With All Saints Day approaching, I have been thinking about the small “s” saints in my life. My parents, saints Al and Nellie. My friends, saint John the chaplain and saint Joanie the high school counselor. And, of course, my beloved daughter, saint Jenny. All have passed on and yet their presence in my life remains strong. I cherish the image of their inclusion in that huge circle called the Communion of Saints.
These thoughts have underscored a deeper reflection about love. I just googled the word and 4,800,000,000 results popped up! So, we obviously are not short of references to and fascination with the concept of love. As a virtue, it tops the list. “So, faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1Corinthians 13:13). In the Scripture God is love (1John 4:8), and the simple command of Jesus is to love each other as he loves us (John 13:34).
So, when I ponder the lives of the saints, especially those who have graced my life, I am given greater insight into what love means in its different forms. Jenny introduced me to parental love – that deep devotion that changed me forever. Losing her at the age of a year brought me face to face with the riskiness of giving ourselves wholeheartedly to another in love, as well as with the absolute joy in doing so. My friends, John and Joanie, bring to mind the beauty of friendship that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, is “the happiest and most fully human” of all loves. Our friendship was sealed in a group we called “Home Church” and brought us together for food and conversation on a monthly basis. Dying, as they did, on the same day and yet hundreds of miles apart, only intensifies my awe at the deep mystery of human connection that is bound together in love.
Then there is the love that my parents experienced for over sixty years. I knew only part of what they shared together over that time. My father never stopped calling my mother his “bride”, and their commitment to one another remained steadfast until the end. Marital love forms the basis for understanding the covenant God forms with humans in the Old Testament. It entails long-lasting dedication and commitment, one vacillating between vexation and tenderness as the promises for lifelong love are carried out. What may begin as eros, that passionate, breathless form of love, mellows over time into something deeper and richer. At its fullest, love ripens into agape – perfect love that brings us into communion with God and with all of God’s holy ones. The circle is then complete.
I am not quite sure how it happened, but I ended up directing three retreats within the span of one week. It began with a day-long session with a mothers’ group here in Denver, progressed to an overnight retreat for Catholic school principals in Belleville, Illinois, and will culminate with a parish retreat in the beauty of the Colorado foothills this weekend. Even though the themes for all three are different, I see common threads running through all of them. The first is the perpetual need for people to retreat from the busyness of their lives and daily routines in order to embrace sustained time for quiet, prayer, and communing with others. The other is the importance of coming in touch with their own souls through prayerful reflection, immersion into Scripture, and an encounter with nature.
The latter seems to be more fleeting these days than even the rare moments of quiet and rest. Conversations with the principals revealed how technological tools are becoming the norm in schools these days. The advantages are multiple, to be sure, but there seems to be an eroding sense of the tangible in the process. Tablets are replacing books, and emails and texts substituting for handwritten letters. I am not opposed to any of these, but it does give me pause. Being raised in a sacramental church, I know the critical importance of sensate experiences – the smell of holy oil and incense, the touch of water and taste of Eucharistic food, the sound of bells and sight of candlelight. All of these can be manufactured through digital means, in some form or other, but there is no way a virtual world will replace the actual one.
Perhaps this is on my mind because of the recent floods that have ripped away so many tangible things from the lives of my fellow Coloradoans. In the news stories of those whose homes were destroyed or irreparably damaged, I never heard anyone lament the loss of a tablet or computer as something with sentimental value. Instead there was heartbreak over missing photographs and Christmas ornaments, of wedding dresses and children’s drawings.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose feast we celebrate on October 1st, noted the importance of staying in touch with “holy things” – those tools for the spiritual life that bring us deeper intimacy with God. It seems like the mementoes we cherish in our lives are things we make holy through associations and memory. We store them in attics and basements and they have little or no meaning to anyone else. Nevertheless, they tell stories of grace and fidelity and of a precious connection with loved ones. They remind us that we belong to one another. Therese knew this well. She lived a short life, but was intimately connected during those years with her family and then with her religious community. Her life reminds us that the human community is the most tangible way to see, feel, hear, taste, and be the Body of Christ.
