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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.

Grateful for Small Mercies

I know the saying is “God will never give you more than you can handle” … Dear God… we are fully booked, and we can’t handle any more for a while. Thank you!!!

This was a quote my sister’s husband posted. I write this sitting at her hospital bedside. She was hit by a car last week which left both of her legs and her arm badly broken. We all say how grateful we are she didn’t hit her head and seems to have no internal injuries. But at best that feels like a good news/bad news point of view as it breaks my heart to watch her begin what we know is a long journey to functioning normally.

I am reminded of a passage in the Anna Quindlen novel, One True Thing.

In the story, she described a family out for ice cream, just before their mother was diagnosed with cancer. The daughter in the story thought back on what she called “the last normal day they had” and reflected, “Afterward I wondered why I hadn’t loved that day more, why I hadn’t savored every bit of it like soft ice cream on my tongue, why hadn’t I known how good it was to live so normally, so everyday. But you only know that, I suppose, after it’s not normal and everyday any longer.”

I am mindful of the day before my sister’s accident as a normal day.

On my way to the hospital, I was so focused on getting here that I literally was “not seeing” the fleeting view in front of me. I realized the road was literally ablaze with the color of the trees. How often do I live, moving onto the next thing, and miss the blessings before me?

But today, I pulled over on the side of the road to look and thank God for the beauty of this day. I will be grateful, when I get up from writing this, that my legs and arms work. I will be grateful that I believe that prayer will support my sister’s healing. I will hug my brother-in-law for giving us all a prayer that made us laugh. I will not take for granted healers that can knit together shattered bones and kind caretakers that are an empathetic presence when they walk in the room. I will be grateful for the small mercies that help us remember to not lose hope even in the times when we long for the normal days.

Dear Parents

Jacqueline Kennedy said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever
else you do matters very much.” Her words always resonated with me as insight into the
primacy of the calling of parenthood. Since children don’t come with a “how-to” manual
we all bungle things as parents from time to time. Thank goodness they are usually
resilient as we learn to become moms and dads! I know you love your children more
than anyone in the world and you are the conduit of God’s love in their lives.

I am in awe of how beautifully you parents function and love your children even through
months of sleepless nights, juggling jobs, school and childcare schedules, endless
carpooling, shopping, making, and cleaning up meals and a thousand other unselfish
acts of service to your families. No wonder often we have no better analogy of God’s
love than that of a parent!!

You are so busy, that I suspect you didn’t have time to read the most current and
comprehensive research on a topic vital to your vocation, Handing Down the Faith: How
Parents Pass on their Religion to the Next Generation by Dr. Christian Smith, University
of Notre Dame.

Can I share some research with you that might affirm your parenting choices and
encourage you on the long days and tough nights in one of the most important things in
life, your child’s faith?

This new national study shows that as parents, you, are the most important influence
on the religious and spiritual lives of your children and teens! This research, as well as a
myriad of other studies, confirms that you play the leading role in shaping your child’s
deepest values and the character of their religious and spiritual life, now and well after
they leave home.

In fact, some parents may be surprised to know “the single most powerful causal
influence on the religious lives of American teenagers and young adults is the religious
lives of their parents. Not their peers, not the media, not their youth group leaders or
clergy, and not their religious schoolteachers.” If you are a parent of a teen, you might
be saying, “Oh I know I lost most of my influence when they became teens” (and they
may act as if that were true). But, in most cases, these cultural illusions are not
supported by the facts. Your influence as parents on their religious beliefs, practices
and values lasts for decades and in many cases a lifetime.
“…a large body of accumulated research consistently shows that… the influence of
parents in religiousness trumps every other influence, however much parents and
children assume otherwise.”

I wish this column was ten pages long so I could share more of this fascinating study
that explains why this is true. But let me share one insight- how important it is for
parents to talk to their children about matters of faith during the week. When parents do
this, children integrate the meaning of faith into the lived experience of life. “When parents talk naturally and substantially about religion and its place in life, throughout the
week it effectively indicates to children that, in the mix of life’s many priorities and
values, this stuff matters a lot. And that raises the stakes for children’s decisions about
their own future religious commitments.”

As a grandparent, I look at this from a view on the balcony of the dancefloor of life. For
you parents, who are dancing, I hope this gives you encouragement to know how
important you are. If I could offer you two things you might consider in your parenting
choices, they would be to remember you are the role model of faith and talking with your
children about your faith has tremendous value.
Know that we- your Church, school, faith formation, catechists, teachers, pastor- are
cheering you on and supporting you in any way we can. You are shining stars of love
and faith to your children in the most important job you will ever have!

With love,

Advent Journey: A Lesson in Hope

Love, it is said, is the greatest virtue. Faith may be the highest spiritual virtue. But hope must certainly be the most durable virtue. Hope is the enduring virtue that teaches us to persist, and enables us to persevere. It may be the poster child for 2020.

If there is one thing we all may agree upon, it is that the current state of the world– traumatized by this invisible virus– has lasted far longer than we expected.

This Advent, I think particularly of Mary and Joseph traveling and the unfolding of the birth of all that is good in humanity and divinity, in the form of the newborn baby named Jesus.

I think of them still on the road. They must have been weary and discouraged, the journey longer than they imagined. Was Mary in pain? Was Joseph frustrated not to be able to provide a safe harbor for the most important mission he had been given? When Mary said yes to the Angel Gabriel, could she have imagined riding a donkey in the dark night with Joseph, unable to find a place to stay?

They couldn’t know of the manifestation of a sheltering place, of angels greeting them with songs of praise, of shepherds being called to find them, of a star getting brighter to guide them, and of the birth of a child who would bring goodness and light to all humanity.

One of my professors in the seminary explained to us that to be “God’s Chosen” people doesn’t mean being better than others, but to be “chosen” to live by different values, by God’s ways.

I recently heard someone say, “I think we may be God’s Chosen People… who forget.” We can forget on the dark winding roads. We can forget months into this pandemic to trust and be exemplars of hope. The Scriptures are given to us because we forget.

The Holy Family was living love and trusting in faith, but it was the ability to hope that sustained them in the dark night on the journey. They were the first Christians, because they were people of hope.

Hope is the virtue that brings to mind a brightening star, angels on their way, the impending birth of goodness and light. Even before his birth, Jesus was hidden in Mary’s womb. He already was Emmanuel– God with us. Hope is the virtue that remembers even in the darkest moment of wandering, that God, though maybe hidden, is already with us.
To watch a video about hope & why we need it, click on the picture of Fr. Mike Schmitz below…

Trust in 20 Feet of Faith

This year, our family marked the 20th anniversary of my dad’s passing. If you have lost a loved one, you may have had a similar feeling that the time they are gone feels like a brief moment, but at the same time, you hold a heartache like a faint white scar that reminds you, you will always carry traces of that wound.

To get through the anniversary, spontaneous emails from my siblings were shared of a particular memory or thought about our dad. They were all beautiful, but I would like to share with you, my brother Mike’s reflection:

Just a couple weeks ago, I was reading a book that included a quote from Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit philosopher also trained in geology and paleontology. It reminded me of a Saturday back when I was about 7 years old. Dad brought me along with him to light a candle and say a prayer at St. Francis Church. We took a walk afterward and he began to talk with me about what it did, and did not, mean to light a candle and say a prayer as we just had. He told me about Teilhard de Chardin and some of his ideas. He said that de Chardin taught us that humankind was always evolving and still was a long way from really being able to understand God or the mysteries of faith. We should use all our gifts, including our intelligence, to our fullest ability. Good would come from that, but not a full understanding of the sacred. He wanted me to understand that just because we could not achieve that kind of understanding, did not mean we could not have faith. He said that we may not be able to jump 20 feet in the air, but that did not mean 20 feet in the air did not exist. So, he told me, we go to church, light a candle, and say a prayer not because we blindly imagine that some magic occurs, but as a way of embracing faith. As I look back on that day, I realize that he must not have said all of that in that exact way. But I really think it was pretty close to that. And I do remember for sure: Dad wanted me to understand that there was no need to sacrifice thinking for faith they were not in conflict.

This year it can feel as though loss has permeated our culture. During times like these when we need the kind of faith that allows us to see beyond the present moment and ponder things beyond our understanding, my dad’s spiritual counsel anchors my occasionally unmoored heart. It reminds me to hold onto our values of faith even in a world that can seem in constant conflict, underpinned with fear, and burdened with stress. We can use our good minds to think about how to negotiate the issues we face and not lose sight of the values of our faith- acting with civility and kindness, choosing carefully our words, holding unselfish intentions and, in our care for ourselves and others, having faith in ”twenty feet” of God’s love that we cannot see but nonetheless is there sustaining us.

Bitter or Better?

Challenging times often bring out the best in us… or not.

Learning to ride a bike did not come naturally to me. I have a memory from my 5th birthday. My dad tried to teach me how to ride a two-wheeler on a Friday evening. I was not getting the hang of it.

I got up very early the next morning and put on my little plaid jacket and went out of the house by myself. I went up and down my sidewalk on my bike until I finally could balance enough to ride. I remember the joy of moving faster than I could run and my dad laughing that I taught myself to ride while they were all sleeping.

I recall thinking I had hit upon a good strategy, being the oldest of three children. If faced with a challenge, get up early and figure it out. Parents are busy people, and it feels so good to learn how to do things yourself!

Well, that was a joyful challenge and a memory made warm recalling my dad’s laughter.

Today we are faced with the challenge of a worldwide pandemic. It will take more than getting up early to meet this challenge. I hope I am not overly optimistic, but I believe there are smart, good people who will help us just the way people have with other difficult problems throughout our history.

What will help us spiritually in this challenge?

Trust God more than we trust even those smart, good people referred to above. When life changes and things are taken away from us, we have a choice, to deepen faith or abandon it. It is God who holds us in life and death and who will see us through this.

Offer compassion and resist judging others. Most people do the best they can. Help them; don’t turn on them. Anger and frustration are emotions which, when expressed with hostility toward others, aren’t helpful and weaken us as a community.

Challenges are the arena in which we can discover resilience in persevering– when times are difficult– and find the ability to bounce back from adversity. In fact, the term ‘grit’ refers to the passion to continue to persevere, regardless of reward or recognition. We may find ourselves isolated socially, perhaps financially stressed, and have lots of reasons to feel anxious and insecure. But even in this crisis– this challenge– faith calls us to our higher purpose: to love and be loved. One moment at a time. One person at a time. Grit shows true strength of character when we have passion for our faith in God and devotion to each other.

If we focus on these, we will come through this time– stronger, kinder, better.

Healing Thoughts

How are you doing?

I really wish I could ask each one of you this question. During the uncertainty, upheaval, and confusion of this strange time I would love to know how you REALLY are and if your faith is being challenged or deepened? Has your relationship with God changed? Intensified? Expanded? I’m sure it would be enriching to discuss how you are experiencing this time.

There is a group, “Journey to Healing,” I meet with regularly. I think of them as my “healing friends.” Several had been to a conference on the topic and felt called to reach out to a few others to continue the dialogue about healing in our lives.

I do not remember exactly how I got involved. I did not feel a special need for healing when I said “yes.” But each day into this pandemic I realize the collective need for healing is pervasive right now. Physical healing. Emotional healing. Spiritual healing.

I believe in God’s design for us, individually and for the world– a paradise where love is the ethic, serving is the work, and Christ is our companion. In this pandemic of illness, I see an invitation to healing from what keeps us from embracing this reality– that our God is always with us. And that changes everything.

I want to share a peek into this healing group that I have experienced. Laura Smyczek, editor of this newsletter, has a love of and expertise in art history. In the group she shares some thoughts about this beautiful picture you see below. I hope you will “see” in it a prayer, as she describes it to us.

I think it is fair to say we are all in a collective storm right now. I believe that can be an invitation to radical trust, if we remember our God is in the boat with us! Always wanting to transform our fears into trust, in a relationship of perfect peace.

Hope to hear from you! Sending love and healing thoughts,

Easter Expectations

What were your expectations for Holy Week before all of us were living Plan B, Safer at Home?

I envisioned our families at Holy Thursday Mass washing each other’s feet, our teens sharing the story of Jesus with our little ones in the Living Stations and praying at the Easter Vigil with my husband.

Like you, what I envisioned isn’t going to happen. So many things we looked forward to aren’t going to happen.

This year made me think of my eighth-grade Easter. 

I was expecting two things, singing in the choir and wearing high heel shoes to Mass. (I recognize this story reveals my spiritual maturity in middle school…lol.)

I can’t tell you how I looked forward to the joyful celebration, the church being full, singing the joyous songs we had practiced, the end of the somber sacrifices of Lent, and loving it all from my new height in those shoes!

But that Easter morning was blanketed in a foot of snow. As I headed out the door for Mass, my mother looked at me and said, “Kathie, put your boots on!” I looked at her as only an adolescent girl can look at her mother and with a distinctive eye roll, responded, “Boots? Are you kidding?!?”

I won’t go into more of the story, but you can imagine the mother-daughter dialogue that followed. That Easter I walked to church and sang in the choir in my big old boots.

I share that embarrassing memory because it makes me laugh, and these days, we all need a laugh. But, also, to remember that sometimes the unexpected offers lessons and gifts. 

One, it is never about what happens to us that matters the most. It’s always about how we respond. Sometimes even our most humbling moments can offer our clearest lessons about life. Sometimes our most stressful moments later reveal strength we never knew we had. Sometimes the loneliest moments teach us how much belonging to a community is never to be taken for granted. Sometimes faith in God and each other is what we hold onto most dearly as we live six feet apart.

Two, God always wants more for us than we can imagine for ourselves. I wanted to wear those shoes, but God wanted me to remember decades later that my mom loved and protected me, and she taught me to laugh at myself. God wanted me to be nurtured in a community of faith that has been my rock through transitory challenges, as well as unthinkably difficult times. I wanted so much less for myself than God wanted for me.

This Easter, because we aren’t gathering for brunch or hunting for Easter eggs in the backyard with our family or heading out for Spring Break– perhaps because we won’t be “doing” any of those wonderful but distracting things, we will have the time– take the time to remember our extraordinary identity. Each of us is a child of God, and we share a heritage in Jesus, Son of the Almighty God, whose mission was to save us from ourselves and our limited expectations of who we can become. He lived and died so that when we face death, our expectation can be everlasting life with our God who loves us. This Easter, whether you are alone, disappointed, discouraged, or wearing big old boots, remember you are loved, and our good compassionate God is with you and will give you all the wisdom and strength you need. 

Know that my love and prayers are with you and that I am wishing you the great expectations of what God wants for you this Easter!

Traveling Serenity Prayer

Years ago, when I must have been fretting about something, my mom gave me a small framed copy of The Serenity Prayer. I have always kept it on my bathroom counter as a reminder of how to live. 

But several years ago, when my husband Jim was going through a difficult time, affecting his employment, shaking the core of his self-esteem and his whole sense of security about life, I quietly moved the prayer from my side of the bathroom counter to his. It has been there for several years. Over time, his work issues resolved, and he has been in a stable place for years now, but the prayer remained there.

Well, I don’t know how you are doing, but this pandemic has ramped up every anxiety I harbor. I worry about everyone and everything. Each time I think, ‘Okay, I’ve heard the worst, now I can cope,’ another shoe drops, and there is something uniquely new that concerns me. Will my family be okay? How will my church function? What about the poor? Will someone I love get sick? Who will take care of the sick if the caretakers get sick? I think the facts that this enemy is invisible, and that uncertainty is a daily state, fuels all the more fear.

So yesterday, my sweet husband, picking up on my rising anxiety, moved The Serenity Prayer back to my side of the bathroom counter. I smiled when I saw that and remembered the sound spiritual advice it has always given me. 

That is, we are in God’s hands, in God’s good, good hands. I must surrender myself and my loved ones to God’s care. And while there are some things I can control, and there is much I cannot, I can only use my gifts-including time-to serve others. That is how I will continue to find meaning. My anxiety will be manageable if I let wisdom guide my heart. Please let me know if I can do anything for you during this time.

Be well. I send love and prayers to you and your families.

Give thanks with a grateful heart…

Give thanks with a grateful heart… the words of the children’s meditation for our First Communions, often echo in my mind, the reminder to simply live with a grateful heart.

There is a parable told by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, of a man who complained to Jesus about the hiddenness of God. “Rabbi,” he said, “I am an old man. My whole life, I have always kept the commandments. Every year, I went to Jerusalem and offered the sacrifices.”

“Every night of my life, I have not gone to bed without first saying my prayers. But… I look at stars and sometimes the mountains– and wait, wait for God to come so that I might see him. I have waited for years and years, but in vain. Why doesn’t God show himself?”

Jesus responded gently, “Once upon a time, there was a marble throne where sat 3,000 kings. All of them called upon God to appear so that they might see him, but all of them went to their graves with their wishes unfulfilled.”

“Then, a pauper, barefooted and hungry, came and sat upon that throne. ‘God,’ he whispered, ‘the eyes of a human being cannot look directly at the sun, for they would be blinded. How then, can they look directly at you? Lord, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted, may see you!'”

“Then- listen, old man- God became a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, a warm tunic, a hut and, in the front of the hut, a woman nursing an infant.”

“‘Thank you, Lord,’ the pauper whispered. ‘You humbled yourself for my sake. You became bread, water, a warm tunic and my wife and son, in order that I might see you. And I did see you. I bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face!'”

Paula D’Arcy said, “God comes to you disguised as your life.” So often we seek some grand manifestation of God. And like the kings, we can let our lives slip by, missing the God that was there all along. We find God’s love in a warm home, clean water, and ample food. God’s light is in the kindness found in community, in the day-to-day blessings of family and friends who soften the hard edges of life. Holy moments fill our lives.

I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving! May we all have grateful hearts for the God who humbled himself so we could see Him.