Walking on Rosary Path is prayer in motion

The Rosary Path at Marylake

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on June 27, 2019

Here’s a novel way to pray the rosary: In the middle of a field, with rosary beads so large an adult can kneel inside them, in the company of a gaggle of geese — mom and dad with five goslings in tow.

That was my experience at the Rosary Path at Marylake, run by the Augustinians and touted as the world’s largest living rosary. Located 30 minutes north of Toronto in King City, the Rosary Path is a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of life in the city. Linked pink and white rosary beads are spread across a winding 1.5-km path, and the 19-acre landscape is punctuated with statues of Mother Mary amidst a backdrop of nature.

Walking the path is prayer in motion. The physicality helps bring the joys and sorrow of the rosary to life on what feels like a mini-pilgrimage. You don’t just pray the rosary, you enter into it intimately.

The path starts at a 7.5-metre statue depicting the crucified Jesus. Immediately, it grounds you in the reality of the faith and the reason for your visit. When you detect the hum of others praying nearby the route is infused with the spirit of faithful community.

Running parallel to the rosary beads alongside the path are the Stations of the Cross, which add another prayerful dimension. Images etched in vivid stained glass illustrate each of the stations. It was here that we encountered a family of geese, which scurried alongside my mom and I as we prayed the second decade.  

The Rosary Path is a great summer escape for Catholics in the Archdiocese of Toronto, but I was interested to learn that internationally there is a wide array of “record-breaking” rosaries, both indoor and out, that have been assembled — or curated — to help the faithful meditate on the sacred mysteries. 

In the Philippines, for example, a reported 25,000 people formed the world’s largest human rosary at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in 2010. Participants wore different coloured t-shirts depending on whether they were representing a bead, the cross or a connecting chain. 

In Tagum City, a giant rosary outside of Christ the King Cathedral weighs more than 6,000 pounds — with each of its roughly 77-pound beads fashioned from iron wood native to the local mountains of Davao Oriental and Surigao del Sur. 

A museum in Washington state boasts a whopping 4,000 rosaries, the largest collection in the world, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. They belonged to the late Donald A. Brown, a Catholic convert who began collecting rosaries in 1917 after a bout of pneumonia brought him into contact with the Sisters of Mercy, who cared for him in hospital. 

In Lebanon, there is a project underway to construct a concrete rosary path not that far away from neighbouring Syria, where many Christians are persecuted for their faith. The living rosary being built by the Lebanese Maronite order will measure 600 metres long and will be built in such a way that visitors can pray inside the Hail Mary “beads” — which look like little mushroom-capped huts — and go to confession inside the Our Fathers. 

What is it that makes all these renderings and experiences that are related to the prayer given to us by Our Lady so compelling? 

Having visited Marylake, I can attest to the power of combining movement and prayer. It’s often said that movement is medicine — meaning that exercise can prevent and help to alleviate symptoms of illness. In the spiritual realm, movement in prayer helps bring prayer to life.

I was profoundly struck by how that movement affected me as I walked from decade to decade through the winding path. Every step was intentional. You are required to make a conscious decision to keep going, to keep praying. I could feel the spiritual flame of pilgrimage guiding us along and helping us focus on why we were there, for prayer.

Sr. Lucia of Fatima, one of the children who witnessed the Marian apparition in Fatima a century ago, famously said, “There is no problem I tell you, no matter how difficult it is, that we cannot resolve by the prayer of the Holy Rosary.”

It can be a struggle to fit prayer into our daily lives, and the Rosary Path at Marylake is certainly not an every-day outing. But the reality is that we all need the Blessed Mother’s help and support. Walking and praying along the Rosary Path was a good reminder of that. 

Move. Pray the rosary. Repeat. 

Fine food feasts fit for feast days


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on May 30, 2019

Faith and food are two of the best parts of my life. So when I stumbled across a cookbook that brought these life-giving elements together, I was hooked.

Feast Day Cookbook, originally published in the 1950s, showcases recipes from around the world that have a connection to patron saints and to Mother Mary in her many titles across different cultures. And it’s chock-full of Catholic trivia. The premise is that holy days are often times of joy and celebration, so it’s fitting to fete with the absolute magnificence that is food. 

The first recipe that caught my eye was peasant soup, or potage paysanne in its native France. Comprised of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnip, leeks and chicken stock, the soup is humbly seasoned with salt and pepper. This hearty meal is connected to the May 19 feast of St. Ives, who was known in the 13th century as an advocate and patron for the poor because of his resistance to the king’s unfair taxation. 

The cookbook recounts the story of St. Ives and how he became linked with peasant soup. “After his death, St. Ives’ manor was left to the poor, and here they continued to come especially on the eve and day of his feast. On one occasion in the 19th century so many beggars presented themselves that no one knew how they would be fed. But no matter how much was dipped out of the kettles on the hearth, they were always found to be filled to the brim with good, nourishing soup.” 

Peasant soup isn’t exclusive to France. When I told my dad, who grew up in the Italian countryside, that I was making peasant soup, he said, “Don’t forget the stale bread!” Apparently, varying styles of this soup are made around the globe, with different ingredients based on what’s local and inexpensive. I’ll admit, however, that my first crack at making it shocked me, as it turned out bright purple, thanks to the red cabbage. 

In anticipation of the warmer weather, the next recipe on my list was an iced drink called coffee-flavoured granita, associated with the 600-year-old, July 16 feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is known for healing all kinds of ailments. This recipe is drawn from the street celebrations for Our Lady that used to be spearheaded by the Italian immigrants of New York. They sold this refreshing drink at tables and carts along streets lined with throngs of people participating in devotion to the saint. 

To make it, I warmed a small pot of water, added lemon juice, decaffeinated coffee crystals and a touch of coconut sugar, then popped the mixture in the freezer overnight. When I opened the freezer the next morning, the aroma was heavenly. The coconut sugar I added in place of white sugar was my nod to modernity, to make the granita a little healthier. (Although the Cool Whip topping surely cancelled out any nutritional benefits.) 

Flipping through the cookbook, I also learned that tacos are associated with the feast of St. John the Baptist — given that he is beloved in Mexico. A not-so-appetizing-sounding dessert name I stumbled across was “St. Roch’s fingers,” a mix of lady fingers and custard. The story goes that after surviving the plague, his body was disfigured. His end came in a French jail in 1327 after being accused of being a spy because he was unrecognizable. Fittingly enough, he is considered the patron saint of surgeons. 

I’ve always found comfort in turning to patron saints in times of need. There is a wide variety to choose from. 

In the realm of food, St. Lawrence of Rome is the patron saint of cooking, a title bestowed on him after he was brutally roasted to death by the Romans in the third century. While he was being burned alive, legend suggests the martyr said something along the lines of, “Turn me over, this side is done!” 

Then, there’s the patron saint of baking, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who rejected life as a princess to distribute bread to the poor. 

St. Lawrence of Rome and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us!

Time to put our digital lives in order

Person working on tabletWritten by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on April 29, 2019

There’s a line in Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation to young people Christus Vivit that jumps out at me. When he writes that “digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality,” he is speaking to my own millennial heart.

In 2012, as part of a continuing education night course, I wrote a feature on the addictive, unhealthy nature of social media. At that time, psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Ballon from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who was involved in treating users with compulsive tendencies, told me that social media is a “public health issue — just like teaching people about drugs.”

Seven years later, society’s problematic patterns of social media overconsumption have become normalized, but that doesn’t mean the behaviour fuelling them is normal. Far from it.

Internet and social media addiction are still not officially recognized as psychological disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. However, some researchers have identified and acknowledged that patterns of continued use are “capable of altering the mood, motivation, concentration and producing a dissociating and disinhibiting experience for users.” The problem is real.

At a time when, for many of us, a collective fixation with social media has become unhealthy, finding balance has never been more important. So what can we do to counter the constant compulsion to check the interwebs?

For starters, we need to be more mindful about our usage. Some tactics that have worked for me include disabling alerts so that I’m not continually being reminded to check my feeds. I’ve also deleted the Facebook app on my phone. As a result, logging in requires much more of a conscious effort. A tip from CAMH is to limit usage at meal times and before bed time, and to proactively decide to spend some time “tech-free.”

Pope Francis offers this advice: “Free yourself from the dependence on your cellphone, please,” he recently told a group of high school students. “Being addicted to noise and if there is no noise, I am not comfortable. But when you become a slave to your phone, you lose your freedom.”

