What is your main thing?

Sometimes we have days or weeks when the hardness or complexity of life socks us in the gut and pries open our minds and hearts. This was one of those weeks for me with the collision of my children getting quite ill, learning of the death of a too-young good woman, and reflecting on the story and image of a father and his two-year-old who drown in the Rio Grande, looking for life.

My reaction to encountering these realities was frustration, bordering on irritation, with how much time we (myself included) spend on things that don’t matter. How many hours do we spend day-dreaming about things we don’t have; how many conversations are spent speaking judgingly or enviously of others; how much time dedicated toward self-improvement for the sake of feeling good about ourselves and fulfilling only own our needs; how much money put toward accumulation of things that will give us only momentary delight.

I am not saying that we should not enjoy life, because certainly, life is meant to be enjoyed. Why else would God give us each other, the absurd generosity and beauty of creation, the ability to make delicious food, the creativity to make music and write.

But, here is my question- How much of what we do really contributes to life-giving freedom, and how much of what we do enslaves us to all that the world wants us to believe will make us feel free?  

In the first reading today (Gal 5: 1, 13-18), Saint Paul says, “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.” 

How often do I use my free will for things that actually make me free? True freedom is choosing the good. Choosing that which brings us into closer and more loving relationship with ourselves, each other, and God.

And how often do I use my free will ways that enslave me to my insecurities and temporary things? How often do I use my free will in ways that inhibit true intimacy in relationships, and lead me away from the source of Life and Love?

On the night of our rehearsal dinner, my father-in-law gave a speech wherein he told Ian and me to “keep the main thing the main thing.” I don’t know if he expected it to stick as much as it did, but “keep the main thing the main thing” has became a family motto of sorts. It is simple, but it speaks truth to how to rightly orient our hearts, minds, and bodies. It speaks truth to how to answer God’s call to freedom.

What is your main thing, and how central are you keeping it in the way that you live?

How ’bout a little mystery?

When was the last time you were satisfied with something being unknown in your life?

Personally, I am not always great at dwelling in the mystery of things (even as someone who studied theology i.e., faith seeking understanding). When I am confused about something that I’m going through in life, it’s more of a “What the heck is going on? Where is God in all of this?, and When will it end so that I can get on to a more fulfilling version of life?”

Maybe it’s a human thing to not like uncertainty. But, I think it’s harder for us at this point in history. With some device never too far away, we have access to information whenever we want it. It’s not always reliable information, but it’s there, and it gives us a sense of control.

This challenges living a life of faith. Not because God is not reliable. God is more reliable than whatever is on our smartphones. But because God is not as easy as picking up a phone and searching for something on Google. We have questions for God, but our information-on-demand style isn’t quite how God works. And, honestly, that isn’t how life works.

How many times in life have you been unsure about what is happening, facing something that no article or social media post will fix? It’s part of the rhythm and story of life- unemployment, injury, illness, death, becoming a parent, breaking up, periods of transition.

While we want to validate God’s usefulness based on quantifiable evidence or immediate results, God isn’t a click-and-deliver kind of deal (at least not most of the time).

I was praying with a devotional earlier this week, and this was part of the morning prayer, “Lift up your voices to glorify the LORD/ as much as you can, for there is still more./ Extol him with renewed strength,/ do not grow weary, for you cannot fathom him” (Sirach 43: 28-30).

And I remembered something that I love and often forget about God. God is so much greater than I am. God is mystery, but that mystery is not bad and does not disqualify God. That mystery is worthy of awe and praise. In God’s mystery, a child is being knit together in my womb right now. In God’s mystery, I was formed in my mother’s womb. In God’s loving mystery, I met my spouse at an awkward freshman orientation dance when he was a college senior and I a college junior. In God’s mystery, we go through trials, but are given compassionate people who revive in us hope and strength. In God’s creative mystery, the sun rises every morning and sets every night.

If I’m being honest, the parts of my life that have at one point been mystery to me or that came to me without my doing are the most beautiful. And that is a total gift.

So, let’s invite God’s mystery into our lives and remember that the One we are entrusting ourselves to is Love itself, Creator of all. There’s nothing to fear.

Your cooking is about to make someone very happy.

Chances are, you know someone who needs a meal. Someone who needs a minute to not shop, cook, and clean up their kitchen. Someone who needs the opportunity to rest, to sit down at their table (or on their couch) and enjoy the gift of being thought of, cared for, loved.

