Spiritual Siberia

“Spiritual Siberia.” This is a phrase I regularly use to designate a certain period of my life. Have you ever felt like you were in Spiritual Siberia? The phrase came to me at Mass when I had 3 boys- ages 4, 2 and a baby. I felt the community was gathered, but we were in some other place that was cold, isolated, and lonely.

Going to Mass was a kind of circus, with someone under the pew, someone needing a diaper change, or me in and out of Mass.

I wondered what I was “getting out of this.” I wondered who was benefiting from these dogged attempts at prayer that felt something more akin to a gymnastic meet than a mystical experience. I was self-conscious of the noise my sweet boys made. I was embarrassed when I got a “look” from someone as I walked in and out multiple times with someone in my arms.

I share this because someone encouraged me to just keep showing up. And we somehow made it through those years. I am so grateful someone said it was important to keep coming. I did it for my children, thinking it would be formative for them. I don’t know if it was- you’ll have to ask them. But I can tell you it made all the difference in my life. I learned over time to let the ritual carry me into prayer, and that the grace of God’s love penetrated even into my sporadic attention to my children and God’s Word. We learned to sit near the music, which kept their attention and masked some of our noise. As I struggled to have a “spiritual experience,” God’s love was working in me in ways I didn’t even realize and certainly did not appreciate at the time.

There is something that happens to us by simple exposure to the “Real Presence” of the Eucharist. I was feeling lost, yet somehow, I was being found.

I know there are different seasons of our spiritual lives. For me, that season was a tough one. Had I relied on my “best judgment,” I would have simply stopped coming to church for a few years. I have no idea if I would have come back. I may go through another challenging time, a dark time, a lost time. I hope I remember the good advice I got in those years: Just show up! Don’t give up on God. God will never give up on you.

Thought for the Month… Why Me?

Why me? This is a question that came to me like a little thought bubble one morning. I can’t remember what my husband did, but I do remember it was something nice. When I asked if he could follow through on some household problem (I didn’t want to deal with) his response was. “It’s taken care of.” I said thank you, but I thought, “Why me?” I felt grateful that someone cared for me in such a practical and helpful way.

Taking things for granted robs us of gratitude. Big things, like who loves us, aren’t really in our control. Awareness is the essence of the grace that grounds and surrounds us. It is a prayer of mine to dwell in simple appreciation for what I have, including a life partner who does more than half of life’s chores, is crazy about our children and cares if I am happy.

I don’t know what it is in your life narrative for which you say, “Why me?” Is it unconditional love you received from a parent or grandparent? Children who are happy? A community of friends who share your values and make you feel you belong? Good health? Recovery after cancer? Access to clean water? Living in a safe neighborhood? Meaningful work? Trust in Jesus’ love for you? Faith-filled, faithful companions? Words from Scripture to guide you?

Too often we only ask the question, “Why me?” on the dark days, on the lonely nights, in the failures and losses we experience along the way. I grieve the times I have just been too busy to appreciate the good things and people right in front of me!

But as we look at what callings mean in our life this year, I wonder how it would transform our self-concepts, our relationships and our faith community if we were intentionally focused on “Why me?” with gratitude for God’s goodness in our life. I wish for all of us for the wisdom to recognize grace pursuing us and God’s abundant generosity being the end of most chapters of our life stories.

To everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven…

I’m sure that quote from Ecclesiastes is familiar to you. That was the reading for Mass on Grandparents’ Day at my grandson’s school. During his homily, Father described the things mentioned in the reading as part of life: planting, uprooting, mourning, dancing, seeking and losing…

He invited us to turn to someone and share a time we thought was difficult or seemed wasn’t going to be good, but turned out well. I asked Natey, my 8-year-old grandson, that question. He said, “Mondays.” “Really? Every Monday?” I asked. He responded, “I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to go to school. But when I get there, I think, this is pretty good.” So, getting out of bed, I thought, is the issue. I come from a long line of “slow-waker-uppers.” I turned to my son, Jon, his dad, and said, “Sorry, he got that from my side of the family.”

I also knew on a deeper level that Natey was saying, “It is hard to move out of the safe place of my home and be a person in the larger world.” I could resonate with that sentiment. Whether it is embracing a new idea, a new relationship, a new spiritual practice, a new technology, or a new day, the challenges of life can be exciting but also anxiety-producing.

I am convinced that the belief that God is with us makes all the difference. To know God is guiding our “Mondays,” as well as helping us carry the heaviest cross, is the act of trust that changes our life.

It is to never forget we are in the hands and heart of our good, great, unconditionally loving God, who as St. Mother Teresa said, “writes straight with the crooked lines of our life.”

I wish you all good Mondays and a sense that God is with you all days!

God loves tenderness, small kindnesses, a humble heart

This thought came to me as I was researching this weekend’s Feast of Divine Mercy. I wasn’t very familiar with this feast, recently added to the Church calendar in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized St. Faustina. (That’s recent in Church timing…)


This liturgical feast is based on the private revelation of the visions of Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), a sister of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. The more I learned about Faustina, the more intrigued I have become about the impact she has had on so many.


Faustina, one of ten children, grew up in a humble home in a small town in Poland. She had just three years of elementary education. Her writing, recounting profound experiences of visions as a mystic, was unknown to most during her lifetime. Because of her lack of education and sophistication, she most often was given simple jobs at her convent.


One story captured my heart. Faustina was responsible for answering the door at the convent gate, and on a cold, rainy night, a young man, barefoot and dressed in poor clothing, came to the gate asking for something to eat. She gave him a bowl of soup. Suddenly she realized this was Jesus. Surprised, Jesus told her that he “came down from heaven because he wanted to experience mercy himself.”


The picture depicting Faustina’s revelation of Christ’s divine mercy often has the words, “Jesus, I trust in you.” I wonder how challenging it us for us to depend not on ourselves, not on our abilities or strengths, but on God’s love for us. Jesus told Faustina, “Humanity will not find peace unless it learns to trust in Divine Mercy.”


I wonder if I can learn to trust more in this beautiful gift of God’s mercy in the big and small concerns, worries and anxieties in my life… something to pray about this Second Sunday in Easter, the Feast of Divine Mercy.


If you, too, would like to learn more about this topic, click on the image of St. Faustina to watch a short video: 

Blessings of Mercy: Unreasonable Love

My all-time favorite scene in a dramatization is in Les Misérables. In the well-known story, the bishop defines mercy. The character, Jean Valjean, had been cruelly imprisoned for stealing food for his hungry family. After being freed, he was shown kindness, being fed and housed by the bishop. In turn, Valjean gets up in the night, steals the bishop’s silver and runs away. He is caught by the police and brought back to the bishop to confirm the robbery. The bishop attests that the silver was a gift and reprimands Valjean for not also taking the candlesticks he had given him!

That is the moment that gets me. The candlesticks are a symbol of extravagance in mercy. The bishop redefines who we are, in the light of experiencing mercy. He says, “You are a new man… I have ransomed you back from fear and hate, and now I give you back to God.” Life is transformed by the generosity of unreasonable love.

Last Sunday, at the parish session on addiction and substance abuse, I was reminded of the many mercies the Lord has shown me and my family. The discussion was about the theory that addiction can occur when original wounds are not healed in our life-when trauma, loss, or personal abuse are not acknowledged or addressed-and we mask over the suffering by dulling the pain we find hard to bear, in self-destructive ways. Having help that heals deeply when we needed it, my family has known this kind of mercy.

Jesus knows the need for the kind of love required to heal the brokenhearted. The teaching of Jesus is to love beyond what we seem capable of reaching. The bishop’s radical love gave new life to a broken man. This is one of those stories that I never tire of remembering.

Pope Francis was asked by a child about whether a relative with no faith would go to heaven or hell. The pope told the child a story about St. John Vianney: A woman asked him if her husband, who took his own life by jumping off a bridge would end up in hell, to which the saint responded, “Look, between the bridge and the river, there is the mercy of God.” That is the kind of mercy I hope I am showing to myself and others.  

If you have 3 minutes, take a mini-retreat and watch the scene from Les Misérables here.

Connecting

Nothing makes me more aware of what relationships mean than the hellos and good-byes of life.

I get weepy every time I see a military mom or dad greet their child in a surprise reunion played on the news. A story is told in the hug between child and parent revealing the cost of personal sacrifice for the good of the wider community. It is a testimony that after separation between loved ones, we connect where we left off.

I get emotional at Baptisms, whether I know the moms or dads, or the babies. I cry at everyone’s weddings. On the first day of school, I loved meeting my teacher and now, as a teacher, greeting my students.

Just launching a grief support group, I am reminded how deep into the heart we go in the good-bye of loss. Death, divorce, job loss, the distance when at odds with a loved one, or when a child simply grows up– all remind us of how precious our connections are, and how much the void simply hurts.

I think of the old story of the child, in fear, crying out, “Mama, come and hold me.” Attempting to calm the child, the parent responds, “Don’t be afraid– God is with you,” to which the child responds, “Okay, but right now I need a God with skin on!”

If the essence of God is love, we will surely recognize God in the space between ourselves and those who matter to us. Does it stand to reason that the more we love others, the more we will know God?

Life is so much better when we connect, and how much sweeter it is when we become that grace of “God with skin on” for each other!

Will you pray with me?

If you aren’t familiar with Our Lady of Good Help, it is a national shrine just outside of Green Bay. It is the only Marian shrine in the United States that is a site of an approved apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catholic Church officially confirmed the Marian apparitions in 2010. The story of Our Lady of Good Help is a wonderful one, beginning in 1831 in Belgium with the birth of Adele Brise. Adele’s family immigrated to this country and settled in the Green Bay area in the 1850’s. It was here, on her family’s property, that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared three times to Adele and instructed her to teach children the faith.

The story of Our Lady of Good Help is a wonderful one, beginning in 1831 in Belgium with the birth of Adele Brise. Adele’s family immigrated to this country and settled in the Greed Bay area in the 1850’s. It was here, on her family’s property, that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared three times to Adele and instructed her to teach children the faith.

She asked the Holy Mother “But how shall I teach them who know so little myself?” Mary said, “Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”

Adele devoted the rest of her life to this mission. The story of her life and the ensuing years is fascinating but unfortunately too long to share fully in this article. But over the years a shrine has developed, and thousands have made the pilgrimage to visit this place and pray.

I am one of those pilgrims. I hope in the coming year to bring a group from our parish to visit the Shrine, learn more about it and pray together. But for now, there is a wonderful opportunity for prayer that I would like to invite you to share.

From February 1st through the 9th the Shrine will be praying a special novena for families called, “Our Lady of Good Help; Queen of Families.” (A novena is a 9day period of private or public prayer for special intentions.) With the approval of the staff at the Shrine I extend this invitation to you. How wonderful it will be to share this prayer together! You can pray it anywhere, anytime, each day of the novena.

So, if you feel called, please pray this prayer for the nine-day period from February 19. As a parish I am inviting us to pray for our families and any special intentions they have. Just mention them in your personal prayer knowing others in our faith community will be praying with you. Our prayer is that the Holy Family will draw us deeper into faith and the love God has for each of us.

Here is the prayer we are invited to pray for the 9 days of the Novena:

God, our loving Father and Creator, you invite families to participate in Your unique plan for salvation by entrusting to us the lives of our children, inscribing your Divine image in their souls. This image or “icon” illuminates our families with your face, transfiguring our homes into domestic churches.

You stand at our thresholds, knocking, waiting for us to throw open our doors and invite You to enter more fully into our family life. Let us not ignore Your repeated knocking, but welcome You, embracing the graces You wish to give. 

May these graces enable us to pass on the gift of our Catholic Faith to our children, giving them what they need for salvation and growth in holiness. It is from the threshold of our domestic church that our families will bring glory to You and hope to the world.

Our Lady of Good Help, Queen of Heaven, implore your Son to strengthen families in order to teach our children what they should know for salvation.

Amen.

The Rosary Revisited

My friend Mary Matestic told the most beautiful story about her parents. I was so moved by it that I asked her to write it down. She did and I shared it in an article for the Catholic Herald. Here is an excerpt from that article. “My parents were married in August of 1941. Four months later my dad was deployed to the Pacific Front after Pearl Harbor. World War II was in full swing. He had his rosary in his pocket which he prayed daily during the worst of the battles and through the loneliness of separation from my mother. When he returned home three years later, the rosary which had round beads when he left were flattened from use. The chain holding the beads was broken, but he sewed them together with brown thread. Many times, his war diary expressed how much consolation the rosary gave to him on the battle field. (Mary Matestic) Mary said her parents continued to pray the rosary together and it gave them hope and a sense of God’s nearness to them throughout the joys and struggles of their life. There is something about the image of the flattened beads and the broken chain, mended with brown thread, that captures the power of this treasured devotion. Separated by war they were held together in faithfulness to prayer, by a Rosary, in a way that sustained their love of God and each other.”

Mary’s parent’s devotion to prayer and each other is inspiring. In this month of the Rosary, maybe take a chance to pray the rosary or some form of prayer you haven’t tried. I believe God is always happy to hear from us. May God’s boundless mercy and goodness be with you and your family in your joys and challenges in this month of October.

Angel Stories

I grew up in a family that had a soft spot in their heart for angels. We learned that before we were born, we were “baby angels.” My father told us baby angels lived in heaven until they found the family they choose to be born into. He told us how happy he and my mom were that my brothers and sisters and I had chosen our family. Well, as you may guess this is unorthodox theology… and biology… but the legend made us feel loved by our parents and by God. So, all in all, I think it was a good thing. I did not pass the teaching on to my children, but I did tell them “Grandpa’s Theory” of how we became a family and they kind of loved it too.

There is a story I shared this weekend with some of our parents that there is an ancient legend, that holds that when an infant is created, God kisses its soul and sings to it. As its guardian angel carries the soul to earth, to join its body, she also sings to it. The legend says God’s kiss and his song, as well as the song of the angel, remain in that soul forever- to be called up and cherished. But to feel that kiss, to hear that song, requires solitude. We do not feel gentleness inside when all around us there is noise. The song of God’s heartbeat is audible only in a certain quiet, stillness and solitude.

Love this story! Almost as much as the Baby Angel story! Stories like this cultivate our religious imagination and give us the images to remember the truest thing, that is, how much we are loved by God.

This is such a busy time of year as we all get back into the swing of the school schedules. In the midst of establishing these routines, I hope you find a little time of solitude and stillness to let angels visit you and remember you were kissed by God.