Thursday, October 27, 2016

Weeds, Worries & Squeaky Boots: 3 Common Distractions in Prayer

Sometimes prayer makes me feel connected to God, peaceful and rejuvenated. At other times prayer leaves me more anxious than before, swamped with sadness and misgivings. My level of distraction is what makes all the difference. When I focus on God and the good things he has done for me, prayer time fills me up. When I focus on myself, there's no room for God to enter in.

I've encountered at least three big distractions in prayer. The first one is self-condemnation, the feeling that the garden of my life is filled with weeds instead of flowers. The second one is worries about the future, which edge perilously close to despair. The third one -- which particularly hits me in Mass -- is letting myself get annoyed at the people around me. Here are some ways I've found to overcome these common distractions that drain the energy from my prayer life.

1. Weeds: Self-Condemnation and Criticism

Many Type A people, myself included, are hyper-critical of themselves and others. The feeling that nothing is ever quite good enough is what drives them to succeed. But it also drives them and everyone around them absolutely bonkers.

Incessant self-analysis, particularly, when it concludes that we've fallen short yet again, can keep us away from God. Obsessing about our failures is ultimately obsessing about ourselves, never a good way to achieve growth in the spiritual life.

Sometimes we will do things well and sometimes we will do things poorly. But we can offer everything to our Lord. Picture our high-quality work as roses and our sub-standard work as weeds -- worth very little, especially in the eyes of the world, but still surprisingly beautiful. Children, after all, very often don't see any difference between flowers and weeds. When you feel you have failed, imagine that you are a little child offering a bouquet of weeds to God the Father. He will accept it with a smile.

2. Worries: A Dark and Stormy Future

The devil tempts us through our bleak imaginings about a distant (or not-so-distant) catastrophe in our future that we can neither prevent nor control. This is why Jesus urges us: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today" (Mt 6:34).

Worries and anxieties can become all-consuming, an ever-present soundtrack that leaches our energy with its draining negativity. But Jesus has promised to wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4) and take all our cares away. When worries swamp you, imagine them being nailed to the Cross with God the Son. He is strong enough to handle them.

3. Squeaky Boots: People Who Annoy Us

In C.S. Lewis' famous parody The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon gives advice to a junior demon on how best to tempt souls (whom he calls "patients") away from heaven. One letter includes the following nefarious counsel about distracting a Christian as he attempts to pray in church:

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. ... It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. ... Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
We can lump all of our neighbors' annoying idiosyncrasies under the label "squeaky boots." (Let's not use the label "double chins" or "odd clothes," since these labels might describe me more aptly than I'd like!)

As a musician, I am particularly sensitive to sounds that annoy me. At the top of the list are bad church music and out-of-tune singing. During Mass, I'm frequently subjected to both.

One day, I had to grit my teeth as a lady with a boomingly mannish voice belted out a monotone drone that bore no relation to the melody the rest of us were trying to sing. The deeply impressive power of her voice nearly drowned out the entire congregation altogether. I reminded myself fiercely, "Squeaky boots! Squeaky boots!" And it made me think that perhaps she was "a great warrior" on God's side, in the words of C.S. Lewis. So if someone annoys you, pay attention to the promptings of God the Holy Spirit, telling you that this person may actually be an ally, a great soldier in the army of God.

May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless you and keep you from distractions in prayer! And for tips on praying together as a family, check out chapter 11 of our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love. Free worksheets available here!

Image from Pixabay.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Marriage Rx: Should I Boycott My Brother's Non-Church Wedding?

Question: My brother has fallen away from the Church and is getting married to his girlfriend outside of the Catholic Church. I know the Catholic Church will not recognize their marriage as such, but what is my reaction to this supposed to be? I have heard that some Catholics do not recognize the marriage and continue to call the married couple girlfriend and boyfriend. I feel this is severe but what does the Church teach us to do? Also, is there a sensitive way to approach this subject to subject to explain what he is doing? - Bernadette

Answer: You're facing a problem that confronts many devout Catholics today. Data suggest that a significant percentage (perhaps even a majority) of Catholics are choosing to marry outside the Church. They may not know or even care that the marriage is considered invalid without a special dispensation (or permission) from their bishop.

