One of my favorite Advent books and one that I read every year at this time is a book by Catherine Doherty called “Donkey Bells,” published by Madonna House Publications. I love to read this inspiring book curled up in a comfortable chair by the wood stove, a hot chocolate or apple cider beside me, Advent and Christmas music playing quietly in the background. This lovely book is filled with heartwarming stories, customs and traditions (such as the Advent wreath, baking, the blessing of the Christmas tree) and moving reflections for the season. It is a beautiful way for children, teens and adults to prepare their hearts for Christmas.
I love this story from Donkey Bells: Advent and Christmas by Catherine Doherty
(Available as a paperback and e-book)
Donkey Bells (by Catherine Doherty)
It came to me, during these days of Advent, that I should share with you a custom which is not necessarily liturgical but which adds to the enjoyment of this lovely season. It has deep spiritual connotations; at least it did for our family, and for many others I knew when I was a young child.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me that if I was good during this holy season of Advent, and offered my little acts of charity and obedience throughout Advent to the little Christ Child for a gift on his birthday, then sometime during Advent, at first very faintly and then quite clearly, I would hear bells. As she put it, the first church bells.
These were the bells around the neck of the little donkey that carried Our Lady. For mother explained that Our Lady carried Our Lord. She was the temple of the Holy Spirit, the first ‘church’ as it were, since Christ reposed in her. And the donkey, carrying Our Lady and sounding his bells as he walked, wore the first church bells.
Around the second week of Advent, mother wore a little bracelet that had tinkling bells. As she moved her hand I could hear them tinkle, and I got excited because I associated them with the donkey’s bells.
As young as I was, my imagination would build up a lot of little stories about the trip of Our Lady from Nazareth to Bethlehem — stories which I would share with my mother, and which would spur me on to further good deeds and little sacrifices.
During the third week of Advent, mother’s bracelet miraculously got many more bells on it. The sound grew louder and louder as Christmas approached. It was wonderful.
My brother and I used to listen. Mother’s bells were first around her wrist and then around her knee too. Then more bells, as it got closer to Christmas. We were really excited about them.
I introduced this little custom in Madonna House. During Advent, I wear a kind of bracelet that can be heard as I walk or move, in whatever room of the house I may be. The members of our family tell me that it spurs them on, even as it did me when I was a child, to meditate more profoundly on the mystery of Advent.
Here at Madonna House, we have begun in these last few years to make a collection of miniature donkeys — of wood, glass, ceramics, rope — you name it. And we have an album of Christmas cards (which we save from the many we receive) that depict the donkey in the manger scene.
The presence of the donkey and the ox in Scripture is symbolic of the prophets who foretold the Incarnation. And also of the fact that “the ox and ass know their Master’s voice, but Israel doesn’t know the voice of God” (Isaiah 1:3). So, you see, there is some spiritual foundation for my love for the donkey which brings such great joy to my heart.
I’m sure that, as a child, Christ rode on a donkey many times. And also as a man, of course. In Scripture we know of only two times: one was when the donkey carried Our Lady, who in turn carried God, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The other was when the donkey carried Christ into Jerusalem as the people laid palm branches before Him, proclaiming him king.
Let us think for a moment: What kind of animal is a donkey? It is a beast of burden, the animal of the poor. Once again, the immense theme of poverty is illustrated in an animal. God chose the humblest, the smallest in status, because among the animals the donkey is considered very low. So God is teaching us a lesson here — a lesson of humility, of poverty, and of simplicity.
Have you ever seen a newborn donkey? Well, every donkey has a black cross on its gray fur, a marking which is especially noticeable just after it is born from its mother’s womb. It gets less clear as the donkey matures, but still is visible. I share this fact with you to teach you to open your heart to the bells of the donkey that carried Our Lady and also God.
The breath of the donkey and the ox made the stable warm. So we meditate on several things at once: the poverty and humility of the donkey God chose, and which should be our poverty and humility; and the breath of our love, which should warm God in our neighbor constantly.
Let us remember that the donkey also had no room at the inn. Neither woman, nor man, nor donkey had a place at the inn. So they went to live in a poor stable that wasn’t too well prepared for animals, let alone as a decent habitation for human beings.
Now, another meditation comes to us. Think of the millions of people who are left homeless on our streets. Tragic is this situation. We, as apostles, must be very careful that we do not exclude anyone from the inn of our heart.
I pray that our heart, our soul, our ears will hear very clearly ‘the bells of the donkey,’ not only in Advent but throughout the year. For whoever who is pure of heart and childlike shall hear the bells of the donkey ring in their life.
(Creative Commons Licence Pass It On by Madonna House Publications is free to re-publish under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.)
If you have a favorite Christmas or Advent story, please feel free to share!
My latest at Catholic Mom.
Advent will soon be upon us. It is a beautiful time of preparing and waiting.
It dawned on me a few years ago when I was flying back home from New Jersey that it takes tremendous amount of trust to get on a plane. We rely on the pilots to fly the plane with precision, expect that the builders created a solid, well-performing plane, and trust that the mechanics have serviced the plane properly. After all, which one of us wants to be 20,000 feet in the air when a mechanical problem happens or when a pilot encounters a situation he’s not trained to handle?
Of course, the same can be said for any situation. We depend on and have faith in our doctors, food companies, school bus drivers and others. On a daily basis, we are called to rely on humans who have the potential of making mistakes.
Consider how most couples “trust” with regard to their fertility. They take pills, get injections, apply chemical patches, insert devices, consent to operations. Instead of working with their fertility, they try to eliminate it. Instead of embracing their fertility, they fight it. They “trust” that by using contraceptives, they will be able to “control” their fertility.
Newsflash: none of these chemicals, devices or operations are 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. Only complete abstinence is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. And yet millions of couples put their “faith” in the contraceptive methods on a daily basis. If the methods “fail,” and a child is conceived, many will resort to abortion.
So what does this all have to do with Advent?
When told that she would be the mother of our Savior, Mary replied, “Be it done to me according to your word.” That took tremendous trust and faith in God’s plan for her. She didn’t say, “Hmmm, let me think about that for a few weeks and I’ll get back to you.” Without her yes, we would not be preparing to celebrate the beautiful feast of Christmas. It must’ve been difficult for her to give birth in a stable, surrounded by the smells and sounds of animals. And yet Mary believed and trusted that this was God’s plan for her and accepted it without question.
So what is God’s plan for us especially regarding our fertility? I can tell you what it is not: God’s plan is not for us to destroy the gift of our fertility with devices, behaviors, chemicals or operations. This reliance that many couples place in contraceptives can sometimes result in an unwanted, permanent loss of fertility and can lead to numerous other consequences as well. St. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) talks about one of the most common consequences of contraceptive use: “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”(HV 17)
God’s plan is for couples to embrace their fertility and to be generously open to life. Does that mean that God wants us to have as many children as possible? No, it doesn’t. God gave us the gift of reason and he also gave us a built-in natural method of avoiding pregnancy that works with fertility and not against it. God, the Author of life, wants to be part of our decisions regarding our fertility.
Couples who want to trust God with their decisions will trust Him with all of their decisions, including the beautiful gift of fertility. When couples have serious need to avoid pregnancy, Natural Family Planning is a moral way to do so. NFP uses no devices and works with God instead of against Him. Wives who use NFP seldom feel used by their husbands. NFP also works well to achieve pregnancy. It’s healthy, effective and safe. NFP encourages good communication and strengthens marital relationships. And it’s environmentally safe.
Advent is an ideal time to ask ourselves: do we depend on a chemical company or condom manufacturer…or do we trust God, the Author of Life?
Learning Natural Family Planning nowadays is as simple as turning on your computer. For more information on NFP, check out the following websites:
Copyright 2018 Ellen Gable Hrkach
Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day but the entire month of October is devoted to Infant Loss Remembrance. James and I feel very blessed and grateful to be the parents of five young adult sons (ages 19-31). We are also blessed to be the parents of seven precious babies we lost through miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. This month, we remember in a special way these seven little souls (and intercessors) in heaven.
Here are a few of my reflections on pregnancy loss:
Among Women Podcast Episode 89 (Pat Gohn interviewed me about miscarriage and pregnancy loss)
Ecce Ancilla Domini, an article on openness to life.
Five Little Souls in Heaven (This article was written 24 years ago and published in the Nazareth Journal)
One of the themes of my first novel, Emily’s Hope, is pregnancy loss.
This excerpt describes Emily’s loss of baby “Seth.”
“I need to push.” She wanted so desperately not to push, to allow her baby to stay inside of her, and for her to continue to nourish and nurture her child, but her body wouldn’t allow that. She pushed only twice and her small child was born. Emily heard a sound like a kitten crying, then realized that her baby had let out a small, soft, weak cry.
As soon as the umbilical cord was cut, the nurse immediately carried the baby across the room as the pediatric staff attempted to work on their child. Emily and Jason sat quietly, their hearts heavy with emotion. A few minutes later, she felt another contraction and her placenta was delivered. She could hear a nurse referring to “him,” and realized that their child was another boy. After a few minutes, the doctor brought him back, his small form still hidden in the blue hospital blanket. He spoke in a hushed, almost apologetic voice, “There is nothing we can do for him.”
He handed the tiny one-pound baby boy to his mother. Jason held onto Emily’s shoulder and watched as she cradled the smallest baby they had ever seen. He was so perfect and looked identical to their oldest son, Jake. His small body was covered with minute white hairs. He was perfect as he struggled to breathe. He was perfect as he opened his mouth to cry. Emily held her new son as gently as she could. Jason reached over and poured a few drops of water on him and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Emily could feel the vibration of his tiny heart
The nurse came in with a Polaroid camera and asked if they wanted her to take a photo of their child. Emily nodded as the nurse took a photo of her and Jason and their tiny son. She gazed in awe at this miniature human being and marveled at the fact that even though he was tiny, he was so perfect. His little hands looked like a doll’s hands. She removed the baby blanket and laid his small, warm body on her chest. She could feel his heart beating rapidly. After several minutes, she wrapped him again in the small blue blanket.
Then, in an instant, he was still. She could feel that his heart had stopped and he wasn’t breathing, but he continued to feel warm and soft. He looked like a sleeping angel.
(End of excerpt.)
If you have lost a baby through miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth or infant death, please click on the link above “Baby Loss” for resources and helpful links.
Here is a list of other novels that have themes about infant/pregnancy loss:
In memory of our seven little souls in heaven:
Baby Hrkach Twins (June 1986)
Baby Hrkach (February 1991)
Baby Hrkach (June 1991)
Mary Elizabeth Hrkach (June 1993)
Seth Hrkach (April 1998)
Lucy Hrkach (March 2006)
Here’s what I’ve been reading during the past month:
Publisher synopsis: Growing up on the Northside of Pittsburgh with an alcoholic father and rats in the basement, Harry R. Brady developed an Irish wit that glows throughout A New Lens on Life—Jesus was My Ophthalmologist.
The “scrawny little kid with glasses” peppered his childhood with classroom misbehavior, sandlot exploits, misadventures with fireworks, and practical jokes, and tempered it with endearing innocence and compassion for others.
Then, as the lone survivor of a tractor-trailer accident that killed three college classmates, Harry lost his Faith and challenged God. “Why did You save me?”
Still mourning his friends’ deaths while sitting next to classmate Antonin Scalia at graduation from Georgetown, Harry questioned God’s very existence.
Inspired by the love of his life, he finished medical school, started a family, and wound up in the Army. During his M.A.S.H.-like service as a Captain and surgeon in Korea during the Vietnam War, Harry’s mischievous and creative stunts shocked his superiors as he served those in need.
Later, he performed sight-restoring and sight-saving surgeries for the blind and the vision-impaired in Haiti. His Brady Clinic for the Homeless at Saint Louis University has provided free service to more than 11,000 medically disenfranchised people. In this rollicking and deeply inspiring autobiography filled with twists and turns, Harry discovers that after living 64 years with his own spiritual vision impairment, that Faith and Reason are two compatible expressions of one universal truth.
My review: I had the absolute pleasure of working with Harry by editing his book. Dr. Brady is one of most entertaining and inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Highly recommend this wonderful book.
Amazon Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Eve Donahue’s lonely existence changes in an instant when visions of a mysterious stranger haunt her. Certain God is calling her for a mission, she bravely says yes and begins her quest to meet this young man.
Thousands of miles away, Nick Hammond has been dealing with his own unusual experience, an unwavering certainness to convince his father to run for political office.
When these two unlikely teens finally meet, their belief that God has called them to work together sets them on a journey of faith to untangle a web of deception involving international trade agreements, lost confederate gold, and a blossoming romance. As they follow century old clues, they realize God can call us all in big and small ways. We just need to listen and say “Yes Lord, I will go where You lead.”
My review: Thoroughly enjoyed this book! More detailed review to come!
Amazon Synopsis: A young American woman departs for France, leaving behind her family and fiancé, to serve as a nurse during World War I. Her unpredictable experiences and choices will reshape not only her, but the generations to come after her, as well. Your legacy is built one decision at a time. Forsaking the comforts of home at the height of World War I, Annie Walcott serves as a nurse at a French estate turned war hospital. In the face of daily hardships and losses, she shutters her heart against the emotional toll of her work. When Kyle, the brother of a patient, arrives at the hospital, his and Annie’s unforeseen connection threatens to dismantle her protective walls. New possibilities and former loyalties clash. Will Annie have the courage to become the woman of unrivaled strength and faith she longs to be? Can she embrace the sacrifices necessary to step forward in love? Eighty years later, in a tiny Midwest town where Annie has led a quiet, contented life, she finally confides her untold memories to her great-granddaughter Laurel. The heritage of secrets casts a startling new light on Laurel’s family, faith, and identity. In Annie’s final days, can Laurel allow truth to heal the past and fortify her for the future?
My review: The Hidden Legacy is a beautiful story of Annie Walcott who served as a WW 1 nurse in France. The book goes back and forth between young Annie’s perspective and 100-year-old Annie’s perspective as she tells her great-granddaughter Laurel what it was like to serve as a nurse so long ago. Annie describes events and people who changed the course of her life and, consequently, Laurel’s. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
Amazon synopsis: Dodd’s re-entrance into the Catholic Church—which as a communist she had so bitterly attacked—was a natural result of her new state of mind. In the early 1950s, she provided detailed explanations of the Communist subversion of the Church, reporting that “in the 1930s we put eleven hundred men into the priesthood in order to destroy the Church from within, [and that] right now they are in the highest places in the Church.” From such positions they were working to bring about change in order to weaken the Church’s effectiveness against Communism. She said further that these changes would be so drastic that “you will not recognize the Catholic Church.”
Bella Dodd’s story is a human document of immense importance to Americans today. Here are the inner workings of the Communist Party in the United States in the early to mid-20th century as seen from the secret counsels and strategy meetings of the National Committee, to which she belonged for a crucial span of years. The climax of the book is a snowy Christmas Eve when Bella finds the reaffirmation of her faith, and is able to say, “I have learned from bitter experience that you cannot serve man unless you first serve God in sincerity and truth.” Not being able to secure her baptismal certificate from Italy after inquiry, she was baptized by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York.
My review: I ordered this after hearing Fr. Altier’s homily on the Communist infiltration of the Catholic Church. Although the synopsis indicates it tells about how Communism infiltrated the Catholic Church, it doesn’t. It goes into the detailed story of how she became a Communist and how she was expelled from the party and eventually became Catholic. Still, I’d recommend it. It illustrates just how devious Communism is in its brainwashing. Four of five stars.
Amazon Synopsis: This book, written from a Catholic perspective, provides an overview to the lives of the saints celebrated from January to March on the Roman calendar. It is the first in a series, which will cover the whole Church year. It makes for inspirational spiritual reading any time of the year, providing an introduction to the patron saints for many walks of life. Included are the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, Apostles like St. Peter and St. Paul, early martyrs like St. Perpetua and St. Felicity, early evangelizers like St. Patrick, medieval giants such as St. Thomas Aquinas, American saints such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John Neumann, and many others.
My review: I got this during a free promo on Kindle. It’s a beautiful book and I’m enjoying it very much.
Amazon Synopsis: For career-driven assistant district attorney Nina Frost, the question inspires pangs of guilt familiar to all parents torn by the demands of home and office. But whereas most parents lie awake at night vividly conjuring the worst scenarios that could befall their children in their absence, Nina lives the reality of such crises — and it’s her job to do something about them. Nina Frost prosecutes child molesters — and in the course of her everyday work, she has endured the frustration of seeing too many criminals slip through the system and walk free.
But even the strongest walls cannot guard Nina from the shattering discovery that her own beloved son has been sexually abused.
Five-year-old Nathaniel is the only one who knows the identity of his assailant — but in the initial fallout of his trauma, he’s been left mute, unable to speak a single word. Knowing the futility of trusting the courts to exact justice for Nathaniel, and ripped apart by a maddening sense of helplessness, Nina finds herself in a grip of rage she can’t deny — no matter the consequence, whatever the sacrifice. What does it take to be a good mother? How far can a person go…and still live with herself? What happens if one’s absolute truths and convictions are turned upside down?
My review: With the current crisis within the Church, I wanted to re-read this novel that I had read years ago. It packs a powerful punch. Picoult dives head first into the topic of clerical abuse. This is one of Picoult’s best books, in my opinion, because she does an excellent job of keeping the reader turning the pages and at the same time eliciting fear, relief, joy, and sadness. Highly recommend (NB: although studies show that the high percentage of young men abused by priests are post-pubescent, the child in the book is only five years old.)
Amazon Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Rebecca Joshi, an adopted girl from India, burn survivor, and primary caretaker of her intellectually disabled sister, Joy, has one dream–to be a physician. Her traditional Indian father relies upon Rebecca to care for Joy while he buries himself in work to drown his grief over his wife’s death. Leaving home is the only way Rebecca can envision reaching her goal. She helps Joy develop greater independence, and is devastated when Joy becomes pregnant. Rebecca tussles–with her father and with herself–over who is responsible for Joy and her baby. When Rebecca discovers the truth of what happened the day she was burned, she struggles to hold onto her dream while wrestling with questions of life, love, and responsibility.
My review: Powerful debut novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful story. The characters are very well-defined, three-dimensional and real, the setting full of sensory details and the plot exceptional. Highly recommend!
My latest post at Catholic Mom: This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). It’s a beautifully written (and very short) encyclical that upholds Church teaching on marriage.
There are still dissident theologians who proclaim that Catholic couples are not bound by Humanae Vitae. However, these theologians obviously have not lived a married life in obedience to the Church and to Humanae Vitae. They have also not experienced the benefits of such obedience.
Pope Paul VI wrote:
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. (HV 20)
Natural Family Planning (NFP) is the method of birth regulation that Pope Paul VI was referring to. While he may not have known the all the benefits of such a method, with Humanae Vitae, he confirmed and proclaimed the 2000-year consistent teaching of the Church that artificial methods of contraception were immoral.
NFP provides many benefits that not only promote healthy living, this remarkable method of birth regulation fosters authentic married love and is also environmentally friendly.
NFP is safe
There are no harmful side effects for either the husband or wife. It is completely safe, 100 percent natural, and involves no potentially harmful devices or drugs.
NFP is healthy
There are no pills, invasive procedures or long-term drugs. Women who use NFP know more about their bodies and can discover health problems sooner.
NFP is effective
Used and taught properly, NFP can be 99 percent effective in avoiding pregnancy. In our experience as an NFP user couple, we have never had an unplanned pregnancy in 36 years. NFP can also assist some couples in achieving much-wanted pregnancies without chemicals and operations.
NFP costs very little to use
In this economy, NFP is very cost effective. Other than the cost of the course, materials, and the replacement of thermometers, NFP costs very little to use over a couple’s 20 to 30 years of fertility, compared to purchasing condoms, diaphragms, pills, and other chemicals or operations over a period of 20 to 30 years.
NFP is environmentally friendly
NFP does no harm to the environment like some of the chemical methods of contraception. There are now software programs (like Cycle Pro and Kindara) that keep track of all pertinent information on a woman’s iPhone, Android, iPad or computer. If using paper charts, they can be recycled and there are no chemicals or other devices used.
NFP is marriage insurance
One of the most incredible benefits is that NFP is marriage insurance. In a study done by the Couple to Couple League, couples who used NFP had a less than two percent risk of divorce compared to the national secular average of 50 percent. On average, couples who use NFP have better communication than couples who contracept.
NFP is morally acceptable
Married couples who use NFP are spiritually healthy because NFP fosters authentic marital love and allows a couple to love as Christ loves: freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully.
NFP works with irregular cycles
NFP is not like the old rhythm method, which depended on regular cycles. NFP’s charting system works with a woman’s present signs of fertility.