Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click a link to purchase something, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

I had seen the book Theology of Home * all over my instagram feed for months and was drawn to it for several reasons. First of all, the photography for the book is beautiful. Second, especially since having a house of my own and having children, I’ve been looking for ways to build the domestic church. Now during this extended time of quarantine (our county has been locked down since March 16th), my home is more than ever our family’s church. I want to make sure that my home and its physical space lead my family closer to Jesus every day. When a student gave the book to me as a gift, I was thrilled!

The book is set up as a series of essays by several Catholic women: Carrie Gress, Noelle Mering, and Megan Schrieber. The photography is the work of Kim Baile. The essays are collected into 12 chapters: Entering, Remembering, Building, Light, Nourishment, Safety, Order, Comfort, Hospitality, Balance, Leaving, and Mary, the Homemaker. The photos of these women’s houses are incredibly aspirational. Even though I knew that no family with four to six children keeps a house that clean and that they were definitely staged for photos, I struggled a little with the perfection in these pages. None of the essays dealt with my piles of laundry in the living room or inability to keep our table clear of all sorts of junk.

Look at the end pages!

If you love decorating magazines, this is a good book for you. It’s beautiful and uplifting, but it didn’t hold the practical ideas that I had hoped it would. I am a huge fan of self-help, and for some reason I thought this might be a little more like Catholic self help for the home. That being said, I want to reread the essays with a notebook and keep track of the ideas or decorating that I want to try in my own home. The first time I just read the book straight through.

I think this book would make a great gift for newly weds or friends who have just bought a house. I would hesitate to give it to a brand new mom because those first months and years are so hard and this book makes it look a little easy.

Popcorn rating: 5. This book is easy and relaxing to read. It will inspire you to clean your house and hang some art. My three year old even liked reading it with me.

Stars: 4. I wanted things to be more specific and practical for my reality, which I realize was not the purpose of the book, but it was my hope for the book. However, it is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a while, and I think that counts for a few stars of its own.

*this is an affiliate link. This means that if you purchase the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Today is my last official day of the weirdest school year ever. More than ever I am feeling the need to recharge physically, emotionally and spiritually. As I have the past two summers, I am planning to do a series of blog posts designed to help you do that too. These are the spiritual books I’ve read throughout the year or in past years that have helped me grow in my faith and be the best possible teacher, wife, mom and Catholic woman that I can be. (Don’t worry, I know I have a loooooong way to go, these are just some of the books that are helping me to get there.) Because I started the year with the lofty goal of getting to know the female Doctors of the Church a bit better, there is a theme in some of these books, but you’ll also notice a LOT of St. Therese of Lisieux in there. Reading and praying with her writings helped me get through a lot of difficult times this year.

Like last summer, the rating system I will use is one that my sisters and I use: popcorn.  If a book is an easy, kick off your sandals and read at the beach book, it will be a 5 popcorn read.  If it is a book that will challenge you (think the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint John Paul II) it will be a 1 popcorn read.  To avoid people thinking a 1 popcorn read is a bad book, I will use stars to indicate how helpful the book was to me spiritually.

Finally, for many of the books I will provide a link to where you can purchase it on Amazon. If you decide that this may be a book for you and purchase it using my link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. This is a small way for me to pay for the blog and continue to provide great content and resources to teachers and parents for absolutely free.
Happy Summer!

The fourth time Mary speaks in the Gospels is at the Wedding in Cana, which is found in John 2: 1-12. This is the only time that we can hear Mary speak in Jesus’s adult life and ministry, and I love the way the interchange goes between the two of them. The story is a familiar one: Mary goes to Jesus and tells him, “They have no wine.” She doesn’t ask or explain anything, just tells Jesus what the situation is and trusts that he can take care of it. His response seems a bit exasperated (“Women, how does your concern affect me?”) and more than a little rude. I love how Mary doesn’t even react- she just turns to the waiting servants and tells them “Do whatever he tells you.”

I feel like Mary’s last words in the gospel sum up our Christian vocation beautifully. We just need to do whatever he tells us. Mary could ask whatever she needed of Jesus and completely trust that he would take care of it because she truly knew who Jesus was and what he could do. The more time we spend with Christ, the more we can listen and know how to do whatever he tells us.

Here are some ideas for a week based on “Do whatever he tells you.”

Read the Wedding at Cana in the Bible. Students could read the scripture and study it using the Lectio Divina scripture study method. I have a pre-made version in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, but you could easily do as a whole class bible study or prayer journal activity.

Use the Examen to start talking about discernment. Learning about Ignatian spirituality and specifically the Examen prayer completely transformed my prayer life and relationship with Christ. In order to be able to do whatever Jesus tells us, we need to have a real relationship with him, like Mary did. The Examen provides a structure for daily prayer that helps build an awareness of God’s workings in your life. There are lots of versions specifically for younger people- here is one called the five finger Examen.

Research what Jesus tells us to do. Seek out Bible passages where Jesus tells us what we should do. For example, Jesus teaches us how to pray with the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). He gives us the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), tells us not to judge (Matthew 7:1-5) and tells us the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22: 34-40). There are countless other lessons throughout the gospels- students could try to find 3, or work in prayers to go in depth in one specific teaching of Jesus and present that to the class creatively with song, art or acting.

Learn about intercessory prayer. Catholics’ relationship with Mary can be confusing, and this story is a great way to explain how Catholics don’t worship Mary or pray to her. When Mary asks Jesus to do something for her, he does, even though he is initially resistant. When Catholics pray the rosary or other Marian devotions, we are praying TO Jesus, THROUGH Mary. It’s like asking a friend to pray for you, or your Mom to advocate for you when you are young. Pray a class rosary and encourage your students to entrust their intentions to Mary’s intercession.

Under the wire, but I made it! Four words of Mary for four weeks of May! Coming up soon: Summer Spirituality Series 2020 and some more free resources to help you hit the new school year ready for online or in person learning.

Right now, this third word of Mary in the Gospels is resonating strongly with me. After spending time in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, Mary and Joseph head back to Nazareth, only to realize that 12 year old Jesus is not with the travelling group. They make their way back to the temple, and by the time they find Jesus, he has been missing for three days. In Luke Chapter 2 verse 48, Mary asks Jesus, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

During this time of quarantine, I feel like Mary and Joseph. I am desperately searching for God’s plan for me in a time of great anxiety and I want to ask him “why have you done this to us?” For the first time ever, I did not make my Lenten obligation of confession or my Easter obligation to receive communion. I know these are most likely dispensed, but the disquiet in my heart continues. But Jesus is still here, waiting for me. “Why were you looking for me?” He must be here, in my house.

Here are some ideas for a week based on “Why have you done this to us?”:

Read the Finding in the Temple in the Bible. Students could read the scripture and study it using the Lectio Divina scripture study method. I have a pre-made version in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, but you could easily do as a whole class bible study or prayer journal activity.

Compare the Story of the Finding in the Temple to the Story of the Crucifixion. You can find the story of Jesus’s passion in all four gospels, but this exercise would be especially powerful using John’s gospel because Mary is so present in his retelling of the crucifxion. (John’s passion is in chapters 18 and 19.) Some points of similarity between the two stories to find with your students: Jesus comforting Mary, although probably not in the way she would like, the timing of the events (Passover), the three days in the tomb vs. the three days in the Temple, and I’m sure there are even more.

Prayer Journal. I think it’s important for young people to know that feeling disappointed in God is a normal struggle of faith. I’ve always had a hard time with speakers and writers who claim that God never disappoints. However, like Mary in the story, our disappointment in God stems from our lack of understanding of his plan for our lives. Sometimes journalling after a painful and disappointing experience can give us insight into God’s plan or closure about what happened.
Here are some questions that could help students prayer journal using the story of Mary finding Jesus in the Temple. Have you ever wanted to ask Jesus how could you do this about something that is happening in your life? If so, when? Looking back on a time when you felt disappointed in God, can you see anything good that came out of the situation? Did you learning anything? What causes you anxiety? Have you asked Jesus to help you find peace? Could you ask him now?

Do a Guided Meditation about Anxiety. You could find a script online or create your own if you want to lead the class. I really like the ones by Mindful Christian on Youtube. I’ve used them in my class for several years and the students get a kick out of the leader’s accent.

Go “Find Jesus” in the Blessed Sacrament. I’ve written before about the power of Eucharistic Adoration in the lives of middle schoolers, and I really believe that the more we can expose students to this type of prayer, the better. Obviously right now, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is not available to many Catholics, but my hope is that by the next school year it will be.

Mary’s fourth word and more Mary ideas coming soon!

By Wuselig (discussão | contribs) – File:Bartholomäus_Zeitblom-Eschacher_Altar-1079.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78397963

When I teach the gospels to my seventh graders, we often make lists of the things that make each gospel distinct. For example, Matthew uses the literary form of midrash to show numerous connections between Jesus and the Old Testament promises God had made to the Israelites. Mark is the shortest gospel, and also all the cool Messianic secret references like “Son of Man”. John isn’t synoptic, and brings a very poetic point of view to the story of salvation. For Luke, we always include the line Gospel: The Musical.

In the first two chapters of Luke, any time someone is super happy, they sing or speak a “canticle”. Mary, Zechariah and Simeon all sing the praises of a God who keeps his promises, and these songs become a huge part of the prayer of the church in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Mary’s canticle occurs at the Visitation, when she goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. When the two women meet, Elizabeth immediately sees what is going on, and John the Baptist leaps in her womb. Her joyful greeting causes Mary to respond in joyous praise, just like a heroine would do in a musical, and this is the second time Mary speaks in the Bible. Mary’s song of praise is called the Magnificat, because it starts with the words “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The Magnificat is one of my favorite scriptures in the whole world, and you can find the entire text in Luke 1:46-55.

Here are some ideas for a week based on Mary’s “magnificat”:

Read the Visitation story in the Bible. Students could read the scripture and study it using the Lectio Divina scripture study method. I have a pre-made version in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, but you could easily do as a whole class bible study or prayer journal activity.

Learn the song “Holy is His Name”. This is one of my favorite songs, written by John Michael Talbot. You can watch it on Youtube here.

Use imagainative prayer to put yourself “inside” the Visitation. You can read more about praying this way in last week’s post on Fiat. But some questions for imaginative prayer for this scene include: Who are you in the scene? Mary? Elizabeth? Someone just watching the meeting? How do you feel as you hear Mary’s song of praise? What does Mary and Elizabeth’s friendship remind you of?

Learn about the Liturgy of the Hours. The Magnificat is part of the Evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours (which is also called the Divine Office). You could look up the evening prayers for that day (I use the Laudate App) and pray those as an end of the day prayer in your classroom, or send the prayers home for students to pray with their families.

Help local women in crisis pregnancy situations. Mary’s first instinct after learning of her own pregnancy was to go help someone else. This could be a great opportunity for students to reach out in service to your local community. Our diocese has a program called Prepares to help expecting mothers, and there are various ways students can get involved to help. One is to do a drive for supplies to donate to a specifc mother. Another would be to make cards and letters encouraging pregnant women and let them know that your class is rooting for them and praying for them.

Even more Mary and May ideas coming soon!

It’s May! This is the month devoted to Mary in the church, so it only seems fitting to dedicate the blog posts this month to learning more about our Blessed Mother. As I’ve been developing teaching resources for distance learning, I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of Mary: who she is and what she does. And in my research, I’ve had some time to take a deep dive into scripture, one of my favorite things to do for prayer.

Mary only speaks four times in the bible, so it doesn’t take very long to dive into each of those four times. The first of these times is Luke 1: 26-38, at the Annunciation. Mary responds to the angel Gabriel twice, once with a question and once with a profound statement of faith: her fiat. “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” she asks, and when Gabriel explains God’s plan to her, she responds, “Behold, I am the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” This “let it be done” is often called Mary’s fiat, because that is the word in Latin.

For the month of May, I am brainstorming ways to use the four words of Mary as a theme in my classroom next year. Here are some ideas for a week about “fiat”:

Read the Annunciation story in the Bible. Students could read the scripture and study it using the Lectio Divina scripture study method. I have a pre-made version in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, but you could easily do as a whole class bible study or prayer journal activity.

Use imagainative prayer to put yourself “inside” the Annunciation. I’ve had retreat directors lead me through guided meditations on the scene described in the gospel of Luke. For some reason, I’ve always imagined that Mary was making bread when Gabriel appeared to her. This is the first image that came to my mind with this scripture and it’s been there ever since. I love to think of all the connections to Jesus dwelling within us as the Bread of Life. When leading imaginative prayer, invite students to close their eyes and sit comfortably. Read the story slowly, pausing often to allow for reflection. Use questions to invite them to imagine the scene.
Some questions I have used are “What does Mary’s house look like? Smell like? Sound like? What is Mary doing? Is she alone? Awake? Asleep? Do you see the scene from her perspective? Gabriel’s? Are you watching it like a movie?
After imaginative prayer, I often have students journal or draw what the experience was like for them.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting of The Annunciation

Use images to do Visio Divina for the Meditation. Visio Divina is using sacred art to study God’s word. I did a quick google search and found many public domain images of The Annunciation. If you have a way to project large images, you could have a whole class discussion about what students notice about the painting, what it makes them wonder, etc. You could have students look for symbols, art techniques, color etc. For extension, they could create their own art of the scene.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

Have students reenact the scene. Almost without fail, my classes LOVE to act out Bible stories. This would be a fun one to put time limits on- sometimes I give my students 1 minute to act out the scene and then we make the time shorter and shorter until they have to tell the whole story in 10 seconds or less.

Stay tuned for more May ideas based on Mary’s four words in the Bible!

Catholics do a great job at Lent. We fast, pray, and give like champs. For forty days we fill devotionals, give up things we love, and pick ways to help others. I love picking lenten devotions and planning my lenten promises. My classroom and home are taken over by the color purple and the symbols of the season. And then when Easter comes around: poof! Down come the stations of the cross, the purple cloths, the signs of sacrifice. It’s hard to find the same sort of support and planning to celebrate Easter in our homes and classrooms, even though it’s a much bigger deal!

For the last several years I’ve been on a mission to celebrate Easter even bigger and better than I celebrate Lent. I’ve found some of the best music of the season to play throughout the 50 days. I’ve taught my students about the Via Lucis, the Stations of Light, and prepped stations to display in our school hallways. I’ve studied the Acts of the Apostles with my 7th graders and planned activities for Divine Mercy Sunday. My goal is to eventually have at least 50 great ideas for how to celebrate this season, and I’m really excited for today’s idea: Easter Egg Psalms.

My amazing mother-in-law is the 3rd grade religion at my school, and she had this brilliant idea for celebrating the Easter season with her students. She has the third graders go through the Psalms and pick a few verses that sing the praise of God. They then copy these verses and put them in plastic Easter eggs, one for each day of the Easter season. The eggs are placed in a basket on the class prayer table and the students open one each morning and use the verse for morning prayer.

I love the idea of having students find and write the verses, but the reality of school this year is that asking a student to find 50 verses to share with their family might be a bit much to ask. Also, for home use it might be nice to have a set of 50 bible verses all ready to cut out and stuff into some plastic eggs. So at the end of the post you will find 50 verses for each of the 50 days of Easter. They are ready to use and share- even though we are a week into the season, we still have six more weeks to celebrate! It’s never too late to start a new prayer tradition with your family or class.

Happy Easter!

It’s still one of my favorite teaching moments. I was staring at the student saint requests for our living saints project. Five different students had requested to perform as St. Faustina Kowalski for our living saints performance on All Saints Day. For a pretty obscure saint with a hard to pronounce name, she certainly had a large fan group in this class. I remembered studying her life with the class the year before, but I wanted to hear from the students themselves why they wanted to perform her life for the school. The response I got from one of the girls was so inspiring she got the role on the spot.

“I feel like she just really listened to God, and because of that, she changed the way the world prays,” the student told me. Then, after a pause, she added, “I want to listen like that.”

St. Faustina has been one of my favorites for a long time now. I was first introduced to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in middle school, probably around the time she was canonized in the year 2000. Since then, the prayer has been with me at all the most difficult times in my life. And St. Faustina has walked my faith journey with me. If our son had been a girl, he would have been named for her.

With Divine Mercy Sunday just around the corner on April 19th, I wanted to share some resources for you to share with students and families to help them learn about St. Faustina, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Divine Mercy Sunday. Some links are to other blog posts, some are to free resources I have created and some are affiliate links to Amazon resources. Each link will be clearly marked with its type.

