Saturday, October 15, 2011

Happy times, part 1

So much has happened! We have two exciting announcements: my older stepdaughter was accepted to her first choice college, the University of St. Thomas, and I’m pregnant! Both of these happy events came to light last week and will take place next summer. Hopefully I will be available for her high school graduation!

Let’s talk first about this adventure called “I have a child in college.” Wow, I did not anticipate this so early in my marriage! Nonetheless, my husband and I are determined to give her a leg up on life. You may remember that a year ago, we were worried that things wouldn’t fall into place for her, or worse that she would decide not to go to college. I’m so glad that she’s decided this is the right thing to do, and has put her energy behind it. In fact, going after a good college is just a side effect of a great change in her: she is now taking action in anticipation of life, rather than observing or waiting to see what happens. I am getting to know a whole new person, a proactive girl who has taken hold of her own life. Good job!

This makes me think more about a concept brought up frequently by a professor who happens to teach at the same University of St. Thomas, Dr. Deborah Savage. She explains that as part of the natural complementarity of male and female, the female is, by nature, actively receptive.

Actively receptive. Hmm. That’s a tough concept, and until I watched my stepdaughter go through these past couple years, my understanding of “actively receptive” was limited to acknowledging that there is a choice the woman should make. I guessed making a choice is active.

Now though, I understand that the action of receptivity is much greater. There is preparation, for example, and that means grooming my soul and my intellect daily so that when the deciding times arrive, I’m able and ready to receive God’s challenges and my husband’s protection.

There is also a responsibility on the part of a woman to actively seek out knowledge, challenges, and things that stretch my physical and intellectual abilities. In my case, nothing but that vigorous expansion of my body and mind will prepare me to meet the increasing hurdles of work, pregnancy, motherhood etc. In my stepdaughter’s case, the next challenges will be physical and sexual discipline during college, not to mention intellectual difficulty of a higher education.

And, there is the discipline and subtlety involved in the moments right after a choice is made. How much do I throw myself into new pursuits and opportunities that I receive? Should I put most of my resources behind my stepdaughter’s college education, for example; how much should we reserve for other needs?

But I digress. I’m so happy for my stepdaughter and my nurturing instincts are in high gear as I watch her prepare for this new phase of life. My dreamer’s imagination is in high gear too, dreaming up perfect classwork and friendships and crushes and vacation travels for her. I can’t wait to see her gain an advantage in life!

-Michelle Gracia

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


One of the most enjoyable facets of this summer's visit from the kids was seeing the two girls bonding as sisters!  They did each other's hair, picked out clothes, listened to music, attended a quincenera with a certain significant boy (!), and Kayla gave some of her pretty, outgrown dresses to Nethanya.

It makes me miss my sisters!  I loved the special occasions when the three of us would get ready for an event.  With clothing, shoes and jewelery strewn about, lots of trading and borrowing, and boys thumping around in their fancy shoes on the other side of the house...well, there's just something delicious about it all!

I have a new goal:  hubby, please let's have however many children it takes to have at least two boys and two girls, so they can each know what it's like to have brothers and sisters!

-Shelley Gracia

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tommy, Tippo & Hippo

The most interesting conversation came up no less than three times this summer.

My two younger stepkids have very different approaches to life and intelligence. My stepson is very emotional, with deeply accurate intuition. My stepdaughter is logical! With a great deal of forward-thinking, accurate analysis. She’s very interested in consequences and simple black-and-white truths.

Like Augustine and Aquinas, who arrived at the same correct theological conclusions via two very different paths.  My stepdaughter identified herself as a "Tommy" (it helps that her big sister is interested in the University of St. Thomas, too) and her brother as a "Hippo."

Tippo would be me—if left entirely to my own devices I’d lean toward Augustine, but I have a mathematical side that shows more often than I’d like because of the usual “adult stuff” (managing finances, scheduling activities, etc.). Not to worry, the logical side isn’t all by necessity—rearranging furniture, tracking expenses and organizing bookshelves are refreshing! So I “tip” back and forth.

Hubby, by the way, spends his work hours Tippo and home life Hippo.

Profiles and literature:

St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Thomas Aquinas


Thursday, August 4, 2011

So many schools!

My stepdaughter’s volleyball camp was at a Catholic school this summer.  Then we went to visit a Catholic college; next came

“Why are there so many Catholic schools everywhere?” their brother asked.

I wish I had given a shorter answer; I fear I lost them! But here it is: God wants us to love and understand Him. In order to understand Him, we have to understand how He works in the world. In order to understand how He works, we have to be educated.

