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Brace yourselves - Lent is comingIt’s a little hard to believe, but we are a mere three days from the beginning of Lent!  I feel somewhat fortunate that I’ve already begun thinking about it; in previous years, Ash Wednesday has completely caught me off guard.

Each year, I want to observe Lent better than I did before, and this year is no exception.  I’ve been thinking about how I wish to observe this season, how I wish to practice sacrifice and discipline, self-denial and self-giving.  I don’t want to be lax.  I don’t want to approach Easter with the least regret that I could have observed Lent more faithfully and deeply.  But each year has been better–this will be might eighth Lent since returning to the Church–and each year I have become more reacclimated to the rigors of this season.  I’m no longer quite the fledgling I was.  I feel this year will be very edifying.

One simple thing that I have found helpful and motivating is Father Jonathan Morris’s Lent Challenge, “A 46-day plan for spiritual growth in mind, body, and soul.”  For each of those three areas, mind, body, and soul, he encourages that we decide on one thing to give up and one thing to do.  He will share daily messages of encouragement via Twitter and Facebook.

I also found this quotation from Pope Benedict XIV in 1741:

The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.

This quotation speaks powerfully to me; as I’ve mentioned before, I respond to nothing more readily than to a call to arms.  I am best motivated to conduct my life well when I am reminded that how I conduct my life affects the world around me–when I remember that it’s not just about me.  It’s about what, and Whom, I stand for.  More than any other time of year, it is about carrying the Cross and following Christ toward Calvary, trembling in every footstep.  Not that we are not always called to do this, but this special season exists for our benefit, to focus us and make us stronger, to amend our lives.  It’s a special journey, a special march, a special campaign.

I pray that I might enter into this season with deep devotion and dedication, together with all Catholics.  Let us pray for each other!

(Picture source)

No matter how many prayers I pray, I always feel like I need to offer God more gratitude than I do.  It’s not so much that I am ungrateful (although that might be the case at times, sorry to say), as that He deserves so much gratitude!  Infinite gratitude, in fact.  And we are finite creatures.  Sometimes I even feel frustration at what I can or cannot express with words.

At times like that, the Psalms are a special blessing!  Whatever you are feeling, whatever inside you is yearning for expression, there is always a fitting Psalm.  Tonight, that Psalm for me was in Evening Prayer, Psalm 138:

Psalm 138
Thanksgiving

The kings of the earth will bring his glory and honor into the holy city (see Revelation 21:24).

I thank you, Lord, with all my heart,
you have heard the words of my mouth.
In the presence of the angels I will bless you.
I will adore before your holy temple.

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

All earth’s kings shall thank you
when they hear the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the Lord’s ways:
“How great is the glory of the Lord!”

The Lord is high yet he looks on the lowly
and the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of affliction
you give me life and frustrate my foes.

You stretch out your hand and save me,
your hand will do all things for me.
Your love, O Lord, is eternal,
discard not the work of your hands.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever. Amen.

When I began reading this Psalm tonight, my heart became light, as if a weight was literally being lifted from it.  I read the Liturgy of the Hours each day (at least Morning and Evening Prayer).  It is always instructive.  But occasionally, exactly the right Psalm comes up at exactly the right time.

The part that struck me most of all was the second stanza:

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

No matter how greatly I experience God’s faithfulness and love, I am always surprised and bewildered, in a good way. It often leaves me lost in wonder.  He excels, and then excels again, and excels once more, and on and on and on!  Just when you might think He could not lavish any more upon you, He does.  And He has given a great deal of much-needed strength to my soul.  And all the gratitude in the world is not enough for Him and His deeds!

Thank God for the Psalms.  There is always such depth in them.  Sometimes I pray them and may not even realize why I am so strongly affected by them.  The words are often very simple.  But the Psalms are more than their words.  Of course, we hold them to be divinely inspired.  I think they are imbued with the Holy Spirit’s own prayers, into which He elevates and transforms our humble and insufficient words and feelings and thoughts.

I say again, thank God for the Psalms!

I think I am something of a rara avis among women.  I like war stories.  I like hearing about people’s experiences in the military.  Not to say that I don’t shudder and shrink at the brutality, the inhumanity, the pain and death and trauma.  But I like being amazed and humbled by the realization that people have been willing to put themselves in the way of those things for the sake of country and countrymen, to stand between those horrors and the rest of us.  Sometimes I hear people dismiss or disparage soldiers because war is such a tragedy, such a shame, such a burden.  They don’t consider that if it weren’t for soldiers, then all of us would be more directly impacted and imperiled by war, and we would all be forced to fend for ourselves.  War is never a thing to love or desire or be proud of.  But the soldiers and other people who suffer and endure and even sometimes overcome in extraordinary ways… these are people to be respected and admired and grateful for.  They are heroes, every one.

I know this probably sounds like a post for Veterans Day or Memorial Day.  But these thoughts shouldn’t be reserved for just certain days.  I think them often.  They inspire me.  They motivate me.  They instruct me.  They drive me.  They help me to remember that life is precious and a very dear price to pay.  They also encourage me in the spiritual life, the spiritual war, the Good Fight as St. Paul called it.

This is a war that we are all in the midst of–some are officers, some are foot-soldiers, some are pilots, some are special forces, some are spies, some are medics,  and some keep the fires of home and camp burning.  We too can be heroes.  Even if all we can do is stand our ground and declare where our loyalty lies–in this fallen world and even more fallen society, those things alone can be radical and heroic.  And like all soldiers, we put ourselves between the enemy and those who cannot or will not defend themselves.  We usually do it without any recognition or thanks–nor do we mind such things; we sometimes do it to the derision of those we long to protect.  This is what life is like in the Church Militant, the Church on her long march Heavenward.

I sometimes fear that the Church and Christianity (never mind the rest of our society) have become too soft, too self-indulgent, too complacent, too undisciplined, too indolent–and God knows I’ve been my share of it all, much to my shame and regret.  We all have chinks in our armor, after all, and the enemy is very subtle and slithery and knows just how to get though to us.  But I fear that too many of us have forgotten altogether where we are and what we’re meant to do.  We’ve forgotten our duty.  We’ve gotten so fixated upon false, watered-down notions of peace and love and tolerance and niceness and upon feeling good at all costs without the least concern for being good.  We count our own opinions, emotions, and preferences as far more important than doctrine, reason, and obedience.  We give more loyalty to moral relativism than to the natural law inscribed upon every human heart.

We’ve seen the results of this.  We’ve seen the Church splinter from within.  We’ve seen unspeakable tragedy and scandal shake her down to her very foundation.  THE enemy and those who serve him point and say, “You see?  I knew you Christians and your Church were rotten to the core.  You hypocrites!  You oppressors!  You can’t even save yourselves much less than the whole world.  Give it up!  Cast off the shackles.  Forget about your so-called sins and your so-called virtues.  Be nice to everybody and otherwise just do whatever feels good.  Go with the flow and get a life!”  They say this as if the Church herself and all of her loyal adherents were the source of all the misery and humiliation.  In fact, it is because some people within the Church have persistently and remorselessly done exactly what the enemy would have us do!

What serves the enemy most is serving ourselves.  Loyal service, on the other hand, demands that we lay ourselves down, set ourselves aside, and when necessary let ourselves be nailed to the cross!  Generosity is at the heart of all loyal service, be it in an earthly military or the Church.  Generosity steels our courage and discipline.  Generosity ignites faithfulness, obedience, and charity. Generosity enables us to be selfless.

And so, one of the most helpful spiritual practices I’ve found recently (via my confessor, who always seems to know me better than most anybody, even though he never sees my face) is this Prayer of Generosity, traditionally attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who knew a thing or two about service and obedience:

Lord God, I want to love You, not that I might gain eternal Heaven nor escape eternal Hell, but simply because You are my God. Teach me to be generous.  Grant me to give to You and not count the cost; to fight for You and not mind the wounds; to toil and not to look for rest; to labor and to ask no reward, except the knowledge that I serve my Lord and my God.  Amen.

Such simple words to pray.  And such difficult words to live by!  But pray, and it will be given, often beyond our wildest expectations.  I have found this simple prayer to be very powerful.  Transformative, really.  Exactly what I needed to call forth the heroine in me and keep me from straying from my duty, which is to serve God and my fellow man, and to reach Heaven, my true Patria.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I just want to say that I am honored to be part of the Church Militant.  I am honored that God and Church would entrust such service and duty to me.  And I pray I never completely let them down.  I pray I can stand firm until the Good Fight is finished.

Related Posts:

Love and war

Allergy fog post: In which I commiserate with Elisabeth Leseur, ramble a bit about duty, and toss in a strangely relevant anime quotation

 

I know that sounds selfish and prideful, and it certainly is if that is your prevailing attitude in life.  But sometimes it is completely necessary and beneficial.  You can’t give of yourself if you are running on empty.  And I have been running on empty.  It’s sort of like when you’re on a plane and they give you the run-down on safety matters–put your own oxygen mask on first, and then assist others.  It was years before I understood the good and logical reason behind that instruction.  You can’t very well assist anybody if you can’t breathe yourself.

And so, I have been trying to focus on myself.  Doing things that I know will be profitable to me.  I’m even taking a break from looking for Mr. Right–this is partly out of scientific curiosity; I want to test the very popular and widespread theory that “When you’re not looking, that’s when the perfect person will come along.” We shall see about that.

Among other things, I just completed an introductory computer programming course via Coursera. I took it just because I felt like learning something completely new. I wasn’t too sure whether I would be any good at it, but I did it anyway, and it turns out I am pretty good at it (so far)!  It might even lead me down a new path in my career. I’ve already signed up for some future classes in math and science.

For so many years, I was convinced that I was no good at math and science and never could be, not in a thousand years.  Now, I wish I could go back in time and give my younger self a sound shaking and say “Don’t you believe it. Don’t you dare believe it!”  Now, I am trying to make up for lost time.  The truth is, I’ve always had a natural love and fascination with science.  My mind has always worked in scientific ways.  My heart and soul have always been in it–regardless of what marks I got in school.  I always knew a truth that was far more important than anything I could learn in school: I knew that science would help me know God better.  And I know that now more than ever before.  That is my driving force.

It feels good to broaden my horizons and unfurl my sails!  Who knows where I might end up?  Adventure–I think that is what I need most of all right now.  An adventure with the One who knows me best and loves me most.

I’ll close with one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotations:  “All science, even the divine science, is a sublime detective story. Only it is not set to detect why a man is dead, but the darker secret of why he is alive.”

It is impossible not to be struck by the epistle from today’s Mass:

Brothers and sisters:

Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Ephesians 4:30-5:2

St. Paul gives us quite a tall order, and he frames it in our relationship with the Holy Trinity: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We are all children of God, and naturally, how we treat each other is an integral part of how we relate to God–and vice versa. For if you love God and have a strong and true relationship with Him, you will be much more cognizant of how you treat other people, and all other things that He has created.

Probably the most difficult thing in the above scripture is to “[forgive] one another as God has forgiven you.” This is not a new idea, for it is part of the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It is also in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”  And in other places in scripture, the point is made very clear: mercy comes to the merciful, and those who receive mercy are obliged to show mercy.  No Christian can claim ignorance of this teaching.

And yet, to forgive and to show mercy… I find it extremely difficult sometimes!  Even though I know how merciful God has been to me, and how merciful other people have been to me many times, and even though I know my obligation to forgive others… I often find it much easier said than done.  Fortunately, the priest spoke to this difficulty during his homily.  He said that forgiveness will almost always be willed long, perhaps very long, before it is felt–but that the will to forgive is the more important of the two, and that God will always accept and work with a willingness to forgive.  It might take a long time before the heart catches up with the mind–but that is often true.

So, we should not worry nor fear nor be anxious if we don’t immediately “feel like” forgiving somebody, or even feel like we can forgive them.  God in His wisdom has made a point of drilling it into our minds that we need to forgive others, and that forgiving others is the best thing for us.  Even if we feel a great aversion to forgiving, we should offer it up to God, saying, “Lord, you know how greatly I am suffering from what so-and-so did to me, and that I’m having a very hard time forgiving them.  But I want to forgive them.  Please help me do so, and to heal from the sufferings they’ve caused me.”  I pray this way often.  And gradually, I do find healing and find that I am able to move beyond whatever injury I’ve suffered.

It’s not easy, but it’s far better than allowing “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling … along with all malice” to dwell within us and fester.  Those things are the raptor claws of the devil that inject poison into us and seek to tear us from God’s side forever.  It’s far better to just try your best to forgive–no matter how feeble you may think your efforts are.  God will not let them go to waste.

As it turns out, I have more to shake off than I realized.  And what I expected to be a refreshing rest has been more like lying on an operating table.  Once again, I should have known better–for it often happens: I reach a point where I myself cannot loosen the things that immobilize and bind and mar me.

So now, God has His chisel in hand and is slowly but surely chipping away at all the pieces that still need dislodging, chipping away at things that hold me captive and mar my form, chipping away at the barriers I’ve thrown up myself.

It’s a painful process, and difficult to remain still and be utterly trusting in God’s sure hand and eye.  The baser parts of my nature resent it and cry out, “Why are You doing this to me?  I’ve turned to You for help, and yet You cause me such pain!”  But the higher parts of my nature understand perfectly. After all, what am I but a clump of earth that God has seen fit to fashion in His own image and–wonder of wonders–to love? And if He is willing to work, again and again, to bring forth the greatness He sees in me, to liberate and purify and beautify me, then why should I complain?

It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:

One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less. 

(HarperCollins, p. 34)

Or, as St. Augustine said, “The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because his patient is screaming for him to stop.”

There are many, maybe hundreds, of other sayings to express the idea that pain is sometimes necessary and beneficial for us.  It is one of those timeless and universal human experiences.  That gives me a little comfort.  Just a little!  So does looking forward to the final result.  It is always worthwhile.  But for now–just gotta be still and be trusting!

I have never been one to switch gears with lightning speed, but all in all, I think my personal retreat is off to a good start.

I got up at 6 AM, said my Divine Office and Rosary, ate some breakfast and did some light housework.  Then I did my morning washing and grooming and dressing.  Unfortunately, I was moving rather slowly and drowsily and was not able to fit in Mass before work.  I need to work on that, but considering the great weary malaise I’ve been steeped in for so long, I am fairly pleased with my level of morning activity.

I did my usual work; actually, I worked a bit late.  I was able to fit a little bit of spiritual reading in during lunch.

I came home, ate a bit of supper, did a little more housework, and said the Divine Office.  And now I am doing a bit of writing!

One thing that my mind has been coming back to today was the Epistle from Sunday’s Mass:

That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.

~ 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

 

If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I hate weakness.  And there is no weakness I hate more than that which is my own.  And there is so much of it!  When I think of my own weakness, the grace of God is not what tends to come to mind, much less the thought of boasting of my weaknesses.  I tend to brood and loathe and get discouraged and just want to wipe all of it away.  So, St. Paul’s message is one that I need to receive over and over and over… and over.

Weakness is part of what defines humanity.  There is no human person who lacks weakness.  And so, we have to humbly and honestly admit our weakness, simply and truthfully, and with a certain degree of acceptance.  If we do this, then our minds and hearts will be lifted toward God, toward Him who is power, strength, glory, majesty, perfection and so many other things that we humans are not.  To accept weakness is simply to acknowledge what we humans are and where we stand in relation to God.

To scorn human weakness is an act of arrogance, as if we ourselves are somehow entitled to and capable of divine perfection.  Such arrogance turned Lucifer into a demon–and he, by nature, was closer to divine perfection than any of us.  But what we lack in nature is more than made up for by divine love and providence.  By nature, the angels are far greater, but we have the singular honor of adoption as God’s own children!  And how can we fully appreciate and enjoy and live out this incredible state as God’s children, if we are consumed with hatred of our own nature?  If it weren’t for the weakness of human nature, we would have no need or desire for God, no need for redemption, no need for salvation, and no need for Heaven.

And so, weakness, when rightly regarded by us, can open us up to God and His countless graces.  Knowledge of our own weakness disposes us to be drawn ever closer to God out of humility and desire and need.  And the closer we are drawn to Him, and the more open we are to Him, the stronger, healthier, and more alive we become.

This is one of my favorite quotations ever.  My mind comes back to it frequently, as I learn the truth of it again and again:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1596.

I have been studying the story of the prophet Elijah for a term paper in my Hebrew Bible class.  It is a fascinating story for many reasons, and one that remains quite actively debated among Bible scholars.

What speaks to me most on a personal level is the theophany on Mount Horeb.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-13 (RSV)

To briefly put this passage in context, Elijah had recently obtained a spectacular miracle by calling upon God to send down fire to consume an offering (you really must read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:20-40). He had hoped to re-convert the people of Israel to faithful and exclusive worship of God via this spectacular display of power, and at first it seemed that he had succeeded. But it was a very short-lived victory and brought a death-threat from the infuriated Queen Jezebel, who had brought Baal-worship to Israel. When he realized his failure, Elijah went out into the desert, disillusioned and even suicidal.

