Time to Simplify . . . Again!

Two years ago during Lent, I embarked on a forty bags in forty days project. The idea, which came from Faith and Family, was to rid one’s house of forty bags of excess material goods – ideally through giving items away, although some items definitely deserve a place in the trash. I’ve decided it’s time to do it again. No, it isn’t Lent and I most likely won’t be able to accomplish my goal in forty days this time, but I desperately need to get rid of things.

While some people seem to be able to maintain well-ordered houses all the time, mine seems to attract clutter the way refrigerators attract magnets (did I mention that I have too many of those as well?). Some of it, I have little control over. After all, I don’t live alone and I need to respect my husband’s and children’s needs and desires as well. I can encourage them to live more simply and to give away what they no longer need, but no matter how much I might want to, I cannot simply bag up all their possessions and bring them to the local thrift shop. Part of loving other people is making the sacrifice of living with their “stuff.”

Still, I can set a good example and reduce what is within my power to do so. Right now, the sheer amount of stuff is weighing me down. Mary Ann Otto writes of a similar problem in “Boxing Day,” featured in the January 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic:

We tend to store things long after they have outlived their usefulness. I am not sure why; perhaps we document our life with them. Maybe letting go of them reminds us of our own mortality, with the realization that we will not be taking a U-Haul with us into the next life.

Jesus warns us against storing up treasures on earth. There is a reason: I find the more I keep unnecessary items, the more difficult it is to be at peace and in solidarity with Christ’s teachings. I am often distracted by clutter, and there is little doubt others could benefit from my surplus possessions.

There is obviously nothing wrong with owning things. We all need some items – things that are necessary for life, as well as things that are simply beautiful and bring us pleasure, and those items which have a strong emotional value. Yet, most of us own many things that don’t fit into any of those categories, items that we don’t use and which could be doing someone else some good. Those are the items I’m seeking to rid my life of.

I want to live a generous life. This is one way to do that, a simple way to share what I have been blessed with. I have never regretted giving something away. I have found that generosity is always rewarded. If I am generous with others, I trust that when the time comes that I need something, others will be generous with me. I have definitely found that to be the case.

I know I will never completely get rid of all the extraneous items in my life. No doubt, a couple years from now, I will once again desperately need to do a major decluttering. It is one of those on-going battles. Letting go of things is not always easy, however, it is necessary, for both my mental and spiritual health. Let the bagging begin!

– Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Appreciating the Simple Things

Today was a beautiful fall day and I spent some of it outside blowing bubbles with a two-year-old. I would blow the bubbles and he would chase them and try to catch them – giggling with delight the whole time. As I blew the bubbles again and again, I couldn’t help but reflect on the simplicity of that exercise. All it took was some liquid soap, a plastic bubble blower, and my own hot air. With those three simple ingredients, countless beautiful spheres were brought into being. They danced in the wind, reflecting small rainbows of light, until they floated off into the distance or were crushed by a young child’s eager hands.

It was one of those simple moments that are so easy to miss. I know that there were things I would have rather been doing. “Blowing bubbles” certainly wasn’t on my to-do list for today. And yet, I took the time to do it because a child wanted to and was richly rewarded.

Life is so busy today. It seems like there is always something to be done. Technology has made our lives easier but, as a result of those same innovations, our lives move at a much quicker pace. We are more productive than we have ever been, but the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier was also intended to give us more time. Time to do what? Enjoy the simple pleasures of life – spend time with our families and friends, go for a walk, work in the garden, enjoy a hobby, appreciate the gifts of God’s creation, etc.

Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Instead, we frequently use the “extra” time that technology saves us to interact with more technology. We surf the net, or watch television, or spend more time working just because we can and because there is always one more thing to be done. We frequently spend more time interacting with screens than we do interacting with real people or the world outside our front door.

I am not anti-technology – not at all. I’m blessed to be able to work from home because of it. I love that I can find the answer to almost any question my children might have when we are homeschooling with a few keystrokes. I enjoy connecting with my friends and work colleagues via social networks. Technology has opened up a world of possibility that simply didn’t exist a few years ago.

But, there needs to be a balance. We need to remember what is important and what is lasting in this world. Technology is a tool, but it is supposed to work for us, not the other way around. We need to unplug and take the time to appreciate the simple things, to play with a child, to smell a flower, to thank God for a beautiful sunset, or to marvel at dancing bubbles. The world is full of beauty – much of it fleeting. Children grow quickly, flowers bloom for only a brief period of time, sunrises and sunsets last mere moments. Our chances to value them are just as fleeting. We need to make a concerted effort to embrace at least some of those chances.

– Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Carrying Our Crosses

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever wishes to save his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

There it is in black and white: the cost of discipleship. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, Jesus did not say, “Follow me and have an easy life.” He told us that if we are to follow him, we are going to have to suffer. He Himself set the example. The passage that immediately precedes this one has Jesus telling the apostles that he is going to suffer and die before being raised. Peter tells him that this should not happen, and Jesus rebukes him strongly: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16: 23)

Like Peter, we are human and we think like humans. We like comfort and ease and try to avoid suffering, often at all costs. Yet, suffering is an integral part of life. We don’t need to seek it out. It finds us.

Every person you meet is suffering in some way, no matter his age, sex, race, or economic status. Crosses can come in many forms – physical ailments, emotional pain, relationship issues, heartache, grief, employment problems, spiritual pain, and economic pressures, to name some of the most obvious. At any time, any one of us is most likely carrying more than one. Some are very forthcoming about their difficulties – they go on ad nauseum about them and will complain to anyone who comes within earshot. Others keep their pain entirely to themselves, and never let anyone help them carry their crosses. Others fall somewhere in between, perhaps sharing their difficulties with a close few friends. Regardless, one should always be kind. We never know for sure what crosses another person is struggling to carry.

If we are to follow Christ, we are to accept those crosses and carry them. We are not to run from them. This doesn’t mean we don’t seek appropriate help for whatever difficulty we are having. It does mean that we accept the difficulties that have come our way. It means that we pray for God’s will to be done, even if it means that we will continue to suffer. It means that we trust that our suffering is serving a higher purpose, even if we don’t know what it is.

Jesus had to suffer and die before he could rise from the dead. So do we. This life is not about taking the easy path. It is not about indulging all our desires, or trying to collect the most possessions. No, if we profess to be Christians, the purpose of our lives is to deny ourselves and accept whatever crosses that may come our way. No one ever said it would be easy, but we have Christ’s word that it will be worth it!

– Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

We CAN Make a Difference

There is a well-known story about a young man throwing starfish out into the ocean. An older man walked by and asked him what he was doing. The young man replied that he was throwing the starfish out into the ocean so that they would not die in the heat of the sun. At that, the old man replied, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”
I thought of that story recently while reading an article on the Sisters of Life in Columbia Magazine (the magazine of the Knights of Columbus). They shared the story of a young woman named Mary who was pregnant with her abusive boyfriend’s child. Scared and with nowhere to turn, a mother’s center put her in contact with the Sisters of Life. They provided her with shelter, food, and prayer. She lived with them until her daughter was ten months old. During that time, she “found a job, reunited with her family, and allowed Jesus back into her life.” She now marvels at the blessing her daughter has been and the joy she has brought to her life.

This story could have had a far different ending had the Sisters of Life not been there to help. They made a difference for Mary and her daughter, and many others who find themselves in similar difficult circumstances.

The world’s problems are huge. It often seems that we are powerless in the face of them. Yet, we can make a difference for one person. We can’t feed all the hungry people in the world, but we can donate food to the local food bank. We can’t solve the problem of homelessness, but we can support our local shelter or provide money or food to the man or woman out on the street. We can’t keep every woman from aborting her child, but if we know someone who finds themselves unexpectedly pregnant, we can be supportive and kind and help her find the help she needs. We may not be able to make sure every child grows up loved, but we can certainly make sure our own children (and their friends!) do.

God puts opportunities in our paths every day to make a difference. They may be small acts of kindness or decisions that change the course of our lives, but we are called to respond and act with love. Mother Teresa who is known for the tremendous love and care that she brought to others offered these encouraging words: “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier,” and, in keeping with the story at the beginning of this article, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

We can make a difference. We may never know the way we touched another person’s life, but if we do our part, we can trust that God will take care of the rest.

– Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Finding God in the Housework

I do not enjoy housework. Not even a little bit. Just yesterday I was telling the young lady who lives next door to me that I wished I had a magic wand that I could simply wave and have a clean house! Alas, that is not the case and I do have to put things away and do the dishes and the laundry and clean the bathrooms and mop the floor and the list goes on and on in a seemingly never-ending cycle. This, despite the fact that my standards for cleanliness are not all that high. It’s really been bugging me lately. There are so many other things that I would much rather be doing with that time.
In the midst of my aggravation, what message did God send me regarding this? An email reminding me that housework is an opportunity to encounter God.

And, so it is. Every moment of our lives, if offered to God and done to serve Him, is holy. That includes the time spent with the laundry or scrubbing the floor. First of all, we do these things because they are part of our vocation and one of our primary duties on this earth is to serve God by living our vocation to the best of our abilities. Secondly, we do our housework to serve those we love – so that they may have clean dishes and clean clothes and a healthy environment to live in. It may not seem that way as we are struggling to get it done, but doing the housework is actually an act of love.

The time spent on household chores can also offer a time to pray. These menial tasks usually do not require a great deal of brain power to accomplish. There are two ways to make them more meaningful. The first is to truly pay attention to them. Get off the auto-pilot and actually focus on the task at hand. Instead of simply rushing to get through them, live in the moment. Be thankful for the people you are doing these tasks for. Appreciate the fact that you have the physical ability to complete these chores.

Second, the time can be used to say some memorized prayer or to simply talk to God. I would be willing to venture that when you are performing your household tasks your mind is usually elsewhere anyway – perhaps replaying conversations, turning over worries, or making future plans. Why not turn one’s mind toward God? Prayer and work can go hand in hand. While there are certainly times when we need to focus on one or the other more exclusively, manual labor and mental prayer are able to co-exist quite nicely.

I needed the gentle reminder that God gave me that my housework has value that goes beyond the short-term results. The dishes I washed today will once again be dirty tomorrow. The dog will shed again and somebody will definitely spill something on the floor that I mopped. The clean clothes will on again be dirty. But, if I do these tasks with a loving, prayerful heart rather than a grudging, complaining one, they will acquire a much deeper purpose. Perhaps, someday, I will even come to look forward to them!

– Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Do We Recognize Jesus?

This week’s Gospel (Lk 24:13-35) features Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walks with them and talks with them and still, they do not realize who is in their midst until he breaks bread with them.

One thing the Resurrection appearances of Jesus have in common is that those who first see Him did not immediately recognize him. His glorified body was somehow different. Those who knew him best were not able to know who He was until he spoke to them or performed some action or showed them His wounds. Then they knew; they understood.

As we go through our daily lives, we often fail to recognize Jesus in our midst. Matthew 25:31-46 tells us that whenever we care for our brothers and sisters in this world, we are caring for Jesus. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Yet, do we see it that way? When our children need our care, do we see Jesus? When our parents grow old and need our help, do we see Jesus? When our friends are hurting, do we see Jesus? When our neighbors are in need, do we see Jesus? When a homeless person begs on the street, do we see Jesus? When our enemies are suffering, do we see Jesus?

Jesus comes to us in all sorts of disguises and it can be very hard indeed into recognize Him. He can be rich or poor, clean or dirty, young or old, a person in our home, on our street, or a stranger on the other side of the world. He can be our best friend or the person who pushes all of our buttons the wrong way. He can be someone who we feel has it made or someone who we judge to have made all the wrong choices. Yes, Jesus comes hidden and we are called to serve. We are called to love.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is known for the service she gave to all those she met. She invited each of us to reach out in a personal way to those around us. She stated, “I believe in person to person. Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment.” May we follow her example and reach out to Jesus in all His disguises in our world.

– Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

To Serve and Be Served

The scripture readings during the course of Holy Week offer several examples of service. On Holy Thursday, there is the beautiful image of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles (John 13:1-15). Here is the Son of God bending low to remove the dirt from his follower’s feet. He instructs his followers: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

On Good Friday, we walk the way of the cross with Jesus, and witness the service of Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21). Simon was pressed into service to help Jesus carry the cross. It may not have been willing service. In fact, Simon may have regarded himself as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet serve he did. After the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body so that he may bury him in his own tomb (John 19:38). Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome hurry to the tomb as soon as the Sabbath is over in order to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). These, too, are examples of service.

Most of us understand that we need to be of service to others. Sometimes, like Jesus, we do so willingly. Other times we are more like Simon of Cyrene and perform our duty somewhat reluctantly, perhaps even with a tad bit of resentment. Still, we serve.

If we are serving, however, then someone else is being served. In Scripture, Jesus not only serves. When He is in need, He allows himself to be served. If you are anything like me, you might find that to be the harder part of the serving equation. I am happy to serve (at least most of the time). I try to do what I can to help other people. I find it incredibly difficult, on the other hand, to allow someone else to serve me. I am much more like Peter at the Last Supper, protesting to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” (John 1:8)

I know I can’t do everything alone. Without question, I need God’s help. I pray daily for it and can’t imagine life without His assistance. It’s having other people help me that makes me cringe. I like to be self-sufficient. Stuck in my pride, I’m like a three-year-old stubbornly insisting “I can do it myself.”

I have gotten a little better with age. I’m still reluctant to ask for help, but if it is offered, I do try to accept gracefully. I have come to understand that other people need to serve as well, and sometimes it is OK if I am the beneficiary of that service. Indeed, I am thankful for it. We all need each other in this world. As important as it is to serve, it is also important to allow oneself to be served. Sometimes, that can be the harder lesson to learn.

by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

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