I’m giving away FOUR books by Tomie dePaola!

Tomie dePaola is a beloved author and illustrator for good reason, and in addition to his dozens of charming and lovely books about Strega Nona and Big Anthony, he published many Catholic books, including books on the saints, Bible stories, and other religious works. Ignatius Press with Magnificat has recently been reprinting some of these in hardcover. I got to review four of them, and they’ve given me four to give away to you! The titles:

Queen Esther
Brother Francis of Assisi
Noah and the Ark
Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Enter by using the form at the end of the post. 

If you don’t win, or if you just want to order some or all of the books, I also have a 25% off code for these four books.

Use the coupon code STOMIE25 when you order any of these four books from Ignatius and get a 25% discount starting today and ending Saturday, Nov. 21 at midnight. 

And now for the books! 

Queen Esther (first published 1986) A simple and dignified telling of the story of Esther, the Jewish woman who was chosen for her beauty by the Persian king, and who risked her own life to protect her people.

Esther is rendered in blues and grays, very elegant but rather severe and sad, which seems right to me. She didn’t ask to be put in that position, but she did what had to be done once she was there. 

A good true “princess” story about a girl chosen for her beauty, who musters up courage and strength for her people. 

The story is somewhat simplified, good for young kids, and is nicely dramatic

The final page notes that her story is commemorated on the Jewish feast Purim. “On Purim, Jews give gifts to the poor and one another. This spring holiday often falls during Lent, when Catholics recall the courageous faith of Queen Esther.” I didn’t realize this was so, but he’s right! The Mass readings during Lent tell her story, paired with an exhortation to ask God for what we want and trust he will give it to us. 

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Brother Francis of Assisi (first published 1982) 
I had this one when it was first published, and as a result, I’ve always been a little afraid of St. Francis, as is appropriate. He is most certainly not the fuzzy wuzzy pal to our furry friends that pop culture has turned him into, but was an intense, passionate, singleminded man.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a scary or graphic book, but it doesn’t shy away from how hard Francis was on himself.

I had a hard time getting through the Pope’s dream where Francis holds up the crumbling walls of the Church. Oh boy. Give yourself time to compose yourself if you’re reading this one aloud.

It does include favorite stories, like Francis preaching to the birds, and dealing with the wolf of Gubbio,

and also has some lesser known stories, like Francis allowing himself to indulge in some honey almond cakes made for him by a patroness,

and a story about Francis recreating a manger scene and being visited by a real holy child who smiles at Francis and strokes his beard.

And here — get ready — here is Francis receiving the stigmata

This is one of de Paola’s longer books at 47 pages, and it includes the Canticle of the Sun and a timeline of Francis’ life, including his and Clare’s feast days. Good stories about Clare and her sisters, as well. The illustrations were painstakingly researched on site, and you get a real sense of place, as well as a sense of who Francis really was. Excellent. 

*****

Noah and the Ark (first published 1983) I struggle with children’s books about Noah’s ark! I know it has animals and a rainbow, but it’s not really a children’s story, and it bothers me when it’s portrayed as cutesy or rollicking. DePaola’s version avoids this, and is told very simply and has a sort of mythical air to it, which works well.

God is shown as a powerful, bright hand emerging mystically from the heavens, and the animals are animals, not cartoonish sidekicks

DePaola’s mastery of color is on full display here. There are two pages with no text, just the flood waters:

and then the next page pulls back a bit and shows the ark still being tossed on the waves, but with the threatening clouds receding. 

A solid rendition, bright and dignified. 32 pages, for children ages 5 and up. 

*****

And now for the crown jewel of these new editions!

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (first published 1995) 33 pages, and there is a LOT in here. An astonishing book, luminous, illuminating. If you’re looking for a religious book to give a child for Christmas, this is the one.

It covers the whole life of Mary, from before her conception to her assumption and coronation, and it draws on scripture and also on pious legend, including things like the child Mary climbing the steps to the temple by herself,

and the staff of Joseph miraculously flowering. It also, to my surprise, describes Mary as gently dying and being laid in a tomb, with Thomas meeting an angel who has him roll the stone away and find her winding sheets left behind. My kids were a little dismayed, having been taught (by me!) that Mary didn’t die, but was assumed into heaven body and soul without dying first. It turns out there’s no actual dogma definitively saying whether she died or not. In any case, the illustration of her assumption got me right in the kishkes:

Reading the whole thing from start to finish helped me remember what a straight up good story it is, and how many angels came to this family. 

All the illustrations are striking, and the expressions on the (clearly middle eastern) faces are subtle and thought-provoking.  Here is Mary proud but protective as the wise men appear to visit her little son

Here are the parents angry, dismayed, and confused to find Jesus in the temple:

Here is Mary calmly and knowingly, with a glimmer of a smile, telling the stewards at Cana to do whatever Jesus tells them

and look at this angel, busting through into the room of this young girl with her long braid

Extraordinary. It says ages 7 and up, and honestly I would give this book to an adult convert to introduce him to Mary. It’s so lovely and heartfelt. Each section is introduced with a short excerpt from the liturgy of the hours. So good. 

That’s it! Good luck! You have until Friday the 20th to enter. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you can’t see the Rafflecopter form, click this link and it will take you there. 

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P.S., Did I ever tell you my Tomie dePaola story? It’s not a very good story, but it’s what I’ve got. In second grade, I won a Young Author’s contest (The Day It Rained Piano Keys, by Simmy Prever. No copies extant) and dePaola presented the awards, and each winner got a kiss on the cheek. I’d been reading his books steadily my whole life, and almost forty years later, I finally got up my nerve to ask him for an interview, because he lived in NH. I wanted to know what his favorite book was, and what his relationship was with the Church, and how hard it was to paint the face of Jesus. And if he knew someone like Bambalona. So I put in my request and I waited with bated breath for his response, and then two weeks later, he died.

That’s my story. I don’t think I actually killed him, but if you want to talk to someone, my advice is to do it now, not later. SIGH. 

Why do we pray for healing from saints who were not healed?

Every once in a while, you’ll come across someone who giggles at the Catholic practice of honoring a saint on the day of his death, rather than on the day of his birth. They assume this means that Catholics are creepy and morbid (which, okay, is kind of true) or that Catholics are metal and hardcore (which is also sometimes true). Or that Catholics are just kind of weird (which is definitely true).

Of course the real reason we venerate a saint on the day of his death is that it is his birth day: The day of his birth into eternal life.

I was thinking of this when someone posted a prayer request for a friend battling cancer. She mentioned the name of the patron saint of cancer patients, and it suddenly occurred to me how strange that is:  The patron saint died of cancer, and that’s how she became the one we pray to when we want someone to survive cancer. Kind of weird!

There is not, as far as I can tell, any official system for how a saint acquires patronage, but it’s common for them to become the patron saint of the thing that killed them (or of people dealing with the thing that killed them). They’re often portrayed with the thing that killed them — a wheel, a sword — perhaps giving the impression that that thing is what they set out to make their life about. “Hey, it’s-a me, the axe in the head guy!” they seem to say.

But of course it’s the Catholics left behind after their death who decided that that would be Their Main Thing. This is clearly related to the idea that their feast day is the day they died. If it was cancer that killed them, then cancer is the thing that freed them from mortality and let them enter into eternal life. If it was leprosy that killed them, then leprosy was their ticket to heaven. And so on.

Or is that it? I think this view misses the mark and makes Catholics into the morbid, death-loving ghouls we’re sometimes accused of being. If Catholics were 100 per cent on board with the idea that the thing that kills you is the best thing that ever happened to you, then why would we, for instance, ask the patron saint of cancer patients to intercede for the healing of cancer patient?

Because that is what we do: We don’t pray, “O dear Saint Mervintrude, patron of wheelbarrows, my friend is in the hospital after having been run over by a rogue wheelbarrow. Please let him die soon.” Instead, we pray, “Please restore him to life and health.”

So which is it? Do Catholics yearn for a holy death in the company of saints who also died that way, or do Catholics look for escape from death through the intercession of saints who didn’t escape?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image of Peter of Verona, the axe-in-head guy via Wikimedia Commons  license

A hymn to household saints

For all the saints
Who’ve lost their arms and head;
For those whose poor legs
Are now duct tape instead;
For those long gone
Beneath my bad kid’s bed:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all the saints
Whose words are super true,
Who labored hard
To preach to me and you:
Please try again,
Until your face is blue:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all the saints
Whose names our babies bear,
Please take their hands
(And maybe brush their hair).
We’re working hard,
Not getting anywhere.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all the saints
Up on those dusty shelves.
You see the pits
The human spirit delves.
Ask God for mercy.
We can’t save ourselves.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all our saints,
This day is just for you.
You’re with God now.
You need something to do?
Then pray for us!
We’re leaning hard on you.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Padre Pio’s relics touring North America (and here’s what my husband said about his heart)

Relics of Padre Pio, including his glove and robe, a lock of his hair, a sweat-soaked handkerchief from his deathbed, some blood-stained cotton gauze, and scabs from his stigmata will be visiting several churches in North America for veneration by the faithful.

