Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent Blessings

This time of year most people are focused on buying Christmas presents. We surf the internet, fumble through catalog after catalog, or drive to the mall feverishly searching for that perfect something for a spouse, friend or a special child. We rush to get our cards written and get all the decorations up. It’s definitely a crazy, busy, exhausting time. Will all the gifts be beautifully wrapped, all the cookies and breads baked, and the menus perfected in time for the big day? My question is, what has happened to the season of Advent, the season of expectant, quiet waiting? We are reminded of it when we go to church and see the candles on the Advent wreath. But instead of being soothed by the thought of the coming of the Messiah, there’s sudden panic when the pink candle is lit, as we realize that there are only two weeks left to shop. Is there any way to put an end to this insanity? Are we, as Christians, fighting a losing battle with the retail mania mentality? I think not. There is still time, my friends, to pause, to be still, to embrace the gift of the present moment and become acutely aware of the “reason for the season”. This amazing time of year is filled with the presence of God all around us, if only we are open to receiving the Advent blessings He longs to pour out. The other morning, as I found my way meandering around the Kroger aisles, I received an unexpected one.

I ran into a man from my church who had recently lost the love of his life, his beloved wife of 54 years. He, too, was finding his way amid the other “seniors” who were there to get their weekly discount. I could hardly miss the pain and loneliness in his eyes. I asked how he was doing. He shrugged his shoulders and said he was doing ok. I knew that wasn’t true and proceeded to delve further. He opened up quite easily, I thought, and the stories began. I secretly placed my long grocery list in my pocket and gave him my full attention. As he spoke softly and lovingly of his spouse, I was transported into the depth of his feelings for her. The eyes that initially looked saddened suddenly brightened as he remembered and spoke of the wonderful trips they had taken together. Then they darkened once again as he told me of the suffering she had endured, especially in her last days. He seemed relieved to have someone to listen to these precious memories he was sharing. And I was aware that something that had to do with eternity was happening right there in aisle two. People passing us were like blurry visions but the sweet man’s face had a defined clarity about it and even a holiness. I knew this was one of those God appointments, and nothing else I had to do that day mattered. This was what it’s all about, I thought. It's funny, isn't it, how we think we are ministering to someone and then God changes it all around and you're the one who is being ministered to. I'm remembering the line from the prayer of St. Francis that says, "For it is in giving that we receive." This encounter, this unforgettable time of sharing, this peace I had in my heart, was a true Advent blessing, a true preparation for the blessed event we are soon to celebrate. Have you received your Advent blessing yet? Keep your eyes and ears open. It can happen in a most unusual place.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Make Me a Channel of Your Peace

Yesterday I had to run an errand after work to pick up my husband’s suits from the dry cleaner’s. There were several cars in the drive-through line and I was patiently waiting my turn. When one of the cars finished picking up their cleaning, everyone pulled up except for the man in the truck ahead of me. Still I waited behind him. He caught my eye in his rear view mirror and motioned for me to go ahead of him, which I did. I figured he must be waiting for someone in the small parking area. Before I knew it, he had gotten out of his truck and was standing at my window ranting at how I cut in front of him. I was incredulous at his anger at me since he clearly had told me to go around him. Apparently I misunderstood. He continued to scold me and yelled that he thought I was leaving the area and that he was motioning me to do just that. My profuse apologies didn’t deter him and he continued to blast me for my error. Needless to say, I was totally rattled and angered by his behavior. I even forgot to drop off my additional cleaning. All the way home I wondered what had caused this man to be so out of control.

Later that night, a friend relayed an incident that happened to her recently. As she was driving, someone behind her car road on her tail for quite some time. She obviously wasn’t going fast enough for him. He finally swung around her and gave her a very rude gesture as he passed. Have you ever been a victim of someone’s anger? It’s very disconcerting and very disheartening. What would cause someone to become so upset that they would lash out for something so small and insignificant?

People seem to be pressed in for many reasons. Maybe they’ve lost their job or their home. Maybe a loved one has been diagnosed with a disease. Maybe a spouse has been unfaithful. The reasons for angry outbursts are infinite. Our natural inclination is to get angry ourselves or to defend our position or to be rude right back. The truth is we never know what is going on in a person’s life when we encounter them. Which means, we should never judge them or be unkind. And that, my friends, is the challenge.

We are called to be holy, to be instruments of God’s love and healing in a very broken world. The problem is that we, too, are broken. So realistically, how do we respond in a Christ-like manner in difficult situations? The answer is pretty simple. It’s simple, yet very difficult in these times. The answer is a vibrant prayer life. Daily encounters with our God, whose name is Love, will soften the hardest of hearts, will smooth over rough edges, will soothe weary souls. Only He can heal our woundedness and allow us to respond with compassion to our angry neighbor. Those daily encounters are only the beginning. God will then give us ample opportunities to “practice” using what He so generously gives to us during those times of prayer. These practice sessions last a lifetime so we shouldn't expect immediate results. But little by little we'll hopefully begin to see subtle changes in our responses. Maybe we'll be able to let go of things a little easier. We'll be able to remember to take a deep breath and count to ten. We'll learn to walk away saying a Hail Mary for the antagonizer.

Jesus said, in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Let's receive, then, this gift of peace that God longs to pour out on us. Let us allow it to cover us and flow out of from us. There may be a lot of angry people out there, but we can, in our own little way, become as St. Francis said, a channel of God’s peace. Maybe next time I'll handle things a little better. I can be sure that God will give me another opportunity. He always does.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Garden

Recently I had an opportunity to “get away from it all”. I always love getting away to the beach and escaping for a little while from my daily duties. I was so looking forward to being still and drinking in the silence. I needed to rest, to have time to reflect, and to journal. It had been a really busy school year for me and the summer was going to be chock full of activities, as well. So a time for quiet reflection really appealed to me and was desperately needed. However, my “retreat” was not what I expected it to be. The majority of my time was spent trying to quiet my mind. I found myself to be terribly distracted and unable to let go of the things of this world. I never thought that calming my thoughts and finding some peace would be so challenging. How was I ever going to hear the voice of God amid the noise inside my head? It took a good two days to decompress but the process was only partial. I left my place of solace slightly frustrated, knowing that I needed more time but time had run out. What had happened? Why was that longed-for tranquility unable to easily enter into my spirit? Have you ever experienced this?

I wonder if the world and all of its lures and attachments have become so deeply entrenched in our lives that we are not even aware of it anymore. The noise of television, radio, 24 hour cable news, ipods in our ears and frequent cell phone conversations can easily drown out the whisper of God. Our schedules are jam-packed with each day’s activities. We drive around trying to avoid traffic jams, taking the fast lane so we’re not late for all those appointments. Clients are demanding, the children are late for ball practice, dinner is a fast food frenzy and well, you name whatever is driving you crazy today. This, I am sure, is not the abundant life that we are meant to be living. So, is the world in direct competition with God? Sometimes I wonder who’s winning that battle in my life. Actually, “battle” is the perfect word. I feel like I have to fight for my time with the Lord. If I do not have my prayer time with Him I feel confused, irritable, angry, and generally unhappy. Those things are in direct contrast with the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

In order for us to be able to bear “fruit” in our lives, our garden must be tended to. The soil of our hearts must be patiently tilled, and the rocks and hard clumps need to be removed. So that we can produce a healthy crop, much time, hard work, and care in the spiritual field must be put forth. Otherwise, the weeds will take over and we are left with nothing.

I think a good interior exercise might be to look deep within ourselves and see which fruit tree is producing a less than bountiful harvest. Then that is where we need to put our best effort. Is my patient tree sparse? (It usually is) I must then look for the opportunity to work in that area of the garden. I know that God will always provide lots of opportunities.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, my soul is longing for more of You. Help me to be aware of what areas in my life are crowding You out. Remind me to turn off the radio in the car, to take one night off from TV, to enjoy dinner at the table with my family, to take a few minutes to read something spiritual and encouraging. The world and all it’s noise and busyness will always be there. But I value and cherish those quiet moments when I can sense Your presence. I don’t need to go away to the beach. I simply need to spend more time in my garden.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Mountaintop

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the International Magnificat Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Magnificat is a ministry to Catholic women based on the friendship between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her cousin, Elizabeth. The conference is held every other year and somehow I always manage a way to go. It’s one of those weekends where you are enveloped in grace, joy, peace, and all kinds of spiritual nourishment. Embracing dear friends who live on the other side of the country and even across the ocean, singing and praising God with hundreds of women, listening to encouraging and challenging homilies and spirit-filled speakers is such a wonderful and uplifting experience. It is a time of renewal and refreshment for wearied souls, and each time I attend this event, I return home enriched and strengthened in my faith.

It was rather amazing that the Gospel reading for the Sunday closing liturgy was the Transfiguration. We are familiar with the story of how Jesus took his friends, Peter, James and John with him up a high mountain and was transfigured before their very eyes. The scripture says that “His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as light.” Moses and Elijah also appeared to them and conversed with the Lord. Then, it says, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them and out of the cloud they heard a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” What an amazing and magnificent experience they had with such a vision! They didn’t want to leave. And I think most of people at the conference felt the same way about the weekend.

We sometimes hear people talk about a mountaintop experience. It’s when you are completely surrounded by God’s peace and love, or enjoying a much needed vacation, or participating in an activity that brings you great joy. We never want that time to come to an end. We want to stay there forever and never go back down into the valley. Have you ever felt that way before? I know I have. The “valley” may represent the monotony of every day life, the piles of dirty laundry and the drudgery of other menial tasks, driving in rush hour traffic, listening to complaints from co-workers, picking up after the kids for the millionth time, etc. Well, my idea of that changed after listening to the homily given by the bishop of New Orleans, the Most Rev. Gregory M. Aymond. He said, “The mountaintop is not a place. It’s about relationship.” I knew those were profound words so I scribbled them down and have been thinking about them since.

Could it possibly be that we can be transformed each and every day, no matter where we are or what is going on at the time, whether it be cleaning the kitchen, wiping runny noses, paying bills, or caring for an elderly loved one? Clearly, then, our own mountaintop is about what our relationship is with Jesus Christ. If we are closely united to Him, through prayer, the sacraments, scripture reading, and sacrifice, then each moment, each breath we take is holy. It is He who makes all things new, who lifts us from our burdens and gives us grace without measure to be His body on the earth. Our daily duty is a gift, even though it may not be wrapped up in a tidy and pretty bow. Sometimes it is wrapped in the shape of a cross. But what glory comes from the cross!

So here we are, in the middle of Lent, celebrating Christ’s Transfiguration and our very own transformation into His image. As we place ourselves in His presence each day, listening to the Voice of God’s beloved Son, may our faces shine like the sun and may His light in us dispel the darkness of the valley.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ready Or Not

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. So much so that I found myself ordering a casket catalog from some Cistercian monks in Iowa. I didn’t really set out to do that. I somehow found myself on their website and I was deeply touched by the manner in which the wood is harvested and then prayerfully carved. It wasn’t until I actually received said catalog in the mail that I felt slightly jolted. The thoughts of the meaning of my order disturbed me. Was I going to die soon? What about someone I love and care about?

In the past two months I have attended a number of funerals. The first was the sudden death of my mother-in-law. Then, a colleague of my husband’s, and then several deaths of parents of friends. Even though we cannot be surprised by our elderly friends and members of our family passing away, the loss is still greatly felt. But death has also recently touched a young mom of a former student of mine and also the son of a friend at church. Those were especially hard to accept.

We all want to live a long life filled with good health and void of any suffering. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t know how or when our life on this earth will come to an end. You may think that this is a very morbid subject. But death, my friends, is certain. It’s going to happen, whether we are ready or not. The important thing is not to think about death in a negative way. It’s natural to have some fear about the unknown but I hope that we can make a decision to focus on our lives right now, bask in the beauty of the present moment, and live out whatever days we have left in a positive, fruitful, peaceful, charitable, and meaningful way.

A long time ago, when I worked in a kindergarten, each child had the honor of becoming the Student of the Week. They would, with the help of their moms and dads, fill out a paper stating their favorite things to do or eat, their favorite color, and fun information a child would love to share. But the last question was a surprising one for five year olds because it was rather profound for little minds. I don’t remember exactly how it was stated but it was something like “What do you want people to remember about you?” The children would write things like “I can win at video games”, or "I can jump really high.” In my mind I read it as, “What do you want your legacy to be?” That’s certainly not a kindergarten question, but one for us all to ponder. Sometimes I wonder if mine will be that I made a mean stuffed rigatoni with Italian sausage and meatballs.

The question is a thoughtful one, one that might take a while to sink in before you answer. But don’t wait too long. All we know for sure is that we have this moment, we have today. What tomorrow brings is only in the mind of God. So just for today, can we be more loving than yesterday? Can we give and not expect anything in return? Can we detach a little more from material things? Can we pray just a little longer?

God has a plan for your life. A plan that was formed before you were in your mother’s womb. In Jeremiah chapter 29 it says, “"For I know well the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the Lord."

Ask Him to help you discover your purpose in this life and live it with everything you’ve got. Then you’ll be ready when it’s time to depart this earth and you can look forward in hope to hearing the words of Jesus, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

No Fear in the NewYear

The New Year is only a couple of weeks old so I think I’m not too late in doing a reflection on it. After all, we have another 50 weeks left in 2011!

I have a ritual that I do every New Year’s Eve. I set aside some quiet time and read over my past year’s journal. It’s a wonderful exercise to recall the events and peruse the thoughts I’ve written over the last twelve months. I look mainly for a common thread that runs throughout and also if I have forgotten some lessons that seemed so important a few months back.

For many of those years I understood how much fear I had about so many things. But my biggest fear was my parents’ deaths. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like without them. They were an integral part of who I am as a person. I respected their values, and even when I was in my rebellious stage, I knew they were right about nearly everything. They were a unique pair, both immigrants from Italy. The language, the food, the passion were alive and well in my home and when they died, I feared the beautiful culture would go with them.

Daddy died in 1981, when I was a young mom. By the grace of God, I made it to the hospital just in time to say “Thank you for everything.” and “I love you”. It was so hard losing him but the hardest part was seeing my mom without her life-long partner. They had been married over fifty years. Their life was not a rose garden, to be sure. They struggled through the depression and also the prejudice that went along with being immigrants. But they were survivors, strong in body, mind and spirit. Their faith was simple, but sometimes I think that’s the best kind to have.

On December 31, 2001, I went through my ritual once again. I realized that every New Year’s Eve, I became increasingly anxious and fearful. While others were joyful and filled with excitement about what the New Year would bring, I felt my heart pound and I worried about what kind of bad things might occur. After all, we had just been through the terror strike on 9/11. Would there be a war, serious illness, a job loss, perhaps even a death of a loved one? But this New Year’s Eve was going to be different, I decided. My prayer that evening in church was that God would give me the grace I needed to overcome these fears I had held for so long. I felt an overwhelming peace come over me and I knew that no matter what happened, God would be with me and see me through. He had always been there for me so why did I need to be afraid? It was an epiphany of sorts for me. At midnight, I rejoiced and knew deep within my spirit that all would be well no matter what.

The following afternoon, my mother was discovered unconscious on the floor of her apartment. When I couldn’t reach her on the phone, I called my sister who then went to check on her. She was revived and lived another six weeks, dying on Valentine’s Day. My worst fear became reality, yet I had peace. I remembered giving everything over, most especially those terrible fears, to my Heavenly Father. He took my surrender seriously and covered me in that peace that surpasses all human understanding. I miss her every single day but know that she lives on in me, in my sisters, in my children and most importantly, in eternity.

This past Christmas Day, as I gathered with all my family, we received word that my mother-in-law passed away suddenly. We were all in shock and terribly saddened but somehow we managed to see the beauty in passing on such a holy day. Many remarked that she had received the best Christmas gift of all. We made it through a funeral held on my reflective day, New Year’s Eve. And truly, there was much on which to reflect. When we put up the tree this year all we could think of was the happiness we would feel having our chldren, their spouses, and other family members present with us. Little did we know what news would come to us. But His love, present in and through our little family, upheld us.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m getting older, but I realize that fear is useless. It stymies growth, diminishes joy, and dims our vision. Nothing good comes from it. Our God is Love. 1 John 4:18 says “Perfect love casts out all fear.” None of us knows what 2011 holds. What we do know is that God is near and will never leave our side.

My prayer for you in 2011 is that you let go of your fears, trust in God's unconditional love for you, and receive His peace. May He open your eyes, your ears, and your heart to see Him in every situation. May He be with you in your joys and sustain you in every trial, in every illness, even in the shadow of death.