy of At Play in God’s Creation because I wanted a coloring book.  That’s my real reason.  I’m going to talk about some controversial topics, but here’s a two-sentence review for those who are short on time:

  1. I love this book.
  2. Sr. Patricia would also love this book.

When Sr. Patricia and I are having a meeting of the minds? That tells you we’re in some heady waters indeed.

What’s in this book?

At Play in God’s Creation is an adult coloring book with a prayerful twist to it.  Amid the pictures, there are quotes from mystics and prayer-questions.  I’ve scanned a few portions of pages of my work-to-date so you can get a feel for what kinds of quotes and pictures we’ve got, see below.  There are a couple pages of suggestions for how to pray-while-you-color at the opening of the book.

Is it namby-pamby wishy-washy 1970’s nonsense?

Ha.  That’s the question of the day.  Here’s a nice short article from Catholic Stand, “Christian Mysticism and Its Counterfeit,” that lays out the problem.

My reading of the text of the coloring book is that it stays within the bounds of Catholic thought.  There are references to “finding your center,” which can be dicey, and there are plenty of Gather-hymnal word choices and grammatical devices.  So the book is operating at the hairy edge of the narrow road, yes — but I don’t think the author goes over the cliff.  If you are reading the text with a well-catechized Catholic lens, and you’ve waded through authors like Bl. Julian of Norwich and come to shore edified, it works.

Likewise, if you were drawn to the book because you do color but you don’t pray and don’t know a thing about prayer and this is your first baby step into some kind of spiritual life, I think it could be a comfortable starting point rather than a hindrance to more formal and informed Catholic prayer as you moved forward.

Also, the author of the text reminds you not to pass judgement on the thoughts that enter your mind as you’re prayerfully coloring, so when you get to this page and think to yourself, “One of these flowers is a ninja throwing star!” that’s okay.  No judging, guys.

ninja-star-flower

Is Coloring Praying?

Coloring could be helpful just because it is good for a busy person to quiet down and do something calm and relaxing for a change.

I think this is a bit like the old joke about smoking-while-you-pray vs. praying-while-you-smoke.  I advise you not to smoke, but I can attest from my proto-hipster days that actually, yes, a moonlit night, silence, and a decent cigar make for good spontaneous prayer, if you’re so inclined.  But that sort of prayer is not the same thing as praying the Rosary or the Divine Office or the Mass for serious.  It’s not the same thing as actually carrying out Ignatian Exercises with your whole heart and mind focused on prayer.  It’s a good thing, and you should try it frequently — not smoking, but spontaneous prayer as you are engaged in quiet activity — but you’re cheating yourself if you never go deeper.

Still, we aren’t tube worms.  We don’t live in the depths all the time.  When we’re trolling the shallow waters of ordinary activity, we don’t therefore stuff our souls in the closet. It is in fact good, wholesome prayerful activity to take a little R&R by coloring a Celtic knot while letting your mind range over a St. John of the Cross quote, and your life, and how the two intersect.

"Where there is no love, put love -- and then you will find love."

Why Does Jen Like the Book?

Here’s a page I work on when I’m sitting in the car waiting for a teenager to come out after volleyball practice:

labrynth

Come on guys, color my hopes?  My hope is that said child will notice I’ve shown up before I have to reach for the bridge-of-the-support and phone her to let her know someone’s waiting, thanks.   Not every single phrase and picture in this book is a perfect match for me personally; I trust that there is someone out there who needs and will benefit from a cute version of the Four Creatures of the Apocalypse, and that we two must share an artist.

But hey, here’s an impending bloody-shipwreck . . .

ship

. . . and on the facing page when you make it to fair land, there’s a not-friendly dragon reared up ready to scorch you.

dragon

I like this book because I get the ordinary benefits of coloring (relaxation, art-for-non-artists, etc.) combined with a keen sensitivity to the reality of spiritual struggle.  Not every single prayer-prompt in the text is my cup of tea, but most of them have their moments when they are spot-on.

Verdict: If this is the kind of book you would like, you will like it.

***

Related:  I got this lovely Christmas card from someone at Ave Maria press, featuring artwork from Daniel Mitsui’s adult coloring book The Mysteries of the Rosary.  That might better suit the taste of some of my readers.  (Hey, Ave! – I will totally review that coloring book if you mail it to me.)

Related to Related: But why am I on someone at Ave Maria’s mailing list?! Oh, that’s right, there’s this book! Today’s the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and if you want to know my fit-for-print thoughts on that topic, and a few others, get the book.

Funny Story: There was some brouhaha a little bit ago that I decline to link to, in which a group of ostensibly-Catholic women were recording themselves preaching on the Gospels, with the goal of proving that hey! Girls can read the Bible and talk about it too!  Put a cassock on it!

And I was like, No duh. CatholicMom.com does have some male voices on the Gospel Reflection Team roster, but the group is definitely mom-heavy, as we’d expect.

But you know what’s really super cool, and has nothing to do with boys and girls and everything to do with the grace of God?  Showing up at Mass and your pastor preaches a sermon, and you’re like, “Yeah.  That’s way better than anything I would have said.”  Coloring book or no coloring book, pray for your priests.

Movies for Grown-Ups: Room

People will tell you that this or that deplorable book or show or song requires depraved content in order to explore “mature” themes.

So here’s a tip: Watch the film Room.  (Wikipedia has the full plot synopsis here.)  It’s the story of a teenage girl whose kidnapper keeps her in a storage shed for years, and visits nightly to rape her.  We meet her as the twenty-something mother of a five-year-old son, still locked in that shed and now raising her child in captivity.  Movie topics don’t get a whole lot darker than that.

Do not watch this film when your little kids are home.  (Do watch it with your teenagers – parental guidance required).

But guess what?  In the hands of a good director, you can swim deep into some very nasty, brutal crimes without anything of the gratuitous voyeurism that so many lazy producers lather on like cupcake frosting.   You can have your (plot-essential) rape scene without actually having to watch someone get raped.  You can show terror, desperation, and suicidal depression without morbid violence. The very light touch on the use of foul language is a textbook case study in when and how such words might properly belong in a script.

***

In addition to being a study in How to Handle Extremely Dark Topics, the film is also, as any good film should be, about the true, beautiful and good.  If you are a writer, you should watch this film for its genius use of the breadth of the English language.  For any human, the very last lines of the film are stunning in their ability to sum up one of the greatest struggles of the human heart with piercing simplicity.

FYI – It was streaming for free on Amazon Prime when we watched it.

Room Poster.jpg

Film poster via Wikimedia, used per fair use guidelines.

Six Things I Needed to Hear – In the Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion

So this is what it’s like to be a devotional-writer:

I got home from Portland in the middle of the night East Coast time, wide awake because {Coffee + Jet Lag}.  But look! Things came in the mail for me!  No need to be bored.

Box #1 was a stack of these: The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion. It’s a collection of reusable devotionals for every day of the year, contributed by such a massive collection of Catholic writers that I think they were hard-pressed to find non-co-authors left for the endorsements.  (But they did find a few.)

So I got a beer and flipped through to find my entries, just to see what they looked like and all that.  One gets self-absorbed late at night.  There’s not an index-by-author, so I had to do a combination of trying to remember what days I wrote on and just flipping through.  Three lessons I learned:

1. Goodness gracious I can’t believe who else is in there!  A lot of the co-authors are people I know from the Catholic writing community, some of them famous, some of them up-and-coming.  At the risk of sounding cliche, when you’ve actually met and worked with so many interesting and talented and devoted Catholics? It’s a tremendous honor to be sharing a book with them.

(My favorite part of being involved with the Catholic Writers Guild?  Finding out who the new talent is before the rest of the world gets in on the secret.)

2. Editors are your friend.  When I wrote this post at Patheos, I was in the middle of overhauling a couple of my submissions for this book.  So let’s cut to the chase: We are all very, very glad that my first attempts at the feasts of St. Mary Magdalene and of the Immaculate Conception did not make it into the book.  The revised versions are far better.

3.  I have a predictable soul.  I think I found all my entries (Six? Did I count right?), and there was a consistent theme: The same things I was writing about a year ago are the things I needed to hear just this week.

–> Shout out to my brother-in-law: Why yes, I did get to be the person who wrote on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.  I was stoked. But reader, if you want to know what I’ve been particularly thinking about the past two days, take a look at what I had to say on the feast of St. Rita.

Contents of Box #2 to be revealed in the next post.

1-59471-661-7
Cover art courtesy of CatholicMom.com and Ave Maria Press.

Culture, Evangelization, and a Free E-Book: Getting Along with Traditionalists

In a conversation on a private forum, the topic of culture and evangelization came up.  The discussion question was whether the concept of “Engaging the Culture” is relevant in a society as diverse as our own.  Can we even say that there exists “a culture” to engage?

Excerpts from my response:

I spent a year of my undergrad work in International Studies sitting in a classroom on another continent with a 100 classmates from around the world, all expats using a second language for their coursework. Did my thesis on a question of “cultural exports” in international trade. Since that time I’ve been living immersed in one of the most diverse and misunderstood American subcultures on this continent (to which I am bi-cultural, or probably more accurately quad-cultural), at a time of tremendous demographic change in the region where I live . . .

Trust me: There is an American Culture, there is a “Western” Culture, and there are myriad national cultures, ethnic cultures, religious cultures, and social-sub-cultures within all the different lumped-up mega-cultures.

Knowing where someone is “coming from,” by which I mean knowing all the forces that form and shape them, is very helpful in being able to connect with them. It doesn’t shortcut the process of listening and learning from the individual, but to the extent that you are fluent in the culture of the person you are evangelizing or discipling, you have way more ability to recognize and address unspoken needs and concerns, and way more ability to understand what the person is trying to say.

Being aware of cultural gulfs — even if you’re only aware that there is a possibility of one, but don’t know where it lies — is a great help in avoiding disastrous misunderstandings.

All that was one train of thought. For a nice book recommendation (not mine) concerning culture and thus indirectly the question of evangelization, see my review of The Culture Map over at New Evanglizers.

Then I concluded with a remark in the other direction, because you can really trip yourself up by leaning too heavily on cultural assumptions:

. . . interestingly, every single inter-personal disaster I have seen in church work over the past decade or so stemmed from watching one person assume all sorts of crazy things about another person based on the fact that the second person came from or identified with this or that ethnic or social sub-culture.

 

Which reminded me there was a book I’ve been meaning to write.  I hear so many times about how difficult is to get along with Traditionalists and other foreign-types.  I’m sure someone else has the Getting Along With People From Other Countries That Speak Spanish segment sufficiently covered, but what about the much more pervasive and feared Radical Traditionalist?  Not everything in a mantilla is a sweet little immigrant grandmother just doing her special immigrant customs, you know.  So I had to write a new book.

I thought it would fit on an index card, but it’s a little bit longer.  Here’s the galley of the first in the series, which is my free gift to you, my loyal readers:

How to Get Along with Traditionalists

Click the title-link to immediately download the PDF, no ads, no shopping cart, no mailing list.  It’s yours for the clicking.

Be sure to the check the last page for more titles in the series, because rad-trads aren’t the only dangerous beasts in parish life.

Enjoy!

File:President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II 1982.jpg
President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II, The Vatican, Rome, 1982. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia. Listening is important, because not every person in a mantilla is the spouse of the President of the United States, either.

How to Find Me

This is a quick note for people who land here and want to find the treasure-trove of interesting:

All my current writing (Catholic punditry, mostly) is going on at my Patheos blog, “Sticking the Corners”.

Here are the archives of my columns at:

I’m still holding down the 16th of the Month Gospel reflections at CatholicMom.com through the end of 2015, so look for those.  Or read them all in the 2015 devotional collection, which you can find by checking out my publications page.

***

I check my e-mail sporadically and don’t open anything that looks like spam, so if you write (see sidebar), make that subject line a good one.  Ditto friend requests on Facebook, if yours is languishing, it’s because I don’t know who you are, and either didn’t have time to check out your profile and determine we have something in common, or I checked out your profile and couldn’t tell you apart from Sir Spam-a-lot.

I am a hermit, I live in a cave, but I like people.  So don’t be shy, just be patient and forthcoming.

I’ve got a new book out! Me and thirty of my favorite co-authors, that is.

The general update on me is that I’m holding steady.  No particular news to report, and I’m still keeping up the torrent of punditry at Patheos.

But look .  . I accidentally went and got published again!  Here’s the scoop:

Now out from CatholicMom.com: As Morning Breaks, Daily Gospel Reflections.  It’s available as a Kindle book (very affordable – $2.99), but FYI if you want to get this as a gift for someone, it’s not necessary to own a dedicated device in order to read it. Any PC, tablet, whatever, can read Kindle books, just download the free software from Amazon.

 

What’s in the book?  A reflection on the daily Gospel reading for every day of 2015.  This is from the team at CatholicMom.com, so if you’ve been reading those Gospel reflections online, it’s that.  You can preview the first month, which lets you get a taste of each contributor’s style and the kinds of ideas that will be coming your way each day.  If you just want to see my name in print, scroll down to the 16th.

Why is this book better than a bake sale?  Because you can support a good cause without your kids whining over who got the bigger brownie.  All the proceeds from the sale of the book go to help underwrite the cost of keeping CatholicMom.com up and running.  FYI if you weren’t aware, CatholicMom.com is basically the largest womens’ mag in the faithfully Catholic world, brought to you free everyday thanks to the contributions of dozens upon dozens of volunteers who give their time and labor to make it happen.

It’s the place where aspiring Catholic writers are incubated, and it’s the place where established Catholic writers who get paid for everything else they publish still turn up to contribute their work pro bono.

It’s a good cause, and you get more than your money’s worth for what you buy.  Check it out.

Cat Photos & Other Reputable Pursuits

A kitten found us, which means we can finally use the internet properly.

I persist, of course, in my incorrigible habit of crowding perfectly good bandwidth with religion, public policy, and other punditry.  My hope is that by wielding the cat as a feline shield, the internet police will be stymied in their efforts to purify the web of non-cat bloggers.

Like the Internet Except in 3-D

1. My screen porch.  YouTube viewing has plummeted now that we have our hyperactive dancing cat.

2. Midlands Homeschool Convention.  Of interest to southeasterners.  Huge regional event, piles of top notch speakers, and also me.  Catholic writers guild will have a table, and there’ll be a rocking “Look at the Book” display of Catholic textbooks & materials from all the major players, hosted by Catholic homeschoolers in SC.  Also free stuff and some drawings for prizes. The teepee in the corner, dear parents, is for your children.  You sit on the chairs.  July 24-26.

3. Catholic Writers Conference. Following week up in Chicago, smart people will be turning out at the writers’ wonderland that is the combination Catholic Writers Conference & Catholic Marketing Network’s trade show.  This is the place where all the publishers and vendors of Catholic trinkets (games, art, music, etc) turn out so the Catholic book & gift shops can stock up for the season.  Most interesting bit is seeing what famous internet Catholics look like when rendered in 3-D.

(I will be rendered in 2D for that one.  Visit the Liguori booth if you go, and you can see my book.  The me-traveling-to-Chicago part is not quite back on the program.)

Since last I wrote, Patheos has been fixing things, which means you have to go here to get the July archives.

June still copies and pastes nicely:

 

Enjoy!