The Church does not tell us exactly how to RSVP. Good Catholics are free to disagree on this issue, and they often do. You have several choices open to you.

1. Boycott the Wedding. Some Catholics will refuse to attend the wedding in order to send a clear signal that the couple is doing something wrong. This "tough love" tactic may get results, particularly if the boycotter is a parent who has an otherwise strong relationship with their child. We saw many couples in our pre-Cana program who chose to marry in the Church mainly because of family pressure. If the family relationship is weak, however, boycotting the wedding may fracture it irreparably.

2. Attend the Reception Only. Another option is to skip the ceremony but attend the reception. Believe it or not, some guests might bail on the ceremony and skip straight to the canapes anyway. You have a strong reason to stay away from the "I dos." The ceremony itself is the "wedding," and if you attend it might look like you're condoning something that you're not. What happens afterward at the reception is just a party.

3. Attend the Wedding after Voicing Your Objection Privately. Part of what makes this issue so tricky is that the bride and groom probably have no idea what the fuss is about. Almost everyone seems to have forgotten about the beauties and graces of a sacramental marriage. They don't see any difference between a church wedding and a civil ceremony except for venue and cast of characters. Perhaps no one has ever told them. God may have just volunteered you. But to spare them embarrassment, you can keep your objection private and go ahead and attend the wedding and reception to show family support and unity.

How do you approach this subject sensitively? Rather than emphasizing the downside of a civil marriage, emphasize the upside of a Catholic one. As we say in our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love, couples united in the Sacrament of Matrimony "are called and empowered to love to the highest degree, the degree that Christ loved us -- to forgive seventy times seven times, to do the humblest chore out of love, and to die to self in order to live and love for others."

They may not think that they need God in their marriage now, but when crisis hits and things seem humanly impossible, they may finally seek God for whom all things are possible. Tell them that God is waiting for them and will always wait for them.

*   *   *

We agree that calling a civilly married couple girlfriend and boyfriend seems severe and not likely to lead to a change of heart. They are at least legally married (an increasing rarity these days). Their situation can easily be resolved by asking a priest to convalidate the civil ceremony. It's never too late for your brother and his wife to grow closer to God. And if you stay close to them, you may play an important role in making it happen.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

12 Hints for a Happier, Holier Marriage

Every married couple's Kryptonite is different. Some couples have no financial problems, but strain to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Some couples will happily serve the poorest of the poor in a soup kitchen, but have trouble inhabiting the same room with their in-laws. That's why the Vatican has recommended no less than 12 topics to be covered in pre-Cana marriage preparation programs. Unfortunately, a lot of programs leave crucial information out.

So, to make up for what went missing, my husband and I wrote a Catholic marriage advice book covering all 12 topics, from finances and work to community service and relationships with in-laws, plus everything in between. The book is called The Four Keys to Everlasting Love: How Your Catholic Marriage Can Bring You Joy for a Lifetime. Below you'll find some of our best hints from the book, arranged by topic, plus links to free downloadable worksheets.

Personality Differences:

Marriage is quite an adventure, and somehow never exactly what we expect. Our God, after all, is a God of surprises, as Pope Francis is fond of saying. The first bump in the road that many couples encounter is overcoming personality differences. Opposites really do attract, and that adds to the excitement but can also create conflict.

Hint #1: Overcome your differences by searching for and finding common ground, and relying on God who loves you both equally. Help: Download Chapter 1 worksheet.

Sacramentality & the Saints:

Nowadays, fewer Catholics are choosing to get married in the Church than at any other time in recent history. Many people don’t realize what a wonderful treasure Catholic marriage is! The graces of the sacraments -- especially Holy Matrimony, the Eucharist, and confession -- are a powerful aid to couples in their everyday struggles and in times of great crisis. And the saints, our cheering section in the next life, are willing and eager to help husbands and wives get each other to heaven.

Hint #2: Seek help from the Church on earth and in heaven. Help: Download Chapter 2 worksheet.


Marriage is more than the union of just two people. It’s also a union of two families. Many couples struggle with learning to love their in-laws. It helps to remember that in most cases what the in-laws really want is for your marriage to be successful, long-lasting, and happy. By loving our in-laws and extended family members, we follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Hint #3: Listen respectfully to your in-laws' advice, even if you don't ultimately follow it. Help: Download Chapter 3 worksheet.

Work/Life Balance:

Whether we work at home or in an office, nobody wants to feel like a gerbil on a wheel. Work is meant to be more than that, and deep inside we all know it. A lot of effort can be poured into finding a “dream” job or career, and that’s certainly a worthy goal. But sometimes we’re called to bloom where we’re planted and to recognize that all work has value in the eyes of God.  Realizing the supernatural worth of our work will help us to prioritize well: first, God; then, family; and last, work.

Hint #4: Do all your work with love and care because God is your ultimate "boss." Help: Download Chapter 4 worksheet.


Marital finances are a hot-button issue for many couples. But frequently couples are fighting over who’s in control and who gets to make the decisions as much as they’re fighting over the money itself. It helps for them to commit fully to the idea that what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. It helps even more for them to realize that everything that is theirs has been given to them by our loving God. We are not so much owners as we are stewards, caretakers of God’s blessings.

Hint #5: When it comes to money, be "we-centered" rather than "me-centered." Help: Download Chapter 5 worksheet.

Family community service:

Jesus wants us to feel a special love for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. That’s one reason why programs for the Sacrament of Confirmation stress community service so heavily. But community service doesn’t have to be relegated to the teenage years. Families can reach out to meet their neighbors’ physical and spiritual needs in ways that amount to priceless gifts.

Hint #6: Help out your neighbors in small, meaningful ways by hosting a play date or buying an extra gallon of milk for them on your grocery run. Help: Download Chapter 6 worksheet.


One of the most misunderstood areas of Catholic teaching is sexuality. Many people are shocked to learn that the Catechism calls married sexuality “a source of joy and pleasure” and “a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” (CCC 2360-62). Catholicism regards sexuality as a precious gift from God, enriching marriages on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

Hint #7: Communicate (often!) about sex in a positive and intimate way. Help: Download Chapter 7 worksheet.


Women especially are taught to fear their fertility during their teen years when adults (with the best of intentions) warn of the dangers of getting pregnant through premarital sex. Many married couples hold onto that fear, worrying about the impact of children on finances or career plans. NFP encourages the mindset that fertility is a great blessing. It helps couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy in an effective, safe, ethical, and relatively inexpensive way.

Hint #8: Gain a greater appreciation for your fertility through Natural Family Planning. Help: Download Chapter 8 worksheet.

Big families, special-needs kids, adoption & more:

No matter how big our hearts are at the start, they can always grow bigger. Many special family circumstances challenge parents to do more than they think they ever possibly could. Challenges like big families, special-needs children, adopting, fostering, and stepparenting can all be transformed into channels of God's all-powerful grace.

Hint #9: Ask yourselves how far you can open your hearts to new challenges. Help: Download Chapter 9 worksheet.


There is no greater responsibility than parenting well. Our children are God's gifts to us, and they will shape the world of the future. We are called to nurture our children's bodies, minds, and souls, forming them in Christ. "If we are like pencils in the hands of God, as Mother Teresa said, then each of our children is a sketch destined to become a masterpiece," we wrote in The Four Keys to Everlasting Love.

Hint #10: Parent with heavenly purpose. Help: Download Chapter 10 worksheet.


In the day-to-day grind of life, it can be easy to forget that what we do now has consequences for eternity. This is especially true in the hustle and bustle of family life. Through the eyes of faith, we can see that our families are "domestic churches," where we share God's divine love with each other and strengthen each other's faith. A rich family prayer life can bring great peace to our homes.

Hint #11: Grow closer together and closer to God through a deeper shared prayer life.  Help: Download Chapter 11 worksheet.

