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"For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20


Happy new year & Christmas continued

Laura DeMaria

It is 2019. And, you probably know, Christmas is not over. So! I wrote an article about it for Catholic Stand, called Radiating the Joy of Christmas Year-Round. Nice and corny, eh?

It’s just that everyone is at their best at Christmas and it bothers me why that doesn’t continue through the rest of the year. Truly! Why can’t we give money, hug our friends, sing songs and try out patience throughout the course of the entire year? It can be done. See my article, below, for how.

Also, I am excited to be returning to Morning Air radio this coming Monday, January 7 at 7:30 am eastern to discuss this topic, and how important it is to keep the joy and love of Christmas alive in your heart and prayer - and actions - year-round. You can listen using the Morning Air app, or simply open up the online player here.


Radiating the Joy of Christmas Year-Round

It is easy to be cheerful at Christmas. Even as Advent brought us ever closer to Christmas Day, we found ourselves giving money to the poor, volunteering with our church, praying with more intensity, and spending more time with friends and loved ones. But once the Epiphany is behind us, and the overwhelming joy we felt in remembering our Savior’s birth begins to recede, many of us may drop these worthy movements in our lives, and return to “ordinary time.”

Can you imagine what our world would be like if everyone, like Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, would “honor Christmas in our heart, and keep it all the year?” The good news is that it is possible!

Here are some suggestions for how to keep the beauty and giving spirit of Christmas alive in your home and family all year long. After all, our Catholic faith is meant to be lived and shared, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.

Remain active in the life of your church

You may have experienced a momentary rush of goodwill this Christmas volunteering with your parish’s homeless ministry, wrapping gifts for the needy, or donating canned goods. Keep it up! There is no better time than now to join a ministry at your church.

From literacy to child care to nursing home visitation to pro-life events and beyond, our churches are always looking for committed lay people to help, and even to step up and lead. May I suggest theLegion of Mary, which is my personal favorite lay apostolate (and, might I add, the world’s largest).  And if you don’t see the ministry you are looking for, start one. Chances are you are being called in some particular way. And don’t just keep the activity to yourself – invite your friends and family to experience the joy of service alongside you.

Commit to your prayer life

Prayer is the time when we meet God. If you feel you simply don’t know how to pray, or can’t find where it belongs in your daily schedule, look for prayer retreats in your diocese or read a good bookto get into the basics.

Some tend to see prayer as more difficult than it really is, but prayer can be as simple as saying theJesus Prayer.  No matter what format your prayer takes, however, it is best to simply start and allow God’s grace to take you the rest of the way. Start small with a rosary, a Memorare, the Examen, or other simple, daily prayers.  Then let God do the rest.

Committing to an active prayer life also means making your own home a prayerful sanctuary. Set aside an area as your prayer space. Equip it with a comfy chair, a small table to hold your prayer materials and rosary, a candle, or a crucifix. It is good to pray anywhere and always “without ceasing,” but if you’re looking to pray more deeply, setting aside this sacred space reminds us of the importance of what we are doing during prayer time: meeting with God.

Sing with your friends

I feel it is a real shame that people don’t sing together anymore. And I don’t mean karaoke! I mean shared songs that everyone knows, and in which no one is the star.

I was reminded of this recently while having dinner at the L’Arche community. After dinner, core family members took turns deciding which Christmas carols we would sing. It was a sweet, small, unifying gesture. We may have been a bit out of tune but it made no difference to the joy we all felt singing together.  And anyway, as Elf tells us, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Spend quality time

One of my favorite scenes, in any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, is when Scrooge observes his nephew, his nephew’s wife, and their friends playing parlor games on Christmas Day. It reminds me of the games we played when I was a child, when my family gathered at my Grandma’s house (epic family games of Bingo), or even while stuck in the car on a long drive.

I remember some particularly competitive games we played on car trips. In one game everyone would compete to be the person to spot the most states’ license plates.  Another game was to see who could count the highest number of cows (we’re from the south, ya’ll).  We would also take turns telling one story in different parts, or play the “I’m going to the beach and bringing a…” game. They’re not complex games, but they get you talking to each other, and it often results in much silliness.

Reclaim the tradition, year-round, of gathering friends and family in your living room for game time. Here’s a list of Victorian Parlour Games to get you started. “Reverend Crawley’s Game” sounds like a Victorian version of Twister.

Start a year-round tradition

Our holidays are usually full of traditions, from the Christmas day menu to who gets to put the last ornament on the top of the tree. Why not bring that spirit into the rest of the year?

Think about starting some new traditions. How about hosting friends on the first Sunday of the month for dinner?  Or maybe attending adoration once a month with your children, followed by a shared meal?  Consider starting a tradition of making a domestic pilgrimage to a new place at the same time each year.  You might even consider re-reading your favorite saint’s biography on the saint’s feast day each year.

We look to our traditions to give us continuity and memories from year to year. But there’s no reason traditions need to be relegated to a certain season, liturgical or otherwise.

Make year-round gifts

Christmas is usually when we make good on our pledges to charity, but why relegate this noble act to just December? If you’re like me, you may find there are more charities you’d like to give to in December than your budget can cover. Instead, consider giving a small amount – say, $25 – to a different charity each month, thereby spreading the giving out throughout the year. This can become a family decision, too. Your children or siblings may have a heart for an entirely different cause.  Together, you can teach each other about what special causes are important to you and share in the satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting a number of worthy missions.

There are other ways to make small acts of charity throughout the year. You can buy a homeless person dinner or even just a cup of coffee. Maybe write a letter to a family member or a homebound friend each month.  Ask for a Mass to be said for a friend.  Or spend a holy hour praying for someone else’s intentions. There are many opportunities every day to give to others.

Look into your own heart

These are all simple suggestions for actions we can take to keep the joy of Christmas alive in our hearts and lives year-round. But I believe there is also a need for some introspection. Why is it that we may default to a belief that we are not capable of living in this loving way for more than a few weeks of the year? What holds us back from loving God freely, and showing that love in the world?

Recently I revisited the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus, a tax collector, hears Jesus is coming and “sought to see who Jesus was.” Being short in stature, this venerable leader of the community thinks nothing of running ahead of the crowd and climbing a tree to get a better view as Jesus passes. Jesus, seeing him there – or, I think, understanding this great and foolish expression of love – asks Zacchaeus to come down, “For I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus “receives him joyfully,” and exclaims, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

We hear nothing in this story about Zacchaeus’s doubt of his own “loveableness.” He does not consider his station in life, the dignity with which he is supposed to conduct himself as a public official, or the chance that, like the disciple Matthew, his status as a tax collector makes him unworthy to be a part of Jesus’s circle. He gives himself totally, and freely, and his reward is to receive God’s love freely in return. As Jesus replies, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Keep Christmas all year long

I believe we do ourselves a great disservice when we assume ourselves incapable of great love or a great relationship with God. As St. Ignatius might say, the mistaken belief of our own unworthiness is a trick of “the enemy of our human nature.” Rather, we were made by God to love Him, and to strive to learn to love and serve our neighbors. It seems that Christmas is the time of year when this is easiest, or most obvious, yet I believe that every day of the year presents the opportunity to “honor Christmas in our heart, and keep it all the year.”

One last thought: I recently attended my church’s annual evening of Christmas lessons and carols and heard a song called “The Work of Christmas” for the first time. As the song says:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

3 Questions at Christmas

Laura DeMaria

This Advent, and through Christmas eve, last night, three questions have been posed to me that I want to share, because they made me think and feel differently about Christmas (which is itself remarkable, because so much of Christmas, for me, is about returning to the same traditions and reflections year after year).

The first is, “Who loves you most in the world?” followed by, “How will you let love lead this Advent?”

The last is: “Whose story are you called to be a part of in this coming year?”

The first two I came upon during L’Arche’s Advent retreat in early December. As a group, the community came together for a morning where we talked about Joy, Hope, Peace and Love. The morning’s reflection was facilitated by the “As I Am” videos, a series of short films about the individuals in different L’Arche communities around the world. I highly, highly recommend watching any and all of them. They will all make you cry.

That morning, the one that made me cry the most was “No Lions in Paris,” which shows the journey of Musa, from Kenya, as he vacations in Paris. In it, Musa narrates as if he were a travel guide.

He tells us the first thing we should do when we leave home is “Say goodbye and ask your friends to pray for you.” We see him on the plane; observing and participating in life in Paris; making new friends; and also making very true and funny observations about Parisians (“They eat tree leaves like goats”).

All of this is moving, and it is especially moving to see his joy as he experiences these things with his companions. We see what he sees, through new eyes - through his eyes. But the most significant moment comes when it is time to return home, and Musa says, “I didn’t stay long, because I had to go to work, and go back to the people who love me most.”

That is a striking sentence. It struck me because it is spoken without any doubt; with such directness and with Musa’s own faith that he is very, very loved. And so we see scenes of Musa’s return, where he greets his community with open arms, walking toward them for hugs and kisses, never once turned away, being danced around and celebrated in his homecoming, because he is, indeed, loved.

And so, after the film was over, in the quietness of our own hearts, and then in small groups, we were asked to answer the questions, “Who loves you most in the world?”

It took me aback. I am used to thinking of all those people I love the most, and never once considering who it is who loves me most. I know my answers - just as probably you do, too - but it changed the way I look at myself. Me, beloved. Maybe even more so by someone I had not considered! Whose love for me has been ongoing, steadfast, present, and has changed me, made me who I am? What has it meant to me, to be loved? How is it I see and measure the love that those around me give, and am sure of it? What about those at a distance - how is it that love cuts through distance and lands on us with the same effect as that given in the immediate? And I thought of all the different kinds of love, all landing on me, and on everyone - the love of siblings, of friends, of parents, of mentors, of priests, of co-workers, of those who know us well, and see us. All valid forms of love, no more important than another. All working on us, as God’s love works on us. And these are reflections of the love God has for us, because that is what earthly love is - the reflection, the closeness and approximation, of the grandness of God’s love for us. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known…”

So after: this was followed by, “How will I let Love lead this Advent?” It being Christmas day today, I will turn this to simply, “How will I let Love lead?” I immediately thought of the Holy Spirit. Can we substitute “Holy Spirit” for love? This is a common challenge in the spiritual life, to allow the Spirit to work, rather than to try and make the Spirit work how we want. Thine will be done (not mine). What on earth do we have to lose when we let Love lead? I will take this with me through the year.

The last question: “Whose story are you called to be a part of in this coming year?” The priest last night asked this in his Christmas eve homily. We are a part of the story of Jesus, and he is a part of our story. We know the story of the night of his birth, by virtue of hearing it many times - Mary and Joseph with the donkey on the road; the angels appearing to the shepherds; the Wise Men on their path; all of it. It is a story, our story, but one that is not over, because always we will be asked to be with one another, in love, in each other’s stories. We cannot give up on one another; flee when things get tough, abandon a relationship when it becomes difficult. My spiritual director recently told me, “This is where real holiness happens. It’s not just in feeding the homeless - it is in the nitty gritty of knowing other people.” There is where we arrive!

How will I let love lead, how will I know those who love me, how will I show love, like Christ, with the pure and beautiful trust of Musa, because I am beloved?

L’Arche Communities Bring the Differently-Abled Together

Laura DeMaria

Greetings! Friends, see below my latest article at Catholic Stand, which you can read in its original form here. In this article, I discuss what being friends with the L'Arche community has taught me so far - because learning to live in and with these communities is a gift that unfolds over time, in many ways, and I hope, never stops unfolding! Read on to lead more about this special organization (or some would call it a movement) that brings the differently-abled to share life together. Enjoy!

L'Arche Communities Bring the Differently-Abled Together

In 1964 a young man named Jean Vanier visited an asylum for the disabled at the invitation of a priest friend, who was a chaplain at the asylum. There, Vanier witnessed the inhabitants’ neglect, loneliness and sub-human living conditions. Feeling a call and a stirring in his heart, Vanier pooled resources from friends and family and bought a small house.

Once the house was purchased, Vanier, “in response to a call from God, invited Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, two men with intellectual disabilities, to come and share their life in the spirit of the Gospel and the Beatitudes that Jesus preached.”

So begins the story of L’Arche International.

International In Scope and Mission

From this very simple beginning, L’Arche (the French word for “Ark”), which is what Vanier named his little community, has grown to become an organization of over 145 communities in more than 35 countries – homes where individuals with and without disabilities share their lives together.

Although I am active as a Board member and volunteer of L’Arche of Greater Washington, and have visited the homes that make up the L’Arche community in the Washington area, I had never visited any of the houses in the other communities. But earlier this year, a work trip took me to Cleveland, OH.  Knowing I’d get in a day before business started, I reached out to the staff of L’Arche of Cleveland(pronounced “larsh”).  I very much wanted to have dinner at one of their homes, meet those who lived there, and find out how L’Arche life in Cleveland might be similar and different from that in Washington.

So there I was in a town and neighborhood I had never before visited, going to have dinner with people I had never met nor spoken to, in a home I had never stepped foot in. And I couldn’t wait to get there.  The uniqueness of the situation was not lost on me. Then again, the uniqueness of the L’Arche movement is part of what makes it so remarkable.  It is an organization that has led many people through the decades to find themselves transformed by L’Arche.

Celebrating People

L’Arche’s statement of identity and mission says, “We are people, with and without developmental disabilities, sharing life in communities belonging to an International Federation. Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.”

It’s important to recognize that in these communities, it is not one group (the able-bodied) taking care of the other group (the disabled). Many of the “core family members,” as these special people are called, have jobs and hobbies, friendships and family outside the home. They share a sense of life that is much wider than their immediate community inside the home.

That night in Cleveland, a Lyft driver picked me up at my downtown hotel and drove me to the eastern suburbs. It was snowing as we drove, crystalline flakes gathering as we passed the industrial architecture that is so different from what I see every day in Washington. Eventually we emerged in a residential area, full of cozy houses and tree-lined sidewalks. The passing glow of streetlights slowed as we arrived at my destination. Aside from the presence of a very large van in the driveway outfitted to accommodate wheelchairs, the house looked no different than its neighbor houses.

An Enjoyable Evening

Inside, I was welcomed by both “core family members” – those members of the house who are developmentally disabled – and the House Leader and the Pastoral Leader. (These are just fancy names for other members of the household who take care of everything from buying groceries to making sure everyone takes any prescribed medications.) Of course, everyone has a role to play in listening, spending time together, having fun, getting to work on time, resolving conflicts, and any other real-life matters that arise when living in community. The warmth with which all of these people – seven strangers in total – welcomed me into the home made me think, “This is how life should be – how everyone should be treating each other!”

I could list for you all the small and special ways that night was memorable, but what stands out the most was how much I laughed with my new friends. Something I have noticed in every L’Arche home I have visited is the prevalence of inside jokes. Just like siblings tease each other, those living in community get to know each other’s quirks and use them to their own full comic advantage. And yet, I never once felt like an outsider or a spectator. Rather, I was drawn into the lives of those I was getting to know.

Mutually Transforming Relationships

The meal began with a prayer, and ended with a prayer. Every L’Arche home has its own tradition when it comes to ending a meal, whether that means allowing one family member to read a meditation, passing a candle around and sharing prayer intentions, or singing (or some combination of all these things!). I was delighted to find this particular home was a believer in the power of song and we ended the night with a chorus of the great gospel song “Amen.”

Truly, what I find so compelling about L’Arche is its dedication to both individuals and the community family, for who they are. At its core, the organization exists to provide a place for mutually transforming relationships, where others’ gifts and abilities, as varied as they can all be, are treasured and learned from. I am happy that I can bring my own professional experience in fundraising and communications in order to help grow the Washington, DC community; but I also know if I did none of those things, I would still be loved. In other words: the way people love in L’Arche is the way God loves us for who we are, as we are made.

It is a very singular thing, to call out another’s gifts: to tell and show them why they matter to you. This is what L’Arche is helping me learn how to do, with others, and with myself.

Joy and Love

The community I spend the most time with, here in Washington, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Next month we’ll celebrate with our Heart of L’Arche breakfast (if you are in the DC area and are interested in learning more, Message me!). Celebration is a big part of the L’Arche way, and this beautiful, four-minute video about a birthday celebration for a core family member, Fritz, captures that joy and love perfectly.

It is no wonder that people who experience even just a piece of the phenomenon that is L’Arche are drawn in, often for life. The communities have many friends and neighbors, and it can start from something as simple as a joining a home for dinner.

L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier, now 90 years old, is a prolific writer. His works include titles like “Becoming Human,” “Befriending the Stranger,” and “From Brokenness to Community,” which all touch on different facets of the human condition and the innate desire to love and be loved. “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things,” he says. “It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (See a great compilation of his quotes here.)

Jean Vanier wrote in “Becoming Human” that, “My belief and my experience have shown me that there is a way out [of loneliness] . . . But this way out requires that we all discover our fundamental beauty as human beings – our capacity to give life and receive it from others.” To achieve this, we must see we are not alone; that we are a part of the community that is the human family. What a gift to be able to recognize this in not only others, but ourselves: the sacredness of who God made us to be.

Valuing and Loving Others

You may also be interested in reading the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, who was greatly influenced by his years spent at the community in Ontario. This famous psychologist and professor developed a deep friendship with Vanier, as well as a man named Adam with development disabilities. He chronicled their friendship and the impact it had on him in “Adam: God’s Beloved.”

When my evening in Cleveland drew to a close, I was going to call a Lyft to take me back to my hotel, but the Home Life Leader generously offered to drive me back. On our way, we discussed fundraising and communications challenges the homes face. I was excited both to offer ideas and to hear her own enthusiasm for making the L’Arche way of life more visible. That is one of the interesting things about supporting L’Arche: it is about more than just physically supporting those living in community together. When people give their time, talent and resources to L’Arche, they are giving to a broader mission.  They are saying we must value and love those who are differently-abled than us. What a message for our world!

If you want to know more about the overall movement, and where you can find a community in the US near you, visit the L’Arche USA website.