Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

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The summer after I had my son, I purchased The Artist’s Way at our local bookstore. My sister Anne, a super talented artist, had recommended the book to me several times, and I felt my stay at home would be a good time to undertake the immense amount of writing that goes into this book. As with many of my reflections this summer, I horribly failed at doing The Artist’s Way and shelved it to try again the next year.

So last summer I tried again, and this time made it through the entire 12 week program laid out by Julia Cameron in the book. Each week you read a chapter, take a weekly artist’s date for one hour and commit to writing 3 pages every single morning. While the book is not a prayer book, Cameron very much believes that our creativity is a gift from God, and that our use of our creativity is our gift back to God. I personally very much agree with this point of view, and my experiences of writing my way through the exercises became one of the most spiritually enriching things I did last year. My writings last summer through her program actually became last summer’s spirituality series.

The two main activities in the program are the morning pages and the artist’s date. The morning pages are exactly what they sound like. The very first thing in the morning, right after you wake up, you write 3 long hand pages in a notebook or journal. There are no specific requirements for these pages beyond the length, although Cameron emphasizes that writing out by hand is much preferred to typing. The artist’s date is the practice of taking one hour a week to just do something fun that connects you to your creativity. For artist’s dates I painted my nails, made jam, went for walks and checked out local thrift stores. (Mostly I was trying to find fun and free or nearly free things to do.). By the end of the book I had pages and pages of ideas and I had tripled the readership of this blog. I also had gotten into the habit of using my third morning page each day as a prayer journal, which had helped me grow closer to God, which is always my goal.

Popcorn rating: 1. This book is hard, but incredibly rewarding.

Stars: 5. This book changed my life, and made me own my creativity in a way I hadn’t before. It also gave me a daily prayer practice that I want to continue moving forward.

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I’ve written before about my small community of women who meet to study God’s word with me. While the numbers fluctuate and members come and go, this group has been one of the greatest sources of spiritual nourishment for me in the last four years. So when I found Call Me Blessed by Elizabeth Foss and her ministry of Take Up and Read, I knew my group had to try it.

This book was set up a lot like Ponder, which you can read about here. There are five days of study each week for a four week study. One day is a rest and check in day and one day for a memory verse. The five days of study each feature one woman of the Bible, her story in the scriptures, additional scriptures to deepen understanding, lectio divina templates, reflections from writers and quotes from John Paul II’s Dignity and Vocation of Women. So it’s a fair amount of time for each day of study, and sometimes the pacing of this book was too much for me. I wanted nearly twice the time to study each woman.

I really liked the format of some of the pages, so I am including pictures in a review for the first time ever.

Popcorn Rating: 3. Some days there was a lot more to think about and do than others, and the lack of depth on certain Biblical women made some days go quickly.
Stars: 3. I loved the layout of the book and the style, but some of the character choices were confusing. For example, in the story of Jairus’s daughter, the book focused on her instead of the hemorrhaging woman, who has much more to say and do than Jairus’s daughter.

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Last summer I wrote a post about My Badass Book of Saints by Maria Morera Johnson, which you can read here. Super Girls and Halos is Johnson’s second saint book, which is organized very much like the first one, but with a twist. In this book she matches up inspiring saints with strong fictional women from popular culture. There are four sections to the book, one for each of the cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. Each section has two chapters featuring two women each.

I wanted to love this book, just like I wanted to love the one before, but there were a few things that I struggled with. For one, Johnson spends A LOT of time on her analysis of the characters in pop culture. It reminds me of friends who really want you to like D and D so they keep explaining and reexplaining how cool it is. Also, at times I felt like she loved the character but had struggled to find a saint to match. Some of her saint stories seemed flat compared to her character sketches. That being said, this book was super interesting to my students- two borrowed it and actually read it during the year, which is more than I can say about any other saint book I have in my classroom. And even if I felt there could be more about the saints, she picked some really great powerhouse women to highlight.

The saints and character match ups are as follows:
Justice: Wonder Woman and Katharine Drexel; Rey and Claire of Assisi
Prudence: Black Widow and Mary Magdalene; Dana Scully and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Fortitude: Storm and Cunegunde; Hermione Granger and Margaret d’Youville
Temperence: Katniss Everdeen and Mary MacKillop; Nyota Uhura and Kateri Tekakwitha

Popcorn Factor: 3. I got really bogged down in the Wonder Woman chapter.
Stars: 3.5 Again, the saint stories were great, but I felt the balance was slightly off.

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While most of my posts so far this summer have been about books that have been helpful to me in my own walk with God this year and at other times in my life, I thought I would take some time to talk about some books that have helped me to teach the faith to my son. Many of these books will seem very juvenile, but they do translate well to classroom use. I love using picture books in middle school. Students find it somewhat unexpected, and many beautiful children’s books can deal with topics that apply to our study of scripture and the moral life. The following books are all books I have read to my son and several I have also used in my classroom.

Saintly Rhymes for Modern Times by Meghan Bausch is a beautifully illustrated book with paper pages. Each page focuses on a single saint with a short rhyme describing a few of the things that make that saint special. I especially love the fact that this books highlights more recent saints, and many of the saints that I feature in my religion class. While I haven’t used this one in school yet, my son loves it and it has his patron saint in it. I will be using this book as I highlight our saint of the month in class this year though.

Probably one of the most classic saint books of my childhood was the Picture Book of Saints by Lawrence Lovasik. The update version has many of my favorite saints in it, with the same style I remember from when I was little. Each page features one saint, their feast day, patronage and a short story of the saint’s life. I have 10 copies of this book in my classroom and we use them often. Because they are designed for children, my students can use them as a quick reference when they need to select a saint for a project. The concise written story provides a launching point for further study.

While The Clown of God by Tomie De Paola is not strictly a saint book, I think it can fit into this category of books. A classic story retold with De Paola’s gorgeous illustrations, this book is a great one to use with the parable of the talents or to talk about stewardship. Giovanni is a gifted juggler who spends his life gaining fame and fortune through his fabulous juggling. At the end of his life, Giovanni is left with nothing and ends up in a Catholic Church on Christmas Eve, where he has only one gift to give the Christ child. It’s a truly beautiful book, and this is one I have used in school. De Paola has lots of other beautiful religious books too.

I also love The Song of Francis by Tomie De Paola. While not strictly based on Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, this book takes the spirit of that beautiful prayer and puts it in a format for children. This book is beautiful and bright and is a great way to teach students about adoration and praise prayers. Often I will have students write their own “Song of (their name)” and illustrate is as a companion project. My son likes the pages with the birds.

All of these books are easy to read, so they all get a popcorn rating of 5. As for stars, I love illustrations and children’s books. I think that picture books are highly underused in a classroom setting, and I give each book 5 stars for spirituality and teachability.

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When our former assistant pastor Father Peter was in the seminary, he was placed at our school for a semester to see what it would be like to serve in a church that also had a thriving school community. The students loved him immediately, and I discovered another person who seemed to love the saints as much as I did. One of the books he left for my classroom, (in addition to Peter Kreeft, who is clearly above most middle school reading levels) was Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints.

This book tells the stories of 8 beatified or canonized young people, some I was very familiar with, and some that were completely new stories for me. The saints are: Bl. Chiara Luce (Fr. Peter’s favorite), St. Maria Goretti, St. Teresa of the Andes, St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Alphonsa from India, St. Dominic Savio, St. Kizito, and Bl. Pedro from the Philippines. While I sometimes didn’t love the story telling style, I could see that it would definitely be appropriate for my students. Each chapter has reflection questions, and there are spaces for students to take notes. In places there are even movie suggestions.

By the end of the book, I loved the new saints I had learned about. I plan to read more about Blessed Chiara and Teresa of the Andes in particular. For my students, I would love for them to be able to reflect on the ways that these two normal teenage girls became saints. Chiara’s live changed on a retreat, when she decided she wanted to pursue her relationship with God above all else. But she was also completely average- she loved sports, and hanging out with friends. When it was clear that her cancer was terminal, she planned her own funeral as a wedding for when she would get to spend the rest of her life with Christ. I also love that she was alive for a short part of my own lifetime. With Teresa, I loved that she heard her call from God and pursued it, despite the fact that those closest to her couldn’t understand it at all.

I can see how this book could work well in a middle school or early high school classroom. Because there are 8 saints, I could see getting enough for small groups to use and highlighting one saint each month of the school year. You could also jump around the book and match the various saints to other teaching goals- the book does connect each saint to a virtue or character trait. It would also work well as a read aloud, maybe leading up to All Saints Day.

Popcorn factor: 5. I read the entire book in two days. It would definitely work for 2 to 3 days of class time if you broke it down by saint.
Stars: 3. I do want to note that I am not the intended audience for the book. For classroom use I would give it 4 stars, for adult spirituality it was light.

This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click my link and purchase a book, I receive a small commission at no cost to you. However, the link about Lectio Divina is just an explanation of what that means.

I first bought Ponder last summer, but got side tracked in my attempts to finish it- I think I made it to day 3 of 28. Ponder is a 28 day journal and scriptural workbook focused on the mysteries of the rosary. Each set of mysteries is a week, so the format of the study is day one of each week is a memory verse, the next five days are reflections on each of the scriptures for the mystery of the day, and the seventh day is labeled Selah and given as a day to rest, reflect and catch up.

On the reflection days, you use the practice of Lectio Divina to contemplate the scriptures and there are writing prompts to help you focus your thoughts and prayer time. Then there is a short reflection written by a woman who connects her life to the mystery. After that you finish with a few more writing prompts, a suggestion for how to put the scriptures you have just studied into action, and a chance to color and pray the rosary.

I loved that on the Selah days there was a rosary bouquet to color. I learned a lot about flowers, and I did find the practice of coloring to be prayerful and meditative. I also got to use the awesome new crayons I had gotten for Christmas. On the rosary days I just prayed the mystery for that day, because I was often in a time crunch with a baby who wakes up at the crack of dawn and my own need to get ready for work.

I also appreciated that this made the rosary manageable for me. I’ve always struggled a bit with the rosary, and this book made me feel like saying it every day was doable and also more like scripture study than a rote recitation of a prayer. (Although at some point I want to do a post about why rote prayer matters, because I really think it does.). This book is very pretty too- I was happy that the authors took the time to make it visually appealing instead of academic.

While the rosary is very much a Catholic devotion, I do think that my non-Catholic readers would love the Bible study portion of the book, and the reflections, while they do have a Catholic bent, really speak to the realities of being people of faith in a very broken world.

Popcorn Rating: 3. The book breaks the study into very easy daily prayer sessions, but contemplating the scriptures can be difficult at times.
Stars: 4. This really helped me grown my love of the rosary.

This post contains affiliate links. This means if you click though and purchase a book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

It all started with Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe. When my parents came to visit after I had my son, my dad gave me a copy, which I had great intentions of reading while on maternity leave, but I didn’t actually finish until a full year later. It was a book which completely transformed my spiritual life, which you can read about here.

At the end of last summer, when we were in the full swing of getting our classrooms ready and initial lesson planning done, I asked one of my pastors if I could meet with him to go over some ideas I had for my 8th grade religion class. We set a time, and when I realized I had a little time before the meeting, I slipped into the daily mass chapel at my parish where there was Eucharistic Adoration. During that time, I finished Interior Freedom and put the book in my bag so I could take some time to pray in thanksgiving for the incredible spiritual blessings I had received in reading it.

An even farther back piece of back story is this: I have always had a huge spiritual block about Saint Therese of Lisieux. In high school, all the extra holy girls in my very rigidly Catholic high school were always saying rose novenas to Saint Therese for “my future husband”. In a completely unfair and judgmental way, I subbed the spirituality of Saint Therese with the annoyance I felt for these girls.

But Father Jacques is incredibly influenced by Saint Therese and her wisdom is present throughout the entire book Interior Freedom. As I was sitting in adoration, I felt God pulling at my heart. Ok God, I thought. If you really want me to, I will read Story of a Soul. As you probably know, when you allow God to speak to you like this, he often moves fast. As I met Father Peter at the door, he greeted me and then asked, “Would you be interested in a group that reads Story of a Soul and then meets to discuss it?” At that point I couldn’t ignore God’s invitation any longer. I bought the book and read it. Unfortunately Father left our parish before the group could come together, but two friends joined me to read and discuss the book together.

So much has been written about Saint Therese that I don’t know if my review can really do her justice. She was the youngest of five sisters, all of whom became religious sisters, and most in the same order as Therese. Her parents are also canonized saints. Therese became a cloistered nun at 15 and died at 24, and in that time she was asked to write her life’s story out for various Mother Superiors of the Order. I expected that I would learn some valuable things from Therese. I mean, she is a Doctor of the Church. What I didn’t expect is to fall in love with a saint I had kept at a distance for so long based on a high school prejudice. But fall in love I did.

A few of my favorite quotes from the book:
I felt that there was a heaven, and that this heaven was peopled with souls who actually love me.
And my soul grew through contact with holy things.
My God! I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves!
(This is recorded in the afterward, not written by Therese, but said as she was dying.) I will return! I will spend my heaven doing good on earth!

This book has certainly done me a world of good. Definitely read it. 🙂

Popcorn rating: 3. Because the book was written in French, sometimes the translation feels a bit awkward. Also, Therese has a beautiful melodramatic writing style with lots of italics and creative capitalization.
Stars: 5. Therese’s little way of growing closer to Christ is doable for everyone. She also has a great sense of humor about her shortcomings, which I always appreciate.

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