Yeah, it’s weird! Our faith is weird. 

Here is the full list of cities the relics will visit.

In 2016, the beloved saint’s heart came to Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell, MA, and my husband Damien, who is a newspaper reporter, went to see and venerate it. I asked him a few questions about his experience (originally published in 2016).

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What made you want to go and see Padre Pio’s heart? 

I really didn’t know that much about Padre Pio, other than the stigmata and “Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry.” I found out about his heart coming to the area just a couple of days before. The relic’s first stop was in Lowell, Massachusetts, which is a 10-minute drive from the paper’s offices. I figured I could get something pretty interesting out of a saint’s heart, and I would get a chance to go see a relic as part of my job. Maybe not entirely noble, but I’m busy.

I like relics, and I like that Catholics have this weird and intense spirituality that includes things like hearts, and fingers, and bits of the True Cross, and incorruptible saints. It’s hard to describe to outsiders, and it is as strange as anything, but it somehow feels right.

What was the scene like in the church? What was the mood like among the people there? 

The line to get in went outside the church. I was later told more than 3,000 people went to this church to see Padre Pio’s heart. There were a lot of people from different religious orders, and a few oddballs, but I was kind of taken aback by how many normal looking people were there. Lots of senior citizens and moms with kids, lots of guys in suits, stopping by on their lunch break. It was a big mix of people. The folks in line with me were really excited to be there.

Inside the church, the priests were leading a rosary in French, and Spanish, and English. Lowell is a big, old New England mill town, with a ton of French Canadian immigrants from decades ago, and a new influx of Latino immigrants. It’s a very Catholic city. But it wasn’t just Lowell people there. There were people from all over New England making the pilgrimage.

What did the actual relic look like? How were people venerating it? 

A stern-looking Capuchin held the reliquary that contained the heart, and people would get a chance to touch it. One by one, they would genuflect and either touch the reliquary, or kiss it. Some people brought prayer cards to touch to the reliquary.

It’s hard to describe, because it was hard to look at. It was red, and in two connected parts. There seemed to be some white bone underneath it. I say it is hard to look at, because I was overcome with a sense of too-muchness. It was too much to see. Not in a gross way, but in a personal way; here was Padre Pio, showing something deeply personal about himself to me.

It wasn’t until I got outside that I realized I was overcome with emotion. I was happy to nearly the point of tears. I felt like something heavy and difficult had been taken away, but I don’t even know what.

Do you feel any differently about Padre Pio now than you did before?

I’ve been reading about him since yesterday, and I am trying to take the experience I had by touching the reliquary that held his heart, and bring it to what I can learn about him.

***

Photos by Damien Fisher, used with permission

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St. Elizabeth the Unspecified, pray for us

One of my regrets (and man, I have a million) is that I’m not doing a great job introducing my kids to the saints. We have made a few stabs and this and that, but I’m not hugely devoted to any particular saint myself, so it just doesn’t come naturally.

We had a few saint biography collections when I was growing up, and I did read them repeatedly; but I think they ended up doing more harm than good, and I ended up with a bunch of ideas that were hard to shed. Namely: (a) saints were born that way (“before she even learned to talk, tiny Wiffletrude used to weep at her mother’s breast because it made her think of how Jesus thirsted on the cross.” That kind of thing) and (b) if I did become a saint, it was only a matter of time before the demonic attacks would begin, with bed shaking and foot clawing and stuff, and that did not sound great.

I also worried a lot about how poorly I would do when the Romans gave me one more chance to renounce Christ before cutting my skin off. I did figure that, if, because of my great beauty, I became unwilling but gentle queen of the land, I would definitely be the one who distributed bread to the peasants, like, 24/7.

I ended up with two patron saints: Unspecified Elizabeth and Michael the Archangel. And also a guardian angel. Do I remember that I have these holy ones watching over me? No, I do not. I’m just a lonely loner on a lonely road. Alone.

Terrible religious art also had a lot to answer for. Only very weird kids think, “Oh yeah, I can picture myself holding a palm branch with three fingers, with my eyeballs rolled up and a bunch of wispy roses framing my person at all times. Yep, that’s me. ” The state of religious art is definitely improving, and it’s also immensely helpful to learn about saints who are recent enough to appear in photos. Hagiographies have also gotten much better in recent years. Saints come across much more like actual, specific people, rather than goopy spirituality dolls.

Anyway, this gap in our family’s spirituality always comes into focus when one of my kids is preparing for confirmation. (In our area, they’re transitioning to restored order of sacraments, so confirmation happens when a kid is in his early teens.) They have to choose a confirmation patron saint and write a short essay. IS CATASTROPHE. I make some feeble suggestions which are met with floppiness. I point them toward some books which promptly slither into the couch crack. Wishing to appear hip and cyber, I suggest Jen Fulwiler’s Saint Name Generator; then I get distracted by Facebook and forget about the whole thing until the emails from the DRE get really insistent. And that’s what they mean when they say parents are a child’s primary educators.

However! They always end up choosing a bona fide saint with an actual biography attached to them, and no one has chosen a patron who clearly just got called up for the cool name. Not a St. Désirée or St. Gaspar de Bufalo or St. Lawdog in the bunch. Whether any of my kids have formed any kind of meaningful devotion to their patrons, I do not know.

But it occurs to me that, even if they never learned a single real fact about their saint, or said a single prayer to them, much less formed some kind of genuine spiritual friendship or devotion, the patron saint is still devoted to the confirmandi. And the same would be true even if some kid chose a saint purely to annoy their parents or solely so their new initials would spell out F.U.N.K or something. Right? You choose a patron, and they’re in, and that means they’re praying for you for the rest of your life, whether you think about it or not.

I don’t think it’s necessary to believe that you have been somehow spiritually nudged without your knowledge in the direction of the saint that’s just right for you. It’s possible, and I’ve heard plenty of stories where someone chooses something randomly, and it ends up being devastatingly relevant. But in either case, a spiritual friendship is a real thing, even if it comes about by chance and only goes one way; and a saint is, among other things, someone who’s always willing to try to bring someone closer to God.

That’s all I got. Like so many other things in Catholicism, it’s far less about our own efforts and merits than we realize, and it works out to be a pretty good deal for us. Salut! I mean, ora pro nobis.

But what if I don’t love God?

They really, really loved God, enough to willingly die for Him, enough to renounce their families for Him, enough to cheerfully surrender their riches and beauty and power for Him, enough to praise Him with their last dying breaths.

And I? I didn’t love God. I didn’t even like Him.

That worried me.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Mary’s downward gaze

This is the conversation she wants to have with an archangel: Let’s talk about my Son, because it’s personal.

There’s that downward gaze. So much better than rolled-up eyes! It’s a good look, on Mary and on all of us: that personal, intimate, “You’re real and so am I” connection. That would be a good posture for all of us to adopt for the rest of Advent: Look to the ones who are closest to us.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Headless Bishop (and other Halloween costumes that work for All Saints Day)

We have a pretty good record of getting cast out of every Catholic community we stumble into. This is good news, because it means we never have to make costumes for All Saints Day (we do have fun making Halloween costumes, though).

But how about you? Did you suddenly realize that, in a fit of good Catholic momming, you promised to whip up costumes for both days? I’m here to save your bacon. These costumes are suitably edifying for any church-sponsored party, but edgy enough to earn you all the Mary Janes and Raisinets you can eat on October 31.

Your most obvious twofer choice is martyrs. Grab whatever weapon catches your fancy in the Halloween aisle, and you’re guaranteed to find some Catholic somewhere who was killed with it. We’re just that popular! Buy two tubes of blood, one for the gorefest and one for pious reenactments, and you’re set.

Hilarious on October 31
:

inspirational just a day later:

image

Everybody loves a good sight gag:

(instructional video here)

especially when it’s Biblically sound:

And finally, you can terrify the normals with this fantastic cephalophoric illusion:

(instructional video here)

Or, well, terrify the normals with something from the more obscure annals of martyologies.

(Not recommended: St. Agatha)

But there are non-bloody saints, too, and even some adorable sidekicks. You wear a ratty bathrobe and skip showering for a week or two, and you can pass as either a civic-minded individual tirelessly lobbying for societal and legal acceptance of an all-natural homeopathic remedies

(credit Todd Huffman via Flickr; Creative Commons)

or St. Francis, whatever

And who’s this tagging along behind you?

 

Awww, it’s da widdle wolf of Gubbio! Or a werewolf, take your pick.

Who doesn’t appreciate the time, effort, expense, and attention to detail that goes into a great mummy costume?

(Credit: Allen Lew via Flickr; Creative Commons)

Replace that sinister moan and lumbering gait with a fervent gleam in the eye and a pleasant, un-decompopsed scent, and you become, ovulously, Lazarus:

Here’s an idea which clearly marks you as one of those people who may be a little bit too enthusiastic about Halloween for someone your age:

(instructional video here)

But wait! With a few tweaks done in a sensitive and reverent way, you could easily be St. Christopher.

But don’t tell anyone it was my idea.

In closing, here is a joke I will keep telling until someone else thinks it’s funny. You can buy a Dobby mask, and BOOM, Curé of Ars.

What’s that you say? What are my kids going to be this year, if I’m so smart? I’ll give you a hint: So far I’ve sewed two furry leg warmers together, hemmed a black cloak, spray painted a few acorns gold, and bought some tulle that was on sale, and also kind of a lot of fake teeth. That’s right: We’re going, en masse, as the domestic church, and I just dare you to get in our way.

Something to say to God

“I like praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Leah Libresco

because, at a bare minimum, it gives me something to say to God.  Not just the words of the prayers but, basically, “I’m really grateful for prayer traditions because I’d pretty much suck at having to make all this up on my own.”  Instead of just being grateful for language period, it’s kind of like being grateful for slang — the shared set of references that characterize a relationship or a community.

Jennifer Fulwiler addresses a related phenomenon when she speaks of praying the Liturgy of the Hours:  She realizes that, when the words don’t apply to her life, that’s a good thing, because she is praying as part of the Body of Christ.  She says,

I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.”

We all need the discipline of praying about things that are not immediately relevant to our needs.  She says,

 It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church …

As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”

This is not to say that we can never pray about things that do concern us.  But in my experience, the formal, selfless, ritualized prayer comes first, before there can be any depth of sincerity in individual prayer.

We can, for instance, try to flog our hearts into a sensation of awe during the consecration, but we probably won’t get anywhere.  But if we simply humbly accept what is being offered, and obediently participate in the ritual of thanksgiving, that is what lays the groundwork for heartfelt awe and wonder.

So both kinds of prayer are necessary for us and pleasing to God — both the formal, “ready-made” prayers that we participate in as an act of will, and the personal, immediate outpourings of our own soul.

Praying only in own language is limiting and inadequate — but so, I believe, is only ever praying in the formalized language of the Church, because it’s all too easy to keep it formulaic, and to forget that prayer is conversation, and conversation implies a relationship.

We ought to pray, at least some of the time, in our “native tongue.”  Leah has already discovered this:

When I think of immaterial things, I tend to think of Morality, which might not be that bad as a focus of prayer, even if I need to expand it out a little.  The trouble is I also think of Math, and since it’s much easier to think about clearly and distinctly, I was running into a problem.  I certainly wasn’t intending to pray to the Pythagorean theorem (which would make me a very strange sort of pagan), but I was drifting away from trying to talk to a Person and over to just thinking about immaterial ideas.

And kudos to her for noticing the problem!

So, basically, instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind.  I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends.  Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things.  In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”

And that meant I was basically thinking about a person and a relationship again.  In my own weird little way.

Brilliant.  Leah is drawn to truth; it’s her native tongue. For others, it’s goodness; for me, it’s beauty.  Pythagoras doesn’t do much for me, but corn on the cob bubbling away in my blue enamel pot as the steam sifts through a shaft of evening light? This is something I invariably hold up to God, so we can delight in it together.

The saints all found different ways of praising God according to who they are, according to the native language He gave to them.  And so we have St. Francis in his tattered robe, and also Josemaria Escriva with his precisely groomed hair; King David with his wild dancing, and Mother Theresa washing wounds.  All of them related to God with some combination of formal language inherited from the Church, and spontaneous outpourings of their particular kinds of heart. These individual orientations are not something to struggle against; they are languages which God gives us so we can sing love songs to Him.

Do you speak to God in your native tongue?  Or do you hide your personality from Him?  Do you compartmentalize your spiritual life from your daily experience?  Or can you remember that everything that is good comes from God?

This is the main thing to remember when we pray, and when we live our daily lives:  “He the source, the Ending He.”  Both root of idea and flower of expression.  Here’s Hopkins:

the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is how we become more like Christ:  by allowing God to refine who we already are. We become more like Him by speaking to Him in our native tongue. If, like Leah Libresco, we are looking for “something to say to God,” we could hardly do better than, “Here is what I am, Lord. Make me more like You.”

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This post originally ran in a slightly different form in the National Catholic Register in 2012.

Image: The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Damien wasn’t a white savior, but he was like Christ

His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them, but to help restore them to a life of dignity that they deserved as fellow human beings, by teaching them about Christ, by helping them to take care of themselves, and most of all by becoming one of them.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: By Sydney B. Swift [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons