You are so beautiful to me…

It began Good Friday evening. I joined five others in holding crucifixes for our fellow parishioners to venerate during the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion. Parents and their children, teens and twenty-somethings, grandparents and singles, the healthy and the infirmed came forward to give homage to the cross. Within seconds, I found myself drawn to each one who stopped to kiss or touch or bow before the image of the dying Jesus in my hands. Each face bore its own signs of youth and age, joy and sorrow, illness and good health, worry and happiness. Each person, regardless of the years and life experiences they’d endured, radiated a beauty that I cannot explain. It was as though Jesus stood in my place, ignoring his own pain, to acknowledge his appreciation and love for each one who entered into this moment with him. I fought to hold back the tears as I realized that I’d been given a glimpse of God’s love for us in a most tangible way. Afterward, as I returned to my seat, a familiar melody echoed in my memory. You are so beautiful to me… You’re everything I hoped for. You’re everything I need. You are so beautiful to me…* I fell asleep that night humming the melody that simply wouldn’t go away.

Holy Saturday is always an extremely busy day for the good deacon and me and everyone in the parish involved with liturgy preparations, decorating and music. Each year’s RCIA participants make their final commitments to our faith at the Easter Vigil. I admit that by this time Mike and I have grown extremely fond of our RCIA class. For us, this evening is full of joy and some sadness as we send our students off to continue their faith journeys as Catholics. I watched from the back of the church as this year’s liturgy proceeded. Just before the blessing of the Easter water for baptism, we sang the Litany of the Saints. The lovely melody filled the church and our petitions to Mary and to all of the saints filled my heart. What an amazing faith community we have that includes not only we who are here, but also those who’ve made it home to God! I sang, “Pray for us,” with absolute certainly that the saints will usher each of us home to heaven with their prayers. When our cantor Ruth intoned the patron saints of our RCIA Elect, the love I’d encountered on Good Friday returned. You are so beautiful to me… You’re everything I hoped for. You’re everything I need… Once again, the melody filled me up and I received a glimpse of God’s amazing love, this time for Bill, Samantha and Adam, Rachel, Shawn and Sue, Donna, Richard and Kim, Fernando, Cesar, Carol and Denise, Brennan, Dawn, Luanne and Susie –the brave souls who embraced their faith at a time when the world would have them do anything but this. That night, I fell asleep humming that song once again.

On Easter Sunday, when our children and grandchildren arrived, we took a few minutes for pictures before the little ones’ Easter outfits lost their luster. While Mike, Abby, Ellie and Claire posed with their best smiles, Lauren put her head down in serious displeasure. Lauren announced that she didn’t want to smile as she buried her chin into her chest. We eventually settled for four smiles and one determined frown. As we moved on to our Easter egg hunt, I acknowledged just how much I love my family, and the melody crept back into my mind… You are so beautiful to me… You’re everything I hoped for… Once again, that tangible love returned, and I quietly gave thanks that my family and I are loved, in spite of the times that we choose not to smile at one another or in God’s direction.

The morning after Easter, as I prepared to write, I pondered poor Apostle Thomas. It seemed to me that Thomas had been blessed with firsthand experiences of God’s love in the forgiveness and cures that came at the hands of Jesus. Though my persistent melody didn’t ring in his ears, Thomas witnessed divine love firsthand as Jesus transformed the lives of those around him. It occurred to me that perhaps Thomas’s doubt didn’t begin when Peter and the rest told him of Jesus’ resurrection visit. Perhaps Thomas’s doubt took root much earlier as he wondered if the love and forgiveness Jesus so generously dispensed could possibly have been meant for him as well. Before I had the opportunity to admit that I’ve felt this way at times, the phone rang. My sister’s husband had suffered a severe heart attack. Pete’s years’ long battle with cancer took its final toll and he lay dying. While Mike drove us to the hospital, I tried to pray, but the melody returned. You are so beautiful to me… Finally, I realized that these glimpses of God’s amazing love and those persistent lyrics hinted at what was in store for Pete. Though Pete is the first to admit his imperfections, our God is the first to admit to unquenchable love for Pete. Though the next several hours seemed difficult to my sister and the rest of us, Pete’s anticipated arrival brought great joy to those who awaited him. If Pete harbored any doubt, it vanished the moment God welcomed him home. Two millennia ago, God embraced Thomas and dispelled his doubt as well. One day, God will do the same for you and for me.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*You Are So Beautiful to Me, lyrics by Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher

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Tommy Still Lives

When the gentleman on the phone introduced himself, I knew immediately that he was Tommy’s father. Tommy is an amazing young man whom I met several years ago here at church. I’d seen Tommy and his parents week after week, and we began talking to one another when we discovered our mutual interest in children’s books. Tommy’s mom shared that Tommy is quite an accomplished artist and that a man commissioned Tommy to illustrate a book he’d written for his daughter. Tommy smiled shyly all the while, half embarrassed and half proud of what his mom had to say. Tommy had taken a few high school classes with my son, Tim. When I told Tim we’d met, Tim echoed my positive impressions of his former classmate. Over the next several months, when Tommy was beyond earshot, his mom shared some of Tommy’s work with me. Though I’d encountered numerous talented young people throughout my teaching career, Tommy’s work was by far the best I’d seen. Even a book he’d written and illustrated for a class assignment as a fifth grader was readily publishable.

What amazed me most was the depth of Tommy’s work. This mild-mannered young man had somehow found the means to give life to his images in profound ways. I’d written a book about a little boy who is a composite of the best attributes of all of my former students. By this time, I’d become convinced that it was Tommy who could give life to Awesome Oliver. It wasn’t long before I worked up the courage to ask Tommy if he would illustrate this book for me. It took a millisecond for Tommy to offer a resounding “yes!” and not much more than that for him to provide a few initial drawings. What I saw touched my heart. Suddenly, Oliver, his teacher and cohort of friends took on lives of their own that I’d never imagined possible. I couldn’t wait to see more.

In the mean time, Tommy moved to New York City to pursue his art career. His job search and first job kept him far too busy to continue much freelance drawing. Still, whenever he returned to visit his parents, Tommy assured me that Oliver lingered in his memory and that more pictures would come.

Eventually, the economic environment forced the publishing house for whom he worked to cut staff, and Tommy busied himself once again with a job search. Apparently, Awesome Oliver eked out enough of Tommy’s attention to merit a few more pictures. Happily, a wonderful job materialized which promised Tommy further independence, his own apartment, and more free time to draw. When Tommy visited his parents several weeks ago, the joy behind his smile was unmistakable. Tommy’s own life had taken on even greater richness and depth than he’d infused into Awesome Oliver.

I saw Tommy’s mom a few week’s ago. She’d arrived with two beautiful crucifixes that she hoped to donate to someone who needed them more than she did. I didn’t realize that morning that the next time I saw Grace, she’d be bearing a much heavier cross.

When the gentleman on the phone introduced himself, I knew immediately that he was Tommy’s father. When I responded, “Yes. Yes, how are you?” I didn’t expect Richard’s response. “It’s Tommy. We’ve lost him…” At the end of that week, we celebrated Tommy’s life and mourned his devastating loss in that terrible, terrible accident.

Today, I find myself without words. There is nothing that I can say to Tommy’s mom and dad that will remove the sword that pierces their hearts just now. Long ago, Jesus’ mother Mary and all of those who loved Jesus suffered the same loathsome pain. Still, that first Easter morning, birds chirped merrily as the stone rolled from the front of the tomb. Angels bowed in awe as Jesus stepped out into the sunlight. Heaven rejoiced and earth paused in wonder as God set things aright once again. Suddenly, the immense sorrow that culminated in the agony of Good Friday came to fruition in the reality of Easter. All of creation shouted in unison, “Jesus lives!” This Easter Sunday, the sorrows, defeats and losses of each of our lives come to fruition as well. We find that we can bear all of this because God has set things aright. Tommy, like all of those we’ve sent home to heaven, lives! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Relationships

This Lent 2011, we’ve focused ourselves upon our relationships with one another and our relationship with God. We carried this bulletin and our rice bowls home to provide some of the tangible means through which we’d show our love for God and for one another. We read the words that crowded this space, attended Daily Mass, Evening Prayer and Stations of the Cross, seeking bits of wisdom that might inspire us to persist in our efforts. We looked to deepen our relationships with God and with one another to make this world a bit more akin to God’s kingdom. We looked to deepen these relationships to prepare ourselves to live in that kingdom one day.

Through each of the Lenten Gospels, Jesus provided us a lesson in relationship building. From his encounter with evil in the dessert to his encounter with heaven on the mountainside, Jesus remained very much in touch with his Father. Regardless of his busyness or fatigue, the scriptures tell us that Jesus frequently slipped away alone to pray. The depth of the love between Father and Son revealed itself in Jesus’ encounters with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well and the man born blind. Jesus couldn’t resist sharing the love within him, and this man and woman couldn’t resist accepting that love. Jesus approached each one with tenderness and compassion that transformed their lives. The raising of Lazarus provided the most poignant example of relationships built. Lazarus was a dear, dear friend, and his death genuinely saddened Jesus. Though Jesus is God and he knew Lazarus would be raised, Jesus is also human. He felt the loss that broke the hearts of Mary and Martha so much so that he wept at the sight of Lazarus’ grave. Still, Jesus looked beyond his tears and raised his eyes to the Father. He spoke with words only for the benefit of the crowd. Jesus and the Father are one, and the Father knew Jesus’ request before his lips formed the words. Jesus commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” with no doubt that his friend lived once again. In all that he said and did, Jesus taught the basics of human and divine love.

The juxtaposition of Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity provides the backdrop to the mysteries of Holy Week that unfold before us. Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth was betrayed by one of his closest friends. Not only was his price cheap –just thirty pieces of silver, but his betrayal was sealed with a kiss. Soldiers scourged Jesus with heavy leather straps. The bladed balls at their ends tore the flesh from his body. A crown of thorns pierced his head. Pilate succumbed to the pressure of the elders and released a known criminal, while he allowed a man known innocent to be condemned to death. The only relief as Jesus carried his cross came at the hands of Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry the crossbeam for a while. Jesus joined a multitude of his contemporaries who hung in shame upon their wooden deathbeds. Medical experts tell us that Jesus eventually suffocated because of his positioning on the cross. Yet the cause of death doesn’t account for the agony of the head and flesh wounds that persisted to the end. The cause of death doesn’t account for the heartbreak and despair that shrouded Jesus until he gave up his spirit. The cause of death doesn’t account for the fact that if you or I were the only one to be saved, Jesus would have endured everything just as it happened to save any one of us.

Jesus did everything possible to reveal the intensity of God’s love for us and to teach us how to love one another in kind. Though many of Jesus’ followers came to understand, the scribes and Pharisees were shaken by his message. They killed Jesus rather than face the possibility that our God is indeed the God of love. They killed Jesus rather than admitting that holding on to one another is far more important than holding on to the rules and regulations that gave meaning to their lives. This is Holy Week, and you and I are invited to join the followers who embraced Jesus’ message and to make that message a reality in this world of ours. On Holy Thursday, let us gather to break bread and to accept Jesus’ call to service once again. On Good Friday, let us mourn through Jesus’ passion and death. On Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, let us celebrate the end of Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ victory over death and the promise of new life. Then, let us all rejoice!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Grace for the Moment

I hadn’t thought of “The Ides of March” in some years. Still, when I glanced at the calendar on March 15 I recalled the warning to Julius Caesar. History tells us that a seer warned Julius Caesar of impending danger as he made his way to the Roman Senate that day in 44 B.C. Indeed, Caesar was murdered a few hours later. This year, March 15 maintained its ominous aura for me. I had too much to do and too many things were going wrong around me. Worry intruded upon every thought in spite of my attempts to banish the gloom. People around me were suffering and there was little I could do to help. People in Japan continued to wallow in the aftermath of the earthquake. Indeed, much of the world seemed stressed beyond my understanding with no relief in sight. Though a good walk always clears my head, I allowed so much to distract and disturb me that it never occurred to me to venture outdoors.

Oddly, I did manage to maintain my habit of reading something inspirational at the onset of each new day. It was the morning of March 16 when I picked up GRACE FOR THE MOMENT, a collection of daily inspirational thoughts by Max Lucado. My son gave me the book several years ago, and I’ve reread it every year since. On March 16, I wondered why I bothered with this book or my own because nothing seemed able to penetrate the negativity around me. Still, I found the reflection for March 16.

The day’s devotion was titled Listen for His Voice. I noted that this particular passage was taken from IN THE EYE OF THE STORM (Lucado, Max. Nashville: Word, 1991). I laughed because I felt that I’d been in the eye of a storm with troubles swirling around me for some time. “Okay,” I said aloud as though Max Lucado could hear me, “Let’s see what you have to say today.” The sixteen lines that followed insisted that there is never a time when we’re alone in this life. Never! Regardless of the messes in which we find ourselves, God speaks to us in everything. Though this good preacher could not have realized this, Max Lucado offered one line that said it all to me: “…never interpret our numbness as his absence.”

I reread that line several times, replacing “numbness” with my own words. Never interpret my worry; never interpret my busyness; never interpret my guilt; never interpret my illness; never interpret my sadness; never interpret my emptiness; never interpret my grief; never interpret any of my troubles as God’s absence. I found myself quite ashamed and embarrassed before the God that I’d forgotten to acknowledge during my personal encounter with the Ides of March. When I picked up my own book, the prayer I’d penned for this particular day read, “Dear Jesus, help me to stay close to you this Lent. Help me to recognize your presence…” I’d written that prayer two months earlier. How could I have known that it would speak precisely to my need this particular day? I didn’t know, but God did.

In today’s gospel (John 11:1-45), John tells us that Martha and Mary were brokenhearted over the loss of their beloved brother, Lazarus. Worse still, they’d sent word to Jesus who didn’t respond until it was too late. When Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus was laid in his tomb, each sister insisted, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus wept with these dear friends because their suffering was his own. After he took the time to mourn with them, Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and called Lazarus from his tomb. When Lazarus emerged full of life, Mary and Martha finally realized that Jesus’ timing was perfect after all.

Far too often, I’ve raised my voice to heaven with the same remark: “Lord, if you had been here…” Far too often, I’ve demanded that God immediately attend to my troubles. Far too often, I’ve been oblivious to the presence of my God who compassionately endures each of these trials and tribulations with me. So it is that today I join Mary and Martha in their realization that God’s timing is perfect after all. Who else could have inspired the writer of John’s gospel, Max Lucado and me with just the write words on just the right day to bring just the right grace to this soul in need?

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved