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Archive for the ‘Apostles’ Category

Okay, okay, maybe it’s partly the reverence. But hear me out.

In all of these endless conversations about the Mass in the current day, “reverence” would probably win the Word Cloud competition.

They just want a reverent Mass!

Celebrated properly, the Mass of Paul VI can be plenty reverent!

Give us reverence!

Well, I think “reverence” as an interpretive lens falls short. I don’t think it quite gets to the core of the problem.

It’s not the reverence.

It’s the ego.

Because the ego lies at the heart of the “irreverence” – no matter what form that “irreverence” takes – and we obliged to note that a full-on Latin Mass in whatever form can be “irreverent,” too – although the potential for irreverence there has built in boundaries: Latin, strict rubrics.

But let’s look at the Mass of Paul VI – the Ordinary Form, the Mass most of us attend.

I’m going to suggest that the core of what drives people crazy (in a bad way) about the celebration of this Mass is the always-present-fear that when you open the door and sit down in that pew, you are never quite sure if what’s about to happen might involve you being subject to surprise attacks and being held hostage by someone’s ego.

You go to Mass with your hopes, joys and fears. You’re there carrying sadness and grief, questions, doubts and gratitude and peace. You’re bringing it all to God in the context of worship, worship that you trust will link you, assuredly to Christ – to Jesus, the Bread of Life, to His redeeming sacrifice. That in this moment, you’ll be joined to the Communion of Saints, you’ll get a taste of the peace that’s promised to the faithful after this strange, frustrating life on earth is over.

And what do you get?

Who knows. From week to week, from place to place, who knows.

Who knows what the personality of the celebrant will impose on the ritual. Will it be jokes? Will it be a 40-minute homily? Will it be meaningful glances and dramatic pauses? Will it be the demand for the congregation to repeat the responses because they weren’t enthusiastic enough?

Who knows what the particular tastes and artistic stylings of the musicians will bring to the moment?

Who knows what the local community, via committee or fiat, will have determined we should focus on this week?

The idea was this:

God is in the here and now, and speaks to us in the here and now. To be responsive to the Spirit in this here and now means not being bound by imposed ritual or words, especially if those rituals come to us from distant times and cultures.

So what needs to happen with liturgy is that it should be seen as a framework – valuable, yes – but only a framework in which the ministers and the community can respond to the Lord freely, letting Him work through the uniqueness of this particular community, this moment in time, the unique gifts of these ministers and perceived needs of this community.

It was supposed to render the ritual far more accessible than any medieval, time-encrusted form ever could for Modern Man.

It seemed to make sense at the time.

And in the best of circumstances, saints at the helm, perhaps it does.

But as I have said time and time again, one of the reasons we say that tradition possesses a sort of wisdom is that tradition has seen the strengths and weaknesses of human nature and evolved to take that – especially the weaknesses and the sinfulness – into consideration, evolving into something that discourages and inhibits those sinful tendencies

So when you have a liturgy, you have ministers. You have people in charge. And it is not shocking at all that in a context of being told that The Spirit will work through your words and actions – trust it you immediately construct a huge, boundless playground for the Ego.

The Ego that at one point might have been constrained by strict rules about obeying rubrics, not to speak of the use of a foreign, non-vernacular language, is unleashed, not only by the fateful “in these or other words” – but by his new role, in constant dialogue with the congregation, who now spend an hour or more gazing on his face, and who has been taught that, in some crucial way, the congregation’s spiritual experience at this liturgy depends on his personality – that his personality and interaction holds a key to a fruitful spiritual moment.

But there’s more.

One of the stated purposes of the conciliar liturgical reforms (growing from the Liturgical Movement) was to help the faithful see the sacredness of the moment – by breaking down the wall between the altar and the pews, that would work to help the faithful bring the sacrality found in worship out into their individual lives and the present moment. Again, how much more impactful on this score is liturgy that reflects the current moment in that community’s life rather than something that reflects the experiences of 16th century hierarchs?

How does this work out in real life?

Well, in real life, this grand theory is put into practice by a small group of people – depending on place and time – celebrants, lay ministers, worship committee, musicians – who are operating out of a set of perceived needs and agendas – theirs. It can be little else. Oh, some people have a more expansive vision, but most don’t.

And of course, these people in charge of liturgies are human beings.

How many times have we seen this, in liturgies and in general church life, when leaders, both lay and clerical, have centered their efforts, words and plans on particular agendas and causes, while in front of them sits a congregation gathered with their broken hearts, fears about life and death and all of it, addictions, disappointments, temptations, frightening diagnoses and exhaustion – wondering why they can’t just pray?

To me, it’s an interesting extension of the post-Enlightenment centering of human experience in the cosmos. In a Catholic context, it took different forms, as theological and spiritual thinkers cycled through various angles and anthropologies over the past two centuries, all of which prioritized human experiences of the present moment as the portal to truth and authenticity.

The trouble is – well, one of the troubles – is that given the opportunity, human beings, especially human beings given positions of power and leadership, and encouraged to let the Spirit speak through the present moment and the uniqueness of their own experience, will do just that – imposing their own understanding of the needs of the present moment on the community as normative and fundamental, using the call to inculturate as an invitation to construct a narrative that serves their own purposes and concretize an agenda when all we really came for was the Creed.

Facing us, speaking our language, trusted by us as the arbiters of the moment in which the Spirit is surely moving – yes, the Egoist, given the chance, will certainly and dutifully embrace the moment and center personal experience as way to authenticity and truth – theirs.


Planning for school or parish faith formation? Check out the resources I’ve written over the years for all ages.

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  • Are you getting ready for school? Catechists, homeschoolers and Catholic school teachers are.  If you are of a mind to, please take a look at all the resources I have available for catechesis and formation.

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  • If you really want to get strange looks, you could toss this out, something I’d forgotten about – that I have the pdf of De-Coding Da Vinci available for free here. Use as you like. All kidding aside, at the time, I thought that taking apart the hugely popular novel was a useful and engaging way to teach people about the origins of the Scriptural canon and some early Church history. Plus, it took me two weeks to write it, so not a bad use of time. Here you go.
  • Are you teaching First Communion children this year? Take a look at Friendship with Jesus and Be Saints. 
  • Are you teaching religion to elementary age students? Friendship with Jesus, Be Saints, Bambinelli Sunday, Adventures in Assisi, The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, The Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes. 
  • Can you help catechists, Catholic schools and parish programs?  Consider gifting your parish, school or favorite catechist with copies of these books.  Click on the covers for more information.
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Again – even if catechesis isn’t something you are personally involved in, any catechist, parish school, library or program would welcome a donation as a beginning-of-the-year (no matter when it begins…) gift.

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It’s that time of year again – tomorrow’s Gospel reading.

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 

I wrote this column years ago – maybe twenty or more – and it’s on my actual website, but the formatting is wonky, and I don’t feel like reviving my html skills right now to fix it. So I’ll just toss it here. Remember – at least twenty years ago, and also it was a column for newspaper – so I was limited to 700-800 words. So not quite enough room to explore the subtleties of Scriptural interpretation. And I believe this interpretation precedes Barclay and may even go back to Enlightenment-era thinking. So it’s by no means comprehensive or in-depth. It’s just a column, so calm down. I added a bit from a 2008 post I wrote riffing off it, as well.

Also – this used to be a very common way of preaching on this Gospel narrative. I don’t think it’s heard so frequently any more, but in case you do….


An acquaintance of mine recently wrote to share an unpleasant Mass-going experience.

The priest in his small hometown parish was preaching on the Gospel, this week, the account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from Matthew. His interpretation of the event was not exactly comforting to this acquaintance, for the priest suggested that perhaps what really happened had nothing to do with miracles as we know them. Perhaps Jesus so moved his listeners that they took out the food they had hidden in their cloaks and shared it with those around them.

The miracle, therefore, is not any magical multiplication, but the miracle of the previously selfish being moved to generosity.

Who knows how the rest of the congregation received this interesting news, but one of them (my correspondent) couldn’t just walk away without questioning the priest. After Mass, he asked him to clarify. The priest explained that no, he wasn’t denying the miracle, but that the miracle was yes the generosity of the people. He said he didn’t have time to go into it further.

The teller of this tale was justifiably appalled by what he’d heard. But, as I wrote back, as disappointing as it was, I couldn’t be surprised.

For I’d heard it myself, a couple of times from different pulpits. I suspected it was a fairly common interpretation, so I checked around and found that I was right.

Numerous folks who contacted me about this said that they’d heard it too in both Catholic and Protestant churches in exactly the same words. I couldn’t help but wonder where all of these preachers were picking this up, and it didn’t take me long to find out.

It’s in one of the most venerable Scripture commentaries out there – those written by Scottish scholar William Barclay in the 1950’s. Most people who’ve studied religion at the college level have been exposed to Barclay, and many own sets of his commentaries. He’s generally very middle-of-the road and moderate in his views. But in his commentary on this story, he offers an interpretation, which he doesn’t says is his own, but is held ‘by “some.”

Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all. If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.

So there you have it, neatly packaged for the lazy preacher who will use it to sound clever, no matter how many problems the explanation holds:

If everyone brought some food, who, exactly, was left to be hungry?

This interpretation also implies that these first-century Jews were naturally averse to sharing, which is not only offensive, but historically and culturally inaccurate. It may be a miracle for 21st century Americans to share, but sharing and hospitality were sacred obligations for Jesus’ listeners.

Yes, there are layers of meaning to this event. It is of little use as a bare fact as it is as a fabrication. Miracles are offered as complex signs of God’s presence and activity among us, working through and even with us at times, open to rich interpretation in infinite application. Generosity and plenty of course is at the core of the narrative, but it’s God’s generosity which will reach its summit in the Eucharist.

The Barclayian interpretation is illogical,  and frankly – not surprising given the era and the emphasis of Biblical studies of the late 19th and early 20th century, which, for example, saw the most “authentic” elements of the Jesus story as those that were the least Jewish  – tinged with more than a bit of anti-Semitism. Think about stereotypes. Once I did – I couldn’t not see that in Barclay’s interpretation, perhaps unfairly.

So to presume that the Gospel writers couldn’t have meant what they wrote implies that they were either stupid or dishonest. The Scripture is a collection of diverse works, meant to be understood within the specific literary forms God used to communicate truth. But as the Gospel writers themselves make clear, they are not about anything but historical truth about an historical figure named Jesus. Anything less wouldn’t have been worth their time.

Or their lives.

Or ours, come to think of it, don’t you think?

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It’s a solemnity!

Here they are from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. 

The first reading from Mass today, from Acts – a page from The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes from the section, “Heroes are known by their love.”

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And, conveniently, B16 of course did General Audience talks on Peter and Paul that were collected into books at the time. Here are some of the related study guide pages I wrote for those talks, out of print, but available as a PDF here. Feel free – seriously – to save, copy and print as you wish. Use for yourself, for a parish adult education program or even for older high school students.

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First…why?

Why highlight these saints so often when there is so much…news happening?

Simple: Because through the saints, we learn how to be disciples. We learn how rich, textured and diverse Catholic life is. Because saints lived in the past, when we make reflecting on the life, work, witness or writing of a saint part of our day, we situate our faith more properly than we do if we situate our faith only in the present moment.

In short: We grow more from a few moments of being quietly attentive to the real world around us, consciously situated in the greater cosmic context of traditionally-centered faith, than we do from one more session of racing through scads of information and opinion via a screen. I know I do, at least.

Moreover, with all the talk about “eucharist coherence,” maybe Irenaeus is a good person to drop in and check on – and check ourselves with: working from the assumption that Jesus says he’s the Way, the Truth and the Life, and those words don’t just jump from his mouth to our ears without a Spirit led process of transmission, teaching and shaping – that we just can’t ignore.

I mean, the man himself says it:

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.

Mike Aquilina:

St. Irenaeus is an important link in tradition’s golden chain. He probably composed his works when he was very old, in the late 100s in the land we now know as France. When he was a young man, though, he lived in Asia Minor, where he studied under the holy bishop Polycarp, who had himself converted to Christianity under St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus treasured the stories of John that he had learned from his master. His few, small anecdotes are a precious witness to the life of the apostle.

And all of Irenaeus’s life gave witness to the teaching of the apostles. The man was steeped in Scripture, steeped in liturgy, in love with the Church and all of its glorious structures of authority. In Irenaeus’s voluminous writings we find it all: the Mass, the papacy, the office of bishop, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the condemnation of heresy. One of my favorite lines from his work is this, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” This is the most primitive form of the axiom that later Fathers would state as “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy is the place where living tradition truly lives.

Then Bishop Barron:

Now this regula veritatis, Irenaeus insists, was not so much his work but that of the apostle John, the mentor to Polycarp who in turn taught Irenaeus himself. “For John, the disciple of the Lord … wishing to put an end to all such ideas (Gnosticism) … and to establish the Church in the rule of truth” handed on this formula. Time and again, Irenaeus characterizes his work as the handing on of the apostolic teaching; in fact, his short summary of the Adversus Haereses bears the straightforward title Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. In a word, the regula does not represent a philosophical consensus or an externally imposed matrix of interpretation, but rather the apostolically ratified distillation of the essential biblical worldview, the fundamental metaphysics that St. John and his companions insisted must undergird the biblical story. This is why, for Irenaeus, these “doctrinal” claims are not the least bit distorting but clarifying. Indeed, apart from them, the biblical witness would remain opaque and the essential story murky and open to misinterpretation. To suggest that the regula fidei should be set aside in order to allow the authentic intention of the biblical authors to emerge would have struck Irenaeus as so much nonsense.

Then, B16:

As can be seen, Irenaeus did not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always enlivened from within by the Holy Spirit, who makes it live anew, causes it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church. Adhering to her teaching, the Church should transmit the faith in such a way that it must be what it appears, that is, “public”, “one”, “pneumatic”, “spiritual”. Starting with each one of these characteristics, a fruitful discernment can be made of the authentic transmission of the faith in the today of the Church. More generally, in Irenaeus’ teaching, the dignity of man, body and soul, is firmly anchored in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit’s permanent work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a “high road” in order to discern together with all people of good will the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church’s missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.

Repeating what I said yesterday about Cyril, if you have a mind to study the Church Fathers via these talks either as an individual or as a parish study group, feel free to use the free pdf of the study guide I wrote for OSV.  For example the reflection questions for the section on Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen are:

1. These thinkers of early Christianity did not shy from engaging with non-Christian thinking. How would you describe their relationships to it? What seems to you to be their standard for what elements of non-Christian thinking to accept or reject?

2. Apologetics is still an important part of Christian expression. What issues have you experienced as being areas in which you or others you know are called upon to offer an “apologia”? Are there any resources you have found particularly helpful?

3. All of these thinkers — and most in this book — emerged from the East, the birthplace of Christianity. What do you know about the Eastern Catholic churches today? Have you ever attended an Eastern Catholic liturgy?

4. Irenaeus battled Gnostic heresies in which only an elite had access to the ultimate saving spiritual knowledge. Can you see any currents of this element of Gnostic thinking in the world today? Do you ever catch yourself thinking along these lines?

5. These thinkers were engaged in very creative work, but work that was very faithful to the tradition they had been handed by the apostles. What kind of creative, faithful ways of teaching and expressing faith are you aware of today? If you were in charge of evangelization  for the Church in your area, what kinds of approaches would you encourage?

6. Justin Martyr felt that certain elements of his pagan life had actually worked to prepare him for his Christian life. Are their any elements of your life before your fuller coming to faith that you feel have prepared you for deepening your faith today?

7. Ignatius and Origen both longed for martyrdom. What do you think about that?

8. Several of these thinkers indicate the importance of the bishop of Rome. How do you see the importance of the papacy expressed in the Church and the world today?

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This is one of my favorite stained glass windows in town.

It was, for a long time, just a blur of colors on my right when I attended Mass at this parish. But last year, we had occasion to spend a lot of time in this church building as the parish staff graciously allowed my son to practice piano and organ there, and I finally paid attention to it.

So, take a look.

It’s a Pentecost window, of course. At the center top is the Holy Spirit, showering down those gifts on those gathered in the upper room.

And then, to the right, you have another figure – who is it? St. Paul, preaching, receiving the same light of the Spirit. St. Paul, of course, being the patron of the Diocese of Birmingham and the namesake of our Cathedral.

To the left is another figure – St. Francis Xavier, the patron of this very parish. He’s surrounded by symbolic respresentations of the Far East and the people whom he served.

The same Spirit, the same gifts, the same courage given to every link in the chain, from the upper room, through the various branches of the Communion of Saints that leads us to this spot here, in this church building, in this community, on this planet at this moment in time. And this is where you start – right here – and then keep moving, led by that same Spirit to speak – where ever you land.

Come, O Holy Spirit, come!
From your bright and blissful Home
Rays of healing light impart.

Come, Father of the poor,
Source of gifts that will endure
Light of ev’ry human heart.

Repeats below, but as long as you’re here…..

Yes, this is largely a repeat from Friday. But hey, not everyone comes here every day. Don’t blame you.

Pages above are (left) from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols  and (right) from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.  Click on images for larger versions. Remember that for the Signs and Symbols entry, there’s another page –  a full page of more detailed text.

Here we are –  For help in preparing the kids, let’s go to one of my favorite sources – this wonderful  old Catholic religion textbook.

The short chapter on Pentecost is lovely and helpful.

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This volume is for 7th graders.

What I’m struck by here is the assumption that the young people being addressed are responsible and capable in their spiritual journey. They are not clients or customers who need to be anxiously served or catered to lest they run away and shop somewhere else.

What is said to these 12 and 13-year olds is not much different from what would have been said to their parents or grandparents. God created you for life with him. During your life on earth there are strong, attractive temptations to shut him out and find lasting joy in temporal things. It’s your responsibility to do your best to stay close to Christ and let that grace live within you, the grace that will strengthen you to love and serve more, the grace that will lead you to rest peacefully and joyfully in Christ.

Pentecost is one of the events in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

(The book is structured around the virtues. Each section begins with an event from Scripture that illustrates one of those virtues, followed by stories of people and events from church history that do so as well)

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Finally, hopefully today you’ll be hearing/singing/praying Veni Creator Spiritus today.  I have a chapter on it in The Words We Pray. A sample:

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A bit of blogging this week. Perhaps of the most interest will be this post on the movie The Sound of Metal.

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Pentecost is coming, of course.

Pages above are (left) from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols  and (right) from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.  Click on images for larger versions. Remember that for the Signs and Symbols entry, there’s another page –  a full page of more detailed text.

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Pentecost is one of the events in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

(The book is structured around the virtues. Each section begins with an event from Scripture that illustrates one of those virtues, followed by stories of people and events from church history that do so as well)

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This hasn’t been published in a book – yet – but it’s a painting byAnn Engelhart, illustrator of several books, including four with my writing attached – all listed here. It’s a painting of the tradition of dropping rose petals through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

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(Our Cathedral here in Birmingham has also done this regularly over the past few years – it’s happening this coming Saturday for the Vigil of Pentecost, which will be livestreamed here.

For more on the Cathedral’s livestreaming, go here.

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By the way, please follow Ann on Instagram. She features her beautiful art and regularly posts live painting sessions on Instagram Stories. 

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Hopefully this weekend,  you’ll be hearing/singing/praying Veni Creator Spiritus.  I have a chapter on it in The Words We Pray. A sample:

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Speaking of art, from Daniel Mitsui:

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Daniel has designs available as wallpaper and fabric here. Gorgeous.

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And finally, here’s an excerpt from a lecture he delivered earlier this year. Food for thought for artists of all kinds – and any of us, really.

So how does an artist who wants to make religious art, who wants to make it both beautiful and traditional, to glorify God and edify men through it, answer the challenge of doing that in a changing world?

He should choose his influences – both visual and intellectual – out of love. He should love them for what they are, rather than for what they are not.

No matter how devoted he is to a certain kind of art or school of thought, he should remember that it is incomplete and imperfect. He can and should try to make it better. This is an altogether traditional thing to do.

He should be open to whatever medium, whatever materials, whatever methods work best to express his artistry. A willingness to be bold, technically, is another altogether traditional thing to do.

He should not consider religious art to be a political tool, or encourage its use as such.

He should look to every kind of art – whether it comes from within the Church or without it – asking the questions: what works? and what can this teach me to make my art better? God is the author of all beauty; as Augustine says, the mines of his providence are everywhere scattered abroad.

He should ask the same question even of art that he considers generally bad: What works? What can this teach me? The answer may be: very little. But if it is anything at all, he should accept the lesson.

More.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Today’s the feat of Our Lady of Fatima. Here’s a Fatima book illustrated by my friend and frequent collaborator Ann Kissane Engelhart:

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Written by Donna Marie Cooper O’Boyle and published by Sophia.

You an see about a fifth of the book, including illustrations, here. And here are a couple more, sent to me by Ann.

Blurbs for the book have specifically mentioned the illustrations as worthy of note. So if this appears on your radar, remember that the very talented artist has other books:

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And a fantastic Instagram page to follow!

And since we talk about the Rosary on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima – here are the relevant pages from the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols:

Remember the format: Left-side page has an illustration and a simple explanation for younger children. Right-side page has a more in-depth explanation for older students. This entry is in the section entitled, “At Home.”

And yeah, you know, it is, Ascension Thursday as well. From the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

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I’m going to share with you excerpts from my books related to the Mass readings from today.

The first reading, from Acts – a page from The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes from the section, “Heroes are known by their love.”

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The Gospel is the narrative of the Road to Emmaus. From The Loyola Kids Book of Bible StoriesRemember, the stories are organized according to when we generally hear them in the context of the liturgy:

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Some Annunciation-related material from my books:

The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories

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The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

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And…here’s the chapter from Mary and the Christian Life on the Annunciation. (pdf)

The entire book is available for free here until midnight tonight. 

There’s also, of course, a chapter on the Hail Mary in here.

Here’s the first page.

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