Stretching as a Writer (in a St. Paul & St. Therese Style)

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One of the beauties and challenges of religious life is living our vow of obedience. That means that sometimes we get assigned to responsibilities that are new, unfamiliar, and sometimes, seemingly not suited to us. Often, it’s because the superior sees something in us that we don’t see. Once we’ve been working in this new area for a while, we may be surprised to discover that we have gifts that we didn’t suspect. At other times, the superior is willing to “take a risk” on us because she knows that the assigned task needs to go forward, and we are the only one (or the seemingly best person) available at the time.

All of this is a long introduction to saying that, during these past two and a half years, I keep finding myself stretched because of my assigned apostolate in Pauline Digital.

Most nonwriters probably think, “Writing is writing.” They may not realize that every form of writing has its own set of challenges and required skills. I’ve been writing across multiple forms since I was a postulant, starting with children’s direct-to-video programs, but until I arrived in Digital, I did not realize that I am basically a “long form” writer. The only short form of writing that I consistently did (and enjoyed) was blogging, but even a blog can be considered long-form writing when taken as a series on one topic.

It’s also very different to write short pieces on assignment that require quick turnaround. I’ve never wanted to write on assignment because I have always been sure that my mind would totally freeze up and I wouldn’t be able to write what was needed. I have suffered from “mindfreeze” ever since I can remember: if I become afraid or scared enough, my brain stops working almost completely, and originality disappears entirely!

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A possible depiction of Black Blacquer, the villain of my 1st story.

When it comes to writing, mindfreeze has been a problem for me at least since first grade when my grandfather fell asleep while I was reading him my very first completed story. (In his defense, it was after supper, he was ill and probably exhausted, my story was absolutely terrible, even for a seven-year-old’s first effort. What would you expect from a story that is less about the hero and more about the villain, who was originally named, “Black Blacquer”? His attempt to listen to my story probably bordered on heroic.)

But I digress.

I believe many writers, if not most, struggle to discover the confidence to write. And somehow, that confidence to write was tested anew when I started to write on assignment—especially with a tight deadline, in a short form that I already know I’m not very good at. It just felt too much like I’m taking a test that will stump me. But if I stop for a reality check and reflect on my actual experience, I realize I’ve experienced mindfreeze in my writing only once in the past two and half years. I asked for help and someone else was able to complete it just after the deadline.

As I’ve grown as a writer and in my relationship with God, I’ve gradually come to realize that mindfreeze—and my chronic insecurity as a writer—is actually a great gift. Starting every writing session with an act of humility and a profound act of trust in God is the best way that I could begin writing anything. It is writing in the spirit of St. Paul and St. Therese  of Lisieux, recognizing that I am an earthen vessel holding a precious treasure, that I have empty hands but that I offer the very emptiness to God so that God can fill me! Ultimately, what I write is not for me nor ultimately about me, but about communicating what God inspires to say in service of others. Every so often, I need to be reminded that it’s absolutely essential that I “reset” my motivations every day. So I’m grateful that recently, I’ve received this reminder so frequently. I see with new eyes that my struggle in the past couple of years with short forms, quick deadlines, and yes, even mindfreeze, has actually been a blessing—for me personally first of all, but ultimately, I hope, for those who listen to and read what I write.

Last Chance To Join in Media Spirituality Retreat!

ChristLivesinMeTomorrow (Wednesday, September 21), is the cut-off date for registration for the Clay Pots Retreat for communications artists, professionals, and enthusiasts. Last week our team of sisters finalized the schedule and conference topics. If you need a little get-away or want to revitalize your spiritual life and your media life, or simply to learn more about living a genuine communications spirituality, this will be an awesome retreat!

We #MediaNuns are already praying for the retreatants! You can find out more information or register at www.pauline.org/retreat

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New Catholic Books & Media

Today’s post is truly a mix of some great Catholic media–from Catholic YA novels to radio interviews to other resources. But first, a little moment of encouragement!

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Reviews of the new YA novel, The Perfect Blindside by Leslea Walh, which also won a Catholic Press Award this year:

Author Sarah Reinhardt’s review

Author Stephanie Engleman’s review

Catholic Underground’s review, where The Perfect Blindside is described as fitting into the genre of: Christian YA Adventurous Mystery (I didn’t even know that was a genre, but isn’t that cool?)

 

 

sr-ta-bioSister Theresa Aletheia Noble’s recent interview with Immaculate Heart Radio in Los Angeles, about: 4 Tips for Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. (Sr. Theresa Aletheia blogs beautifully at pursuedbytruth on Patheos, and is a frequent contributor at Aleteia.org, where her posts include “5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Faith,” “10 Places To Find Excellent Homilies Online,” and my personal favorite, “The Rock Star All the Nuns Know.”

 

 

 

gouletwayofcrosscoverA lot of Catholic kids’ books are written to appeal to girls. Here’s a really brilliant Way of the Cross written by David Goulet and illustrated by Joe Spicer that is directed to today’s preteen and teenaged boys. (Although I think a lot of girls will like it too.) The artwork isn’t my style–and that’s a good thing–because otherwise probably not one kid would pick it up. But the artwork is Manga-styled, powerful and contemporary. The reflections are short, powerful, and moving–and appropriate for middle graders up to teenagers.

 

How To Use Social Media To Grow in Holiness

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I have been saving up this reader’s question because I wanted to give it a well-developed answer. I’ve not had the time to develop the answer in a way that I’d hoped, but rather than wait any longer, I thought I would begin an answer and continue unpacking the topic as time goes on.

“Do you have any tips / tools you have found helpful in doing your work online but not getting sucked into the trap of getting into it too much?  There can be a temptation to over-use social media, to go along with the rest of society which seems to be constantly ‘plugged in.’ As a religious, striving for holiness, I do not think this is appropriate.” 

This is a great question for anyone, not just for religious sisters, brothers, and priests. The laity are called to holiness just as clergy and religious are; the laity, too, are called to an interior life that allows focus on one’s relationship with God. While there is nothing inherently wrong in being plugged in, problems arise when being plugged in pulls us away from the rest of our life: when we are spending so much time online that our lifestyle, serenity, and/or in-person relationships start to suffer. Research is beginning to emerge that reveals an addictive quality in using social media, so it is really important to watch our habits—just as it is important to reflect on all our media habits. Personally, I know that frequent social media use can result in feeling fragmented or scattered. Reflecting on a couple of principals may help us in discerning how we can best use social media, according to our vocation to holiness.

1) If we want to engage with people online, we need to truly engage with people by using social media well, especially if it is for the sake of the Gospel! Using Twitter or Snapchat or Vine halfheartedly, without taking the time to interact with others online, or bothering to really learn about how to use it, is not effective and can even be a less-than-positive witness to the Gospel. When we learn how to use a particular platform well, we don’t need to waste time on it trying to take in everything.

2) No one can engage with all social media well all the time, because every platform takes time and energy, and we have limited amounts of both that we can dedicate to social media. Even if we are responsible at work for a range of social media, we will have to choose which to give priority to, according to our purpose, who we want to reach, and how we want to reach them. Setting boundaries in using the internet becomes essential because the internet has so few boundaries.

3) Create a plan for your use of social media with the following 6 questions.

  • How is God is inviting you to use social media?
  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • What are you trying to communicate?
  • Which social media platform(s) are best suited to: your personal communication style, your message, and your audience?
  • How much time can I afford to give to social media: daily? weekly? monthly?
  • When will you give myself a break from social media? (Breaks may be times—such as a day of the week or between 8 PM and 9 AM; or places—such as the dining room table and the bedroom.)

4) Use your social media plan to achieve your goals and to set healthy boundaries for yourself. While the nature of social media often means that there is cross-over between work and personal use, if you use social media for both you may wish to have two social media plans. Either way, setting limits (time, place, platform) and scheduling can be both helpful and essential. Shape your social media use to fulfill your goals.

Examples:

If an author is trying to network with like-minded authors and potential readers, many social media experts recommend Twitter. If we choose Twitter, we need to become active enough on it so we can learn how to reach our audience with our message effectively. No one needs to be on Twitter all day long, but a consistent presence is important. We might want to use a tool to schedule tweets through the day. We may want to set aside three fifteen-minute segments each day to tweet, read your feed, and retweet. We may decide to be on Twitter Monday-Friday, and take off the weekends or Sunday.

If we want to communicate with young people and one of our communication strengths is visual, we may wish to make Instagram or Vine our primary platform, and post once a week, and view twice a week.

If we use social media to support an interest group (such as a bird-watching hobby), we may simply choose the platform that already has an active and inviting group with that interest. Our plan may be to check in with them weekly for an hour. Or we may choose to check in before and after a related event (such as each bird-watching expedition).

5) Reexamine your use of social media regularly, since social media trends and platforms are constantly changing. We may need to do so as often as every six months or maybe every couple of years. We can apply the principles of discernment to help us to grow in balancing our life better by asking several questions:

  • What are the positive effects for my using social media?
  • What are the negative effects of my using social media?
  • How has my use of social media affected the overall balance of my life?
  • What do I have too much of?
  • What do I have too little of?
  • Do I still make the kind of time I need for:
    * My relationship with myself: silence, solitude, and time to think
    * My relationship with my body: relaxing, exercise, sleep, spending time in nature, etc.
    * My relationship with God: daily prayer, meditation and/or time to reflect, confession, Mass, and other forms of communal prayer
    * My relationships with my loved ones: quality time with family and friends
    * My life: being a truly engaged presence in daily life, without constant distractions or feeling scattered
    * My community: offering a contribution to the community (parish, neighborhood, family, etc.)
    * My work: being able to focus and effectively accomplish my responsibilities
  • How much use of the internet and social media feels right for me? Right now, is my use of media right “out of balance”? What do I need to put my life back into balance?

For further reflection, read Pope Benedict XIV’s Message for 46th World Day of Communications:

“I would like to share with you some reflections concerning an aspect of the human process of communication which, despite its importance, is often overlooked and which, at the present time, it would seem especially necessary to recall. It concerns the relationship between silence and word: two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved. When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning.” – Pope Benedict XIV’s Message for 46th World Day of Communications 

A great read for writers: Scribbling in the Sand by Michael Card

As a writer and communications artist, I am always looking for further inspiration for creativity from a faith perspective, but only rarely do I find real resources that I want to keep going back to. There are seem to be only a handful (which you can see on last week’s post here).

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That’s why I was delighted to recently discover Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity by evangelical musician and songwriter Michael Card. Michael’s songs are based on the Word of God and his following of Christ. They draw from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, as well as his own prayerful reflection and lived experience. I have enjoyed listening to his prayerful insights into the Scripture in his exquisite lyrics for decades—since my first years in the convent when I first discovered his music.

Scribbling-in-the-Sand-PapeScribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity is a wonderful companion for anyone on a creative-faith journey. His insights and personal sharing into the artistic creative process and the closer following of Christ  inspire, provoke (in the best sense of that word—as Jesus’ parables provoke!), encourage, and set the heart aflame.

Michael’s evangelical wisdom is something I connect with deeply, perhaps because it comes from his authentic life experience.  To hear how his creative process works—which is much different from my own, but has so much in common with how I see writing as a service—was both encouraging and life-giving for my reflection on my creative process. This is especially true because at this time my creativity is “unfolding” in new ways, taking different shape and form.

Chapters 7 and 8 of Scribbling in the Sand are my favorites, although Chapter 10 is also amazing—a collection of letters from Christian artists to Christian artists. And the very short appendix, “Growing in Creativity: Some Practical Advice,” is also a rich summary of the book that is ideal for reflection and prayer on our lives as artists. In Chapter 7, with a true appreciation of the Letters of Paul which he frequently quotes, Michael invites readers to focus their creativity on the kenosis “song” of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11. He offers three “themes” of the Philippians Canticle as the “character” of creativity: Humility, servanthood, and radical obedience.

Chapter 8’s title is “A Lifestyle of Listening.” Michael’s description of the “three keys” of listening resonated for me: listening to the Word of God, listening to the silence of prayer, and listening to our own lives—as poem and parable.

If your creativity feels at a low ebb; if your faith life feels like a dry husk; or if you simply want to explore further the connection between faith and art, between our discipleship of Christ and our call to evangelize, Scribbling in the Sand is a real treasure. Michael’s other works (found on MichaelCard.com) are wonderful to explore as well.

I’ll close with a few of my favorite quotations from the book—it was hard to pick just three, there were so many beautiful ones!

“We are driven to create at this deep wordless level of the soul
because we are all fashioned
in the image of a God who is an Artist.
When we first encounter God in the Bible,
it is not as the awesome Lawgiver
or the Judge of the universe
but as the Artist.”

* * * 

“Being the Creator-Artist that he is,
the great Romancer,
the perfectly loving Father,
God calls out to us, sings to us, paints images in our minds through the prophets’ visions.
These sounds and songs, these visions,
stand at the door of our own imaginations
and knock.
Through them God opens the door of his own inner life to us….
This is the heart of prophecy:
God speaking to us
in such a way as to recapture our imaginations.”

* * *

“The greatest, most beautiful expression of our creativity is to find a way to give ourselves.”   

— Michael Card, Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creatity

A Catholic Writer’s Must-Read List

There are so few great writing resources that offer solid spiritual and artistic foundations that we can turn to when we feel ourselves “lost” or confused at the crossroads between  faith and culture, between the demands of our art and the depth of our spiritual lives. I’ve read a lot of books about writing, and a strong selection of books about the artistic process and spirituality, and I’ve only come up with a handful. These are the resources that I go back to when I need inspiration. Here they are, in no particular order, with links and my highest recommendation for writers and artists!

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The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright

The Christian Imagination edited by Leland Ryken

Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

Letter to Artists by Pope St. John Paul II

Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor


Social Media: Help or Hindrance to Prayer?

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I love this photo of our senior Sr. Maria Joseph keeping an open prayerline…through her smartphone!

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve received a few queries about “managing” social media in our lives. For those who have an active lifestyle and are truly engaged with the world, the pressures of our culture have made it harder to navigate that world with serenity. The question of how social media influences our lives—especially our interior lives of prayer and recollection—is a subject that the sisters in my community have been discussing for a few years now, and it’s a question that our young women preparing to be Daughters of Saint Paul also wrestle with. At our Apostolic Mysticism seminar—an international meeting of Daughters of Saint Paul around the world in May—it was the subject of several in-depth discussions. For the Clay Pots Retreat that we are offering in October, I hope to address it in a way that invites each retreatant to look at the balance in his or her own personal lives in a creative way.

In the meantime, many of our sisters are addressing this question—for families, for busy professionals, and for those in ministry.

Sister Helena Burns, FSP, shares her interaction with teens on their use of social media in “Teens and Social Media,” a particularly engaging Life on the Rock Show on EWTN. Social media and smartphones truly can be both a help and a hindrance in family life—it all depends on how we use them!

In “Three Ways To Avoid Being a Workaholic,” Sister Kathryn Hermes, FSP, shares her tips on how to avoid being a workaholic when you are surrounded by many urgent demands—including managing websites, an online store, and social media for our ministry—which is worldwide. This is a great article for busy parents, working professionals, and those in ministry.

Sr. Kathryn is also offering an 8-week online mini-course based on material in her wonderful book, Beginning Contemplative Prayer. She describes it this way:

The 8 Week Beginning Contemplative Prayer Mini-Course has been created for the busy Catholic who is looking for something deeper in their life, as well as for the person who has developed a spiritual life but would like to deepen their understanding and practice. Each week you will receive an email with an introduction to the material for that week. A link in the email will easily open up a seven page digital magazine that will guide you through your spiritual development that week. The digital magazines contains presentations, guided prayer experiences, prayer exercises to try for yourself, and multi-media material.

As I prepare for the “Clay Pots Retreat,” I need your help. What are your biggest questions and concerns regarding social media and cultivating an interior life? I’d love to hear from you! Please post your thoughts in the comments below, or send me an email! Your input will be invaluable.

* How do you balance the various aspects of your life?

* What is the greatest challenge you have to face in balancing your life?

* What is most helpful to you in cultivating a spirit of prayer and an awareness of God’s presence in your life?