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“Lovely Lady, dressed in blue…” I sang this lyric every spring with my classmates as we festooned with flowers the statue of Mary during the annual May crowning at my high school. This annual ritual was a sweet way to honor Mary, if a bit sentimental. Her portrait in the Bible is quite different. She appears infrequently in the Gospels, but when she does, the scenes are powerful and poignant. As the only person to know Jesus from his birth to his death, Mary offers a unique view of his humanity and a model of discipleship that we strive to emulate today.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I began to appreciate the complexities of her story. It was then that I saw her, not as a lovely lady in blue, but as a flesh-and-blood figure who experienced an astounding transformation over the course of her life. No wonder that women have turned to her over the centuries for comfort and understanding as they struggle with concerns ranging from the routine to the radical.
We often refer to Mary’s “yes” in the account of the Annunciation as the doorway to redemption. She cooperates with the Divine Plan, thus becoming a critical part of the Incarnational event – God become flesh. Her open-heartedness is all the more touching when one recalls that she was just a young girl – perhaps only thirteen – when she received startling news from an angel. Nevertheless, her prayer of praise for a God who has demanded more than she could imagine, is a model of faith and trust. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46-47). The exuberance in the prayer we call “the Magnificat” is truly an example of her abiding love for God and respect for his Divine Power.
My friend, Father William McNichols, captured her maturation beautifully in an article called “Mary’s Fiat”. “She is a wide-eyed child, spellbound by the apparition of an angel, or a little slip of a girl with a baby almost too big for her arms…A frightened teen-ager being led away from the violence and mayhem in the middle of the night… A frantic mother of a lost child… The perceptive woman who quietly nudges her son out of the nest and into his ministry… The Mater Dolorosa…[who] cradles, once again, her naked child in poverty…” (Jesuit Bulletin. Spring/Fall 1984. Used with permission). Mothers across miles and millennia can relate to the mixture of joy and sorrow, confusion and clarity, anguish and exhilaration that comes with giving birth to and raising a child.
Perhaps my favorite image of Mary is at Pentecost. I picture her sitting amidst the disciples with a wizened and yet expansive heart. She alone knows the experience of the Holy Spirit first-hand, so perhaps she doesn’t flinch in the midst of wind and flame. Does she recall the first time she knew the workings of the Spirit in her life? Does she reflect back on the twists and turns of her wondrous story? And does the same prayer rise to her lips as she recalls once more the “mighty things” her God has, indeed, done for her?
Pope Francis caught the attention of the world this week for more than all of his “firsts” – first Latin American pope, first Jesuit pope, etc. After the surprising announcement of his election, he reversed the usual greeting on the papal balcony by asking for the prayers of the people. He rode a bus back to his hotel, packed his own bags, and paid his bill before returning to the Vatican to take on the mantle of leadership for the entire Roman Catholic Church. At a time when hedonism has risen to new heights, this gentle shepherd’s humility is a cleansing breath of air.
It brings to mind the stunning scenario in John’s gospel when Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, stoops to the floor and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. Peter’s flustered reaction is understandable. How could his Lord assume such a degrading and humbling task? In doing so, Jesus explains, he is teaching his disciples – and us – a vital lesson. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did for you (John 13:15). I don’t know that Pope Francis was intentionally trying to set a similar example, but the point is well taken.
I watched a heart-wrenching documentary recently about five families struggling to live what we have come to call “the American dream.” In truth, it was simply about survival. One family was struggling to have the gas and electricity in their house restored after suffering a financial setback. A single mother wept as she described the $49,000 bill she has to pay for her young daughter’s unexpected surgery. Another mother and her son were shown shivering in the dark as they waited for the doors of a homeless shelter to open. The mother tried to keep her son’s spirits up as she promised better days ahead, even though it was clear she knew this was a pipe-dream. As the program continued, commentators spoke about the critical needs that are ramping up among the poor and the disturbing way in which we tend to demonize those who, out of desperation, turn to public assistance. Dubbing them “leeches” and slackers, we have forgotten the vital words of Jesus that we are to serve and care for each other, no matter what the needs or costs.
In the homily delivered at his inauguration Mass, Pope Francis said, “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.” As Holy Week approaches, it is a significant reminder to follow the example set by Jesus as he stooped to take on his humble task. Might we do the same, in whatever way we can, in order to bring to life his dream of a world bound together in compassion and mercy?
Download free prayer cards with the Prayer of St. Francis to share with your students, families, and community.
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On March 19th, we celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. Joseph obeyed God, even when he did not understand what was being asked of him. Strong in faith and believing that God would protect him; Joseph, in turn, protected and cared for Mary and Jesus.
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Six years ago I took off on a two-week visit to Ireland with my son, Eric. Ours was a counterpoint to the trek my husband, Ron, was about to take with our daughter, Anna. Eric and I figured that, while they were climbing to unbelievable altitudes in the Himalayas, we would be ambling from one peaceful spot to another. We were not disappointed. As we visited lyrical-sounding sites like Glendalough and the Ring of Kerry, we found ourselves slowing down as the trip progressed. One of our most memorable stops was the Rock of Cashel. According to tradition, this is where Saint Patrick converted Aenghus, the King of Munster, in the 5th century AD. On the afternoon of our visit, we sauntered among the ruins and then sat on the grass in one of those rare moments of Irish sunshine as the tourists came and went behind us.
Patrick is one of three patron saints of Ireland. He stands alongside two others – Columba and Brigit. This holy trio exemplifies the rich beauty of Celtic spirituality. It is one characterized by a reverence for God’s creation, love of learning, honoring of silence and solitude, and the embracing of a missionary spirit. I have a particular fondness for Brigit because she served as a “soul friend” to many. In some ways, she may be considered the mother of spiritual direction as others sought her out for her wisdom and insight.
As I look back on it, our amble through the Irish countryside was a way of living out Celtic spirituality. Time slowed down to the degree that we were able to while away an entire afternoon just watching the clouds drift by. I wish I could say I have retained that mindset since our return from the Emerald Isle but my schedule quickly resumed its fast pace. When I want to retreat a little from present-day realities, however, I call upon those sweet days with my son. In doing so, I draw upon the example of long-ago saints to Jesus’ lovely invitation: “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
Read about the life and times of Saint Brigid and download a Saint Patrick’s prayer to use with your class or family as his feast day approaches.
Download my Come Away Reflection and use it to practice a bit of Celtic spirituality in your home or parish.
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The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) is an opportunity to re-read the account of this miraculous story and to consider the needs of the poor. It begins with a simple man named Juan Diego who, while walking the long distance to church in Mexico City, hears sweet music that brings him to a standstill. He follows the heavenly voice to the top of a hill where he encounters a beautiful lady who tells him she is Mary, Mother of Christ. She instructs him to go to the local bishop and to pass along her directive to build a church on that spot. Needless to say, the bishop isn’t about to take building orders from a mere peasant. He dismisses Juan Diego who returns to the hill to relate the news to the beautiful woman. To satisfy the bishop’s request for a sign, Mary fills Juan Diego’s tilma with roses. Upon being presented to the bishop, the tilma not only yields flowers but an image of Mary in resplendent color.
There is much more to the story, but what always captures my attention is the way Mary speaks to Juan Diego in his own language as well as her expressed desire to show “love, compassion, help, and protection” for all people. Coming as it does in the season of Advent, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us to consider how God’s work is being done in the midst of our lives and on behalf of everyone, rich and poor alike.
As patroness of Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s stance with and for the poor is as touching today as it was in the 16th century. Several years ago my husband, Ron, spent a week with other volunteers building a home for an impoverished family in Juarez. He returned with a changed heart, chastened by the plentitude in our own lives compared with the people who gratefully moved from a cardboard abode to a one-room cinderblock house. It was, admittedly, a small effort in world awash with human need. Nevertheless, might we all be a bit more attuned to the music in our lives that beckons us to be compassionate, caring, and generous? The miracle of Guadalupe can be more than a long-ago story. It can also be a call to listen, to act, and to have faith.
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Honoring Mary Around the World is a a full multigenerational event from Gather In My Name that help participants:
Learn how the Church honors Mary through prayer, pilgrimages, and the celebration of feast days.
Appreciate how Mary is honored around the world and in various cultures through art, prayer, devotions, and pilgrimages made to Marian shrines.
Identify ways that Mary, through her life and faith, serves as a model for discipleship.
Learn more about the Honoring Mary Around the World parish event group options, handouts, team prayer, and more!
The candy cane is a treat often associated with Saint Nicholas, the patron and protector of children. Its distinctive shape is attributed to a 17th century German choirmaster, who bent the candy into the form of a shepherd’s staff and gave it to children attending church services. The crook symbolizes the gentle image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. As shepherd of his people, a bishop carries a hook-shaped staff called a crosier. Since Saint Nicholas was also a bishop, the candy cane serves as a perfect symbol for this patron and protector of children.
Download your Saint Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes prayer cards today!
*Download includes both English & Spanish translations