Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Holy Family Retreat

Anna Jones

SPIRITUAL FITNESS

It’s the stray cough from your neighbor or the crying baby in the back row. Sometimes, it’s the fidgeting toddler in front of you or the couple whispering two seats over.

We’ve all been there: distracted at Mass.

Whether it’s the fault of another congregant or the incessant nagging of your grocery list in your head, we have all experienced moments of distraction during Mass, especially during the homily. Full disclosure, I thought of this column idea during the homily at Mass this week.

When I first became aware of just how distracted I had become, my husband Matt suggested a trick he had learned in his divinity school studies at Yale. He said rather than fighting the distraction, follow the distracted line of thought, pray about it and resolve it. For example, if it’s a grocery list that your mind is making, take a moment and pray in gratitude for being able to afford groceries and resolve to come back to the list at another time. If it’s worrying about cleaning the kitchen before an evening dinner party, take a moment to pray in thanksgiving for being able to host said dinner party and for the friendship of your guests.

This follow-the-distraction-in-prayer trick certainly works, and I’ve found it to be helpful to acknowledge my distractions and quickly move past them in Mass. But author Matthew Kelly also gave me another idea that I find just as useful, if not more so, especially during a homily. When I remember — this week I did not — I slip a small notebook and pen into my purse and quietly slip it out after the Gospel reading and I take notes.

As a newspaper reporter, I’m rather quick at taking notes, but I don’t spend the entire sermon scribbling away as I would during an interview or at a press conference. Rather, during homilies, I just write down key points or phrases that really jump out at me while the priest is talking. I don’t need to remember the football joke, but it is nice to jot down the true gems that I want to remember throughout the week.

This practice, albeit a little strange, has actually helped me walk away with — and better remember — themes from homilies and the Gospels. When I remember my notebook, I’m more likely to remember what was talked about during Mass and think about it more often during the week.

In early December, I was reminded by a visiting priest to St. Thomas More in New Haven that true joy comes from God and we are called to relish God’s blessings and not be too focused on ourselves. The visiting priest from New Britain gave us homework: try to make other people happy and joyful in God’s grace. That’s quite an assignment, but writing it down helped me to think more about pointing out God’s blessings, rather than focusing on negativity in conversations with friends and family during the week. I think without my notebook, and the act of writing down that assignment, I wouldn’t have remembered the assignment past Communion.

It’s a habit I’m still learning, but I’ve brought a notebook often enough to miss it when I forget it at this point. And I’m hoping to continue the practice throughout this new year. After all, if I’m only in Mass one hour a week, shouldn’t I make the most of it?

ANNA JONES is a writer who lives in New Haven. She and her husband are members of the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center Community at Yale University.

bible study 862994 fbOne summer in my college years, I worked the morning shift at a local gym to earn some extra money. Each day when I arrived at 4:25 a.m., without fail, the regulars were already there, waiting for me.

I was always in awe of those dedicated few, and while they never said anything, I know they were not thrilled when I showed up at 4:31, a minute after the gym was supposed to open, because I hadn’t biked there fast enough or had hit the snooze button.

These people were dedicated to their physical health in a way that many of us can’t understand. I know I certainly can’t, and I even raced on a triathlon team in college. There are plenty of gym rats and exercise nuts out there, but how many do you know who arrive at the gym at a time many of us still consider the middle of the night?

When I stop to think about my own habits — personal fitness, spiritual fitness, diet, exercise and such — those early morning risers come to mind. I’m not thinking of rushing to the gym in the wee hours of the morning anytime soon, but it does make me stop and wonder about how I can be more disciplined, and what areas I maybe should pay more attention to.

There are examples galore of ways to aid in physical well-being at the start of a new year. Just ask the membership staff at the local gym what their favorite time of year is. But, I would guess that church attendance doesn’t surge the same way every January. Are there ways we can exercise more of our spiritual health in the new year?

If Sunday church attendance is already a habit, there are plenty of other ways to engage more fully in our spiritual lives this coming year. It could be making it to a daily Mass or special prayer service once a week. Maybe, for some, it’s getting to Mass on all of the holy days of obligation in 2017. Maybe it’s adding another five- or 10-minute period of prayer time to our day. Maybe it’s cracking open a Bible more often, or, as in my case, really, at all. Maybe it’s considering a return to confession.

Advent and Lent are common periods to set the spiritual reset button, try something new or engage in an activity or fasting that will bring us closer to God. Is there something you can put on your resolution list as an addendum this year? Or something that can be a new addition altogether? Is there something that probably shouldn’t wait until the month and a half before Easter?

At the start of 2016, my husband and I decided we were going to make resolutions that catered to three aspects of our health: emotional, physical and spiritual. We decided to make a poster with a list of things we wanted to accomplish in the year, and we weren’t going to shy away from any idea, no matter how unlikely it seemed. A tougher list would just push us harder to follow through, we said.