Links to Resources on Amazon:

(these are affiliate links- this means if you purchase a resource, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.)

1. The Diary of St. Faustina– one of the things Jesus asked St. Faustina to do was to keep a diary of their conversations. This diary is huge, but an amazing spiritual resource. One of my life goals is to read the whole thing straight through, but as of yet I have only prayed with portions of the text.
2.St. Faustina Kowalska: Messenger of Mercy– I love the Encounter the Saints Series from Pauline Media. They are easily readable books of about 100-125 pages geared toward middle grade readers. I still use them with my middle school students because it introduces them to in depth reading about saints at a level almost all of them can handle.
3. Divine Mercy Prayer Cards– The ten pack was the most economical way to find these on Amazon. They make great end of year or confirmation gift!

Other blog posts with St. Faustina:
Knowing the Saints
Five Prayers Every Catholic Kid Should Know (and why)
Five ways to have a Holy Lent
Books to Use During Lent

Free Resources:

I hope you and your family had an amazing Easter and look forward to hearing hor you celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday this week. Let me know your great ideas in the comments!

“I am the true vine.” John 15:1

Growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t have a lot of experience with vineyards, although the wine industry is really taking off there now. However, moving to the heart of Washington wine country has taught me a lot about agriculture in general and given me a new insight into this particular I am statement. No one plants a vineyard and then just leaves it alone to see how it does. Vines require a lot of labor, pruning and science to produce the very best fruit possible. Grapes (or really anything a farmer plants) are a huge investment of time and of money. Farmers are incredibly attentive to their crops, sometimes rising in the middle of the night or working through multiple days to tend to their plants.

Jesus and the Father are that way with us. Jesus is a true vine, filled with all the nutrients we need to grow in faith, hope, and love. God is a good vinedresser, attentive to each branch, pruning where needed and nourishing as well. Sometimes part of our branch needs to be cut off to ensure the health of the plant, and even though that feels painful and unnecessary to us, God knows what we need even when we can’t see the whole picture of the vineyard from our place on the vine.

Looking back on my faith life since I really became serious about loving God when I was twelve, I can see many times where I was being pruned. Now it’s easy to see some of the ways God was working in my life, both as the pruner and as the shelter of a true vine in times of difficulty. But sometimes in the moment you don’t know that you are being pruned. Or sometimes you do and you hate the way it feels anyway. That’s ok. Take that fear and discomfort to the true vine. Jesus knows what it is like to face pain and fear. He won’t leave you to face it alone.

For today: I will think back on the last 5 years (if possible) of my faith journey. Where has God been active in my life, both at the true vine and also as the vinedresser? Are there any places I can see the evidence of pruning?

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” John 14:6

Praying the Stations of the Cross has always been one of my favorite Lenten practices. One of my earliest school memories was gathering in the auditorium on the Fridays of Lent to pray through the stations together. As we walked from station to station, our voices would join together in the Stabat Mater, the beautiful Marian hymn that begins with the words “At the cross her station keeping.” To this day, when we have a more normal lent in school, teaching my students how to pray the stations is one of my top priorities.

This I am statement reminds me that the way of the Christian is the way of the cross. When we say yes to Christ, we are asked to pick up our cross and follow him. While I’ve heard all sorts of cutesy stories about God tayloring our crosses to us, they don’t match the way I see God. I don’t see God and Jesus poring over my life looking for the perfect way to strengthen me through hardship and pain. Instead, because our world is broken by sin, I see a God who knew we would deal with much hardship and pain, so he became one of us to show us the way through our suffering, the truth about how much he loves us, and the life he has planned for us.

In this I am statement, Jesus reminds me that while finding my way in life can feel murky and unknown, as long as I know him, I know the way. I just need to keep living and loving and trusting. When the world offers me many versions of “truth” I can remember that truth is a person, and he promises me that knowing the truth will set me free (John 8:32). And like he said just after the previous I am statements, Jesus came that I might have life, and an abundant life in him. Jesus offers me a path of clarity and renewal. All I have to do is follow.

For today: I will look for the ways Jesus is with me in this time of hardship and quarantine. I will celebrate the abundant life I have by gratitude and time with my family. I will pray the Stations of the Cross with my husband and son.

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