Eventually, he came to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), and like Moses before him, received the rare gift of a theophany–a manifestation of God’s presence. Phenomena such as tempest, earthquake, and fire were characteristic of a theophany–and exactly what one would expect. But to Elijah, God presented Himself in a very different and unexpected way: in “a still small voice.” It was in that tiny sound that the prophet perceived God’s presence.

It’s important to note that Elijah was not a person who much appreciated silence and stillness. He was a gutsy, intrepid, self-assured man of action. When he called upon God, God listened and acted. And Elijah expected God to act with power, as He did when He sent down fire to consume Elijah’s offering. Elijah wanted to shock and stun the people of Israel into straightening up their act, and he expected God to cooperate. But ultimately, that plan had failed, and Elijah wasn’t sure what to do.

In this scene, we see the prophet at his weakest and most human.  Can we not see ourselves in him?  I know I can see myself.  I often expect God to act according to my expectations and my timing.  Occasionally, He deigns to do so, at least on the surface.  In fact, it rarely turns out the way I would like it to.  And that doesn’t make me very happy!

What God teaches Elijah–and what He teaches to us all at times–is that His true essence and His true way are not found in earth-shattering power.  Oh, He is mighty, very mighty!  But true might is much more than mere brute force.  We honor God’s true power when we fall silent and still and allow His still small voice to permeate our souls, our innermost beings.  The truth is, that is a far more humbling, stunning, and awe-inspiring experience than any external tour de force we could ever imagine!  The realization that God wants first and foremost to be Master of our souls is enough to make these souls of ours shiver and prostrate themselves!

Instead of wishing to exert power over others or over our circumstances, we should strive to submit ourselves to God’s power, lest our own hearts grow hard and turn away from Him. When we do so, we receive the greatest miracles of all: the life and love and grace that come only from our Lord and Master.

Just a few months ago I seriously started looking for a relationship with a man again. This is the first serious effort I’ve made since losing my intended husband 6.5 years ago. And, as you may have gathered from some of my recent posts… to say the least, things have not been going very well!

I don’t know if I’ve just had the bad fortune of running into lousy men, or if I am just so rusty with interacting with men that I have been making my own lousy mistakes, or if the rules have changed drastically in the last 6.5 years. Maybe it’s just that I am 6.5 years older now, and decades more mature than a person my age should be.

In any case, it has been so hard not to get utterly discouraged and fall into despair. Yeah, it’s only been a few months, but I’ve gotten quite a few fresh wounds in this short time! My spiritual life has been pushed nearly to its limits as I struggle not to lose hope and patience and trust in God.

However, I have also found great comfort in God and the Church–particularly the Communion of Saints. I have found some novenas that are said to bring wonderful, even miraculous, assistance in finding a spouse:

Novena to St. Joseph

Novena to Bl. Anna Marie Taigi

Novena to the Immaculate Conception

Currently, I have just completed the Novena to St. Jude–since finding a decent man and potential husband does seem like a rather impossible cause.

I also pray each day this prayer to St. Raphael the Archangel.

In these and in my daily Divine Office and Rosary, and each time I go to Mass, I pray that I will soon meet a good man to be my husband, and that in the meantime, I will devote myself to growing deeper in love with God and to preparing myself to be a good wife and mother, with the Virgin Mary as my role-model.

I also pray for all the other single Catholic women who are also longing for a good husband and marriage and children.

I offer prayers for my future husband and children and ask that we all be together as a family soon.

I pray very hard for all the single men out there, especially Catholics, that they will fervently and steadfastly and courageously pursue the vocation of marriage and be open to loving women, no matter how many times they may have been hurt or rejected.

I pray that all of my own wounds from the past will be healed so that I can give myself whole and healthy and happy to my future husband.

Overall, I am just trying to put God first in my life and trust that He will richly provide for every need and desire I have. I am trying to be mindful of, and very grateful for all that He has given to me and done for me, to focus on the blessings I have, rather than focusing on what I lack. And I am trying to always remember that I am His daughter, and He is my Father. He loves me, and I love Him, and from that love springs all others.

Whenever I ponder love, I am brought back to this quotation from the film, Diary of a Country Priest:

Priest: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
Countess: God is its master.
Priest: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach.

Words to live by.

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