This sentiment reminded me of an experience I had at the Royal Ontario Museum at an event called Friday Night Live. Standing in the main hall, four young women screamed, “Oh my gosh!” in unison, high-fiving one another and excitedly pointing up at an approximately 40-foot projection of something they had tweeted.

During Friday Night Live, the museum is transformed into a trendy nightclub and lounge. Mingling among rare collections of dinosaur bones, mummified organs and gemstones, beer-sipping guests are encouraged to post images using a common hashtag.

As crowds gathered around the projected images, some people took photos of their tweets, others uploaded those moments in time to Facebook. The music was blaring and, beyond the groups of social networkers, the dance floor was packed, strobe lights in full swing. A couple toggled their attention between their phones and the images above, fully immersed in the technology.

Absorbing the scenes playing out on the screen, I didn’t even have to venture upstairs to view the priceless exhibits. I could stay put, talk to no one and soak it all in, as if by osmosis. A woman eating a sandwich and sitting alone at a table next to me seemed to be doing the same.

The Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation is fittingly titled Christus Vivit (“Christ is alive”). The reality of Christ’s resurrection is a monumental truth that is a key part of our lives as Catholics.

As we journey through the Easter season, we should consider spending our time on activities that enhance our lives and the lives of those around us, and put us in the right mind frame to appreciate the many gifts we’ve been given. While social media can help to inform us about world news and help keep us in touch with friends, moderation is key. There’s utility and then there’s the act of mindlessly scrolling through a news feed — which is often the end result we love to hate.

Pope Francis couldn’t be more right when he talks about the perils of the digital environment, urging us “find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.” It’s up to us to navigate these choppy digital waters responsibly.

Continue reading

My Lenten promise extends to 54 Fridays

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on March 28, 2019

When I first started thinking about what I would do for Lent this year, the last thing I imagined was a fast that would encompass 54 Fridays, running until Easter of next year.

Then I met Erin Kinsella and the next thing I knew I was committing to meatless Fridays not only for this Lent, but for all of the coming year and right through Lent 2020.

Kinsella describes the 54 Fridays initiative as “an invitation to holiness.” She has taken the concept of a Lenten fast and expanded it to literally encompass 54 Fridays — from March 10, the first Friday of Lent, all the way to Good Friday on April 10, 2020.

The fast can encompass whatever gives participants a sense of not being fully satisfied in some way, as long as it is done as an offering to God recognition that only He can truly satisfy. It also includes a call to prayer, such as praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. After talking to Erin, I decided to give it a try. I’m not alone.

According to Erin, the Director of Campus Ministry at the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto, 334 people have joined the 54 Fridays Facebook group. They are mainly from Toronto, but also come from places like Nigeria, Iran, Mauritius, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy and Peru.

“There have been new people added to the group every single day since we started, which is hugely encouraging because it seems that the call to prayer and fasting is deeply resonating with people who love the Church and want to respond to the challenges of our time, but don’t know where to start or what to do,” she says.

I’m participating by abstaining from meat on Fridays — a tall order for a carnivore like me — and by avoiding refined or added sugars. Not long after I started, I came across a reflection by Pope Francis from a recent Vatican summit on sustainable development. He said that in order to find a shared response to the cry of the Earth and to the cry of the poor, “those of us who are religious need to open up the treasures of our best traditions in order to engage in a true and respectful dialogue on how to build the future of our planet.”

Among the United Nations’ 17 sustainable goals to achieve “peace and prosperity for people and the planet” by 2030, responsible consumption and food production jumped out at me as being personally achievable through the practice of fasting — no doubt “one of the treasures of our best traditions.”

My initial reason to go meatless during the 54 Friday initiative was entirely spiritual, but now the environmental aspect has provided added motivation.

According to a recent United Nations report compiled by scientists from 70 countries, meat consumption is driving up carbon emissions, with beef production and distribution being the worst offender in generating greenhouse gases. As a society, we “plough through this planet’s finite resources as if there is no tomorrow,” said Joyce Msyua, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment.

North Americans are accustomed to abundance. Trips to the supermarket let us buy pretty much whatever we desire. But awareness of the planet’s environment should be spurring a mindset shift. We must practice the virtue of temperance when buying meat, realizing that the Earth’s resources are finite.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says we act as if there “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed.” He calls it a false notion that should be reversed.

Responsible consumption should also include a commitment to cut food waste in half. According to Second Harvest, more than half of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted. This spoiled food is responsible for 56.6 million tonnes of “carbon dioxide-equivalent” emissions. The need for change is critical.

My commitment to the 54 Fridays initiative came out of prayer and a sense of wanting to do something to support the Church in the midst of all its struggles. I began the fast hoping to reap spiritual dividends. It is an unexpected bonus to learn that, in my small way, I am also playing a role in improving the state and health of “our common home.”

There’s no true joy in consumerism

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on March 4, 2019

In a pastoral letter on stewardship, Cardinal Thomas Collins suggests that in order to discover what is really important to us, we should look at how we spend our money.

“I spend my money on what I consider to be important,” he wrote. “Look at the financial statement of any organization, or family, or individual, to find out what is considered important.”

That is to say, our Visa or MasterCard statements can be a guide when we try to understand what tangible items or causes we emphasize the most. For many of us, those statements would read like a menu of our favourite consumer pleasures.

Consumerism clutters our connection to God, and it degrades our inherent human dignity by elevating the premise that we must have certain material goods in order to measure up to societal standards. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Does it spark joy?” This is the fundamental question Japanese tidying expert and global sensation Marie Kondo enthusiastically poses to clients when helping them decide whether to keep or throw out clutter-causing items in a living space. Her strategic approach to doing something most people hate — getting rid of possessions — has come to life in her smash Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, based on her New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Kondo’s method is simple. Wade through your mess according to the following categories: clothing, then books, then paper documents, then komono — which translates to “miscellaneous” in Japanese — comprising items stashed away in the bathroom, kitchen and garage. 

The final, and often hardest category, is sentimental items. At each stage, put all items in a pile and keep only what “brings you joy.” 

I can’t say that I’ve fully embraced this tidying method, but I have dabbled in it. Watching the series spurred me to clean my pantry and linen closet, which had both slowly been falling into a state of overloaded untidyness.

I can see why Kondo has a cult-like following of adoring fans. Developing a regular tidying strategy is a sound idea. But keeping a home organized will only work over the long-term if we acknowledge and work through our obsession with stuff. If we continually bring more and more into the home as a result of obsessive shopping habits, the clutter will soon re-emerge. The real solution is to buy less. 

As we enter the Lenten season, I’ve seen multiple calls to action on social media to try to avoid buying anything new during our pre-Easter fast, as a “consumer penance” of sorts. 

Consumerism is the root of the problem. It spurs our compulsion to buy because we mistakenly feel that buying things will “bring us joy.” Kondo’s series is powerful because it highlights how emotionally connected we are to our possessions.

In one episode, we meet Mario, who once owned more than 160 pairs of sneakers.

“When I became an adult and as I started having an income (shoes) were a priority,” he said. “And I started buying, and it got out of control. Ninety-five per cent of them were never used, never unlaced, let alone tried on.”

By the end of the episode, he reduced his prized collection to 45 pairs, and he and his wife created space in their home to welcome a new baby. 

In his pastoral letter, Cardinal Collins writes: “It is interesting that we are often called consumers. What a shame it is that we can be identified as people who are simply consuming the goods of the Earth. 

“Inevitably, if that consumption becomes the mark of a greedy life, then we will ourselves be consumed and possessed by the goods that we consume. It is far better to see all such things in proper perspective. The time, talent and treasure that we briefly enjoy are gifts to be accepted with gratitude, and used generously. If we do so, then that posture of detachment allows us truly to be free.” 

Pope Francis echoes these sentiments. “Consumerism is a great disease today” he said a couple of months ago during a morning Mass in the chapel of his residence. “I am not saying that we all do this, no. But consumerism, spending more than we need, is a lack of austerity in life; this is an enemy of generosity.” 

The notion that material objects can bring joy into our lives is no surprise — books can thrill, movies entertain and home furnishings help to enhance our living space. 

But when the continual accumulation of these items starts to take priority in our lives, they become little more than a distraction from what brings meaning — and true joy — to our lives.

Iceland offers a history rich in faith and harmony

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on February 5, 2019

In Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the church of Hallgrímur (Hallgrímskirkja) towers above the city. It is the tallest church in Iceland, rising almost 75 metres. Locals boast that you can see its spire from almost anywhere in the city — like a compass of sorts.

It was designed to resemble Iceland’s basalt rock columns that were formed over the ages by the cooling and solidification of lava and are scattered across a landscape that is home to 130 volcanoes.

Lutheranism, a branch of Protestantism, is the country’s official religion. Iceland’s constitution enshrines religious freedom and requires the state to safeguard the Lutheran Church as the country’s national church. It is by far the most practised religion in Iceland, but Catholicism, while practised by a small minority of the population, has long and interesting roots in this island nation.

Hallgrimskirkja, for example, owes its height to the fact that the leaders of the Church of Iceland were determined to dwarf the historic Catholic cathedral. Known as Landakotskirkja in Icelandic, which translates to Christ the King Cathedral, it was built in the neo-Gothic style in the 1920s. The whole of Iceland is made up of one Catholic diocese comprising seven parishes with approximately 13,000 registered Catholics — with most of the country’s Catholic priests imported from Europe.

On a recent trip to the “land of ice and fire,” I was surprised to learn that Irish monks were likely the first inhabitants of the island, arriving in the ninth century. This is according to the Book of Icelanders, a medieval text that describes the country’s origin stories. Given the country’s link to Nordic paganism, this was unexpected news. After all, it’s common knowledge that Iceland was settled by Vikings who practised pagan beliefs in keeping with Norse mythology. The gods they worshipped included Thor and Odin, names most North Americans associate today with comic book characters.

Our bus driver, a friendly Icelander named Eavarr, said his ancestors many generations ago were part of the National Assembly, called the Althing, which decided Christianity would become the official religion of Iceland, replacing paganism around 1000 AD. He also tells us about ancient stones called “Christianity rocks,” lava rocks that have been around since that time. These rocks can be found in Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where parliamentary meetings were once held.

According to a history compiled by the Catholic diocese of Iceland, the National Assembly contacted representatives of the world Church in Rome, asking them to bring Iceland under their ecclesiastical rule. In 1056, the first Icelandic bishop, Ísleifur Gissurarson, was ordained. The island remained Catholic for 500 years until the Protestant Reformation reached Iceland in 1550 and the king declared Lutheranism to be the state religion. 

When the Catholic bishop refused to renounce Rome, he was arrested and executed. All ties were then cut with Rome and Catholicism was outlawed until the second half of the19th century, when a small number of missionary priests and nuns arrived from Europe.

During our travels, we quickly discovered that because Iceland is an island and much of its food is imported, eating is expensive. Where a modest lunch in Canada costs about $10, in Iceland you pay about double that for a small sandwich. But one option for affordable meals we came across was a relatively new food hall in downtown Reykjavik. Upon entering, I noticed that the Mexican eatery featured a friendly painting adorning the front of its counter: Our Lady of Guadalupe. The man behind the counter said he had no idea why Our Lady was featured. To him, it was just art. Regardless, it was comforting to see a familiar face in such an unfamiliar place. 

Another familiar name we encountered was J.R.R. Tolkien, the Catholic author of The Lord of the Rings fantasy series. The story goes that Tolkien learned Icelandic — although he never visited the country — so he could gain inspiration from Icelandic Viking sagas, some tales of which are found in his novels. 

In 1989, more than 1,100 years after Catholic monks first set foot on the island, St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Iceland. He acknowledged the past division but noted how Iceland’s history and culture were shaped by the Gospel since the arrival of the first Europeans.

“Because of the rich spiritual heritage reflected in the treasure of poetry and saga which your ancestors bequeathed to you, Iceland has much to say to a world that yearns to be inspired by the truth and to create a society of justice, peace and universal harmony,” he said.  

Visiting the island 30 years later, I think the same holds true today.

Forest bathing cleanses mind and body

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on December 17, 2018

Should doctors start prescribing a leisurely walk in the forest to improve health and well-being? According to researchers from Japan, the answer is a resounding yes. 

Forest bathing, which originated in Japan in the 1980s, is the practice of “bathing in the forest atmosphere” or “taking in the forest through your senses.” The term comes from the Japanese shinrin-yoku — shinrin means “forest” and yoku translates to “bath.” 

There’s no actual water — or traditional bathing — involved. The focus is on being present in nature in order to reap a variety of health benefits linked to silent contemplation amongst the trees. Whether breathing in the scent of fresh pine or admiring the beauty of rows of Douglas firs that seem to tower straight up into the clouds, researchers say the benefits include reductions in stress and blood pressure, stronger immune and cardiovascular systems, increased energy and improved mood and concentration. 

On a recent visit to Iceland I was struck by the absence of trees amidst a terrain of lava fields, fjords, glaciers and hot springs. In stark contrast with Canada’s lush landscape, the “land of ice and fire” is dotted sporadically with trees. Why? One explanation is that after Vikings discovered Iceland some 1,100 years ago, settlers axed most of the trees for firewood and to build homes and boats — and growing back the lush forests of long ago has been a slow process. 

In Canada, home to nine per cent of the world’s forests, the concept of forest bathing is gaining popularity. In September, Markham became the first city in the country to create a designated forest therapy trail that, in part, can be led by a guide from the Global Institute of Forest Therapy, a non-profit that promotes using nature to build mindfulness. 

For Catholics, escaping into nature for short periods of time is often an important component of taking a retreat, where peace and quiet allow us to discern more effectively. When I visited Villa Maria Guadalupe, the retreat centre run by the Sisters of Life in Stamford, Conn., one of the most effective aspects of the retreat was wandering the grounds amidst the trees as I contemplated an upcoming life transition. 

Spirituality and nature go together, as does the resulting sense of inspiration and renewal. In the Catholic tradition, trees signify the cyclical nature of creation — new life, but also death, as the cross on which Jesus was crucified came from a tree. 

When he was a young priest, St. Pope John Paul II often led groups of young people into the forests of Poland to help them feel closer to God through nature.

“Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity,” he once said.

Historically, hermits who desired prayerful lives of seclusion would retreat to the forests. For me, this brings to mind St. Giles from Greece, well-known as Giles the Hermit, who spent many years living deep in a forest “engaged in the contemplation of heavenly things.” 

While Pope Francis doesn’t mention forest bathing in Laudato Si’, he writes that St. Francis of Assisi asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, “so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.” 

Scientific researchers are proving the health benefits from spending time in nature, but the realization that nature is a beautiful gift from God should be enough to fill us with immense gratitude, a feeling linked inextricably with elevated levels of happiness. That spending time in nature makes us feel good is no surprise. For science to now assert the positive impact this has on our health is a bonus and should keep us going back for more. As Canadians, we’re surrounded by trees and should take advantage of the many accessible forests, parks and ravines. 

Mother Teresa once said: “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature — trees, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

As the darkness of winter descends, we should consider forest bathing as a way to optimize the fleeting hours of sunshine. With a good pair of boots, I know I will. 

Moms don’t kid around with Macron’s musings

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on November 8, 2018

During a recent speech, French President Emmanuel Macron made a statement that hit a nerve with moms around the world. 

Speaking at an event organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Macron wanted to make the point that parenthood should be a choice.

“One of the critical issues we have regarding the African demography is the fact that this is not a chosen fertility,” he said. “Present me the lady who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children.” 

In response, about 20,000 perfectly educated moms — largely from the United States and France — mobilized on Twitter. They used the hashtag #PostcardsForMacron to post photos of the large families they chose to have, along with details of their educational backgrounds. The hashtag started with Catherine R. Pakaluk, a professor of social research and economics at the Catholic University of America, who shared a photo of herself and six of her eight children. Accompanying the snapshot, she wrote: “PhD Harvard (2010), AM Harvard (2002), BA UPenn (1998). Eight children by choice. Keep it going ladies, add your own.”

As I watched post after post flood social media, it was clear that these bold women who opted to have large families should be celebrated — not judged — for committing to family life. Motherhood, after all, is the very definition of selflessness. 

Pakaluk has a vested interest in this subject. Catholic News Agency reported that her academic research area focuses in part on the effects of fertility on economic development. And while she acknowledged that Macron’s words may have been taken out of context — he was referring to women in the developing world, not the United States or Western Europe — she said his comments “represent an underlying view common in contemporary culture,” namely that no intelligent woman would want to have a large family.

Perhaps Macron had no intention of belittling the many women who make the choice to have large families, but he unwittingly highlighted the issue of how these women have been judged by society. His statement was simply a tipping point. 

No doubt, having a large family is countercultural in the 21st century. As of 2016, the fertility rate in Canada had dropped to 1.54 children per woman. There are a multitude of reasons for this trend. One of them is that Canadian women spend more time pursuing higher education and wait to get married until they feel established in their careers — that is, if they’ve found a mate by that time. From there, it can be a race against the biological clock to have one or two kids — let alone seven or more. 

One Canadian mom who defies the status quo is Lisa Canning, a Toronto mother of seven children under the age of nine. Canning wears many hats as an expert in parenting, interior design and lifestyle. She posted using the #PostcardsForMacron hashtag, saying: “I run a business with my seven kids in tow so I’d like to say to Monsieur Macron that it’s very possible to have a large family and be an educated woman. I think people don’t realize the incredible work that goes into mothering and the incredible fulfillment that can come from motherhood.”

When Canning got married in 2007, she says she was terrified of having one child, let alone seven. But she and her husband used the skill of discernment carefully — taking it “one glorious babe at a time.” She describes her family life as “full of joy,” and relies on the emotional, spiritual and physical support of family, friends and other caregivers as she and her husband navigate the ups and downs of life. 

Has she ever felt judged by society for having a large family? You bet. 

“When I was a younger mom, I felt judged for being open to a large family,” she said. “I would take comments about my lifestyle quite personally, and often the comments of others would weigh heavily upon my confidence level. 

“But now with more experience, not only in parenting children, but confidence in feeling comfortable in the person I have become, the comments don’t bother me as much. I think the more confidence we have that we are walking the path that God has intended for us, negative comments get easier to put aside.”

It may not be the path for everyone, but for those who follow a vocation of exponential motherhood, I say kudos. Mothers, after all, have enough to worry about without having to answer to the President of France. 

Experiencing life and toxicity during the Season of Creation

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on October 15, 2018

As celebrations for the Season of Creation unfolded over the past month, I was struck by two vastly different experiences: one life-giving, the other literally toxic.

The annual Season of Creation, launched in 1989 by the Eastern Orthodox Church and endorsed by Pope Francis in 2015, calls on Christians worldwide to pray and take action to help care for the gift of creation. It wrapped up on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.

Embracing the spirit of the month, I joined a friend at a do-it-yourself evening called Plant Nite, where people gather to create tabletop mini-gardens. Our materials included a vintage-looking wooden drawer and a variety of exotic-looking succulents, decorative rocks and stones, colourful reindeer moss and a tiny hedgehog to sit atop a piece of bark to give the display a woodland feel.

The instructor, or master gardener, led the groups of millennials through our steps. We started off by lining the bottom of the drawer with small rocks for drainage and then adding a type of cactus soil that provides the dry conditions these plants require. Then we planted our succulents and arranged the moss to create a mini-garden which, although no Eden, was nonetheless a proud creation. We left feeling refreshed and renewed, and somehow closer to nature after an evening of casual conversation and exercising our green thumbs.

At complete odds with this creative experience was a situation I had been trying to resolve in the previous days. I had purchased a couple of yoga mats for pilates and general exercise.  I was left breathless by what came next — and not in a good way. Removing the mats from the package, I was overwhelmed by the smell.

To rid my living room of the strong odour from the synthetic material, I busted out a home-made, essential-oil and sprayed this lemon blend directly on the mats. It was to no avail. They mats still reeked, so I left them on my balcony overnight hoping to remove the stench. Nothing. 

It was an unnatural stench, which I thought can’t be good for human health. I was right.

I was disheartened to discover that plastic mats like these often are made from polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC — widely considered to be the most toxic consumer plastic on the market. I also learned that this type of plastic is softened with phthalates, a group of carcinogenic chemicals linked to reproductive abnormalities and infertility, according to Environmental Defence Canada. The Canadian Cancer Society’s website indicates that phthalates aren’t chemically attached to the plastic products that contain them, which means they can leach into the air we breathe. 

It’s shocking that this toxin is in products being sold to unsuspecting consumers. It’s a particularly hard bitter pill to swallow when these chemicals are found in products intended to improve health. This material also harms the environment. You can’t recycle it and disposing of it by incineration releases the cancer-causing chemical dioxin. 

Six days later, the mats still stunk, so I returned them. 

It’s not just some types of workout mats that contain phthalates. The chemical is found in an array of products, including shower curtains,  toys, clothing, paint, cosmetics, bedding and food packaging. 

According to Health Canada, current evidence indicates the level of phthalates most Canadians encounter is not harmful. This opinion is not shared by Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group which claims we’ll pay a health and environmental cost by failing to ban phthalates. Via email, I was told, “Health Canada continues to review the scientific literature on phthalates and monitors the actions of its international regulatory partners.” 

We often place trust in brands we know well, but this isn’t enough to ensure products are free of toxic materials. The lesson here is that it’s up to us to become smart shoppers. I’ve learned, for example, there are PVC-free mats out there, but it takes extra leg work to find them.

The month-long Season of Creation may be over, but my appreciation and enjoyment of the natural world didn’t end with it. I have resolved to be more aware of how the products I use daily impact my health, the health of loved ones and the long-term health of the planet.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions…. We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”

We all are called to be responsible stewards of God’s creation.

Audiobooks are a feast for my ears


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on September 24, 2018

I officially jumped on the audiobook bandwagon about a year ago. 

I tried reading e-books, with no success. The digital pages always felt cold and uninviting, lacking the sensory experience that comes from the feel of holding a traditional book in your hands.

But I’ve had a much different experience with audiobooks. Quite an opposite one, in fact. Audiobooks are a total feast for the senses as an engaging narrator — sometimes a well-known actor — brings stories to life through the performance of different voices, dramatic pauses and the like.

My first audiobook was A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, read by popular British narrator David Timson, a seasoned narrator who has made 1,000-plus broadcasts for BBC Radio Drama. 

I dove into this new literary format on the subway in an effort to make my commute more enjoyable. It worked, and I now let narration carry me home. 

I’m not alone. Audiobooks are having a moment. According to a study by BookNet Canada on the state of digital publishing, 61 per cent of Canadian publishers now produce digital audiobooks, up from 37 per cent in 2016. It’s not surprising. They’re a convenient way to fit books into a busy lifestyle — especially for this bibliophile. From topics such as spirituality and sports to health and fiction, there’s something for everyone. 

For those so inclined, they can even listen to the Bible as an audiobook, as well as a wide range of audiobooks from Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton and Henri Nouwen.

Reflecting on the increasing popularity of audiobooks brings to mind the words of famous Catholic media theorist and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.”

In McLuhan’s Understanding Media, published in 1964, he explained: “The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium … result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

So, how does the shift to an audio medium impact our lives? Audiobooks allow us to maintain a reading hobby at times when reading a traditional book would be difficult to manoeuvre. For example, on a crowded subway train where there is standing room only, or while exercising, or doing chores around the house.

My go-to app for audiobooks is Libby, by Overdrive, a service created by libraries. By downloading a free app, your library card becomes your ticket to access thousands of audiobooks, e-books and magazines that are literally at your fingertips.

Interestingly enough, humans may be genetically hardwired to listen as opposed to read. Oral storytelling was well established long before the marvel of written words. According to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, as quoted in a piece in The New Yorker: “Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing probably 150,000 years ago and to some extent is ‘hardwired’; whereas writing is 5,000 to 7,000 years old…. So it’s possible listening to speech is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centres — hence more evocative and natural.”

We’re living through a moment in time in which too many of us spend endless hours consuming snippets of information on social media — fragmented and not necessarily composed by credible sources. Our moments “in between” are swallowed up by a seemingly endless cycle of scrolling through a barrage of viewpoints without disclaimers, context or, in most cases, substance. It’s to our detriment, as countless studies suggest that this information overload is slowly eroding our attention spans.

The consumption of any and all forms of books — whether they be print or digital — is much needed. But audiobooks have a certain charm about them. Being read to evokes warm feelings of childhood when story time was a listening time. Audio books are another way to remind us of the power of storytelling, and why we fell in love with books in the first place.

They remind us, too, of the importance of finding time to sit down and savour that irreplaceable feeling of enjoying a good book — in whatever form it comes.

Continue reading