Sister Day

Yesterday, I spent the day with my sisters. We try to arrange a “sister day” once per month, though we’re not always successful in this regard. My mom enjoyed lifelong relationships with her sisters, so I suppose this propensity to remain close comes naturally to us. I vividly recall sitting on the fringes of their conversations as a child. My mom and her sisters felt free to share their greatest joys and their deepest concerns with one another. I eventually came to appreciate that there was something sacred about these moments of sharing. This realization compelled me to stop repeating things which had earned me the title of “Little Big Ears.” I learned to treasure the things my mom and my aunts shared. Sometimes, I secretly rejoiced over their news. Sometimes, I cried myself to sleep for them as I prayed fervently that God would take their troubles away.

When my sisters and I are together, we take our sharing to heart as well. Yesterday, my recently widowed sister explained life in the wake of her husband’s passing. Though she and her husband knew that his days were numbered and though he often teased about his imminent demise, this loss has been difficult on many levels. When I got around to my prayers last night, I found myself focused upon this sister and then the rest of my family. Once again, I celebrated the joys and prayed fervently that God would address the troubles of the important people in my life. Once again, I came to appreciate the sacred nature of our relationships with those we’ve been given to love. No wonder loss is so difficult for us.

Unfortunately, loss is a reality of this life. Loss occurs in relationships cut short by a misunderstanding or a move. Loss comes in the passing of our loved ones, no matter how expected their departures may be. The loss of the comfort of a long marriage, even when the choice to divorce is mutual, leaves one seemingly without orientation. The loss of a familiar workplace or neighborhood brings heartache, even when the choice to retire or to move on is our own. When we find ourselves at odds with an institution which once felt as comfortable as home, we find ourselves at a loss as well, adrift at sea without an anchor. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness, hopelessness and solitude consume us in the midst of our losses, and it seems no one and nothing can fill the emptiness within us. Jesus addresses these feelings of loneliness when he promises, “I will not leave you orphans…”

In today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 14:15-21), the evangelist seems to gather what he feels are the most important of Jesus’ teachings and to place them where we cannot miss them. During the Easter Season, we attend closely to these writings because they get to the heart of what matters. As John tells it, Jesus spends his last precious hours with the disciples sharing what is most important to him -the promise of his continued presence among them. Afterward, the disciples abandon Jesus during his passion and leave him to endure a forsaken criminal’s death on the cross. Still, Jesus returns to assure his friends that they are not left orphans. Later, when God’s Spirit fills them up and underscores Jesus’ message, Peter, John and the rest finally understand the reality of God’s enduring presence in their lives. They risk life and limb to spread this good news because they can’t help themselves. Jesus had spent three years among them responding to every soul in need, sharing God’s love, God’s presence and God’s promise of life after this life. Now that they understand, how can the disciples do otherwise?

I’m most grateful that when we face loss in our lives, we don’t face our sorrow alone. We find ourselves embraced in those sacred moments of sharing. Sometimes, they come in human form… through the voice of a knowing friend; in the song of a mother who will love her child forever; in an artist’s rendition of our weakest selves embraced by those wonderful arms; in the kindness of a colleague who takes over simply because she is needed; in the parents and grandparents, spouses and significant others, sisters, brothers and friends who teach us to hold onto one another in the best and worst of times. Sometimes, these sacred moments come in the reassurance we find in the depths of our own hearts.

God’s Holy Spirit convinced the disciples –and hopefully has convinced us– that we survive loss in our lives because we aren’t alone. Even when we lose the person most dear to us, God transforms the orphans within us into the beloved children we are meant to be.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

When I buy this place…

It seemed to happen overnight. My son Mike and I expanded our viewing of Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood to include Chicago Cubs’ games. Rather than cuddling on the couch to watch our shows before or after Mike’s nap, we’d begun to sit in our own chairs to watch after school. This cycle repeated itself after our son Tim came along. With Tim, my reunion with the muppets and Mr. Rogers expanded to include Bob Villa. Though Tim appreciated the Cubbies as much as his brother did, Tim also enjoyed the weekly refurbishing and remodeling projects Bob Villa tackled on This Old House. I found that just as I’d developed my own affection for the Cubs, I’d developed a genuine interest in the preservation and personalization of vintage homes.

As Tim’s eye for such things developed, he began to point out the many ways we could improve our own home. Tim observed more than once, “When I buy this place, I’ll move this wall and take out that closet to turn my room into a suite.” It didn’t occur to my son that if he purchased this house, he’d move into the master suite. Still, Tim drew me into his planning before I knew it. I began to say things like, “If money was no object and we had a bunch of kids, I’d transform our attic into a huge studio.” Each time, Tim responded, “Do it, Mom! That would be great!” Every time, I reminded Tim that money was an object and that we didn’t have a bunch of kids. Tim invariably walked away in feigned disgust, muttering. “I’d do it anyway.”

Today, I’m happy to report that both Mike and Tim and our much appreciated daughters-in-law have made their homes their own, just as their dad and I have. Though our preferences differ in one way or another, there is a common thread: Each of our living spaces is welcoming and comfortable. All of us, including our little granddaughters, find ourselves quite relaxed whenever we gather in any of these places that we call home.

Today’s gospel (John 14:1-12) tells us that the disciples feel neither comfortable nor relaxed as their time with Jesus comes to a close. They’ve finally become comfortable with their resurrected Lord only to learn that he will leave them once again. The disciples lost Jesus to his death on the cross, and the thought of a second loss overwhelms them. Jesus attempts to console his friends with the promise that he is going to prepare a home for each one of them –a home that will be more welcoming and comfortable than anything they’ve experience on this earth. Jesus goes on to explain that the disciples know where he is going and that he will come back for each one of them one day. Thomas speaks for himself and the rest when he responds, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” It seems to me that at this juncture Thomas might also have added, “Why can’t you build a home that we’ll all share here and now?” Jesus understands Thomas’s grief better than Thomas understands it himself. Jesus explains further, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.” Poor Philip who shares Thomas’s pain begs, “Master, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Though the disciples witnessed all of the words and works of Jesus, they still fail to recognize God among them.

I often find myself sharing in the disciples’ misery. I know, perhaps better than they, that Jesus indeed is the way to my true home. Still, I find myself longing for the comforts of the home Jesus promises here and now. Like Thomas, Philip and the rest, I sometimes miss the point when I find myself or those I love knee deep in this world’s troubles. It is during these times of discomfort and anxiety that Jesus rescues me. Through the beauty of nature, the attentiveness of a friend or the writings of those far wiser than I, Jesus shows me the way as he reveals the blueprint for my heavenly abode. There, walls of peace surround me. Windows opened to God’s glory warm me. Floors fashioned from God’s love raise me up, and the roof rolls back so I can reach up for God’s embrace. These images of Jesus’ handiwork carry me through until the next time life in this world overwhelms me. Then, Jesus rolls out the blueprints once again to remind me of the home that awaits me. Just as he rescued his disciples over and over, Jesus rescues me. The truth is that Jesus has prepared a set of blueprints for you as well. Invite Jesus into your heart, and he’ll show you his plans.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

I need my church… I love my church…

When I hugged her and offered her my support, the woman hugged me back. “I need my church!” she said. She’d endured a devastating tragedy. Still, she added, “I love my church!” My friend’s resolve would not be shaken in spite of the events that have changed her life forever. Afterward, I considered the ramifications of her words. Her affirmations echoed sentiments my parents had passed on to me long ago. Church was the center of our lives in so many ways. The building itself was a prized landmark. We prided ourselves in living in the shadow of its steeples. My mom and her own brothers and sisters passed this parish church on their way to school every morning long before I did. This edifice served as the center of our neighborhood. When we offered directions to our home or anything else nearby, we based them upon proximity to the church. Truly, Presentation Church was a second home to me which I often visited simply for the comfort I found surrounded by its walls.

As I pondered further, I realized that I found comfort in our church building because of the people I encountered there. In addition to family members who belonged to our parish, many friends and neighbors joined us there. Our parish priests and the sisters who staffed our parish school added to the mix. Together, we worshiped and celebrated the sacraments. My mother and several of her siblings married there. We celebrated too many funerals, baptism after baptism, our First Communions and Confirmations there. Together, we attended parish missions, Stations of the Cross, May Crowning and novenas. Together, our parish community painted the school because the job couldn’t otherwise have been completed. The people whom I found in our parish church truly gave life to the comfort I’d found in the bricks and mortar. Perhaps if these fellow souls hadn’t filled that church with me, I’d have felt much differently about that building after all.

Still, just as I’ve sometimes failed to adequately love those I’ve met along the way, those around me have occasionally failed as well. At times, the comfort I found in that building and its people escaped me. The loneliness of those moments might have overwhelmed me if not for the Shepherd who is the center of it all. When the solace of that building eluded me and the people in that building seemed oblivious to my pain, Jesus remained present to me. At these times, it no longer mattered where I was or whom I was with. When I sat on a swing in our backyard or walked down our block alone, still, I felt Jesus’ embrace. In the gentlest breeze and in the warmth of the sun, I truly understood the gift of the Good Shepherd in my life.

I need my church… I love my church… None of us would ever utter these words if Jesus hadn’t set the tone for his church by embracing his role as our shepherd. Jesus behaved as the selfless shepherd in all that he did throughout his life among us. The quiet simplicity of the private life he shared with Mary and Joseph as well as the wonder of his miracles touched each one in his path. Whether through a cure of the body or a cure of the soul, Jesus tended to those in need. This shepherd endangered himself again and again as he served the outcast and the lost. Even after his death and resurrection, Jesus remained for a while to make certain that the sheep he left behind were ready and open to the Spirit who would soon follow him.

I need my church… I love my church… After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples realized that they not only needed the word and works that Jesus left them. They also loved their new way of life. The temple had taken on new meaning as did each room in which they gathered to share the Word or to break bread. The community became their own family, and they found peace in one another’s company. In moments of uncertainty and solitude, the Good Shepherd reassured each one that he or she didn’t suffer alone.

I need my church… I love my church… My friend feels this way because Jesus’ work has come to fruition among us as well. She seeks solace and peace in this building and its people because we have spoken these things to her. My friend needs and loves her church because the Good Shepherd himself has reassured her. Even when we fail her, Jesus will lift her up onto his shoulders and carry her for as long as she needs to be carried. When Jesus said “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” he promised to do the same for you and me.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Regarding God’s Mercy

A recently posted comment related to the demise of Osama bin Laden expresses wonder at how one can pray for someone like him.

In the past, I’ve assumed God’s merciful demeanor toward those who engage in extreme evil-doing because I’ve assumed each one was mad -sick in heart and in mind- just as others are sick in body. Once their sick minds and hearts were left behind upon passing, what was left is a soul now freed from the constraints of the previous illness. Just as I assume my sick family members who’ve passed away are now free of their illnesses, I have assumed that these sick people are now free of the mental or emotional illnesses that caused them to do evil on this earth. I guess I could not bring myself to believe that a well human being could actually choose to to such things.

In the case of Osama bin Laden, I’ve personally suffered the consequences of his actions in the loss of a young family member serving in Afghanistan as well as the losses of others I’ve known in this war on terror. Yet, even in the face of these lost lives, I find that I’m unable to exclude bin Laden from the possibilities promised by God’s amazing mercy.

I’ve been reliant upon God’s mercy for most of my childhood and my entire life adult life. Though I am perhaps a less creative sinner than some of God’s other children, I am a sinner nonetheless. This is the reason that Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son is my most treasured bit of scripture. Through the story of the son who asked his father to behave as though he was dead so that he might have his inheritance early, Jesus tells us that God’s mercy prevails. Jesus’ interactions with the woman at the well, the paralyzed man, the woman caught in adultry, the lepers and the woman who bathed his feet with her tears underscore Jesus’ message of mercy and forgiveness. Even when he hanged on the cross, minutes from his own death, Jesus turned to the criminal next to him and promised this man Paradise. In each encounter, Jesus offered forgiveness and then went on to heal or to provide whatever grace was needed for this particular person’s journey. Each of these stories and Jesus’ life among us have given me reason to expect that I’ll meet forgiveness at Heaven’s door. If this is the case for me and for those I’ve been given to love, who am I to deny the same for the seemingly most wayward of God’s children?

How do we pray for someone like him? We pray for him with the same intense faith with which we would pray for our best friend’s wayward child -for this is precisely who he is.

She’s God’s mom!

REMEMBER, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.

Though I’d been working the Tribune’s crossword puzzle and had ignored most of the program that had absorbed my husband, I looked up when George Stephanopoulos called our attention to a breaking story. As he uttered his first sentence, the feed moving across the bottom of the screen seemed to speak in unison with him: Osama bin Laden is dead. Within minutes, the television screen split in three. As I watched George Stephanopoulos speak, I also watched archived footage of Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. A chill overwhelmed me as I recalled the horror of that morning almost ten years ago. Like you, I know where I was when news of the first crash spread over the airways. I was filling my empty gas tank. By the time the second assault occurred, I’d arrived at my workplace-a school filled with the children of United States Navy personnel. I’ve never felt as helpless as I did that day. What would we tell these children if the Great Lakes Naval Training Station was the target of a third or fourth or fifth assault? How could we protect them if an explosion sent flying debris as far as the school building we occupied? At the end of the day, how would we house, feed and console these potential orphans? After I reviewed the building’s disaster plan, I played and replayed possible scenarios in my mind. Since I had no class of my own, I walked the halls, making certain that every door to the outside was securely locked and that no strangers entered the building. I stopped in the office often to check the news, hoping against hope that a freak accident, rather than intense hatred, would explain what had occurred.

Last Sunday night, as I sat before the television with my mouth agape, another September 11 memory drew me back in time. While I was in the office that morning praying for some good news, a second grader tapped me on the hand. “Mrs. Penich, Mrs. Penich, look what I got.” As my former reading student showed me a picture of Our Lady, he said, “I know who she is. She’s God’s mom. I learned about her at church. You can have it.” Though Jeremy and I had spent an entire semester together the previous year and had engaged in a good deal of conversation to and from his lessons, I was quite certain that we’d never broached the topic of God or God’s mom. The reason Jeremy felt comfortable enough to share this treasure with me that terrible morning still remains a mystery. What is more amazing is that after I offered Jeremy my thanks and took him back to class, I turned the card over to find my favorite prayer to Mary, The Memorare. Whenever I’d faced a desperate situation, this prayer had carried me through. What an awesome coincidence that a little boy would gift me with this reminder to hope when things seemed more desperate than ever.

As I write, I find myself a participant in today’s gospel (Luke 24:13-35), walking in the shoes of Cleopas and his friend as they head out of Jerusalem. They’re distraught, overwhelmed and puzzled by the things that happened to Jesus a few days earlier. The gospel tells us that the two engage in intense conversation as they make this seven mile trek to Emmaus. Though they’d hung on to Jesus’ every word and had witnessed his marvelous works, this loss devastated them and robbed them of their hope. When a stranger joins them along the way, the man asks what they’re discussing. They respond with surprise as he must be the only person in Jerusalem not to know what happened to Jesus. Cleopas goes on to admit that he’d truly hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. The stranger chides the two as he explains that all that happened to Jesus was foretold in the scriptures. As they approach Emmaus, the stranger seems to be going further. Cleopas and his friend press him to stay with them since it is almost nightfall. When they settle down for a meal, the stranger breaks bread with them. Cleopas and his friend immediately realize that this stranger is Jesus. Just as quickly, Jesus vanishes and the two friends set out to return to Jerusalem. As soon as they arrive, they explain what has happened to Peter and the rest. They add, “Were our hearts not burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?”

It took a few hours for the churning in my stomach to subside last Sunday night as I listened to the accounts of Osama bin Laden’s demise. The fear I felt for my students a decade earlier returned as I wondered if and when someone might try to avenge the loss of their leader. Still, I found that Cleopas and his friends aren’t the only ones to be consoled when their world is shaken. I woke this morning to bright sunshine that warmed me in spite of the 50ish temperatures. I pulled out Jeremy’s holy card and thanked our dear Mother Mary for her constant intercession on our behalf. Afterward, I expressed my deepest gratitude to our dear Lord who walked that road to Emmaus and who walks with us still, in the best and the worst of times.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved