Founder of CatholicMom.com says she likes to write from her treehouse
Give Lisa Hendey a little prayer time and a laptop and she’s out of the gate before you can blink. The founder of CatholicMom.com and new editor-at-large at Ave Maria Press is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to her ability to use digital media to share the faith and encourage Catholics, especially mothers.
Hendey, a blogger at multiple online venues including Patheos, is the best-selling author of The Grace of Yes, The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms. Her latest project is the Chime Travelers, a fictional series of chapter books for elementary school readers based on the lives of the saints. Hendey has produced and hosted numerous TV and radio programs and is the technology contributor for EWTN’s SonRise Morning Show. She writes for many national publications and travels internationally giving talks and workshops on faith, family, and Catholic technology and communications topics.
In 2013, Hendey was selected as an Elizabeth Egan Journalism Fellow and traveled with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Rwanda to study and write on the aftereffects of the Rwandan genocide. The experience inspired her to launch “World View Wednesday” at CatholicMom.com, to help busy mothers stay informed about what’s going on around the world and be able to prayerfully and materially contribute to global crises and causes.
Hendey, 52, is a graduate of Notre Dame, where she met her husband, Greg, an emergency medicine physician. Together they have two sons who are now young adults. She spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky from her home office in Fresno, California, about what it means to say yes to the Gospel today, and how she manages to do what she does.
What was it you were looking for that you couldn’t find when you launched CatholicMom.com in 2000?
At the time I launched it, my children were in early elementary school and my husband was not Catholic. (He has since come into the Church.) I was the young mom often taking two mischievous boys to Mass by myself and recognized that it was my job to be the primary faith formator of my children — but didn’t understand exactly how to do that. I didn’t start the web site with the sense that I had the answers and would be telling others how to do this; it was more that I felt a need for support and community.
Back then there was no social media, and web sites weren’t blogs — they were very one-directional. One of the earliest things I did was to start a message board which became a community of women who were all facing the same struggles I was. Together we prayed and discussed, laughed and cried, and really talked about how we could give the best of ourselves to this important job of motherhood. Since then the web site has blossomed and we use whatever the latest tools are, but that core mission of celebrating Catholic womanhood— and trying to understand what it means to be a Catholic family — that’s still at the heart of it.
Are you surprised where things have gone, and where the site is now?
Yes, I am. I’m grateful to my husband and sons, because they’ve been so supportive of a mom who was very divided in her attention… My husband has always been very supportive and I’ve always done this from home. But the growth of the site, and what it’s become, is astounding to me, and yet at the same time it’s totally a work of the Holy Spirit. I know that God’s power is limitless and that anything that’s good is the result of offering this to God, hopefully for the right reasons and not to seek any personal recognition, but instead to be there for families like mine.
You’ve been called an “accidental innovator” Do you identify with the term? What does it mean to you?
Well, “accidental” is correct… because I was a French major in college and I have no technological background. And yet, I’m very curious about these tools we use, and had I the opportunity to go back to college now, I might actually study programming or some kind of technology. So from someone who hated math and science in elementary school, that’s a very big surprise to me! But I’m also so cognizant of the fact that the Church has always used innovative ways to spread the faith, whether that was writing or art or music, and we have to be on the forefront of that.
My intention is always how best to serve the Church and the reader. But often, it’s like, “let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks!” And sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s how we learn. But John Paul II, and Scripture before him, says “be not afraid.”
One of your recent books is called The Grace of Yes, and you seem to be living your life that way… taking risks, stepping out, going where you haven’t gone before. Are you, by nature an adventurous person? Or is being led by the Holy Spirit something you’ve grown into?
I’ve grown into it. I’ve always been curious, someone who loves trying new things, but especially in the last 15 years, it’s just remarkable the doors that have opened by saying yes to God. A big part of the “grace of yes” is this concept that if we really give our yes to God, then we need to be generous spirits. If we’re really followers of Christ, and I’m not talking about finance, though that’s part of it, it’s about how we cultivate an attitude of better loving and serving the world around us. I am always trying to be a “yes” person in my life to God and to others.
How do you do that without burning out?
(Laughs.) I’m convinced that God gives us exactly what we need for His will in our lives. While I’m sometimes tired, I’m constantly energized by the opportunities I have in my life. I think I’m recognizing that the times I feel frustrated or on the verge of burnout I need to discern and pray about whether what’s frustrating me is God’s will or not. Because I think the times we come up against frustration or feel defeated it’s because, at least in my case, our personal goals are not lining up with God’s will in that situation. I do work at an intense pace, but I’m also totally blessed to do what I get to do and I find it energizing.
How do you recognize the Holy Spirit in your life? How do you discern what’s next?
One of the hugest things is remaining very close to the Eucharist and to the daily word of God in Scripture. While I don’t make it to Mass every day, the daily lectionary is a huge part of my morning prayer and I intentionally make the first moments of my day time with God, to hear His voice. l’m not one of those people who would say I’ve heard an audible message from God. I wish I would! But more so, I find glimmers of encouragement in Scripture…It’s amazing how often the answers are right there for us, and in the readings for the day. So, in the midst of all the business, it’s finding time for silence and contemplation, and being better at quieting my mind. It’s always a learning thing for me.
Also, recognizing the role my family plays in helping me discern things. For too many years, I was not a great marriage partner in terms of going to my husband and really talking to him about discerning big decisions and I’ve really worked at that in the past five years. God is my first stop and Greg is my second. He knows me better than anyone and can really help me assess things. Even great opportunities are not necessarily the right path to take.
A central message of Pope Francis’ visit here in the United States was to “go forth” and “go out” which seems to relate to this concept of “saying yes.”
You know, so many times over that week, I’d think, I need to go back and ponder this to see how this relates to the grace of yes, because he’s really living that and he’s also challenging us to live the same. It’s why sometimes his message is hard for people, especially those of us who live in comfortable situations. We’re sometimes challenged beyond our comfort zones by what we hear him asking us to do. But I think he’s so often reminding us of what Jesus said in the Gospels. Sometimes it’s easier to drop our donation into the Church basket and give financially than it is to be a generous giver in more emotional ways. I heard him time and time again put primacy on the importance on children and the elderly. Every family knows the challenge of raising small children and also the challenge for many of us of being the sandwich generation, where we are raising our kids but also supporting our parents or grandparents as they age. He told us so many times last week how critical the elderly are to the foundation of the Church.
What aspect of Pope Francis or his message has challenged you the most, especially perhaps in light of his recent visit?
It’s his compassion for the poor of our world — either the materially poor or the spiritually poor. Because we see him at every juncture leading us into Christ’s Gospel message to be there for the poor. I am so blessed to live a comfortable existence and I have to ask myself constantly if I’m doing enough to serve those who go without. Am I doing enough to be Christ to those people? In the comfort of my day to day life, am I living in a way to be able to share the gifts we’ve been given? And I think that means material gifts, but it also means being Christ’s love to people who are just desperate for someone to be compassionate to them. We see Pope Francis reaching out so often to the disabled, to the elderly, to people who are on the margins of society, and just being love to them, and I’d like to be that same way in my life.
You mentioned in a past interview with Elizabeth Scalia that the virtue of generativity comes most easily for you at this stage in your life. Why is that?
I’ve been the recipient of generative love, people who went out of their way to be in mentoring, formative, generously loving and supportive relationships with me. My own parents are a prime example of that. So much of what I hold dear in my life is because they were generative in their love for me and my siblings.
I would say that now that I’m older and done with the critical years of parenting, especially with catholicmom.com, it makes sense for me to share from the perspective of “I love you and I want to help you in our journey.” Which is what women did for me when I was in those years. To do that with writers and readers is such a great blessing. Also, seeing our writers blossom and flourish, and to leave a legacy. I see the opportunity to do this in my various roles, being a cheerleader, for other women who need support and encouragement and someone to say, “this is a risk worth taking,” whether it’s in family life or professional life.
There’s a lot that could be said about that, isn’t there? Women supporting each other better? It seems to be lacking…
Women can get a bad reputation for being competitive with each other. I don’t know whether it’s the blessing of working within a Church realm, but I see my fellow workers, other web sites, other authors — we are co-workers in God’s vineyard and when we work together, to support each other, the fruit of that is we help draw people closer to Jesus Christ. So there’s no room for competition in this, we’re all hands-on-deck towards the same goal.
How do you deal with fear?
I try to assess the role my own ego has in it. Typically the times I am most fearful are when most people may not be. I’m a pretty adventurous soul and I’ve been to different parts of the world and am always in search of my next adventure. For example, I’m going to Colombia in January with Catholic Relief Services. That made my husband fearful, so blessedly he consented to it, but I have no fear about that trip. I think it’s a beautiful opportunity to share some work that’s being done in a hazardous part of our world — we need to know more about what’s happening there. But where fear comes into play for me is decisions about work types of things, and a risk I might be taking. So I have to sit back and pray about whether I fear embarrassment, or failure, or not being at my peak and what part my ego has in the hesitancy.
But more often than not, now that my children are independent, I feel very little fear in my life. I really feel that God has His hand on me, and as long as I do my best to live in a state of grace, He has me right where He needs to be. It’s really wonderful. Part of that is definitely having older children. When we’re younger mothers, so much of the way we protect ourselves is because we’re protecting our family, and our service to them. But now that my kids are more independent, I find myself increasingly taking risks I may not have taken in the past.
Speaking of risk and adventure, what did you learn during your time in Rwanda?
The Rwanda trip was an amazing opportunity. I was on a journalism fellowship with CRS to study their work with reconciliation efforts in the country. I came away with a more global perspective on the Church. So often in the United States we think about the pressing priorities that we have in our society, things that are first world issues, like raising teens in the digital age. But I met families there who were struggling just to put clean water and food on their tables.
But also this idea that in faith and through faith we can reconcile with one another and with God was a huge learning thing for me there. Conservative estimates are that half a million people were killed in the span of 100 days in the Rwandan genocide, largely neighbor on neighbor, and often in their churches or in trusted places like schools and hospitals. How a country can recover from that, and how communities can live together after something like that, is a huge lesson for us in forgiveness. And when I stop to consider that people who have been harmed by, or perpetuated, such terrible things on each other can move forward, this idea of God’s mercy and unconditional forgiveness though Jesus is so much more tangible to me than it ever was before.
What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being a Catholic today?
In a general sense, it’s understanding the teachings of the Church and then being able to effectively communicate those in a society that is shifting, evolving, changing. It’s being able to challenge ourselves to understand what the Church truly teaches, and then being unafraid of being a mouthpiece for that, in a compassionate way that reminds people that the door to Christ is open and that the Church wants to love and support people right where they are.
You’re an author, among other things. How did you discover your writing talent, and what is your writing process like?
I have to credit Ave Maria Press’s Tom Grady who took a huge risk on me in 2009 when he offered me my first book opportunity. He came to me at a large conference and invited me to go to coffee, and offered me a chance to pray about doing a book with them. My first response to him was, “I don’t know how to write a book! I can write a blog post, and I’m still learning that!” But he recognized something in my voice that he thought had merit. So I thank him for that. And also Eileen Ponder, who’s been my editor on all my non-fiction work. She’s taught me so much about understanding the value in my voice and in my experience.
Sometimes being really personal in your writing can be challenging because it means showing the flaws in yourself, but I have found time and time again that taking the risk to do that is what touches people the most. So when I get to meet people who’ve read my work, often they discuss the most personal and the hardest parts of my writing, which are the times I’ve been critically honest about my own flaws and sinful nature.
As far as my writing process, I don’t have the luxury of locking myself way; I write everywhere. I’ve written in my office at home and in lots of hotel rooms. I have a great treehouse in my backyard, that used to belong to my boys, and that’s one of my favorite places to write. I’ve got a desk up there now. I write wherever I can find a power outlet for my computer. I tend to get it all out in good first draft and then go back and refine. I try to pray before I write and then let it fly.
And now you’ve just said yes to something new: Editor-at-Large at Ave Maria Press. What are you most excited about when it comes to this new position? And was this another “the Holy Spirit opened the door” kind of thing?
Yes, this was the Holy Spirit. I’m so blessed that they invited me to take on this role. I can do it from home, thanks to technology, and it’s going to complement my work at the web site, and my own writing and speaking.
The reason I’m so excited about it is that, first of all, I know Ave Maria Press so well, because I’ve been with them for five years, and I know their commitment to their readers and their goal to lead people closer to Christ and into a more deep understanding of the Church. And to be able to discover in a small way discover new voices, provide a platform for new authors, maybe people we may not have considered in the past. To serve our readers in this way will be such a huge blessing. They tease me that I’ve been at this for a while because often when I’m on the road and I meet someone I’ll contact them and say, “Have you considered this person?” Usually it’s a selfish desire that I have to read a book from that person myself! With catholicmom.com I’ve had an opportunity to help writers develop their voices and it’s role I really enjoy.
So, please pray for me. As long as I stay covered in prayer and keep my head on straight, that will be a good thing.
Photo credits: Lisa Hendey
Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Content Producer for Aleteia