My husband is especially interested in the historical roots of the educational system: the middle ages, monasteries and parishes where common people could come to learn from the priests. Only the wealthiest nobility could afford a private tutor, which was the method of education at the time.

The definition of “school” prior to the monasteries meant a loose group of people who subscribe to a certain belief and perhaps have a common tutor. They were similar to today’s political parties or interest groups. Catholic priests and nuns changed all of that—“school” emerged as a central place for education, and so it is today.

On my part, I believe that true education in any subject is only possible if you can discuss God. Religion puts a purpose and a necessary moral structure beneath all of the sciences, literature, math, and especially the subjects that focus on people (social studies, psychology, anthropology, etc.).

Without God, we all just die away...there's no solid answer to the rebellious question "why bother?"  With God, we put what we learn to use forever.

-  Michelle Gracia

Monday, August 1, 2011

Groaning & Stretching

My middle stepdaughter is right at that age!  12 years old, dealing with mean girls at school, decidedly not a child.  I'm very glad for her big sister, who turns 17 next week.  She has emerged from 3 tough high school years and has embraced the chance to be an example for the younger two.

It's tough to say which girl is "the big thing" this summer.  Is it the younger beauty, with the groaning & stretching that's starting to happen in her bones & soul?  Or is it the older one, bounding toward college, ROTC and a more serious relationship?  Big changes are in the air!

- Shelley

Healthy Criticism

I mistakenly bleached one of my stepsons’ t-shirts, and I’m terrified! I’ve been aware that being a stepmother is an exercise in taking criticism. My own, my stepson’s, other adults'. 

In a last-ditch effort to convince myself that it’s OK to be as flawed as I like, I mentioned the feeling of scrutiny to my husband a few months ago. “You can make mistakes,” I told him, “the kids make mistakes, you can be forgiven. But even the tiniest mis-step from me results in misery.” He gave me a baffled look before saying, “Well yes. You’re their stepmother.”

It takes so few words to tell the truth!

God has handed me a chance to receive honest feedback in a very direct way from my stepkids, so I have to allow them some space to identify my faults. More space than my own (biased) children would need. I hadn’t realized, for example, that I use an ineloquent “ah-ah-ahh” sound when accidents are in the works (when my stepdaughter drives too close to the edge of a lane, when I see a glass about to spill, etc.). The sound draws quizzical attention to me, but doesn’t identify the danger! How annoying; I’m glad my stepson pointed this out to me.

Spiritually, this visit is a good opportunity to do a thorough examination of conscience. Here’s a meditative method I recently tried; I found it to be productive in preparing for Confession, and it also enhances the restorative nature of Reconciliation:
  1. Begin by setting aside about 20-30 minutes in seclusion and silence
  2. Find a comfortable position, preferable vertical—perhaps seated; kneeling only if it won’t become painful—with your arms and legs uncrossed. So yoginis, no seated lotus pose for this meditation! You’ll want your legs and arms to feel smooth and unruffled.
  3. Close your eyes, and make the sign of the cross to decisively mark the beginning of your dedicated prayer.
  4. Starting at the top of your head and working down, use each part of your body to examine its physical and metaphorical uses since your last Confession.
  • Tip top of your head: have I been thoughtful rather than impulsive with my actions? Have my thoughts strayed to the right place? Have my intentions been pure? 
  • Ears: Have I listened to my friends and enemies? Have I forgiven the words of my antagonists and embraced good advice, so only the right words still ring in my ears? 
  • Neck: where have I turned my attention, and my time? Are my priorities where they should be, in daily life and in my direction overall?
  • Eyes: do I look for God in people, in each detail that I pass, and in events? Do I examine the faults in myself, rather than in others? Do I keep my wants in proper perspective against my needs and the needs of others?
  • Nose: am I humble? Vain? Do I care too much about what people see, and the image I portray?
  • Mouth: do I speak the truth? Have I guided others in the right way, and am I sensitive to the circumstances that are/are not appropriate for me to speak?
  • Shoulders: do I joyfully bear my own burdens and the burdens of others? Do I actively make sacrifices in order to offer God the opportunity to fine-tune my discipline and help ease the burdens of others?
  • Continue throughout the rest of the body, top to bottom.
  • How about your left and right sides? Your lungs, spine, arteries, veins and heart? Who/what do you put in front of and behind you? Above and below?
5. After each part of the body has been examined, from head to toe, willfully release any tension that you hold there, relaxing the muscles. Envision that part of your body expanding to allow more room for the Holy Spirit to fill you with grace.
6. Go to Confession.
7. After praying any penance, return again to the same position. From head to toe, again willfully relax and expand your muscles. Straighten your spine toward heaven, and envision the grace of the Sacrament filling the new spaces.

- Shelley 

Friday, April 1, 2011

"The greatest art is that which glorifies God."

This is what my grandmother used to tell my brother and me, every summer when she'd take us to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  My favorite areas were always the Greek and Egyptian.  For some reason I was most interested in sculpture, which I'm still no good at!  I think my brother's favorite hall was Arms & Armor...although for the most part, he was just bored.

First bored child at the art museum

We took the younger two kids to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this Christmas.  It's smaller, but teeming with artifacts and stunning European works from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.  I felt so close to my grandmother! 

"Why are so many paintings about Jesus?" asked Nathaniel.

Well, a few reasons.  The minor, practical reason is because the most successful artists of the day were those who chose to dedicate their craft to God.  With the support of a very religious European culture, they were the only artists who could earn enough to live!

But more importantly, artwork educated during a time when only nobility were commonly able to read.  Paintings served to illuminate the stories of the Bible.  Priests, primarily those in monasteries, were the only teachers who served the common people, and they taught literacy and history using Scripture.

Second bored child at the art museum
And to this day artwork helps us relate more closely to the stories that we read or listen to.  One of the most common images, Madonna and Child, helped families understand the love within the Holy Family and put that love to work in their own homes.  And the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross simply doesn't hit home as deeply until one both hears and sees His injuries and the grief on His human face.

Finally, it's because the Catholic Church has always been in the museum business!  Even to the earliest days, the Apostles--the first bishops--recorded their activities and decisions, gathered memorial artifacts, and helped the Christians of their areas (diocese) bury the dead with plaques and relics to preserve their stories.  We wouldn't have a Bible otherwise!  Illustrations and artwork--some depicting the Consecration during Mass :) --are found on the walls of the very earliest catacombs where our ancestors gathered in secret to worship.  Then throughout the dark ages, some parishes and a handful of monateries were the only places that managed to ward off the invasions and protect records, art and artifacts. 

All for the purpose of understanding how God works in the world:  illuminating more of God's will for us, and giving honor to Him who is the source of all beauty!



I just realized it's been WAY too long since I've posted to this blog!  I only posted my story about Philomena on the other blog, even though it has a grand place here on this one.  So, here it is:
Introducing our daughter, Philomena Sebastian Gracia. One of the things that I love about my faith is the opportunity to connect with people throughout time—others of the “Church militant” still making our way on earth, and mentors of the “Church triumphant” who have succeeded in making it to heaven. Nothing gives me hope quite like the knowledge that others, just as flawed as I, have made it.

Philomena. Six years ago, after investigations and archaeological debates that lasted most of the 20th Century, scientists confirmed that in the year 202 a small girl roughly 13 years old was buried in the
Catacomb of St. Priscilla beneath Rome; buried with honors bestowed only on the Church’s martyrs of those early years: a small glass vial containing an amount of her blood and a shard of bone to represent violent death.

fresco painting of Mary, Jesus and a prophet in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla

Tiles sealing her grave were inscribed pax tecum filomena (Peace to you, Filomena), and symbols of virginity and martyrdom were engraved. Within three years of the tomb’s discovery, miracles accumulated.

“She became the only person recognized by the Church as a Saint solely on the basis of her powerful intercession, since nothing historical was known of her except her name and the evidence of her martyrdom.”

Like her namesake, our daughter Philomena is herself unknown to the world, but her good work on God’s behalf shines. She inspired love among our friends, gave us a sense of clarity and simplicity, and most importantly, she brought her sisters and brother so close to us by her short life and death. She easily brought our family to a higher level of understanding that I have been praying for for years.

I know some people who follow this blog aren’t Catholic, and a post like this is probably not usual for your faith. In my muddled words I know I risk more confusion than less. By “saint” (small “s”) Catholics mean anyone who is in heaven, including angels and people who have died and gone to paradise.

symbols of martyrdom (archor) and Christianity (fish, and Chi Rho) engraved on a tile from the Catacomb of St. Sebastian
symbols of martyrdom (archor) and Christianity (fish, and Chi Rho) engraved on a tile from the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

Since we’re not privy to the state of a person’s soul at the time of death—indeed, it’s even difficult to know ourselves well enough as that!—it’s very difficult to know for certain whether or not a soul is in heaven. So the Church dedicates such careful personal, scientific, medical, societal and prayerful study before recognizing (canonizing) a person with the title “Saint.”

The idea of God in His generosity assigning tasks to saints (people and angels) is found throughout the Bible. Personally I look at it as a joyful prospect that if I make it to heaven, I’ll be able to serve God with the surety that what I’m doing is exactly what He wants me to do! No more uncertainty about what’s best. I can get my instructions straight from the source. I think God has written into human nature the desire to accomplish good things, and that type of positive desire certainly must increase with closeness to God. Maybe in heaven I’ll even be able to communicate without the danger of misspeaking, which is always a trick of the devil when humans on earth converse!

Back to the practical difficulty in determining whether people’s souls are in heaven. In 1587 the Office of the Devil’s Advocate was established to disprove miracles and disqualify people from official canonization. Hence our popular name for someone who in good faith tries to ensure that his peers’ positive thinking doesn’t obscure reality. Although the name of the Vatican department recently changed, the office remains assigned to ensure that the Church doesn’t inadvertently encourage people to communicate with someone not in heaven! It’s only after passing all of the tests that sainthood can be acknowledged.

Why bother, when we can go straight to God? At its core, communication with saints in heaven is because love is inclusive. I remember the first time a priest described the relationship between people on earth and in heaven as “inclusive,” but that idea took a long time to sink in. God loves people past, present and future as His children, and the nature of fatherly love means He wants us to love each other. I think of when I met my stepkids. They love my husband, I love him, and we sit around a table together. Should each child and I keep our eyes on him alone, and avoid speaking to each other? Does it detract from our love towards him when the kids look to me for an example—or when they speak to each other before jointly laying a question before my husband? In coming to each other, are we denying Raul’s place as leader? How silly! Of course our love for my husband only grows as his kids and I develop relationships with each other. It illuminates more of him. Love is inclusive.

When I lost little Philomena, my oldest stepdaughter suggested that when I find a penny, I think of it as a gift from my little angel. Since then I’ve found pennies in usual and unusual places, from a cafe carpet to the thumb of a pair of gloves. Each time, my thoughts include little Philomena and my tender-hearted stepdaughter. Thank you, Kayla, and pax tecum, Philomena.

-Michelle Gracia

Monday, January 10, 2011


There’s an odd presence in our house. It’s like a ghost, of my husband’s past.

My stepkids, like all of us, have elements of both parents in their personalities. Recently one of my stepdaughters has been gravitating heavily toward her mother, and doing nothing (or in some cases, not enough) about important aspects of life: school, personal relationships, job, her future.  Religion.  We love her immensely and want to see her use her talents to succeed in school and beyond. But since she doesn’t live with us, our efforts to motivate her from afar and provide resources have come to naught. Part of her Grand Avoidance is to make excuses, with the help of her mother, not to visit anyone on our side of her family.

Lack of action has never been my flaw; on the contrary I tend to leap before I look. My husband also is a great “doer” in work, education and a myriad of personal pursuits from boxing to photography. We’ve been exposed in our own homes to a variety of personalities. Our parents and siblings, and to an extent our aunts and uncles all expose us to different methods of dealing with life. And teen years are a time of new boundaries and experimentation for everyone.

I’ve always pictured “new boundaries” and “experimentation” as having actual events to them. A real live experiment. This grand lack of anything—dare I name it cowardice?—is something I’ve never encountered either in my own family or in my husband’s, and I don’t know how to deal with it. It hangs in our home even when she is not here, because she is still part of us, and her mother is part of her. If only there could be some thing to handle!

I know there is always prayer, so I’ve been doing what I can to research saints, parental sites and prayers that maybe can offer advice. I haven’t found much beyond very broad prayers—prayer of a mother, prayer for a teen, etc.—but the research and prayer give me the sense that I’m helping and give me the opportunity to dedicate some time to a girl that I love.

St. Aloyisius Gonzaga, patron saint of teenagers and namesake of Gonzaga University
Perhaps also this is a time when I have to realize that all personalities have also elements of God. After all, this avoidance, which I have no idea how to deal with, is something God has handled in her, in her mother, and in countless people throughout history. President Kennedy was profoundly inactive during the Bay of Pigs crisis, drawing intense, justified criticism…but no war ensued, so miraculously lives were saved. Did he know that doing nothing would release the tension? Undoubtedly not. More likely he just didn’t have the courage to do what he thought to be right. Nonetheless his inaction left room for God to put some calmness into riled tempers. So prayer remains my only answer.

I’ll have to trust that God will put answers in front of me, one at a time, at a pace that my stepdaughter will be able to handle.