What I Did This Summer… and Who I Met

I was one of 103 pilgrims who went to Israel and Rome this summer. You probably would get 103 different responses to the question, “What was the most significant thing about your trip?” I would say that there were a thousand awe-inspiring moments. But topping my list wasn’t an “it” but a “who” – our guide in Israel, Nasser.

He greeted us every morning with, “My friends.” And I thought of Scripture, “I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”  Everywhere we went Nasser would share something fascinating about Israel. He understood ancient history, religious perspectives, as well as today’s complexities of culture, political loyalties and conflicts. An empathetic appreciation of humanity emanated from him. He seemed to walk through one of the most volatile places on earth with peace and regard for everyone. Nasser helped us appreciate the lessons even in our hotel destination. He said his heart was with one charming hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee, run by a Jewish family, serving perhaps the most wonderful food I have ever eaten. And our other beautiful hotel on the West Bank was owned by his friend, a gracious Palestinian man, who made our large group feel like we were honored guests. It was as if Nasser wanted us to know the best of all God’s children.

Obviously, a brilliant man with a delightful sense of humor, he carried himself with an aura of humility. It was as if everything he knew was in service of us, sharing his faith and love of this land, as God seemed to, having chosen this place, the Holy Land, to reveal his Son, our Savior, to us.

The week we traveled with Nasser he was awaiting his daughter giving birth to his first grandchild. And so, we probably got a glimpse into the sacredness of life through his heart and eyes as he shared with us his vulnerability of precious life in God’s hands. We prayed with him when she went into early labor and rejoiced with him at his granddaughter’s healthy arrival with celebratory baklava and warmest cheers from us, his 50 closest bus friends. He was universally loved. We all knew we were given some special gift to have him truly guide us on this holy journey.

When one friend in our group had his phone pick-pocketed, I believe most of us would have bet he would never see that phone again. But when we got to our meeting spot, we were able to tell Nasser. He “negotiated” with the local folks to get it back. We witnessed this, involving words in a foreign language (and dramatic gestures) from the thief that, let’s just say, weren’t an apology. Nasser kept coming back in a firm loud voice. When we asked Nasser later what was said, he calmly recounted, “Oh he was swearing at me. I just kept saying, give me the phone back.” If I ever wondered what God’s justice might look like I imagine I was witnessing, it. Not an eye for an eye justice but authority that rights wrongs.

We visited the Church of St. Ann, known for its acoustics. People from all over the world, including our group, come to sing there. Just before we were about to board the bus Nasser said, “Gather our group, I want them to hear why this church was created.” We did and he stood in front of us and chanted. It sounded like a pure form of prayer and praise. I didn’t understand a word, but I will never forget its celestial sound.

In our final evening together, Nasser stopped at our dinner gathering before going to meet his granddaughter (having sacrificed the first days with his grandchild to not leave us) and spoke to the group. He asked us to support the Christians in Israel as they are only 2% of the population. Again, my sense of the human community I am part of  expanded. Finally, his last words to us were, “Read the Bible. It’s all there.” I never heard the Living Word of God explained quite so simply, eloquently, or accurately.

Nasser seemed to love everyone unconditionally, each of us as individuals, but also the people of different cultures. He was so kind. He made everyone feel that they were valuable. I have always been a little envious of others who have some visual and emotional image of Jesus. That just hasn’t been a gift I had been given but that week I believe that God gave me a glimpse of that and spoke in my heart, “I am like Nasser.”

Click below to watch and listen to Nasser in the Church of St. Ann.

Mary’s Lesson

We know Mary, the mother of God, from a relationship of prayer with her, from her apparitions but perhaps it is from Scripture we learn of who she is and what God wants us to know about her. These are some lessons I take into my life:

The Visitation. Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel asking her to allow God to come to her, as her child. Mary gave her Fiat, her “yes” to this request/invitation/call, though she didn’t have any idea how that would happen or what it would do to her life. I call this my lesson of WHOLEHEARTEDNESS. Mary teaches it is wholehearted openness to God’s callings in life that leads to our true heart, our truest path.

The Nativity. I have long pondered God’s decision to come to us on this earth as a baby. Why not full-grown and powerful, a superhero wowing us, a king ruling us, rich, famous, beautiful- with all the things that give worldly status? Why a vulnerable, helpless baby?

I have wondered, did even God want to know a mother’s love? A mother’s love creates the most fierce and tender human relationship. Mary teaches UNCONDITIONAL LOVE to all God wants to give birth to in our life. We only need to trust we can bring Christ’s love unconditionally into the world to find the meaning and purpose we all yearn for.

The Wedding at Cana. Few words of Mary were recorded in Scripture. And so those words must be very important. When Jesus, who didn’t seem to have a miracle that day as his Plan A, was asked to help the wedding family caught short on the wine, Mary said to the stewards, “DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU.” Mary teaches us, to let Christ lead and trust God will do remarkable things with the simple gifts we are willing to give, our time, our humble talents, our heart.

Standing at the Foot of the Cross. There are many more lessons, obviously too great for this little column. But one last image is Mary teaching us to be willing to STAND AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS with others on hard days. There are times when we can’t help another in their suffering. But it makes a difference if we stand with them through it or walk away. It makes a difference for them and for who we become. Never be afraid to love those who suffer. Don’t leave them standing alone.

May God kindly and richly bless all of you moms who are doing the hard work of raising children to be good people and love God. And may God bless all of you who have raised children, and have learned, though the physical work is completed, there is nothing about the connection that diminishes. It is a bond forever.

And to all friends, may Mary, Mother of God, continue to lead us to the Divine by the path of wholehearted, unconditional love.

Passing Something Important On

My husband recently had some health issues that involved a medical procedure that was supposed to take an hour but instead took three. I am sure you have had moments like this when you just don’t know if things are going to turn out OK. You pray differently under such circumstances. My coping mechanism was to read Scripture. You hear Scripture differently under such circumstances. God’s Word sounds more personal when we are frightened, suffering, alone, anxious. Maybe in our vulnerability we have ears to hear.

Honestly, it is the same way I feel about the Sacraments. I most often look forward to being at Mass but when I feel scared or sad or anxious, I don’t go to Mass, I run to Mass. I have found it is the routine of prayer or Scripture or participating in the Sacraments that, over time, forms some kind of cocoon of intimacy of relationship with God that feels protective, comforting, and powerful.

This is what I wish I could communicate to the younger people in my life, but I don’t know how to do that without fearing I will sound preachy. I want to share with those I love that it is in the practice of faith, the routine, the everydayness of it, when something will imperceptibly deepen in your heart and mind that will protect you on the sad days and the scary days, on the worst days.

It sounds too transactional, too practical. Too simple. Just show up. Participate. Be there. Be present. Yet, that relationship with God forged in the everyday practices of faith can make the difference in the spiritual experience of having an occasional encounter with God and dwelling in the secure place of trust we feel in the shelter of someone we know loves us for who we really are. There were those who taught this to me in my life. Though I realize, as I look back, they may never have known they led me toward a path of faith and mattered so much to me.  

This is what I long for those of you I love that you will have guides that lead you to the practices that strengthen your spirit and witness God’s love. May the Presence in the Eucharist and The Word nourish your soul. May you be blessed with a heart of prayer and time to invest in it.

Pay attention to others … pay attention to those near you … pay attention to the saints in your lives, there are many of them. Pay attention. (Rev. Craig Butters)

Prayer Works

I don’t know how prayer works but I know it works. By that I mean, prayer changes things. Does it change God’s mind? I doubt it. But it changes our hearts. It changes the understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives.

It somehow (and I really don’t know how this happens) aligns our heart and mind with God’s plan… now that is a phrase that deserves more contemplation… I don’t mean to imply some prescribed preordained blueprint. I don’t envision God with a book about each of us, stored in heaven’s library with God the only cardholder. That implies we have no efficacy about the trajectory or purpose of our own life. So, I have always preferred the phrase God’s design of our life. That describes something more complex and beautiful that resonates with the value of the choices we make in the little span of time we each get to live on this earth. Putting our trust in God’s design requires we live with humility. God is God and we are not.

So, prayer is opening our mind and heart to change our soul to accept the gift of peace that comes when we trust God is caring for us, guiding and moving in and through us and our relationships, to order our life with what is best for us.

Recently, I have been in several important circumstances that have reminded me why prayer is so important, why it is the foundation of relationships. “I am praying for you” is not a phrase we should underestimate. When we say that, it is a pledge to unite whoever we are, with whatever we have, to will good for them and whatever is God’s design for them. So, sometimes it looks like what we pray for doesn’t happenIt is in these moments that we learn to lean into our trust of God’s love for us, even though that love may not, at that time, be apparent.

St. Therese of Lisieux said, “For me prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”

I think it is helpful to remember to glance to heaven often. I also believe prayer is a turning toward each other, uniting us together in that “surge of the heart”. It is the act of surrender that brings the peace that only God can give even in the most difficult of times. Lent is a good time to trust that prayer is the practice that changes everything for us and the gift we can give each other.

A Life Well Lived

Is this a phrase you have heard often? It seems it is the final sentence of news stories when reporting on a famous person who has died.

I have thought often recently about this expression, “a life well lived” as we have experienced multiple funerals in a short time. Each person mattered to others. Each one, I could say, was a life well lived, though in different ways. Walking with families through this time, I feel deeply grateful for all they teach me. In each opportunity of sitting with the loved ones of one of our friends that has passed on, I understand there are so many ways to live the life we are given, well.

We may have a long life, a short life or something in between. Our culture focuses a lot of energy on the length of our life. Much less on the quality of the time we have. So many things are put into perspective when we lose someone we love. 

These lessons stand out to me: 

  • Accomplishments are great but unless we cured cancer or prevented a war, our accomplishments often, ultimately, aren’t the most important things of our life.
  • Service to others is more important than most of us think. This may be serving others in our family, or a friend, or devoting our life in a profession that serves others, or clearly living the works of mercy. Serving others seems to matter.
  • Who we loved matters very much. “These things endure, faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13) This may be the easiest scripture to quote, but I have come to believe it may be the hardest to live and matters the most.
  • It is good to care for ourselves during our life, to be healthy in body and mind. But having our priorities clear might be as important. We chase after so many things in the time we have. How we look. What we have. Power. Beauty. Achievements. I once heard a story of how sad it would be to spend our life climbing up a ladder only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall. 

What does your life, lived well, look like? It doesn’t matter as much how long or short a life is. It matters more how we live it, what we prioritize, who we love during it and that we make the difference only we, personally, can make in others’ lives.

Looking for Angels

We need to be angels to each other, to give each other strength and consolation.  

(Henri Nouwen)

This Advent has had a different focus- I have spent a lot of time visiting a rehab center caring for an elderly relative. Each person I pass makes me sad. My heart and mind have been centered on my friend who had the kind of health scare that switches off your sense of security and the illusion we carry that life will go on forever. I have been in prayer vigil with my friend whose child is not being treated for cancer, as we long for a miracle. We just had a program for the grieving who may be figuring how to “celebrate” when the love of their life isn’t there.

Advent is the season of hope. It calls us to beautiful anticipation of the enigmatic love of our God who chose to be with us in flesh and blood, to share in the incredible elation and despair of life, the Messiah disguised as a vulnerable child come to save us.

Advent always goes too fast for me because I want to savor its lights, sounds, smells, and sense of shared hope with which it transforms the world in songs sung in only this season, family traditions of wreaths with four candles and ordinary trees transformed with lights. I want to watch A Christmas Carol to recover my ten-year-old sense of trust in the goodness of humanity as Scrooge gets his priorities straightened out each year.

Instead of moving quickly doing things: decorating, cooking, preparing for company, I have mostly been standing still, listening, trying to find the right words of comfort and hope. I have had to be very quiet. Waiting in prayer listening for God’s whispers of love.

I have been pondering to find an inspirational thought to share but I find I am standing in the crossroads of Advent hope and winter darkness as this week’s shortest day of light approaches. Sometimes in the dark, the heart must choose the wonder of believing.

Mr. Rogers said when you are in trouble look for the helpers. Henri Nouwen reminded me to look for angels and to remember the possibility that we can be the angels to each other. My faith assures me that angels will herald the saving child who IS hope, Immanuel, God with us, who will always bring light into the dark, hope into the confusion and love where it is most needed. Faith is expressed in the trust angels will appear in the night sky and in our life.

Your Communion of Saints

November is a month dripping with spirituality. How can it not? It begins with All Saints Day and All Souls Day and, at our parish, is followed by our beautiful Memorial Mass where families gather to remember all our loved ones whose funerals we celebrated this past year.

November holds the most thought-provoking holiday of the year- Thanksgiving. Though, not a religious holiday, it celebrates gratefulness, the hallmark of the spiritual life.

For me, it is especially introspective as it is the month of my parents and younger sister’s birthdays, all of whom are no longer with me in this world. And to cap off my personal gratitude, it is the month of my husband’s birthday. He is my rock and the most tangible sign of God’s love in my life.

All this led me to reflect on the Communion of Saints who we mention each time we pray the Creed… I believe in the communion of saints… the teaching that we are united to both the living and the dead because in Christ we are one Body. We live in a communion that encompasses the blessed in heaven and pilgrims on earth. (CCC962)

The communion of saints went from theory to prayer when I thought of my loved ones who surround me like my husband and my grandchildren but also my deceased parents and grandparents. Then I thought of my colleagues, and the intangible bond that ministry forges in the nights and weekends serving God’s Church. And then I thought of the canonized saints who inspire me to faith beyond what I will ever achieve, who I personally draw strength from, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna, and Mary. That led me to gratitude for all of you, friends in this parish, with whom I worship, and pray and who are faith community to me. You contribute to the meaning and purpose of my every day.

For you, I hope this November is an opportunity for reflection and gratitude. In doing so, I believe you will find your communion of saints and the spirituality of Thanksgiving.

The Chair

I snapped a picture of my granddaughter, Zoey, sitting in this little chair reading a book. A grandma’s perspective- I was just thinking she was adorable.

But then I started thinking about the chair she was sitting on. It was made for her mom, my daughter, by her godfather when she was the same age as Zoey. It struck me that I never could have imagined 30 years ago this lovely little person, let alone this beautiful moment of her “reading” in the chair.

It seemed interesting I had never thought about that. The chair has been in a special spot in our family room for years and always has had a basket of children’s books right next to it. I had many other moments watching my grandchildren sit and read in that chair. The sight has always made me happy, watching them find a cozy spot to begin the habit of reading that has brought me so much comfort, joy and illumination all my life. Though most of those sitting in that chair cannot technically read, the mystery of the turning pages and absorption of the words and pictures on the pages always lifts my heart, witnessing this first movement toward literacy.

That’s why this moment was different. As cute as Zoey was, and as much as a child looking at books delights me, my focus was on the chair and how a gift from thirty years ago never lost its specialness. It has just become more precious as an invitation to child after child, to sit and read. Neither I, nor the maker of the chair, knew its potential. I could never have imagined the goodness God had in the future plans for my family. I couldn’t have imagined the love these children would call forth in me.

Many of us seem to be more capable of worry than of faith in the future. We are better at imagining the fears more than the surprises of goodness God has in store for us.

The little chair reminds me of the people who are in our future, who we will love and who will bring meaning and purpose into our life. What if we trusted every day, with a heart of anticipation more than anxiety? Can we trust in God’s love and goodness that much? May the God of surprises invite you to live with an open heart to accept the gifts not yet imagined. 

The Leaf Blower

The most significant event of my summer was hosting my family reunion.

The plans for gathering 67 of us was no small feat. For months we planned activities for all ages, rented tables, chairs, and a bouncy house for the kids! We worked all summer on our yard, keeping our flowers alive, planning food and décor, generally obsessing all summer about the event and praying for good weather. (I realize praying for good weather is not especially good theology, but I figure prayer never hurts.)

I felt a responsibility for all who traveled, at great trouble and expense. I was so hoping all of our grandchildren would get to know each other and most of all have a memory better than the pandemic had given all of them these past years.

So, you may imagine my dismay when throughout the night before we had one of the worst storms of the summer. I woke that morning and looking out the window, I saw all we had prepared dripping wet. The rain must have come in from every direction because nothing under our tent had a dry spot. My spirit was as soggy as my yard. I pulled the covers over my head and didn’t want to get up, thinking there just wasn’t time to recover and be prepared for my family who had worked so hard to make this happen.

As I lay there my son, Andrew, called and said he would be over shortly with his leaf blower so we could blow the yard, tables and chairs, etc. dry. This seemed like such simple practical help when I felt alone with the water-logged mess. He and my young grandsons, Mason and Dylan, with many towels and the leaf blower dried everything, finishing the repair work 10 minutes after the start time. Grateful my family kept the tradition of being a little late, we were ready.

I know the drying out of grass is not a corporal work of mercy but that day it was for me. I was reminded of Henry, who had shared with me at his Confirmation interview how he and his dad snowplowed all their neighbors’ driveways just because they could help them. And I thought of my friend, Maureen, who left dinners in the truck parked in the driveway of our friend, who was battling a debilitating illness this summer.

Love and friendship look like such ordinary acts of simple kindness, acts of simple service and simple generosity. We all have moments when we can give and share mercy and help. Mother Teresa said, “Do small things with great love.” It can make all the difference in blessing someone’s life.

I Should Have Had the Crepes

Recently we were invited to a cool little restaurant in the city. Maybe I should preface this with the background that we are creatures of habit. We visit the same few restaurants and I inevitably order the same thing each time. So, I took in the trendy décor of this restaurant, found the menu on the QR code and saw the selection. The crepes caught my eye. Many years ago, I had crepes and when I saw them on the menu the memory of their sweet distinct flavor came back to me. 

And then I saw the cheese omelet, my usual-go-to-choice. As we chatted with our friends waiting to place our order, I thought about this “big” decision. When the waitress came to take our order I said, “Cheese omelet, please. It was fine, but as soon as we walked out, I immediately thought what a boring choice I had made. It might be another 30 years before I am offered crepes again…

I have (obviously) thought about that choice and wondered how often I have done this same thing. To not be (even a tiny bit) adventurous. How often do I simply not live with passion, joy, fun?

I recently heard a delightful poem called, “If You Had Your Life to Live Over.” It suggested we might consider eating less cottage cheese and more ice cream, relaxing more, worrying less, watching more sunsets, caring more about actual troubles and less about imagined ones. Life is short, isn’t it? I believe our God wants us to live aware of the beauty, variety and splendor that the simple things of life give us.

Children are teachers of this posture toward life. Doesn’t a child more often say, “yes” to walking in puddles, jumping off anything higher than the floor, hugging another child, and wondering at the bugs on plants, worms in dirt, clouds in the sky? This childlike mindset toward the little things in life might improve our adult hearts.

There are so many big problems in the world. Sometimes things just go wrong, go sideways, fail or break. There is so much we can’t control about both small and significant things.

I believe God would want us to appreciate the gift of life and accept joy in simple things. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” I know he wasn’t talking about my breakfast, but I think at the heart of that comment was recognizing our journey as human beings on this earth is a transient gift! Can we find God’s generosity even in life’s small offerings? Can we live with joy?

So, when life offers it, maybe once in a while, maybe next time, I will order crepes.