A 90-year-old man was arrested recently in Fort Lauderdale. His crime: feeding the homeless. It sounds like a joke, but it’s altogether true. The town passed an ordinance restricting the feeding of homeless people in public areas. Fort Lauderdale is not the only community with such laws. As cities and towns grapple with ways to safeguard neighborhoods, such restrictions are becoming more commonplace.
One argument in favor of these laws is that feeding the homeless only creates a further state of dependency. The practice might also serve as a panacea for those who would rather not look more deeply into the systemic causes of homelessness and other forms of poverty. This makes such measures a call for justice rather than charity.
As Christians, this isn’t an either-or question; it’s both-and. While the search for solutions to homelessness must be part of our response, charity cannot be put aside. The Gospels are crystal-clear on this matter. The words of Jesus about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) describe the importance of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothes to the needy, and welcome to stranger and the prisoner. No talk of long-range studies; simply extending a hand to those in need. The great scholar and teacher, Saint John Bellarmine, put it this way: “On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.”
I don’t think Jesus or John Bellarmine would argue with the need for systemic solutions to the pain of poverty and homelessness. In the meantime, however, the way in which we reach out to one another with a plate of food, glass of water, or comforting words still matters. With the approach of Thanksgiving, I hope the bans on feeding the homeless are not only relaxed, but also re-examined. The mandate of charity is clear.
Read about the life of Saint Vincent DePaul, a great model of charity and compassion and use the activities with your class or family.
Download a Prayer for Charity and share it in your home or parish.
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On Thanksgiving, families and friends gather to share a meal packed with tradition. This often includes a prayer of blessing or, at least, a naming of gifts for which each person is grateful. For a brief moment, we have an opportunity to consider what we have – here and now – and to recognize that it is enough.
When we pause to consider how we have been blessed, we cultivate a mindfulness of grace as the outpouring of God’s love. Done on a regular basis, the practice of gratitude slowly works its way into our spiritual core and shifts the way we perceive the world around us. Instead of wanting more, we become content with what is right before us. Over time, a grateful heart becomes softer and more compassionate. Gratitude spawns generosity. When we know we have been blessed, we are drawn to sharing our bounty with others.
Thus it makes sense to practice grace-giving around a Thanksgiving table laden with delicious food. Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast notes that we honor God “…by honoring God’s gifts, by cultivating and refining what we’re given and passing it onto others” (Music of Silence, page 62). This can make the day after Thanksgiving a new beginning of sorts. After being well-fed, we then reach out to those who are starving for food and resources, for warmth and shelter, for a kind word and a consoling presence. In such a way, our thanks-giving becomes a grace to share with others, thus creating a table of blessing at which all are welcome.
Download a Prayer of Grace Before Meals Prayer Card now.
We bought a new phone the other day and it took us all evening to set it up. What used to be a simple task—plugging the unit into a phone jack—now entails selecting ringer tones, speed dial numbers, memory banks, and caller ID options. The operation booklet is sixty-five pages and we still haven’t gotten to the section about the answering machine.
For a spiritual direction class, I was once assigned reading about the "demon of busyness." It described how being "on call" at all times, through e-mail, texts, tweets, and posts, is increasing feelings of stress and overload within our culture. If it takes several hours just to hook up these devices, it's no wonder the busyness demon has possessed so many of us.
In Tahiti, the natives describe a condition that ranks on the other end of this spectrum. They call it fiu (appropriately pronounced "phew")—a state of boredom, blankness, and extreme weariness. Paul Gauguin captured some of it in his paintings of Tahitian women. Their faces reveal an ennui that comes from living on a hot and humid island with little to do and even less motivation to do it. The state of fiu is hardly consoling. After all, if we can't escape the demon of busyness by heading for Tahiti, what hope is there?
Where is the balance between these two extremes? The answer to this question bubbled slowly to mind even though it has been posted in our kitchen for weeks. A friend gave us an inspirational calendar last Christmas and this month's message is only now starting to sink in: "The Sabbath mind rests in God and trusts in God for tomorrow." Sabbath—that old, old word. We are supposed to keep it holy, not on rare occasions, but each and every week. In Jesus' day there was a lot of equivocating about what such holy non-activity entailed. He was challenged constantly. Was it right to heal someone on the Sabbath? Wasn't it illegal for his disciples to pick pieces of grain on the Sabbath? Jesus' response was clear and filled with common, sacred sense. We aren't made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath is made for us (Mark 2:27).
The word itself denotes rest. Not falling down in an exhausted heap after a week's worth of busyness, but true rest. Along with the physical break, we also need a mental one. Cultivating a Sabbath mind, however, may be the biggest challenge of all. Being forever busy churns up a cauldron of agitation—the antithesis of Sabbath. To rest is like sinking into deep water where surface storms can no longer distress us. Rather than drowning in ennui that sucks the life out of us, we can breathe, relax, let go, and trust that God will indeed take care of all of our tomorrows.
There is a terrific feature on our new phone called DND. It's one I need to utilize on a regular basis as a way to remain faithful to Sabbath holiness. Whether I enable the feature on my phone or in my mind, the message is the same: Do not disturb. I'm resting.
Engage your family or class in a discussion about the times in which it is important to disconnect – from electronic devices or an overabundance of activity. Talk about ways to create Sabbath time in your lives.
As Veteran’s Day approaches take time to remember those who have given so generously of their lives by praying for veterans and all of those who have sacrificed for others.
Late at night, when assailed by worries and fears, I draw them around me and call them by name. Michael. Mary Alice. Carl. Marie. James. Jacquie. The list goes on – my own personal “circle of saints” to whom I turn for comfort and consolation. My parents are part of the litany along with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and, of course, my beloved daughter, Jenny. My two good friends, John and Joanie, who, while hundreds of miles apart died within hours of each other, are also part of the circle. Their passing was made a bit easier for me by this mystical connection, almost as if they decided to accompany one another into the next life. Remembering each person and drawing hope from the life they share far beyond my comprehension eases my anxieties and places my fears in perspective.
I used to pore over stories of the saints as a child. I inherited a set of booklets called The Little Lives of the Saints from my older sisters. From them I learned rudimentary tales of such celestial giants as Catherine of Siena and John of the Cross. It was later in life that I began to appreciate the feast of All Saints – that great celebration on November 1st of “…all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 871) My knowledge of the saints began to read less like legends from time past and more like up-close and personal stories of friends and family.
Such a notion has brought heaven and earth closer together, something those steeped in Celtic spirituality know well. In his book, Anam Cara, the late John O’Donohue laments the way we have “spatialized” the eternal world. Doing so places the saints far away rather than in our midst. “…You can sense the presence of those you love who have died,” he writes. “You feel that they are near.” No wonder “thin places” are those experiences where, according to Celtic wisdom, that sense grows sharper and more profound. Perhaps that is why the Church has wisely designated a special day to not only celebrate but also to hone our spiritual senses. In doing so our own circle of saints grows larger and more exquisite, spiraling ever outward to include those role models of faith from faraway times and the more immanent reality of those here among us.
Follow the Lives of the Saints throughout the year and find activities for your family or class. Use these stories to initiate discussion about the circle of saints in your lives.
Download my Prayer for All Saints and use it in your parish or home.
I don’t know the reason for it but I recently spent a morning feeling impatient with everyone and everything. The drivers going a few miles below the speed limit. The woman taking way too much time to make her deposit at the bank. A computer that took forever to download a document. It’s not like I had anywhere vital to be. I was simply feeling impatient.
My work in spiritual direction has taught me to listen to these kinds of emotions rather than pushing them aside. What I discovered was, while I was not exactly dreading a commitment later that day, I really wanted it to be over. In essence, I was anxious to get the present moment out of the way and then found myself bristling with irritation at the one that followed. It led to a chain of exasperation that kept me agitated for the entire morning.
I recently read an article about a social study on the value of patience. Participants were asked to choose between a small but immediate reward and waiting several weeks for a larger one. Not surprisingly, most of them chose the former. Those who delayed gratification treasured their reward more highly than those who opted for immediate results. This was true even when the rewards turned out to be identical. The study affirmed how the act of waiting reaped other “hidden treasures” – self-control, willpower, anticipation, and gratitude.
There are different ways to wait, of course. My own restless, anxious, frustrated kind only brought about more angst. Type the word “wait” into a biblical web site and over 100 results pop up. Twenty-two of them have to do with “waiting for the Lord.” One of the most striking is Psalm 40:1: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” The psalmist is describing the kind of waiting that produces the same results affirmed in the social study. Our inner cries are heard, our restlessness quelled, our appreciation of the moment amplified.
It took a while but the lesson I needed to learn about patience eventually registered. I was rewarded with a bit of insight into the cause of my impatience and an openness to waiting upon God’s good timing. Needless to say, the remainder of my day proceeded much more happily.
A striking example of patience is Saint Rose Phillipine Duschene who had to wait many years to realize her dream of becoming a missionary in America. Read about her life and use the activities to initiate a discussion about patience in your family or class.
Download my Prayer for Patience and use it in your parish or home.
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A flight attendant recognized me on a recent trip, noting how I always board the plane with a book in hand. I suppose I stand out because I spend time with a printed text rather than an electronic device. The fact that I have been on a plane an average of twice a week for the past month also indicates my heavy travel schedule these days. It truly qualifies me as a “road warrior.”
In truth, the traveling is more gift than anything. As my brother, Larry, once pointed out, my job is to talk and travel. How cool is that? Over the past six weeks I have journeyed from the prairies of Nebraska to the mountains of Colorado, from one coast to another, from the steamy warmth of New Orleans to the dry air of Palm Springs. Autumn colors have been in abundance as have sights of ocean, mountain, forest and desert. The landscapes of this vast country are truly a wonder to behold.
My father loved to travel. He considered it the best form of education and was known on occasion to pull us out of school in order to take a trip that fit his schedule. One of our most cherished family memories was a lengthy road trip from Colorado to New York, with stops in Yellowstone and a visit with relatives in St. Louis. In the days before handheld devices, we were entertained by viewing the sights along the way, singing songs (“99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" was a favorite), and reading. Perhaps that’s why I still travel with a book.
My current travels are not for sightseeing, however, but to speak to groups of catechists, teachers, parents, and pastoral ministers. I inevitably leave a place feeling richly blessed by the degree of dedication to ministry I see exemplified in those who are part of each gathering. Instead of picking up souvenirs, I collect stories. They tell about the inspiration as well as the challenge these generous people experience as they pass along the faith in parishes and schools, in homes and in the workplace. They are stories of hope and trust and, most of all, of love. When I feel a bit road-weary, they give me the impetus to pack my bags and set out once again. There is always more to see, more to discover, and more to appreciate with each and every trip.
Initiate a family or class discussion about a favorite trip you have taken alone or with others? What wondrous sights and sounds did you experience along the way?.
Download my Prayer for Travelers and use it in your parish or home.
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I almost missed it on my drive through the neighborhood. The tiny maple tree is usually dwarfed by its majestic neighbors – tall, stately pines that look down upon it like haughty aunts. On this particular afternoon, it was the little tree’s time to shine. Its leaves, tinted gold and fringed with scarlet, seemed to shiver with the sheer joy of living. Light glowed from it, making all of the surrounding trees appear dowdy by comparison. It caught my eye in the instant I sped past it, and served as a moment to savor for the rest of the day.
Here in Colorado, autumn has caught our attention. From the friendly receptionist in the doctor’s office to the courteous clerk who bags my groceries, everyone seems eager to comment about these gorgeous fall days. Talk of brilliant blue skies, idyllic temperatures, and the autumnal hues that have colored everything from the scrub oak to the pussy willows has overshadowed other, more stunted conversation. Political campaigns pale in comparison to the glories of these dazzling days. Autumn is making us more amenable to one another as well as to our surroundings.
Our consciousness may be on high alert because of the short-lived nature of the season. Any day now a frost could, if not eliminate the color, at least dull it. Autumn in Colorado is fleeting. Some years, it lasts a day or a week before a snowstorm freezes its progression or a windstorm strips the trees. As a result, we take what comes on a day-to-day basis, grateful for each luminous moment.
On the morning of my encounter with the little tree, I read a poem about trees in autumn. It described how they shed their foliage in an act of surrender that speaks of faith and the audacious hope of a faraway spring. If lifted me out of my daily round of angst over insignificant matters. Maybe the poem also accounted for the attentiveness that accompanied me on my drive out of the neighborhood. Instead of being caught up in a web of thoughts, I was aware and could thus spot a little tree having its moment in the sun.
The little tree also offered a deeper appreciation for life’s other fleeting experiences and an openness to what each might hold. Even those that last beyond a moment - extending into hours, days, weeks, months, or even years - can, in retrospect, be considered fleeting. I think of the summer I spent on crutches after foot surgery. At the time, my restricted movement and slow healing process seemed interminable. Looking back, I recognize it as a summer of rest and resourcefulness. In the big picture of my life, it is just a blip.
The ancient prophet writes, “Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). I find this heartening. All things pass in time. In the meantime, the best we can do is look around, pay attention, and grab each opportunity to embrace our moment in the sun.
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I don’t think I ever met anyone who longed for a more complicated life. Between the continual battle with “stuff” piled up in attics, closets, and basements, and the clutter in our minds and on our calendars, the longing for a simpler life runs deep and wide. No wonder Francis of Assisi remains one of our most popular saints. His bold decision to strip away the extraneous parts of his life resonates among those feeling mired in details, overload, and cultural messages urging us to have and do more. This isn’t to say the life of Saint Francis was a bed of roses. Quite the contrary. Nevertheless, his model of simplicity, one passed along through the practice of Franciscan spirituality, has much to offer our over-saturated society.
While not nearly as radical, my husband, Ron, and I did our own purge a few years ago in preparation for a year-long road trip. It took three months to sort through everything we owned and jettison anything we hadn’t looked at, valued, or figured into our future. Over that period we probably got rid of a third of our belongings. We put most of it in storage and then packed our car for the trip. At first it seemed like we were traveling with the bare minimum. After a couple of months, however, I began to wonder why we were carting around so much stuff.
The Reverend Billy Graham once said he never saw a hearse pulling a U-Haul. What a delightful reminder of the futility of grasping at things. Saints like Francis got a jump on end-of-life simplicity by choosing to travel lightly. This, of course, isn’t just about material things; those are easy enough to relinquish in the end. It’s the emotional burdens – the grudges, resentment, regrets, opinions, and all manner of dissatisfaction which will only weigh us down as we age. Once again Francis serves as both model and guide. His lovely “Hymn to Creation” is an example of taking simple pleasure in the moment and giving praise to God for all that is rather than what was or what ought to be. When caught up in gratitude, all reasons to moan and groan melt away. It’s the grateful person who is often able to understand the true meaning of simplicity. Whether living in a mansion or a monastery, these are the ones who are able to take everything as gift, to embrace the now, and to let nothing but God’s breath carry them forward.
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Family: “…an intimate community of persons bound together by bIood, marriage, or adoption for the whole of life.” (A Family Perspective in Church and Society, United States Catholic Conference of Bishops)
I first read this definition of family when the U.S. Bishops’ document was released in 1988. I have referred to it many times since then in talks and articles about the reality of family. I like the broadened understanding of family in the definition because “blood, marriage, and adoption” encompasses all sorts of domestic relationships: married, never-married, widowed, divorced, or separated; parents and non-parents; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other extended family members; blended families, stepparents and adopted children. It’s a huge mix.
Perhaps my favorite part of the definition, however, is the “bound together” line. It brings to mind Erma Bombeck’s delightful title of one of her books: Family - The Ties that Bind… and Gag! Bombeck had a tremendous wit and a realistic view of family that was never snarky or mean. It simply acknowledged the messiness of familial ties. We have only to turn to the Bible for affirmation of that fact. Some of the stories in the Old Testament are enough to make even the most dysfunctional among us relook at our own situation with relief.
In the New Testament, we have the Holy Family. While paintings often portray them as placid figures, the brief accounts of their life paints a much different picture. Angels appear unexpectedly, visitors both scruffy and exotic show up unannounced, and the family flees across the border to escape the violent acts of a paranoid king. As a mother, I have long been grateful that they are called the holy family and not the perfect one. This makes them more relatable as role models. Saint Therese of Lisieux describes holiness as “… simply doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be.” Mary and Joseph exemplify this by their readiness to take part in a plan that must have perplexed them at times. Luke’s description of Mary “pondering these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51) speaks to the unfolding understanding that comes with the parental territory.
I noticed that one of the family saints listed for the upcoming World Meeting of Families is Mary, Undoer of Knots. What a wonderful figure to turn to in prayer when we feel our own family ties entangling us in anxiety, fear, or confusion. It affirms how the only way to stay bound together in love is by opening ourselves to the wondrous workings of God.
“Twelve Years a Slave” was on television recently and I found it no easier to watch the second time around. The same heartache enveloped me as scenes of brutality, suffering, and massive injustice unfolded in slow but steady fashion throughout the film. This time I was struck most deeply, however, by the plaintive cry of Patsy, the slave lusted after by her master and despised by his wife. Her desperation grows so intense that she begs Solomon, the free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, to take her life. “I ain’t got no comfort,” she cries.
A few weeks ago I heard a presentation by Jerry Straub, a former Hollywood producer who now devotes his energy and skills to making films about global poverty. It was a sobering look at the millions of people who are without comfort as they scrounge through garbage dumps for scraps of food, seek basic health care, and struggle to survive in rat-infested hovels. After his presentation, I confess to suffering a bit of compassion fatigue. How, I wondered, do we even begin to address the magnitude of the problem? How do we bring comfort to masses of people who lack the most basic necessities for life?
A partial response might lie in the practice of empathy, something Jesus displayed each time he encountered those in pain. When healing people who were ill or infirm, he often reached out to touch the person and thus convey a sense of compassion and warmth. He didn’t shame the woman who others wanted stoned to death for her act of adultery, but instead told her to go and “sin no more” (John 8:11). Surrounded by crowds wanting to be healed in body and spirit, his heart was “moved with pity” because he understood how lost and abandoned they were, “…like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). His capacity to feel for and with others made Jesus a masterful healer
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul’s analogy of the human body describes empathy in beautiful fashion. When one hurts, all hurt; when one rejoices, we all rejoice. By understanding that we are all in need of both human touch and Divine grace, we bring comfort in one-by-one fashion and thus participate in the healing of our broken and sorrowful world.
Choose a passage from the Gospel in which Jesus heals someone and discuss it with your family or class. How does the way in which Jesus brings comfort to others inspire you to do the same?
Download my Prayer for Empathy and share it in your home or parish.
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