Monday, January 25, 2016

Angel Gowns

Paul and I will be celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this April.  I want to do something really special and Paul and I have been having some wonderful conversations, dreaming of plans together.  We'll certainly celebrate Mass and have our marriage blessed and we'll probably enjoy a special dinner with our family.  Maybe we'll take a little overnight trip away, just the two of us, which we haven't done since the babies starting coming along so many years ago.

But beyond all of those special celebrations, I want to do something that would have a lasting impact of good for others.  We've been so blessed in ways that others can only dream about and those blessings should not remain within our household but should spread to the world around us.  We thought about planting a silver birch tree to replenish the earth on our silver anniversary since the date lands so close to Earth Day, and maybe we'll still do that, but I want to do something even more meaningful.

Then, I came across the idea of donating my wedding dress and I just knew that this is what I have to do.  I certainly can't fit into it anymore, and even if I could, where would I wear it?  My daughter won't want to wear an old dress that will be out-of-fashion by the time she gets married.  For twenty-five years it has been sitting in a box inside a trunk where nobody can find any meaning or joy from it.  My dress, a garment rich in beautiful memories, symbolizing the happiest day of my life, is destined for a new life with a greater purpose.

I found a website, Donate My Wedding Dress,  which has many ideas on where to donate wedding dresses for women who are in poverty or women who are suffering other indignities in life and while I was still pondering all of those worthy causes, I learned about Angel Gowns. Throughout the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and perhaps many other places around the world, talented seamstresses give of their time to repurpose used wedding gowns into burial gowns for babies who are stillborn and they call them Angel Gowns.  Each donated wedding dress can be made into multiple burial garments which are all donated to Neonatal Intensive Care Units and funeral homes.  I think that each stitch of the needle and thread is a prayer of love and sympathy for the grieving families who must cope with such unimaginable sorrow.  The life of a child, however short, has meaning and purpose and the grief of parents who lose a child to miscarriage and early death is real and piercing.  I decided that I wanted my wedding gown to be used for burial gowns that will offer dignity and meaning to parents who must say good-bye to their children far too soon.

It took a few visits to several Angel Gown websites before I found someone who is currently accepting wedding gown donations.  I found her through Angel Gowns by Michelle, a beautiful website well worth a visit.  Linda, the woman to whom I sent my dress, has just started a website, Angel Gowns by Linda, and a facebook page, and is currently trying to raise funds to obtain tax-exempt status.  Please consider sending a donation if your heart is so moved.

As I wrapped my dress and hat in tissue and placed them in the box for shipping, I added a prayer for the future recipients and another one for the generous seamstress with the gifted hands.

Heavenly Father, you have blessed me in abundance with every good and lovely thing, and in particular, twenty-five years ago, you blessed me with a husband who has been my treasured companion each and every day.  In gratitude to you for your goodness, I give this dress, worn and kept with so much joy in my heart, as a token of my love and appreciation for the gift of all human life.  

Please bless the seamstress as she deftly takes the seams apart and creates a new garment of love for the little ones whose lives ended far too soon.  Please bless the parents and family members whose grief and heartbreak will rip and tear at the seams of their hearts for years and years to come.  May the gown that they place upon their babe bring them some peace amidts the tears.  And please bless the babies who have perhaps endured suffering and pain in their little bodies and are eager to join you in heavenly bliss for all eternity.

My Jesus, I trust in You and Your eternally wise and holy plan.  You make all things new and beautiful.  Thank You for the grace of Your love.  Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

From the Womb to the Tomb

At Old St. Mary Church in downtown Milwaukee, the creche is situated just below the 14th Station of the Cross where Jesus is lovingly placed in the sepulchre by his friends.  Here the birth of our Lord is placed so closely to His death.  How fitting that is for all of us live with the shadow of our death hanging ever near, never knowing when we may breathe our last, and preparing every step of the way for a holy death.  And the best way in which we can prepare for death is to take frequent advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. How perfect it is that the confessional is right between the two scenes of life and death, for the forgiveness of our sins was the reason that our Lord was born and it was for this that He died.

My Savior Jesus,

From the womb to the tomb your sole purpose was to free us from the burden of our sins.  Thank you for the beauty of your birth and for the redemption that your suffering and death brought to our souls.  May we remember to frequently take advantage of Sacramental Confession and Absolution and be blessed to rejoice with You forever in heaven for this magnificent gift!


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Parade of Magi

The Nativity Scene at Old St. Mary in Milwaukee

It felt like a long time since I'd had some quiet, alone time with the Lord, so I eagerly agreed to stay after Mass and wait for my daughter while she attended her Sunday school class as the rest of my family headed home.  I found a vacant back pew and waited for the last of the Sunday worshipers to make their way out of church.  A peaceful bliss ensued as I sat alone in the darkened church with Jesus for my only company.

But soon I noticed a young girl who quietly entered and sat in the back pew across the aisle from me. It wasn't long after that when the sacristan came in to prepare for the next Mass.  After he left, a young mother came in with her baby, softly cooing and they walked to the front of church to admire the Nativity scene.  Then three young men came in and walked around the perimeter of the church, quietly whispering and viewing the beauties of the church.  Next, a Sunday school teacher came in with her young students.  They sat in the front row of church in silent adoration.  Then the sounds of the choir beginning practice in the balcony above filled with space with joyful noise.  Before I  knew it my daughter was tapping my shoulder, telling me her class was over and we left church for the journey home.

I was struck by the steady number of visitors who came and went during the short space of time between Masses on the Feast of the Epiphany.  We were all Magi, looking for the Babe, hoping to give him the gift of our love, however briefly that might have proved to be.  The sight of so many people coming and going enhanced my own prayer and brought me to want to adore the Infant King ever more deeply.  I'm certain we were all made the better for drawing close to Him and are forever changed by His Love.

My favorite picture of a long-ago Ephiphany celebration in the Bender household.  The children are holding star-covered boxes filled with chocolate stars, starburst candies and starlight mints.  We had followed the star throughout our house looking for the Infant Jesus and when we found him we celebrated with King Cake.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An Angel at Prayer

photo by Sr. Simon Grosicka taken at Calvary Cemetery, Milwaukee

The church was nearly empty so private places for prayer were abundant, but my new friend, John, just slipped right beside me in my pew, lowered the kneeler and bowed his head.  He began to pray out loud into the silent church, and, now distracted, I could no longer continue my own prayer but became lost in John's very perfect prayer.  He prayed:

"Lord, I thank you.  I thank you for sleep and I thank you for waking me.  I thank you for this time to talk with you.  I thank you for this church.  I thank you.  I thank you."

"Lord, I pray for my health.  I pray for this country.  I pray for humanity.  Lord, I pray for the Church. I pray for Pope Benedict.  I pray for Pope Francis."

"Lord, I thank you for listening to my prayer.  I wait for you to speak to me.  I come to you in prayer, Lord, on bended knee, as we should all bend at least one knee while speaking to you."

"And now Lord, I pray the words that you taught us:  Our Father, who art in heaven.  Hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory now and forever.  Now and forever.  Amen."

When it was time for me to leave for work, I touched John on the arm to say good-bye.  He took my hand and kissed it and told me that I was beautiful before wishing me a good day.

I think God sent John to me for a very special reason and that there is a lot to learn from a man with such holy and simple faith.

Lord, I thank you.  I thank you for John.

For more about John see Angels Among Us.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thin Places

"In the Celtic tradition such places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of that Presence are called “Thin Places.” There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God." ~Sylvia Maddox

Milwaukee's Lake Michigan shoreline last June with most of the beach under water.

I had never heard the term "thin places" until All Saint's Day when Fr. Tom referred to it in his homily.  He said that thin places are part of ancient Celtic Spirituality and they describe the point where heaven and earth are closer together.  He explained that oftentimes these are places in nature, what we might call by the more familiar term "holy ground" but that they could also be places in time such as All Saint's Day when, through the saints and their witness and their prayers for us, heaven and earth come very close.  I am fascinated by the whole idea of thin places and have been spending quite a bit of time thinking and praying about them. 

After Fr. Tom's homily I immediately thought that the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration would truly be thin, where we could feel the presence of God most deeply and literally as we receive Him in Holy Communion.  As I knelt to offer my prayer of thanksgiving following Mass I pondered the reality of a God that wants to be so deeply united with my soul that He makes His way through space and time to physically take up presence within my body each time I receive Holy Communion.  And not just me, but everyone! There is nothing more remarkable!

Later on All Saint's Day, when the temperature reached a balmy sixty-five degrees for the November climate in Milwaukee, my husband and I enjoyed a peaceful walk along our favorite Lake Michigan beach to search for sea glass.  Over the course of the last year, we have noticed our beach shrinking and shrinking as the water levels increased.  There was very little beach left at all the last time we visited the lake in September as the water was as high as the rocks and grass far to the west of the lake.  But on this particular visit, most of our beach was back and we marveled at how much more space we had to search for our treasures.  Only God Himself could cause such drastic changes to the shoreline and it made me feel very small to realize what little power we humans have, for only God can truly control the earth and the sky despite our feeble human attempts.  I thought of the scripture passage from Job 38:8-11:  "And who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?  When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, and said:  thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!"   And the passage from Genesis 1:9-10:  "Then God said, 'Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear.'  And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared.  God called the dry land 'the earth,' and the basin of water he called 'the sea.'  God saw how good it was."   

My daughter, Mary, had to wade through the water to reach this rock last summer,
but now it is completely surrounded by dry land.

I always thought of my visits to the lake to search for sea glass as sacred time in a holy place.  Each time I search for sea glass I am drawn ever more deeply into prayer as I ponder the beauty of nature, as I consider how Jesus Himself spent a great deal of time on the seashore, and as I find soft little shards of glass that feel like jeweled gifts from God.  When I search for sea glass I am certain that I am always transported to a thin place, only I had never thought to call it by that name before.

All Saint's Day Sea Glass Treasures

After our sea glass time of prayer, I went to the local abortion mill for the closing prayer service of Forty Days for Life.  St. Herman's of Alaska, A local Orthodox Church has been holding a Sunday afternoon Moljeben Prayer Service each Sunday of both the spring and fall Forty Days campaigns and I was eager to join them for this final service of the season.  The air was already heavy with incense when I arrived and a small group of people were gathered in prayer.  As the prayers were beautifully chanted and the bells of the incense thurifer jingled their own prayer of praise for God, I was deeply struck with the thought that this too, this place of death and destruction, was also a thin place.  What made it thin were the souls of innocent babies who met their Maker as they were violently torn from their mother's wombs.  I was certain that God must be particularly close in this place of sorrow and torment and that He must grieve deeply over the tragedy of his unwanted creations, His little human babies.

Moljeben Prayer Service photo source of Milwaukee Forty Days for Life
I'm sure that I will continue to ponder and look for the thin places in my life just as I have always done in my forever search for God's presence in my life, and I will praise and thank Him each time I feel that, in His goodness and His mercy, He draws ever more closely to my heart in love, goodness, beauty, joy, sorrow and suffering, for God is in all places, all times and all emotions.  He is All-Love and I am deeply grateful for His abiding presence in my life.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Angels Among Us

At my downtown urban parish it's not unusual to see homeless men and women come and go or spend time sleeping in the back pew.  One man in particular is always very moving to watch as he makes his way to the front of church during Sunday Mass to leave a donation of stuffed animals for the local food pantry.  Occasionally, the homeless patrons of the church ask those in the pews for money before or after Mass, but most of the time they just sit quietly in the presence of the Lord.

This past Sunday morning, during the sign of peace, on old, African American man that I had never seen before moved past the three young adults that were sitting in front of my family.  He stopped in front of the young woman who was sitting farthest inside of the pew and hugged her tightly and then asked her what her name was.  I could sense her cringing in discomfort as she moved her purse to her other side.  Following Mass, he stopped another woman, beamed at her and held her arms tightly as he spoke with her.  There's something about moving into another person's personal space that makes us nervous, doesn't it?

Later that morning, Paul and I were in the parish center waiting to assemble sandwiches for a local meal program with the other parents of the Religious Education program.  Here came that man again, this time with a red geranium in his hand that had obviously been picked from the garden outside of church.  He had a huge smile on his face as he took a seat along the wall, but was soon escorted out by a parish staff member.

He came back again for the daily Mass for All Soul's Day.  He walked into church during the homily and sat in the pew directly across from me.  I noticed that he was holding a spray of pink and white flowers in his hand.  He held those flowers up high in front of him during the remainder of Mass and had a huge smile on his face that wouldn't quit.  The way he held those flowers I couldn't help but think that he resembled the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation painting above the high altar, although instead of a white gown, he was dressed in khaki pants and a flannel shirt.

After Mass, as I knelt to pray, he came and sat next to me and offered me a sprig of his flower, telling me that I was very beautiful.  He spoke about pregnant women and new mothers, which I found very moving considering the work I do with that population, and the fact that I am expecting my first grandchild in a few months, but I couldn't quite understand what exactly he was saying other than he seemed to know about some money that was available for the babies.  He asked my name and told me that the name Anne is very beautiful. He shared his own name, John, with me.

Then John left the pew and moved toward a side altar at the front of the church where a man was lighting a votive candle.  When the other man left, John proceeded to light every remaining votive candle until a woman came and asked him to leave some candles unlit for others to light, so he quietly moved back to a pew and sat for a while.

Finally, he stood up and walked to the altar where he made a profound and reverent bow.  I became nervous as I saw him walk up the altar steps and stop at the altar. He placed a piece of paper on the altar, and the morning's altar server, who was still inside the sacristy, came out and told him that he couldn't leave anything on the altar, explaining that it was a sacred space.  He then walked to the back of the church, made a loud splash at the holy water font and left the church.

I'm certain that John most likely suffers from some mental illness and is one of the ranks of the many homeless people who live downtown, but this morning, watching his smile, noting the sweetness with which he held that bouquet of flowers, again, most likely plucked from the parish garden, and seeing his reverence at the altar, I couldn't help but think that this man was truly a heaven-sent angel.  And his message through his compliments and his gift of flowers?  God's deep and abiding love for me. And his message through his innocent actions of lighting all the candles and attempting to leave a message at the altar?  God's deep and abiding love for him.  John's smile was contagious and I can't seem to stop smiling myself as I ponder the little taste of heaven that I experienced on All Soul's Day through the gentleness of the innocent and child-like actions of a stranger.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A RUGged Post

I'm still sifting through memories and moments of the big Philly trip to see Pope Francis last September, and I'm still marveling over the monumentalness of it all; the fact that I took a fifteen hour bus ride anywhere, the fact that the city of Philadelphia was so unexpectedly fascinating, and the fact that I was on the same street as Pope Francis all astound me.

Considering how much I love and admire Pope Francis I should really just be marveling about the fact that I'm on the same planet that he is on, shouldn't I?  He has so much to teach us about love and kindness and mercy and God and yet we seem to spend so much time arguing about what he says and what he means.  We just don't understand him, do we?  Sort of like those Pharisees who argued with and questioned Jesus every time he spoke.  Truthfully, I have to admit that sometimes when I read the words of Jesus, I don't understand Him, either.  I mean, why did He say that He came to bring division? What's that about?  Doesn't scripture say that "He shall be peace"?  It's just too confusing for me to wrap my head around the whole concept.

But whether or not I always understand Pope Francis doesn't matter because I love him, anyway. And whether or not I always understand Jesus doesn't matter, either, because I for sure love Him, anyway!  I love Him with all that I am.

But back to Pope Francis in Philly-I'm sure it's no secret that I'm a nerd for all things Catholic, so I was thrilled to learn that a piece of carpeting upon which Pope Francis walked while saying Mass in Philadelphia could be had for the cost of a donation to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  What a unique memento!  I dashed off an email to Flemington Department Store in New Jersey lickety-split, sent in a donation to St. Jude's, and within a few days was proudly admiring my future second-class relic of a future saint.  Now I just need to have it blessed!

The authenticity letter.

I won't sweep my admiration for Pope Francis under the rug!

Philly Photos

Quaint alleys were everywhere!

I loved the majestic and historic buildings.

We saw a lot of bark-less trees.  I've never seen anything like them anywhere!

Wish I could have stopped to smell the roses!  What a lovely outdoor display!

The City Hall is so beautiful!

I did not try the Pope's favorite coffee.  Was it Argentinian, perhaps?

Street musicians!  Fun!

Floral-painted garbage trucks!  Might as well disguise the smell with something sweet to look at!