Saturday, December 31, 2011

Oblate Joy!

On October 27, the day that I was to become enrolled as an Oblate Candidate of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood I ran over to Gesu Church on my lunch break for a quick confession and I met Friar Paul Schneider in the confession line. It was a chance meeting with someone that I had recognized from activities at St. Francis de Sales Seminary but had not known personally. I introduced myself and then he told me that he had two more years before he would be ordained to the priesthood and he asked me to pray for him. I took his words as a confirmation that God was pleased with my plans to work toward becoming an Oblate of the Precious Blood. But by the grace of God, that meeting wasn't the end of the story...

During the week before Christmas, I received a newsletter from the Handmaids of the Precious Blood and within it I found a picture of none other than Friar Paul Schneider! The caption read: "In August, Oblate of the Precious Blood and long time friend of our community, Friar Paul Schneider made his Solemn Vows as a Conventual Franciscan at Marytown. We all rejoiced in spirit over this important milestone in his life as he makes his way toward priestly ordination in 2013. Please pray for him." Chills, that's what I had; chills and goosebumps to find his picture there and to learn that he is also an Oblate of the Precious Blood! Surely this was a providential sign from God!

There are only 420 Oblates of the Precious Blood throughout the world, so to find that there is an Oblate living in the very same city in which I live is quite extraordinary! Friar Paul and I have now been in contact and have plans to meet at the end of January, and when we meet I will have something very special to share with him before I send it on to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood at Cor Jesu Monastery in New Mexico, because...

When I first began to discern whether or not to apply for candidacy for the Oblates, I had discovered several books written by Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, at the Salzmann Library at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. I found his books of poetry, Paths from Bethlehem and Streets in Nazareth and his book of spiritually uplifting words written in letter style, Letters of Father Page, to be beautiful, and I have shared some of his words and poems from these books in previous posts. I decided that I should purchase these books so that I could return to them again and again as a spiritual resource and so I ordered some used copies online and on Christmas Eve they were delivered to my house.

I found that Paths from Bethlehem was autographed with the words: "Asking our Lady to bless you" and Streets in Nazareth was also an autographed copy with the words: "With Mary's blessing." But even more impressive was what I found tucked just under the cover of Paths from Bethlehem. Upon opening the book I found several historical papers, including the Christmas bookmark that graces this post. One of the documents was a biographical sketch of Fr. Fitzgerald that read as follows:

"The author was born on October 29th, 1894, in South Framingham, Massachusetts. He was educated at Weymouth High School, Boston College and St. John's Ecclesiastical Seminary and was ordained a priest of the Boston archdiocese in 1921. After twelve years service as curate of Our Lady of the Presentation parish, he entered the Novitiate of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and was professed in 1934. He is now Rector of Our Lady of Holy Cross Seminary in North Easton, Massachusetts, and devotes his spare time to retreat work. His Letters, written under the pseudonyms "Father Page" and "A. Page," have appeared in Columbia and The Far East. Father Fitzgerald's previous works include Juxta Crucem, Paths from Bethlehem and God's Rainbow."

Also within the book I found a newspaper clipping of a poem written by Fr. Fitzgerald and the following typed poem of which the source is not named with a handwritten note on the bottom. The poem follows:

"I saw the Face of God these last days three
Mirrored in a soul so pure
The vision came clearly back to me.
His eyes, the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost
Blazoned with an aureole alight with Love from His Host
Yet now and then, his brow furrowed with grief
Remembering the Thorn-Crowned Head,
the nail-pierced Hands and Feet.
In another moment his face was wreathed in a smile
Beatific, golden radiance all absent from trace of guile
It was brushed thereon by the lips of His mother
Joyous because her earthly son so loved His Brother.
This little page ever listing for heavenly commands
Walks daily with these Loved Ones, hand in hands.
And the cherished grace I hope from my retreat
Is to find my hand in theirs some day
When I clasp their little page's close in friendship pure and sweet.

And it was signed:

"As to the first, I cannot say, but to the last, I'll be always-Humbly at Our Mother's feet and in His Heart-A. Page C.S.C ."

What a treasure to find these antique papers from Fr. Fitzgerald, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood founder, all for the pittance of $3.00 plus shipping! It's too good for me to keep to myself, so after I show them to Friar Paul Schneider, I will send them to the Handmaids so that they may enjoy them as well. And all of this good fortune only intensifies the joy I feel whenever I contemplate the wonder of the priesthood and the great gift that all priests bring to the Catholic Church.

We've all had experiences in our lives, haven't we, where a priest has been there for us in a special way and through his kindness, we were given a glimpse, a foretaste, of the goodness of God and His love for us? Whether an illness brought a priest to anoint us, our sinfulness brought us to the confessional for the gift of absolution or our desire to receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord carried us to the communion line where the hands of a priest presented our Eucharistic Lord to us for our consumption; our priests have been God's instruments of grace in our lives. When our world turns upside down and we long to bare our soul to someone who can guide us in the ways that please the Lord, it is to the priest that we turn for assistance and direction. When ordinary and Sacramental joys bring cause for celebration in our lives, it is the priest that we invite to celebrate with us. Where would we be without a beloved priest in our midst to be Christ for us though every moment of our lives?

Recently, when my son Joe was ill and spent five days in the hospital, he was visited by Fr. Peter and Fr. Dave who both anointed him, Fr. Matthew and Fr. Jim who visited and prayed with him and Bishop Hying who also prayed and visited with him. I was deeply moved and marveled over how wonderful it is to receive the gift of the presence of holy and humble priests who give of their time so generously to bring prayer and the Sacraments to all of those in need, including my son. What a blessing it is to have priests who love and care for you and your family and what a blessing it is to love and care for those priests in return! And how best to love and care for them? With prayer!

I feel tremendously blessed to be called to pray for all priests, for those who have touched my life through their offering of the Sacraments and through their many kindnesses to me, for those whom I don't know personally but may meet in the future through God's providence, for those men who are discerning a call to the priesthood and studying in the seminary and for those who have spent their entire lives being Christ for others and are now called to rest in the Lord for all eternity. But most of all, I am blessed to pray for the one special priest who has been assigned to me through the Handmaids of the Precious Blood. Through my prayers I am able to lift the hands of the men who lift Christ up for the world.

Prayer is a gift, the most beautiful and precious gift that we can give to others and it is this gift that I offer in joy for God's chosen men, His holy priests, through the loving sacrifice of every moment of my days. I will forever be grateful for the Handmaids of the Precious Blood and for the guidance of the soul of Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, sP for the opportunity to humbly join them at our Mother's feet and in His Heart in prayer for priests as an Oblate Candidate and please God, soon as an Oblate of the Precious Blood.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament by Fr. Matthew Widder

Earlier in December I wrote a post about Fr. Matthew Widder and his moving and heartfelt homily about the Blessed Mother and our Eucharistic Lord given during a holy hour for life on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I recalled that Fr. Matthew has a deep devotion to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and, not knowing anything about our Lady under this title, I asked him to tell me more about her. Through Fr. Matthew I learned that this devotion was founded by St. Peter Julian Eymard after a vision he received of the Blessed Mother in 1851 in France and the feast day is celebrated on May 13th, which later also became the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. He kindly shared an Advent article about Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament that he had written for his parish bulletin with me, and now, with his permission, I share it with you. What follows is a guest post by Fr. Matthew Widder about Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament:

One of my favorite titles for Mary is Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. The devotion to Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament is new to me. I came across the image when I was looking for a Holy Card to commemorate my ordination to the Priesthood. In selecting a holy card I was looking for an image that would summarize my spirituality. When I saw the image of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament I was hooked immediately. I would like to share a couple of the reasons why this image of Mary touches me so deeply.

First I love how Mary is looking directly at Jesus, and in doing so is illustrating that devotion to Mary always points us to Jesus. When we pray a Marian prayer Mary is not the end of the prayer. Pope John Paul II used to say, “to Jesus through Mary.” This saying illustrates that Mary always directs us and our prayers to her Son. It is fair to say that we do not pray to Mary but that we pray with Mary. In looking at Jesus, Mary is modeling the manner of discipleship for all Christians. No matter what we get ourselves into throughout life we always look to Jesus.

Secondly, I love the fact that in this picture Mary is not holding the baby Jesus close to her, instead she is holding baby Jesus out as if she is handing him off to be held by one of us. The lesson for us here is that as we live our faith, as Jesus is born into our lives, we eventually have to, “pass the baby.” Our spirituality is never completely individual but is always communal and always leading us to share our faith with others through service.

Lastly, the baby Jesus is holding the Eucharist out to us. In this season of Advent we not only recall Jesus’ birth, and the time when he will come again, but we also prepare for his coming to us through the sacraments, especially through the Eucharist. The closest we will ever get to Jesus on this earth is when we receive the Eucharist. How lucky we are to have a God who wishes to be so close to us!

Whenever I look at the depiction of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, I always feel inspired and recharged. The image always focuses me on what is important in my ministry and in my life: Jesus (through Mary), Service, and Eucharist. I’ve just shared a bit of my own spirituality. Let me ask a question for you to think about. How would you sum up your own spirituality, or means of getting closer to Christ? Is there a particular place, devotion, picture, person, etc, that always seems to recharge your spiritual batteries? In this season of preparing for Christ’s coming how does he make himself known to you?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Woman, Behold Your Son

"Woman, behold your son." ~John 19:26

That was the scriptural prayer that I held in my heart on the feast of St. John the Evangelist as I stood for 90 minutes at the bedside of my son, Joe, while he was in recovery from surgery. Joe, whose illness I wrote about briefly in my recent posts, Kneeling in the Manger and Lullaby Revisited, was suffering horrific pain from a large, infected lymph node in his neck that required surgery to drain the infection.

Joe asked to put off the surgery so that he could spend Christmas at home with his family, but on Monday morning, the day after Christmas, Joe came to me as soon as he awoke in the morning and said, "I'm ready. Let's go to the hospital." By Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM, providentially at the Hour of Divine Mercy, Joe was in surgery to have the infected lymph node that was behind his neck muscle drained of the infection that was the source of his suffering. Every surgery has possible complications associated with it and Joe's surgery was no exception, as the lymph node was so swollen and large at about 6 cm. in length, that it was pressing on an artery that led to his brain and it was possible that the artery was also infected.

There are times in your life when you can truly "feel" the prayers of others, and this was one of them. Promises of prayer came soaring in from friends and family and although we were all stressed and worried, my family had never before felt more loved and more protected by God than at any other time we can recall. The morning of the surgery we were visited by two priests who both performed the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick for Joe, and another priest who came to pray with us after the surgery was over. A quick visit from some dear friends brought cheer just a few hours before the surgery and then, after the surgery began, more friends arrived to keep watch with us and to distract us from our worries with lively conversation during the long 90 minute wait until the surgery was successfully completed and Joe was sent to recovery.

By 4:30 PM, I was allowed to go to Joe's bedside where I remained, standing, for the next 90 minutes until he was recovered enough to return to his room. During those 90minutes, he was continuously given morphine for his pain until he could tolerate it and popsicles to soothe his dry and aching throat. By his third popsicle, Joe was all smiles.

As I stood by his side, I thought about the fact that the surgery occurred on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist and I pictured St. John and the Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross and Jesus telling his mother, "Woman, behold your son." In my heart I knew that He was speaking those words to me now. And I beheld my beautiful, brave and wonderful son suffering the most misery he had ever known, yet I felt peace. On the day of the crucifixion, there was no peace for the Blessed Mother as she listened to the jeers of the taunting crowd and solders while witnessing her Son's suffering in the surroundings of hate. But here, at my son's bedside, as Joe suffered with his own cross, we were only surrounded by love and goodness and it felt as if all of our friends and family who supported and prayed for us were truly living the gospel message, the famous words frequently spoken by St. John the Evangelist, "Love one another."

Joe remains in the hospital until the type of infection can be determined so that the appropriate antibiotic can be prescribed, and although he remains in much pain, he knows that he is loved and that is the best medicine by far! And I thank you, dear reader, for your loving prayers as well!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Wonder of the Incarnation by Bishop Hying

Because Christ entered into human history, the apostles proclaimed the Gospel to the ends of the earth, martyrs gave up their lives rather than their faith and a new philosophical understanding of the person emerged.

Because of Christmas, soaring cathedrals rose over Europe, universities and hospitals opened their doors and missionaries sailed across oceans in wooden ships.

Because of what we celebrate today, four churchwomen were murdered in El Salvador for their stance with the poor, a pope sold his fisherman’s ring to aid a slum in Brazil and a wrinkled woman in a sari lovingly pulled dying people out of gutters.

The church has never gotten over the wonder of the Incarnation, the startling truth that, in the person of Jesus Christ, this one specific human being living at one historical point in time in a precise geographical place expressed in the fullest possible way the union of God and human nature.

God had entered his own creation to redeem it and restore it from the inside. In his mystical theology, St. Bonaventure expresses this burning, passionate love of God who desires nothing less than complete identification with every human being.

Christmas changes everything! If God is one with us through the power of Christ’s Spirit, alive and active through the church, life is radically different for us. God is not out there somewhere, unreachable and unknowable.

In the tender vulnerability of Christ’s humanity, God has completely united his life with ours. This enfleshed Divine Word has become the language of our own human experience; Jesus explains us to ourselves.

How telling it is that Mary and Joseph could not find a room for the birth of Jesus. In a world of sin, violence, sorrow and selfishness, there was no room for this tiny, warm God who had come only to love and heal.

Is there any more room for God today? Is there space for justice and peace? Is there room for prayer and virtue? Does God truly hold center place in our lives and our global society? If we sometimes feel that God has been pushed into the corner, then it is to the corner that we must go.

There is a tendency within us to want to clean up the Christ story, to make it respectable, orderly and dignified. In so many ways, it was none of that. God was born of an itinerant mother in an animal shelter with smelly manure and dirty shepherds. God died on a bloody cross, scourged and rejected, cut off as one accursed.

We cannot romanticize the Christian narrative without decreasing its potent reality. God comes to us in all of the messiness and lunacy of the real world to save us as we are, not to redeem some idealized version of ourselves.

The Incarnation of Christ powerfully proclaims the humility and vulnerability of God. Setting aside the majesty, glory and safety of heaven, the eternal Word empties himself completely, assumes the radical limitations of our humanity and runs the terrible risk of being misunderstood, rejected and killed by his own creatures!

Divine Love gives itself away in a total act of self-donation. In the Christ event, we grasp the very essence of God, who pours himself out completely for us.

As disciples of this passionate, incarnate Christ, our lives, too, will be marked by humility and vulnerability. How else can we love others with this self-emptying divine life unless we leave our comfort zones and surrender our insulating pride? How else can we give birth to the Word unless we go to the dark corners of this world?

Yes, the manure will smell, the shepherds will be uncouth, the stable will be cold, the scourging will tear our flesh, and the cross will kill us. Often, the way of Jesus makes no rational sense at all, and we do our best to live the pieces of it that we can. But Christmas challenges us to go all the way. Have a blessed one!

(Previously published in the December 22nd, 2005 and December 22nd, 2011 Milwaukee Catholic Herald and reprinted here with the permission of Bishop Hying)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kneeling in the Manger

These final days before Christmas bring exhaustion as the work of preparing to make merry brings wear and tear to my body and my soul. In spite of my weariness, I lie awake with worry heavy on my heart for my son who'd been sick with a sore throat earlier this month who has developed unusual complications. He had been fatigued and burning with fever, throat bright red and raw, yet he quickly healed as the virus seemed to move out of his body. Except it didn't. We didn't realize that the infection simply took up residence in a lymph node which generously shared its infective germs with the muscle in Joe's neck. Now with neck swollen to the size of a tennis ball, the pain rages from ear to sternum and my son can't move his head at all for the suffering he bears. Antibiotics should surely bring effective healing but the threat of an emergency room visit on Christmas Eve looms over our heads if that healing doesn't happen quickly.

In the middle of the night, I silently step into my son's room and kneel at the side of his bed, listening to his breath coming heavy and deep, and I offer a wordless prayer, just a movement of the heart in God's direction, a prayer that is for both of my sons who sleep in that room, as morning will bring a final psychological examination as part of the application process for seminary for my oldest son and I know that he carries stress and worry in his heart over that process-over the fear of the unknown-both regarding what the test will be like and whether or not he will be accepted to the seminary. My heart is heavy with a mother's love.

And I think of Mary and Joseph kneeling in the manger, cold and hungry, tired and scared, in prayer and adoration for their Son, the King. Fear and worry surely must have gripped their hearts as well-fear of the unknown abiding side by side with a deep love for their child. Were they, like me, unable to find words of prayer? Were they simply opening their hearts to God's presence in trustful surrender to whatever His plan would bring for their lives? I know the answer to my question is yes; they did surrender wholly to God's plan and so I will, too.

I will let my worry and my sorrow go and I will cling to peaceful trust in God as an offering for all of those who have larger worries this Christmas-for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one at this time of year when they want more than ever to be in the presence of those they love, for all of the clients who come to the WIC Clinic in droves trying to find some financial assistance to provide healthy foods for their families as their pocketbooks are strained by the burden of buying gifts, for those families who spend Christmas in the hospital kneeling at the bedside of their children who are ill with serious diseases such as cancer, for parents whose children have rebelled against their authority, against the law and against God and have brought the wounds of deep and cutting pain to the hearts of those who love them, and for all of those who feel a searing loneliness within-for all of these people, too, are kneeling in the manger.

My sorrow and worry is small and placed in the hands of God it is quickly overshadowed by His great love. Kneeling in the manger of my sons' room as they sleep I know that my blessings far outweigh my struggles and with Mary and Joseph to accompany me on my life's journey I will surely be able to bear whatever sorrows come my way by following their example of trustful surrender to the Holy Will of God.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Purest Love of the Purest Life

My friend, Fr. Jim Kubicki, SJ, recently went to Rome for an Apostleship of Prayer International Advisory Council Meeting and while there he spotted this unusual picture of Pope John Paul II kissing a baby and brought it back for me because of my work with all of the little ones at the WIC Clinic. It's now framed and proudly displayed on my desk for all of the young families who enter my office to enjoy and for me to enjoy as well! When I found the following Caryll Houselander quote, I thought it was perfectly fitting for the picture, or in other words, "picture perfect"!

"Knowing that God supplies all our necessities, and that one of our necessities is that we surrender to Him, we should not be surprised that He comes to us as an Infant: for surrender to an infant, any infant, is easy. Surely never did God receive more fully what is due to Him from man than when He was an infant. Every infant demands and receives the most complete self-giving that we are capable of. The perfection of surrender to God is Mary with the Infant Christ.

The service of the infant is a thing of love, therefore of joy. There is joy even in the saddest love; and the love of an infant, even when it has the quality of tragedy as in our days it too often has, is fundamentally joyful. It must be so, for it is the purest love of the purest life."

~Caryll Houselander, The Passion of the Infant Christ

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mary Kept All These Things

"And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." ~Luke 2:19

As she was nurturing His body for the growth of infancy and for the love of childhood did she realize that she was preparing Him to die?

When she felt that first interior kick in belly swollen with His life, did she think about the nail that would fasten His feet tightly to the wood to redeem our sinful souls?

As she wrapped Him tight in the swaddling, held Him close in the dark damp cave so cold and nursed Him to fill his empty stomach, did she understand about His empty heart hungry for the love of the world?

When He suckled til satisfied and dozed in her arms while one last drop of milk slipped from the corner of His mouth onto the cold stone floor, did she see it as a foreshadowing of the one last drop of precious blood that would drip from His open side?

As His little chubby hand finally released her finger and He gave way to the deepness of sleep, could she feel the grip He would have upon the nail that would one day hollow his hand?

When she stroked His fragrant brow with a mother's tender love, did she picture the thorns meant to pierce that very spot in a vain attempt to mar His perfection?

As she finally set Him down to rest in the manger made of wood, did she know that the wood from which His resting place was made was the same wood from which His beaten and bruised body would hang until lifeless?

When she watched Him as He slept so soundly did she think about the last time His body would be taken from her arms and laid in another dark damp cave so cold?

And do we know?

Do we know that as we prepare our hearts and our homes for Christmas, as we shop and cook and clean, as we wrap and write and decorate, striving to make our hearts and homes a fit place for Christmas joy, that the same child who will be born within us will also die within us? Each time we carry our crosses of suffering, torment and shame, our crosses of sorrow, lament and pain, He dies a little more within us and we inch our way a little further into our own new life because of His death.

Be born in us, O Lord! Be born so that we may die to sin, to hate, to poverty, and to evil. Be born so that we may die to pride, to anger, to jealousy, to vengeance. Be born so that we may die to excess, to waste, to greed and to vanity. Be born so that we may live in Your love and die for Your love alone! Come, Lord, be born, live and die within us, your weak, fragile, tender, human hosts so that we may truly live for all eternity in the light of Your sweet and precious Love! Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


"We were born to embrace not accept it."
~from Let Us Love by Need to Breathe

"Ours is the Spirit of the Eucharist, the total Gift of Self."
~ St. Katharine Drexel

~"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me." Is 6:1

It's that time of year again, the time to look forward to the year ahead and anticipate how I hope to grow spiritually. One of my favorite ways to do this is by prayerfully choosing a "word" upon which to reflect and then to periodically take a look at my spiritual life throughout the year to see how well I am accomplishing the goal of growing closer to God through the basis of that word.

I began this practice three years ago with the word "surrender," then moved onto "accept" and finally strove to go "deeper" in my faith this past year. All of these words were carefully chosen to help me to come to know and understand God's will for my life and then to learn to fully live it.

Recently I was listening to one of my son's CD's on the drive to work and was struck by the lyrics: "We were born to embrace not accept it." Here was a very fitting word for 2012, I thought, and I was especially touched by how it moves me beyond the simple acceptance of two years ago and brings me into the deeper posture of an embrace. The past three years were difficult and the words I chose to focus upon were very challenging for me, but now, I have gone two full months without a depressive episode and this feeling of consistent peace which is currently marking my life makes me long to embrace all that I am and all that God has abundantly blessed me with; I want to move beyond surrender and acceptance and to remain in the blissful depth of His love for me.

It almost seems too easy, doesn't it, to embrace God's will when I'm feeling peace, joy and happiness? Yet I've learned from the spirituality of the Apostleship of Prayer that when we offer our days to God, he doesn't want only our sufferings and sorrows, but that He also wants our joys and our happiness, and sometimes, giving Him those things that feel good, that bring us pleasure, can be the hardest thing of all. Sometimes, when darkness threatens to haunt me, remaining in joy and giving it to God is a spiritual sacrifice in itself. Living a Eucharistic life of gratitude means giving God my total self because He wants all of me, and so I will strive to give Him my all and to embrace all that He gives to me in return.

This past Sunday morning I was scheduled to lector at Mass and as I read the first reading I was immediately struck by the opening line- "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me," and throughout the remainder of Mass I continued to hold this line prayerfully within my heart. I must have read it an especially profound manner as well, because after Mass my sons complimented me, which is very rare, and they mentioned that there was something very different about how I proclaimed that very first line.

Later that evening I attended my parish's Advent Taize Prayer Service which is one of my favorite ways to pray. There is nothing so beautiful as prayerfully sitting in a near-dark, intimate church surrounded by candlelit icons while chanting scripture punctuated by periods of blissful silence. I sat near the front of the church where I could focus on the icon of the Holy Family and deeply pondered it throughout the service. Here, in this painting, the Holy Family's entire posture is one of embrace. I noticed St. Joseph's arm around the Blessed Virgin and her head resting upon his shoulder. I saw how all three of their hands are gently touching. I looked at the expression of peace on all of their faces. I could clearly see the Spirit of the Lord God upon the Holy Family through the deep love that is so evident in their circular embrace. Here is a family that lived a life of embracing one another and of embracing God's will for their lives!

Praying with that image reminded me of the first time I ever took a weekend retreat alone, away from my family. My plan was to completely focus on God the entire time I was away, but I found that I couldn't concentrate on God when my mind kept wandering to thoughts of my family and how much I missed them. I took a walk on the beach and collected rocks and wrote a word on each rock to represent every one of my family members. On my husband's rock I wrote the word embrace because the thing that I love best about him is being held within his strong arms in a silent embrace every morning before he leaves for work. I realized that my entire life could be like that morning embrace between my husband and I! I could allow myself to be wrapped in God's loving arms and let Him carry me through the coming year, trusting that in good times or in bad, He will always be there loving me and caring for me.

Just as St. Joseph in the icon, my husband in the mornings, and all fathers in life hold and care for the ones they love, God holds and embraces me as well. The Christian life with God is an embrace, a total offering of ourselves to Him and the sweet, precious gift of His total and complete Self in return. In His embrace I can't help but feel the Spirit of the Lord God upon me and I will walk in the peace and joy of His presence every day of the coming year! I'm looking forward to 2012 and believe that it is going to be a very good year!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bishop Hying-The Dance of Advent

Have you ever had the experience of relaxing into your pew at Mass, ready to absorb the words of the priest during the homily when suddenly you find your heart racing and your breath coming in short bursts as you realize that his words are directed right at you as if he had peeked inside of your life and your troubles and was offering comfort to you alone as you sat amid the crowd at Mass? Bishop Hying's most recent reflection for the Milwaukee Catholic Herald had just that effect on me; the words I read felt as if they were meant specifically for me, that I could have been the depressed friend he was writing about. Except, this doesn't accurately describe me anymore; my darkness has finally disappeared and I have been walking in the light of joy and peace for two full months now, thanks to the prayers at Lourdes of the very same Bishop who wrote the piece that follows. Perhaps you will feel that these words are meant for you and by reading them, you will also be lifted to a sense of peace and joy in your life this Advent.

The Dance of Advent by Bishop Donald Hying

Several friends have shared with me recently their perception of God’s absence in their lives. One struggles with depression, another is mourning the loss of a loved one and the third is in a spiritual dry spell.

Those conversations drew me back to the dark night experience of Mother Teresa, articulated in the book “Come Be My Light,” which revealed that, in her youth, Mother had prayed to feel what Jesus had experienced on the cross and then was plunged into a decades-long feeling of being abandoned by God. Only gradually did she come to realize that this painful place of spiritual darkness was a participation in the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Every Advent we hear the beautiful passages from the Old Testament prophets, filled with hope and longing for the coming of the Lord, for the restoration of justice and peace, for a universal salvation, for God to rend the curtain and come down to dwell with his people. As Christians, we know and believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of those deep desires for union with God; he has come to save us and unleash the Kingdom of God into the thick of human history. Christmas is the fulfillment of Advent.

And yet, we sense a deep incompleteness oftentimes in our lives. Peace, justice, mercy and respect seem to elude us more than ever as we scan the morning headlines. Every institution, whether it is the government, the church, the economy, education or health care, seems to be in a profound crisis.

In our own lives, we bear the weight of our human fragility as we cope with unemployment, addictions, broken marriages, sickness, old age or the loss of loved ones. Deep in our bones, we sense that we cannot fix any of this completely on our own, that we need a savior, that God must somehow intervene to set things right.

Here is the struggle. Much of the time, for many of us, God appears to be silent and mysterious, far away and not readily tangible. At times, I have prayed to the Lord in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, pouring out my fears and troubles and I have actually called out loud to God, “Say something! Give me an answer!” But there is only silence. So often, in the despair of our fallen human situation, God seems disturbingly inert. Suffering can break our faith because it feels like divine punishment or, at best, spiritual abandonment.

For me, saints like Mother Teresa, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux offer the solution to this spiritual dilemma through their experience of the dark night. All of them were tested in the crucible of a profound inner suffering during which they felt that God had abandoned them.

Therese went so far as to question the reality of heaven and the existence of God when she was in the tormented throes of her tuberculosis. Mother Teresa, at the height of her spiritual fruitfulness, when she was traveling the world to grow the Missionaries of Charity and serve the poor, felt that God didn’t love her at all.

This terrifying sense of God’s absence seems to be an integral part of the spiritual life, a needed purification on the path of holiness. The mystics would say that God wants to strip us of our false illusions about him and ourselves by seeming to withdraw and remove all consolation. On an intellectual level this makes sense. How will I ever grow deeper into the vast mystery of the divine if I remain content and complacent with spiritual clich├ęs and childish concepts of God? If I want to grow up spiritually, God will have to remove the toys from my playpen and lead me to a more mature sense of his mystery and purpose.

But on an emotional level, this feeling of distance or silence or absence is distressing. We long for a word, an intuition, a caress from God to assure us that he is indeed with us and loves us beyond our imagining. We want to know that we are not alone. Like the prophets, we want God to rend the curtain and come down here in a definitive way that is clear and unmistakable. Yet, the Lord seldom does that on our time schedule or on our terms.

Can we come to see that the mysterious, elusive, silent reality of God is a good thing for us? That the Lord wants to lure us into a quiet and dark place where he can speak to our hearts in a fruitful dialogue of silence? That if we persevere long enough in a disciplined prayer life, we will gradually sense an overwhelming divine presence, even in perceived absence, that the Word will speak in absolute stillness, that God is slowly and gently setting the world and the human heart aright, even when we know nothing about it?

In this holy season of Advent, we dance between the darkness and the light, hope and despair, silence and speech, promise and fulfillment, Christmas and the Second Coming. When you think about it, it is a great place to be.

(Previously published in the December 8th Milwaukee Catholic Herald)


"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." ~Luke 1:35

Can you see the lovely girl
alone in the dark of night?
Fear dwells in her heart
right beside an openness
to His holy will.

The reassuring words come softly
"do not be afraid, you have found favor with God"
She is calmed and the question comes-
"Will you?"
She responds with a fiat
and is overshadowed
by the gentle Spirit of Love.

A mysterious presence
covers her,
enters within her,
and she falls to her knees
in awe and wonder
and joy.

She is overshadowed
and because of her
we will never be the same.
Her yes to His Spirit
has brought glory to our lives,
glory to His name,
glory to forever after.

O Blessed overshadowing
that changed the world for all time
that brought the Prince of Peace
to our hearts and redemption
to our souls,
overshadow us as well!

O Blessed overshadowing
we also say "yes".
Overshadow us all
and fill humanity
with the birth of Your Son
in our hearts!

Like our beautiful mother
before us
we long to be

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lullaby Revisited

My middle son, fifteen-year-old Joe, has fallen ill with the dreaded flu complete with body aches and chills, fever and sore throat. So I've been doting on him more than usual in an effort to nurse him back to health. He asked me for a prayer to bring about immediate health once again, and I suggested to him that although it was good to pray for a restoration to wellness, that doesn't mean that God will quickly bring it about. I offered that maybe it was God's will for him to be sick at this time because he might have been needing extra attention from his mother. At any rate, caring for him brought back this cherished memory, so I offer this repost from two years ago in honor of my beautiful but ailing son...


Well I love my baby sweet and fair
you've got the sky in your eye, the sun in your hair
I rock you to sleep most every night
and sing you this song while I hold you tight

Sleep my baby, the angels keep you from harm
and your Father above
cradles you in his love
safe and warm

Sleep my baby,
nestled in your mama's arms
sleep my baby,
the angels keep you from harm

My baby you'll be sleepin' soon
kissed by the golden stars and moon
I have just one wish for you
may your every dream come true

~Appalachian Lullaby

I don't have any little babies in my household anymore. My last baby is now 8 years old. I am so grateful to be done with the diapers, and the colic, the temper tantrums and the potty training. I do miss the breastfeeding, baby curled up close, skin touching skin, mouth clicking rhythmically as a little drop of milk slips out of the corner of the rosebud mouth while eyes roll dramatically to the back of the head as sleep comes on (often for both baby and me!) That really was my favorite part of mothering so far. I also miss the bedtime stories and the lullabies.

For many years, I had the habit of kneeling beside my children's beds at night and saying the traditional bedtime prayers with my five little ones. But lately, I started to think that maybe they were getting too old to be praying "Now I lay me down to sleep" and "Angel of God" every night. I was thinking that maybe it was time for them to develop their own ways of praying to God with their own words. So, we started an examination of conscience at bedtime and spent a few minutes in silent prayer to thank God for the day and to tell Him that we were sorry for our sins. Before I knew it, I let them take that silent time with God by themselves, and our family bedtime ritual fell by the wayside, as so many honored rituals often do.

Then, a few nights ago, eight year old Mary, who still loves to snuggle in the evening, asked me if I would sing her a lullaby. How could I resist? I sat at the edge of her bed, tucked her up to her sweet chin in her downy quilt, and stroked her face with my finger, just as I did when she was a baby, and I quietly sang her favorite lullaby, soft and low. Soon, her eyelids fluttered one last time, her breathing slowed and sleep overcame her. I left her with a sign of the cross on her forehead and a tender kiss on her cheek.

I began to tiptoe back downstairs, but thirteen-year-old Joe and ten-year-old Jack, listening from their bedroom, stopped me. "Mom, we want a lullaby, too," they told me. "Are you sure?" I asked in disbelief. They nodded emphatically. So, I tucked them both tightly into their beds like I hadn't done in years, and began the song again. I brushed the golden, shaggy hair from their foreheads, and ran my finger across their cheeks and chins. I could see the glimmer of faint smiles come across their faces even though the room was dark. Soon, they also drifted into a pleasant sleep. I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, kissed their sweet cheeks, no longer chubby, but now becoming somewhat chiseled with the strength of adolescence, and sighed my own breath of contentment as I left them in their slumber.

It felt so good to return to those pleasant days that I had thought were long over for me. This morning Joe asked me if I would do it all over again tonight. I told him I wouldn't miss it for the world! I guess you never outgrow those tender moments of love with your children, hearts gently beating with the warm glow of family love, peace overcoming everyone. A lullaby really is a prayer, isn't it? It's like the words of the great St. Augustine when he said that singing is praying twice. My lullaby was both a prayer of longing for a future with God and a prayer of gratitude in remembrance of the love of days gone by. I can't wait until tonight so I can sing a bedtime prayer to my children once again.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Heart is Moved With Pity

Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, VA has written a beautiful Pastoral Letter on the Heart of Christ this past October. The full version of Fountain of Life, Fire of Love, can be read in its entirety here. What follows is the excerpt that I found to be the most profoundly stirring to my own heart. How blessed we are to be held within the Heart of Christ, moved with pity and burning with love for each of us!

"One of the most striking and moving passages in the New Testament, which reveals the tender and compassionate love of God made visible in His Divine Son, comes from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “At the sight of the crowd Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned”(Mt. 9:36 a).

The Sacred Heart of our Lord was moved with pity at the sight of the crowds that came to Him in first century Galilee. He had compassion at the sight of the burdens and wounds that the people carried. The word “troubled” in this passage from the Gospel is a translation of the original Greek word eskulmenoi, which is figurative language originating in a word that denotes skin lacerations or, more literally and graphically, refers to being skinned alive. This dramatic vocabulary does not indicate the physical condition of the people; rather it expresses the profound pain that afflicted them. Our Lord gazed with deep insight and love into each of their hearts as they came to Him. He saw their history of hurt, self-inflicted wounds, self-loathing, and relationships in family and life that caused deep pain and alienation. He saw them helpless, “abandoned,” under the burden of these wounds, and this moved His Heart. Still today our Lord Jesus gazes upon each of us. He knows our every fiber and He sees our very darkest moments and wounds. Jesus sees all and looks upon us with deep loving compassion for our lacerated souls. For we too have the same interior wounds that burdened those people two thousand years ago.

Our Lord’s compassion of Heart for us is not just a sentiment, but an active loving response that heals. As often as Jesus gazes on the people with pity, He heals them (cf. Mt. 14:2). Healing is of the essence of redemption and salvation. Our Lord does not save us in an external way like someone would grab another person and boost them up to a higher place. He transforms interiorly. As part of this transformation, Jesus heals our wounds of failed and disordered loves with His own true intimate steadfast love. As we gaze upon His Sacred Heart, Jesus invites us to come to Him with our heavy burdens and wounds to receive rest and healing. In His wounded Heart, we experience ourselves as loved and our burdens shared. We see its wound and crown of thorns and we know that He has taken up and suffered our pain. We look upon the flames that pour from the top of His Heart with the Cross in their midst, and we recognize that He has conquered our pain and can truly heal us...

...Part of the essence of the healing devotion to the Sacred Heart is believing in and accepting an intimate and amazing love that we could never earn or deserve, and living in the light and joy of that love. In this confidence we have the holy audacity to look at ourselves unflinchingly and bring all of our wounds and failures to the Sacred Heart of Jesus."

Much thanks to Fr. Jim Kubicki, SJ, for sharing this achingly loving document with me!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Seven Quick Takes-Advent Joy

It used to be that waiting was so difficult, but with each passing year, I'm finding this season of anticipation to be filled with joy, so, today's quick takes are all about recent joys in my life. I pray that your Advent is off to a joyful start as well!

1. I often hear people talking about their baptismal dates and I had no clue when I was baptized. So I began looking through the records and found that I was baptized on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Sacred Heart parish in Manitowoc, WI. But what really impressed me was the name of the priest who baptized me: Fr. Claude LeClair! Claude is not a very common name and I was struck by the similarity to St. Claude de la Columbierre-one of my favorite saints for his part in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus! I believe that is a clear sign from God that from the very beginning of my life I was meant to have a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

2. Our dentist is amazing! We first met Dr. Baggott and his wife, Marion, when I was pregnant with John and they were the teachers for our baptism class. Their son is now a dentist as well, and Marion works as the receptionist in their office so the family works together. Their dental skills are amazing but their people skills and their faith are even more amazing. They always let me schedule a group appointment for our whole family which is very convenient, but more than that, they take our faith into account when scheduling appointments. Our next appointment is coming up on December 8th and Marion was sure to mention that they would have us out in time to attend the 7 PM Holy Day Mass for the Immaculate Conception. What other dentist would even realize that December 8th is a Holy Day and care enough to make sure that their patients get to Mass?

3. How are you doing with the Missal changes? I'm loving the new prayers, although not a single daily Mass has gone by where I haven't flubbed the new wording somehow and ended up praying some type of hybrid prayer such as "And also with your spirit!" Last week I beamed with pride as my daughter had the honor of presenting one of the new missals to Fr. Dave for his blessing upon it at the all-school Mass. Although the school children have been well-catechized about the changes (my daughter was even working on memorizing the new creed, mistakenly believing that she was responsible to know it by heart already) I think they could have used a bit more educating about the name "missal". Mary thought that she had been asked to carry a weapon of destruction (missile) to the altar instead of a book of prayer! :)

Today as Jack and Mary and I were seated in the front of church for Mass and I watched Fr. Paul as he paged through the missal, I noticed some colorful artwork inside. I'd love to have an opportunity to page through the book myself someday!

4. The Salzmann Library at St. Francis de Sales Seminary continues to be a great resource for my spiritual education! I had wanted a copy of Fr. Robert Barron's Catholicism, but the price was pretty steep for my pocket book. How wonderful that Kathy and Mark, the librarians, were able to set aside a copy for me so that I could watch it without cost! I highly recommend that you pay a visit to this powerhouse of spiritual materials if you are in the Milwaukee area!

5. Speaking of Catholicism, have you had a chance to watch it yet? It is amazing! I was most touched by the episodes on the Blessed Mother and the saints, yet every episode was equally good! The episode about the saints was especially moving to me because of the particular saints that Fr. Barron highlighted including St. Katherine Drexel and St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). My friend Karinann at Daughter of the King prays for heavenly guidance as she chooses a saint to become a companion to those who desire a year-long friendship with a special saint. Last year Karinann informed me that Edith Stein had chosen to accompany me through 2011 and for 2012 my special heavenly friend will be St. Katherine Drexel. It was a thrill to hear Fr. Barron speak about these two amazing women who are now so spiritually close to me!

If you would like Karinann to ask a saint to accompany you during 2012, just visit her blog and leave her a comment. I'm sure she will be very happy to find a spiritual companion for you!

6. One of my favorite places is St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee, not only because of its historical significance in naturally beautiful surroundings, but also because of the good work that is done there in forming men for the priesthood. Recently a local news channel ran a great story about the seminary featuring two fabulous seminarians, Patrick Burns and Philip Shumaker, as well as Patrick's brother, Fr. John Burns. Although the headline was a bit negative, the men in the story only gleamed positive. Check it out here.

7. Finally, a visit to the Deacon's Bench this morning made me smile! I enjoyed watching this video , Bethlehemian Rhapsody, so much that I re-played for each of my children as they woke this morning and we all started our day with joy. Maybe you'll enjoy it as well

Visit Jennifer Fulwiler's Conversion Diary for more quick takes.