Well, it seems even making the poster was too ambitious, because I found the poster board in our closet the other day. It’s still blank.

But that poster board is actually going to make it to the wall this year, and with a little luck, hard  work and some of that channeled energy from those summer gym rats, we may be able to look at it again a year from  now knowing that we at least accomplished our spiritual health goals for 2017.

Anna Jonesis a writer who lives in New Haven. She and her husband are members of the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center community at Yale University.

The young and the faithful

by Anna Jones

Imagine a typical scene for TV commercials where the uncle, husband, boyfriend, dad, etc., are checking the game scores during the family event on their smartphones. Now, imagine a college football-obsessed family, most of whom are alumni or have a close tie to the University of Michigan, forced to sit in a church on a football Saturday in the middle of a highly anticipated game.

This reminds me of my wedding day.

One of my favorite pictures from our wedding is the moment that our photographer captured my reaction to hearing that Northwestern University, my alma mater, had just lost to Michigan, 28-0. Apparently, it didn’t end up being the nail-biter that had been forecast.

I didn’t try to lie to myself that members of my family would not be checking in on the game either during the ceremony or as soon as Matt and I walked out of the church as husband and wife. I love my family, and I wouldn’t change our sports-watching traditions for anything. But, that doesn’t mean I didn’t talk to my mom about how nervous I was that people were coming to our Catholic wedding Mass, normally around an hour-long service, kicking and screaming.

What if it wasn’t just football that was a distraction? What if people were uncomfortable in a Catholic Church or were dreading the idea of an hour-long wedding service? Many of the prior wedding ceremonies I had been to outside of a Catholic church had clocked in at around 20 minutes or less, and I was already getting flak from some people about how long it takes the Catholics to get married.

My mom has always been supportive, and proud of my relationship with Matt and of how much our faith has been a part of our journey together. So, when I told her about all that I was worried about, she told me to remember that our wedding was an opportunity to invite our guests to catch a glimpse of an aspect of our relationship that was really important to us. Many of our guests were practicing Catholics, but we shouldn’t make changes in how we envisioned our wedding day for the ones that aren’t, we agreed.

With my mother’s encouragement, we printed all of the responses and even the readings in the program to be handed out at the entrance to the church so everyone could easily follow along with what was happening and we provided hymnals and invited everyone to sing the hymns during communion. How wonderful it was to hear the chapel full of congregational responses and singing throughout!

If for no other reason than the general politeness of our guests, I expected to hear about how people liked the flowers or the reception venue, but it was so surprising to also have received so many compliments regarding our wedding ceremony itself. In the weeks following, I was deeply moved as my family and friends alike continued to quote our priest’s homily, praise our music choices for the ceremony and tell us how happy they were to have been a part of the day.

As of the Feast of the Holy Family on Dec. 30, Catholic wedding Masses will look a little bit different from the way they have in the past. They’ll be a little bit longer and involve the congregation a little bit more.

The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, which will become the standard practice and replace the old Rite of Marriage, includes the congregation in more of the celebration, with an expansion of the introduction, the addition of the singing of the Gloria, additional responses by the congregation after the exchange of vows, and the option for two additional blessings, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

If these changes had occurred before my own wedding Mass, I would have been a little nervous. But, after seeing how much so many non-Catholic or non-religious family members and friends embraced and appreciated our wedding Mass, I have to say, I wish these changes had been put into effect a bit earlier.

Anna Jones is a writer who lives in the New Haven area.

The Young and the Faithful

November 4 marks the third anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. We lost her rather quickly to a cancer that had gone undiagnosed until it was too late for the doctors to do anything for her. In less than a month, my fiery and energetic grandmother went from beating my brother, a star on his high school golf team, in an 18-hole round, to a hospital bed surrounded by hospice nurses.

My grandmother had the kind of laugh that you could pick out of any crowd, no matter the size. It was loud and boisterous and it seemed like, when she was around, there was always something to laugh about. Her energized spirit and love for life was infectious, and she was always thinking about and planning her next big adventure.

Losing my grandmother so quickly in the fall of 2013 really tested my faith. I grew irritated with God, and the deep place of prayer I had fallen into when she was first diagnosed with cancer vanished as quickly as it appeared. Rather than turning to God for help in healing for myself, as I had done on her behalf in the weeks of her illness, I didn’t think to go to prayer at all in the first weeks after she passed.

I was so angry that I even had the nerve to tell my priest, about a month later, that I thought heaven was made up – just something we all wanted to believe existed to make ourselves feel better about losing someone close to us. Thankfully, the priest is a kind man who simply chuckled, and told me that when I was done thinking like Karl Marx, he had a suggestion for me.

My priest did not push me back to prayer right away; he understood I was upset and hurt and needed time to grieve. Instead, he encouraged me to talk to my grandmother directly. I’m sure I gave him a look that suggested he was crazy, but he continued to encourage me to talk to her and tell her all of the things I would have normally told her during a visit to her condo in Michigan or during our regular phone calls. He knew through previous conversations that I had a very strong and close relationship with my grandmother, and he told me that she still wanted to hear about my graduate school classes, my relationships and my regular ups and downs.

Later that evening, after a good cry, I mulled over his advice and decided to give it a go. The next morning, I went for a long walk, along a path I was sure no one would see me, or hear me, and I talked. I talked for a long time, speaking directly to my grandmother about everything I wanted to tell her, from how much I missed her to everything new going on in my life.

The holidays can prove to be a painful time for remembering loved ones, who too often left us before we were ready for them to. And, it’s a challenging time, as we struggle with that internal battle of knowing we should be grateful for all of the love and good things that are present in our lives while still wanting to grieve for what has been lost.

Speaking out loud up to heaven is perhaps not everyone’s idea of a good time, or the first way we think of to deal with grief, but I can say that taking those walks and talking out loud to her has helped me still feel close to my grandmother and include her in my life through holidays, big moves across the country, new jobs and my wedding day last year. Perhaps Father’s advice is something for you to try as the holiday season approaches so that that table or gathering space can feel a little less empty.

Anna Jones is a writer who lives in the New Haven area.

anna jones 75x75Column name: The young and the faithful

I remember the first time my husband and I prayed together out loud. Simply put, it was awkward.

It was Matt’s suggestion. We were in college and dating at the time, and I was leaving soon for a study abroad stint in South Africa. He thought it would be a good idea to pray together before I left.

The prayer was free form; we didn’t have text in front of us. We both spoke, him much more eloquently than I. I was nervous and sounded foolish. I had never prayed like that with someone before, and I didn’t enjoy it all that much. 

Fast-forward five years to our current dinner table. Now, we have an unspoken rule: Before we go on to our regular chorus of “Bless us, O Lord …,” we sit in reflective silence until we’ve each had an opportunity to voice our petitions out loud. It only takes a few moments, but it helps slow us down and open our hearts and minds to each other before those precious mealtime minutes together. Sometimes, we’ll even leave dinner on the stove while we pray, so as not to succumb to the temptation of whatever meal is waiting for us and rush through that time of peace and shared prayer straight from our own hearts.

This is a regular habit for us now, and one I have encouraged other couples to try. It may be difficult at first, without a script, to speak to the Lord with your petitions out loud in front of someone else, but it’s amazing what a little patience and practice will do.

For Matt and me, praying together like that obviously did not come easily. About one year after that first rocky attempt, we tried again. We decided for Lent that year to pray together every day, in that free-form style, together in the school chapel. I was more open to the idea, which definitely helped, but the first few days were still hard for me. I was letting someone else hear my conversations with God, and I didn’t even know if I was saying the right things. Prayer is a place where we can be at our most vulnerable, and I really had a hard time letting someone else be there with me.

But, as I said, through patience and practice, and a couple of years of on-again and off-again with the effort, we eventually settled into our pre-dinner shared prayer routine. And every night is a different experience. Nobody’s perfect, and there are definitely nights where we rush through our reflection time or skip right into “Bless us, O Lord … .”  Other nights, we have more to say, and our prayer can take several minutes as we voice our concerns and fears, pray for healing or peace or thank God for blessings and joys.

In prayer, Matt and I reach a greater intimacy with one another than I ever would have thought possible years ago. Why shouldn’t we approach God together every day, to give thanks, to ask forgiveness, to seek guidance? Why shouldn’t my husband hear what I wish to bring before the Lord after a long day at work or when a worry is weighing heavily on my mind? Shouldn’t we have the opportunity to rejoice together in our many blessings every evening?

We have still both maintained and pushed ourselves in our separate prayer lives – Matt tends to dedicate his first wakeful moments of the day to the Lord, while I usually stick to kneeling at the bedside in the evening. But, just as Tobiah and Sarah pray together on their wedding night (Tobit 8:4b-8), we too, will seek to pray together each evening to ask God, among other things, to “allow us to live together to a happy old age.”

Anna Jones is a writer who lives in the New Haven area.

anna jones slider 954132 1280 webIt only took a couple of days, after sharing news with family and friends about our engagement, before my husband and I started fielding a steady stream of questions about color palettes and reception venues. What kinds of flowers did we want? What would our first dance be, too? These were things neither of us had thought about before Matt had popped the question in August of 2014, but we were suddenly confronted with having to make dozens of choices that have had little to no bearing on our marriage.

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