Who could that person be? There are people who come to mind easily- a family that has just experienced the death of a loved one, a couple with a newborn, someone recovering from illness or injury. If none of these apply to folks around you, get a little creative- maybe you can think of someone who works long hours most days of the week, a friend going through a particularly tough stretch of life, a neighbor who has a child with disabilities, a friend having a stressful pregnancy, or someone who lives far away from their family.

Maybe you feel like you don’t have the time and energy, or you are on a tight budget. That’s fair. And also- that is kind of the point of sacrifice. People going through difficulties in life doesn’t happen on our schedule. The gift is that we have the opportunity to respond in love. To say, “I see you and I care about what you are going through. Let me try to help in a small way.”

Here are a few quick, budget-friendly, and yummy recipes that someone is going to be very happy to enjoy (double the recipe, and that someone can be you too!):

 

Vegetarian (that I’ve seen satisfy the carnivore known as my father) option: Kale, Chickpea, Marinara Bake with Polenta and Mozzarella

Ingredients:

1 can of garbanzo beans, drained

1 jar of good marinara

1 bunch of kale

1 ball of mozzarella

1 tube of polenta

Crusty bread

  1. Preheat the oven to 400℉.
  2. Take the kale leaves off of the stems. Finely chop up the kale.
  3. In a large, ovenproof skillet, pan or wok, begin to heat the marinara on medium. Add the garbanzo beans and kale. Cook until the kale has wilted into the marinara. When the kale has wilted, you can turn off the flame.
  4. Slice the polenta into ¼-½ inch thick slices. Chop up the mozzarella ball into ½ inch sided squares.
  5. Evenly top the marinara mixture with polenta slices.
  6. Spread the chopped mozzarella over the top of the polenta.
  7. Put the pan into the preheated oven and bake until the cheese is bubbly and melted. (You could also prepare the dish up until the point of being baked and give your recipient the directions of baking uncovered in a 400℉ oven for 20-25 minutes).
  8. Serve with warm, crusty bread. If you are feeling really fabulous, you could gift this dinner with a bottle of pinot grigio or pinot noir.

 

Fish lovers (or fish likers, cause this is delicious) option: Baked White Fish over Green Beans and Tomatoes

This is a recipe from a cookbook that I love, Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. The authors of this cookbook (their first cookbook is entitled Run Fast. Eat Slow.) are two kick ass women with a great philosophy on food- food that is good for you can also taste incredible and be easy to prepare. No weird ingredients, just great food that honors our bodies and helps us enjoy life.

Ingredients:

3 cups chopped bite-size green beans

1 pint cherry tomatoes

¼ cup chopped capers or olives (both are delicious, I think I prefer capers)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided (knowing me, I probably used a bit more)

1 pound flaky, white fish (see what looks fresh- tilapia, rockfish (watch out for bones), sole, Pacific cod, snapper)

Ground black pepper

½ lemon, sliced (knowing me, I probably used more)

Crusty bread for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 400℉.
  2. In a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish, combine the green beans, tomatoes, olives or capers, 2 tablespoons of the oil, garlic, thyme, and ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Spread out to fill the bottom.
  3. Lay the fish on top of the veggies, sprinkling with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper, drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and place the lemon slices on top.
  4. Bake for 25- 30 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily with a fork and the green beans are tender but crisp. (Or, prepare up until the point of baking, wrap the dish in foil, and write directions to bake uncovered at 400℉ for 25- 30 minutes on top of the foil).
  5. I would love a glass of pinot grigio with this dish, but I am sure nearly any type of white wine would be lovely.

 

Comfort in your belly, family-friendly option: Pasta Bake with Meatballs and Spinach

I found this recipe in a magazine, and I am going to be honest, making homemade meatballs was too ambitious for me. I wanted to make three pans of this dish- one for my family and two for other families- and homemade meatballs was not going to happen. So, be gentle with yourself and buy some good quality frozen meatballs. Trader Joe’s Italian style is a personal favorite of mine.

Ingredients:

Short pasta like mezzi rigatoni or penne

2 cups baby spinach, chopped

1 jar good quality marinara sauce

1 bag good quality frozen meatballs

1 ½ cups coarsely grated mozzarella

½ cup ricotta

  1. Preheat the oven to 400℉.
  2. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Make sure to salt that water like the sea. I would go al dente since this dish will cook a bit more in the oven. In the last 5 minutes of cooking the pasta, add in the frozen meatballs (about 20).
  3. Drain the pasta and meatballs and return to the pasta pot. Gently stir in the marinara, 1 cup grated mozzarella, ¼ cup ricotta, and chopped spinach. Pour into large casserole dish (I used a 9 x 13-inch).
  4. Top with the remaining ½ cup mozzarella, and dollop with the remaining ¼ cup of ricotta.
  5. Bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, or until a little golden and you can hear that bubbly love going on. (You can prepare up to the point of baking, wrap in foil, and write instructions to bake uncovered at 400℉ for 15-20 minutes on top of the foil).
  6. If this is going to a family, I’d recommend delivering it with a bagged salad and nice loaf of bread.

But, how do I get there?

I don’t know what you want me to do. I don’t know where you want me to go. And I don’t know how I’m going to get there, wherever “there” is.

When I experience the uncertainties and unfulfilled desires that are woven into life, I am grateful for a guide like Saint Thomas. I am grateful for the relationship he had with Jesus, and what it reveals about my own relationship with Jesus. Maybe he gets such a bad rap as a “doubter” because we don’t like to face our own doubts about faith and life.

Uncertainty can cultivate creativity, increase dependence on God and community, and grow our spiritual lives. It also does dangerous work with anxiety, insecurities, and tempts us to live anywhere but the present moment.

Thomas has committed to Jesus. He loves Jesus and trusts him, but he has some questions.

Jesus and his disciples are sitting together at the Last Supper, in the way that we gather with the people we love most. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death and resurrection. They are scared and don’t really get what he is saying.

Duh. No one had ever resurrected from the dead to sit at the right hand of God before. How on earth could they get it? We have the advantage of a couple thousand years, and we still believe more in the power of Tylenol than the resurrection.    

Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14: 5).

Thomas wants to follow Jesus, but he doesn’t know how. I feel this. I want to do what you want me to do, Jesus. Because I believe in and have experienced your goodness. But, I’ve got to be real, I don’t see the way.

Jesus looks at Thomas, and looks at you and me. He sees us and loves us. And says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14: 6).

You may not know the way, but you know me. Remember the love, the generosity, the mercy, the peace, the freedom I’ve brought into your life. Keep trusting me, and I’ll walk with you through your uncertainty. There is something of the certainty you seek right here, with me.

Too stressed or busy to do service? You might be missing the answer.

When I meet with students about their Christian service hours, a similar answer resounds as to why hours are not done. “I am too busy.” “I don’t have enough time.” “I am too stressed with school and sports and extracurriculars.”

As an alumna of Santa Margarita and the University of Notre Dame, I know well the pressures of competitive academics and athletics. I know well the feeling of simply not having enough time to do everything being asked of you.

This feeling can become overwhelming, or it can become an opportunity. An opportunity to decide what your priorities are, and to get back to basics that your well-being as a person and what you bring to others is actually the most important thing. Who am I? What am I here for? What matters most? What matters least? (See Matthew Kelly’s books to dive more into these questions.)

Here’s what I’ve seen and experienced personally when service becomes a priority:

  • Doing service makes you feel like you have more time. When you set aside time for doing good that benefits others, time seems to gift itself back to you. The most important things come to light, and the least important things fall away. It often takes stepping away and stepping out of ourselves to be able to see what is not as important as we thought it was.
  • Doing service gives you an increased sense of confidence. When students engage in service, it can initially be uncomfortable. You want me to go where and do what?! Moving through discomfort, engaging with people and place that are different than the norm, requires students to adapt. When this adaptation occurs, students learn new things about themselves and feel empowered. It is a beautiful thing to see.
  • Doing service increases your Emotional Intelligence. Ah, the value of EI! It is a gift to our relationships, our schools, our colleagues at work, the folks we meet at the grocery store and everyone in between. Engaging in service builds empathy and decreases our judgment of others by allowing us to enter into the life stories of those we would otherwise not know.
  • Doing service increases your happiness and sense of being loved. When we engage in service, we see the joys and challenges of others lives. More often than not, the first response of students is, “I have so much to be grateful for.” When we engage in service, we learn to love and to receive love.

One of my biggest role models for life had it right in her “Simple Path.”

“The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.” -Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta

So, stop and take a deep breathe with me, and consider, “How can I be of service to those in most need today?”

 

*This blog post was written first for parents and students at a Catholic high school in Orange County.