Imitating Jesus, Mary & Joseph:

The Holy Family is the best role model that any family could possibly ask for. Our Blessed Mother Mary is a shining example of grace under pressure, faith in the face of uncertainty, and perseverance through the hardest of life's challenges. St. Joseph is a pre-eminent father figure, protective, strong, and willing to share all with no expectation of return.

Hint #12: Don't just ask yourselves, "What would Jesus do," or WWJD? Ask "What would the Holy Family do," or WWHFD? Help: Download Chapter 12 worksheet.

What's your Kryptonite? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below. And if you'd like to continue the conversation, please join our online book club (Sept. 10-Dec. 3) by clicking here.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Nuns in Space: The Fabulous, Futuristic World of Karina Fabian's Discovery

It's hard to find good Catholic fiction nowadays, and Catholic science fiction is an even rarer breed. Enter Karina Fabian's new space thriller Discovery, about an order of nuns devoted to space rescue and their mission to help recover an alien spaceship stranded in an asteroid belt at the edge of our solar system. Discovery is, quite simply, stellar (pun intended).

Author Karina Fabian's world-building is first-class. There's enough hard science in Discovery to satisfy the geekiest astrophysics major. (I don't know if it's scientifically accurate or not -- you'd have to ask the astrophysics majors.) Throughout the novel, Fabian deftly weaves in elements like spacesuit training classes, low-grav ball games on a dodecahedronal court, and advanced medical technologies like bone knitters for rapid bone repair.

Fabian's space-based society simmers with conflict over class and religion. The researchers (called "Dataheads") look down on the asteroid miners (called "Rockjacks"). Deep-seated religious tensions separate the Catholic sisters, the Evangelicals, the wiccans, and the Codists, who have turned rules of safety in space into a re-imagined 10 Commandments. "Zerogs," humans who have been genetically modified to thrive in a zero gravity environment, shun extended contact with others. To keep their genes pure, they will kill any zerog who mates with a non-modified human -- and any offspring of that mating.

Discovery brims over with fascinating characters. The religious sisters who belong to the Order of Our Lady of the Rescue are highly trained professional space-farers risking their lives for others. My favorite protagonist, Sister Ann, plays the role of a futuristic Cassandra, spouting accurate prophecies that no one understands. Her poetic mysticism makes her resemble St. John of the Cross in a spacesuit. She converses in aphorisms, like
"When we control, we find comfort; when God controls, grace." 
"The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear."
Two additional central characters in the book are Sister Rita and Dr. James Smith, the archaeologist tapped to head the exploratory mission of the alien spaceship. They attended college together at Terra Technological University, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Franciscan University in Steubenville (where else do college students routinely meet up in chapel?). Their unrequited romance hints at a crisis in their vocations, since James is a former seminarian and Sister Rita a fully professed religious sister. The relationship, fortunately, takes a backseat to the more interesting, larger story.

After many chapters of captivating and well-executed character development, the pace of Discovery picks up dramatically about half-way through when the crew finally reaches the alien ship. A mysterious third arm of the six-armed spaceship forces many of the crew members to face their deeply hidden desires, wrong choices, and guilty secrets. As the ship catapults toward crisis, the sisters are called upon to rescue their friends and colleagues in more ways than one.

Those who know me know that I'm a bit of a science fiction junkie. In times of stress, a reading binge of 10 books or more is a sure-fire cure.  In college, I was a geek groupie.  Not good enough at math to achieve full geek status, I focused on the history and anthropology of technology. I would have majored in science fiction if I could have.

Science fiction at its worst devolves into romanticized space opera or non-stop action against monstrous aliens easily identified as evil. Science fiction at its best explores what it means to be human. What might happen to humans when you remove them from their normal political, cultural, and physical environment? What new societies or religions would evolve? Humans know we're different from animals because we have sentience and the ability to worship God. What if we met aliens with those same qualities? How might genetic modifications impact cultural norms in unexpected ways?

Discovery delves into all the best and most exciting themes of the science fiction greats. Although the book contains elements of romance, action-adventure, and even horror, it never shies away from the essential existential questions. Highly recommended.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.