St. Anastasia’s Food Pantry

This past Thursday, the good deacon and I visited St. Anastasia’s Food Pantry. I think about both of the food pantries which our parish supports every time I come across the yellow Sharing Envelope in our box of envelopes. I pray often for the numerous needy people who get by only because of the food the pantries offer. They come to mind when I see a beggar on the street or a dilapidated building that serves as someone’s home. They come to mind in the face of media coverage regarding poverty that is far closer to home than we sometimes realize. Still, in spite of this ongoing awareness, my eyes -and my heart- filled up as Mike and I made our way down the stairs into St. Anastasia’s Food Pantry that day.

A man on his way in to pick up groceries held open the door for Mike and me. He responded to our thanks with a cheery, “Have a good day!” As we descended the steps, a smiling woman told her companion, “I got a roast beef! We’re going to have a good dinner tonight.” Whatever troubles brought her to the food pantry faded in the generosity that turned her day around. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, a fellow parishioner from St. Paul’s welcomed us. “You’ve come to visit!” she observed with a grand smile. As Mike and I made our way back to see Kay Jansen, the Volunteer Food Pantry Director, we encountered numerous “shoppers” as they visited various tables to select the groceries they needed for the coming week. We also encountered six more volunteers who are members of our parish family.

I admit that I had a tough time keeping my tears in place during this visit. The people who’d come to the food pantry bore amazingly grateful smiles in spite of the tough times they’d face when they left. The people who served them met each one with the graciousness that once characterized a purchase at Marshall Field’s. When Mike and I spoke with Kay, she turned her eyes heavenward and acknowledged that most of the food pantry’s volunteers come from St. Paul the Apostle Parish. Kay added, “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without St. Paul’s support.”

Mike and I didn’t leave the food pantry empty handed. Though we took none of the food so carefully prepared and displayed for the clients, we left filled-up just the same. Our spirits soared in this grand gathering of God’s children where some assumed the role of servant while others humbly accepted the nurturing offered to them. In the end, each one enjoyed the good company and comfort of God’s family. In spite of the trials and tribulations of the rest of the world, St. Anastasia’s church hall became a microcosm of God’s Kingdom last Thursday morning as it does every time the food pantry opens its doors.

It seems to me that Jesus spent his time among us revealing a precise rendering of God’s Kingdom. Jesus welcomed everyone into his company and he offered each one a place at God’s table. Jesus provided for the needs of those around him, both spiritual and temporal. A wonderful example of Jesus’ keen insight into God’s Kingdom and our need to be counted among God’s children comes in today’s gospel (John 9:1-41). John tells us that Jesus encountered a blind man as he walked along with his followers. When the disciples realized the man’s infirmity, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus quickly responded, “Neither he nor his parents sinned. It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me…” Then, Jesus turned to the man, covered his eyes with a bit of mud, and sent him off to wash. This poor fellow had been ostracized from his community long enough because of the imagined sin associated with his blindness. Jesus didn’t allow him to be the outcast another moment.

It seems to me that the good volunteers who serve at St. Anastasia’s Food Pantry have accepted Jesus’ call to do the work of the One who sent us. What is more remarkable is that the people served leave as content with God’s love as the man who was once blind in spite of the judgment that others might impose upon them. You know, none of us can change the world alone. Yet each of us can make a world a difference to those we’ve been given to love simply by taking notice along the way, just as Jesus did.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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First Week of Spring

Travel back in time with me… It was almost 10:30 when I climbed the stairs to turn in for the night. Mike had gone to bed before me as he had an early meeting the next morning. An evening spent calling my students’ parents had exhausted me, and I was more than ready for sleep. As I rested my foot on the fourth stair, the phone rang. I hopped over the three stairs beneath me to grab the phone before its second ring. Hopefully, Mike and our five-year-old son would sleep through the clamor. “Hello,” I said somewhat gingerly, hoping all the while that this poorly timed call wasn’t bringing bad news our way. My caller wasted no time in demanding, “What did you call my house for?” I replied that she must have the wrong number as I hadn’t called anyone I didn’t know that evening. “I have your number right here. What did you call me for?”

Suddenly, it occurred to me that Kinnie’s mom wasn’t home when I called her earlier. She was the only parent whom I couldn’t reach. Not wishing to annoy this poor woman any further, I asked, “Are you Kinnie’s mom?” That did it! I had to pull my ear from the phone as she screamed, “Who are you to be calling about my little girl. Who are you???” I prayed for peace as I continued, “I’m Mrs. Penich, Kinnie’s reading teacher.” After a short silence, Kinnie’s mom continued, “Yes, I met you at Kinnie’s school. What did Kinnie do now?” For the next five minutes, I explained that Kinnie had evolved into a great little reader. She read fluently and she remembered every detail of the stories she read. Kinnie had also blossomed as a writer. Our onetime single sentence stories had doubled in length and complexity. Before I’d finished to report all that I wanted to share, I stopped. Kinnie’s mom was crying. “I’m so sorry,” I said. I thought you’d be happy to hear this wonderful news…”

After calming herself, Kinnie’s mom explained that she hadn’t heard a positive comment regarding her daughter since Kinnie entered kindergarten the year before. When Kinnie was selected to receive reading assistance, the poor woman fully expected her daughter to repeat first grade and the same sad cycle of failure she’d experienced a generation earlier. When I assured her that I had nothing but respect for Kinnie’s hard work and amazing progress, the woman cried some more. This time, I could hear the smile behind the tears as she apologized for her rudeness earlier in our conversation. She went on to thank me and to promise that she’d be certain to listen to Kinnie read every night before she put her daughter to bed. Kinnie’s mom made good on her promise, and Kinnie completed her work with me much sooner than expected. Kinnie excelled in her classroom, too. By Valentine’s Day, when she passed me with a tray filled with cupcakes, Kinnie’s mom had become a regular at school for the best of reasons.

Kinnie’s academic troubles labeled her an outcast far too early in her schooling. Kinnie’s mom lived the results of her own failure every day. Nonetheless, a single phone call changed everything. The truth is that I didn’t do anything extraordinary for this little family. I taught Kinnie as best I could. I kept her parent informed as best I could. When I heard the hopelessness in Kinnie’s mom’s voice, I followed through as best I could. I simply did my job…

When he met the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus didn’t perform any dramatic miracles either. He simply struck up a conversation –yes, one that was off limits in his culture– and he listened. The Samaritan Woman’s attitude conveyed something other than a content and peace-filled life. Jesus responded to what he heard by offering this woman all that she needed to find true joy and fulfillment. Jesus didn’t lecture this woman on her failed marriages nor did he lecture her on her attitude. Jesus simply asked that she open herself up to the waters of eternal life. This simple conversation so filled the woman with hope that she spread Jesus’ good news throughout her town. Many turned to Jesus because this one-time outcast pointed them in Jesus’ direction. My guess is that Kinnie and her mom have done the same for many who’ve crossed their paths. Today, Jesus invites you and me to respond to our sisters and brothers near and far in kind, especially when life’s trials or our own imperfections urge us to walk in the opposite direction.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

St. Patrick

While in high school, I held an “alto” position in Special Chorus. Though I thoroughly enjoyed singing and the exposure to pieces I’d never otherwise have learned, it was our director’s demeanor that entertained me most. Sister Syra was a loud and somewhat eccentric proponent of all things music. Though she sometimes put off my classmates with her grandiose approach to everything we did, Sister Syra touched my heart. I was completely taken in by Sister’s deep affection for the cloistered sisters who occupied a monastery just north of the city.

Though I was unsure of how Sister’s relationship with the Discalced Carmelite Sisters began, I was quite certain that Sister Syra held them in great esteem. This became evident every six weeks or so when Sister Syra interrupted Special Chorus rehearsal long enough to pass an old coffee mug among us. As the mug moved from student to student, Sister strongly “encouraged” us to part with a portion of our lunch money or other disposable funds. Sister explained that the good Carmelite Sisters spent their lives in prayer for us and for the whole world. The sisters nourished themselves with an austere diet. Sister Syra went on to share that only on special feast days did the Carmelite Sisters deviate from their simple meals to celebrate with foods that the rest of us take for granted. “On Alleluia Days they get to have a little something special,” Sister Syra said. “I’m going to use all the money I collect to buy them a couple of half-baked pizzas. They’ll take them out of the freezer and bake them up for an Alleluia Dinner.” By the end of each appeal, Sister Syra convinced us that supplying the good sisters a special treat was indeed our privilege. As a result, Sister always secured enough money to by more than a couple of pizzas for her Carmelite friends. Afterward, Sister always made a second request: “Do any of you girls have a boyfriend with a car who wouldn’t mind helping me deliver these pizzas?”

It was senior year, and I happened to be dating a boy with a car, so I offered his services to Sister. After school a few days later, we picked up Sister Syra and headed off to the pizzeria where a stack of twelve half-baked pizzas and other freezable goodies awaited us. By the time we arrived at the monastery, I’d learned that one of the Carmelites was a childhood friend for whom Sister Syra had the greatest respect. I also learned that my companion and I would be allowed to carry our Alleluia Food into the vestibule. Only Sister Syra would be able to see the Carmelites whose cloistered home was off limits to lay people. After bringing everything in, my boyfriend went to park the car and I was directed to a bench where I could wait for Sister Syra to emerge from the cloister.

I admit that I was terribly disappointed at not being able to meet any of the Carmelites. Since I have three aunts who are sisters, I guess I thought I was somehow qualified to make their acquaintance. Apparently, Sister Syra’s Carmelite buddy didn’t realize that I was in such close proximity. When she buzzed the door to allow Sister Syra in, I saw the good sister standing in all of her glory. She wore the same habit that St. Therese of Lisieux wears in her photographs, holy cards and statues. I couldn’t move as I was taken aback by both the lovely image before me and the certainty that I’d committed an unforgivable wrong by inadvertently peering into the cloister. Fortunately for me, this dear Carmelite Sister recognized my distress. Before she closed the door to visit with Sister Syra, she offered me the most comforting and beautiful smile which remains with me today. As I moved toward the bench where I’d wait for Sister Syra, I prayed that this kind sister would thoroughly enjoy her pizza on the next Alleluia Day.

I share my monastery adventure with you because when Jesus became transfigured before Peter, James and John, he offered them an amazing glimpse into his true identity. Though the disciples came to know Jesus through his teaching and his work among the people, that day became an Alleluia Day when they caught a glimpse of his true identity. This Feast of the Transfiguration is an Alleluia Day for you and me as well. While the disciples witnessed Jesus’ glory for only a few moments, you and I witness that glory forever in the promise of eternal life that comes with Easter.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Energizer Grand-daughters

Not long ago, a friend asked, “Are those granddaughters of yours tiring you out?” My response was automatic. “Are you kidding?” I love every minute I spend with Ellie, Lauren and Claire. No matter the time of day or the length of our visit, I’m always ready for more. Though fatigue occasionally sets in, this occurs only on the drive home from Naperville or afterward when I crawl into bed for the night. The truth is that I can’t get enough of these little girls in spite of my admission that, like their grandma, the girls aren’t perfect.

During our visit a few weeks ago, I sent Lauren to the corner for a minor but not-to-be-repeated infraction. Lauren cried for the entire two minutes of her banishment, uttering several times, “I don’t want to be in the corner.” Though I sympathized with the poor little thing, I offered her no reprieve. She has to learn that she cannot hit her sister. The first thing Lauren did upon her release was to run to her sister to say, “I sorry, Ellie.” Later, Ellie shook her finger at Lauren and ordered, “No! No! No!” when Lauren tried to share the building blocks. I lost no time explaining to Ellie that there were plenty of blocks for all of us. As little Claire watched her older sisters, I imagined the day when Grandpa or I will have to say “no” to her for the first time. As is the case with Ellie and Lauren, it won’t matter. Though these little troubles will continue to come and go, Grandpa and I love our granddaughters. We always have and we always will. Their generous gifts of smiles and hugs suggest that the feeling is mutual.

I share this Grandma Adventure with you today because it speaks to the Lenten Journey that we’ve just begun. Though we usually think of these forty days as a time of penance and contrition, there is far more to this most sacred time of year. While we all have reason to feel regret and remorse, we also have reason to rejoice. In all that he said and did for us, Jesus made it crystal clear that we are loved and cared for by our gracious, forgiving, merciful and loving God. Jesus celebrated this reality on numerous occasions when he stole away to spend quiet time in conversation with his Father. Jesus did the same in the relationships that he shared with his closest disciples and with all whom he met along the way. Jesus’ great love for people was no accident. Indeed, Jesus personified God’s unquenchable love for each one of us every hour of every day that he walked among us.

When our older son Mike was born, I received a glimpse of God’s love. I couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than I loved that little boy. When we discovered that Tim was on the way, I wondered if I could love another child as much as I loved Mike. When Tim arrived, I answered my own question with a resounding “Yes!” Ellie, Lauren and Claire draw more love from me than I thought I had to give. If my humble heart can love so completely, is it any wonder that God’s love has left humankind awestruck from the beginning of time?

During Lent, we take Jesus’ message regarding God’s love to heart. Whatever we choose to do draws our attention back to the reason for this season. Whatever we choose to do calls us to make the time to savor God’s love and to deepen our relationships with God and with one another. If I choose not to eat between meals, every pang of hunger calls me to spend those hungry moments in prayer. If I choose to be more patient, the first twinge of anger calls me to see my adversary with God’s loving eyes and to pray for him or her. If I choose to set aside my coffee money to feed the poor, every dollar saved invites me to pray for those who’ll eat the bread my offering provides. If I choose to rise above my loneliness, every tear of self-pity brings to mind the droplets of blood that poured down Jesus’ face in the garden. Surely, I’m not as lonely as Jesus felt that night. Surely, I can overcome my loneliness by finding someone with whom to share God’s love. If I choose simply to survive another day because that’s all my illness will allow, every morning calls me to hold tightly to God’s hand as I make my way. However you and I spend this Lent, we must take every opportunity to acknowledge God’s amazing love for us and to share it generously with those we’ve been given to love.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Step-Father Bill

Regardless of Lent’s timing each year, the approach of Ash Wednesday takes me back to Lent 1987. My stepdad’s emphysema had gotten the best of him. After days of oxygen and other therapies, Bill remained bedridden. My mom worried because she could no longer care for Bill at home if he couldn’t walk. I didn’t choose the means to observe Lent that year because my stepdad’s illness dictated what lay before me. Bill continued to decline and his doctor eventually transferred him to a nursing home with a terminal prognosis. Between visits, I moaned and groaned the same insistent prayers: Bill’s had a tough time. He’s suffered enough. Dear God, please take him home… My mom took great care of my own dad, and now she’s doing the same for my step-dad. You’re asking too much of her. Dear God, please take him home… Jesus cured the suffering people who came to him. I don’t even want a cure. Just take him home… When my desperation hit its peak, I shamelessly went on: You’re supposed to be our loving Father. If Bill was my son, I’d take him home for Easter!

We celebrated my stepdad’s funeral the Tuesday before Easter. I completed Lent 1987 by attending the Holy Week liturgies at our parish church. During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, I realized I’d been operating on autopilot. I couldn’t recall much of Bill’s funeral or the other services I’d sat through. I felt exhausted and empty, and I wasn’t sure of where to turn. As the deacon sang the Exultet to announce Jesus’ resurrection, something drew my eyes to the large crucifix over the altar. It was covered with a purple cloth for Lent and I wondered why the purple remained. Suddenly, the servers pulled wires that hung from the cloth. They pulled away the purple cloth to reveal the most beautiful lilies I’d ever seen. The flowers covered the crucifix from top to bottom and from left to right. Their ivory blossoms glowed in the brightly lit sanctuary, leaving not a hint of the suffering corpus hidden behind them. This amazing image took my breath away. Though I thought I couldn’t shed another tear that week, my eyes filled up. I felt alive again! Then it hit me. God had welcomed my stepdad home for Easter. Bill had been gone an entire week, and I’d failed to utter a prayer of thanks. Still, God welcomed me home as well. In spite of my ingratitude and the insolent tone of my prayer beforehand, God gave me new life in the form of some well-placed Easter Lilies. The truth is that I couldn’t have asked for more!

Lent 2011 begins this week on Ash Wednesday. I invite you to seek out the gifts God has hidden along the way. Because each of us comes to the season with our own variety of burdens, I encourage you to join me in opening our hearts to the life-giving possibilities that lie ahead. The Ash Wednesday schedule is printed on the cover of this bulletin. Take home a copy and decide with your family when you’ll come for ashes. Next weekend, we’ll all receive a schedule of the Lenten activities our parish offers this year. Choose something to attend yourself or with your family. We’ll also participate in Operation Rice Bowl. Take a Rice Bowl and find ways to make small sacrifices that allow you to put something into that bank each day. With every drop of a coin or dollar, offer a prayer for those who struggle every day to fulfill their most basic needs. Next Sunday at 4:00, attend the 11th Annual Concert For Life performed by Matt Wessel. All proceeds support the work of the American Cancer Society and every bit of the afternoon will support you as you deal with your personal challenges.

Though Lent 1987 remains etched in my memory, the gift I found in those Easter Lilies lives on in my heart. My prayer has never again sunken to such a desperate level because I’ve allowed God’s gifts to continue to draw me closer, just as those lilies did. One such gift came in the form of Matt Wessel’s music which has carried me through some of the most difficult times of my life, including my mom’s passing. Another gift comes in this weekly opportunity to write for you. This Lent 2011, something –or perhaps Someone- compelled me to do something more. I’ve written SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT… FOR LENT, a book which I hope helps us all as we strive to discover God’s gifts in a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Perhaps it is Lent 2011 that will ease the pain of that Lent of long ago. Perhaps this year your heart and mine will be opened to God’s love more fully than ever before. As I discovered back in 1987, whether we or God choose our Lenten activities, they are filled with more of God’s gifts than we could ever have hoped for!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved