Uncommon Generosity and Unconditional Love

Last week, Mike and I spent a day with our granddaughters. At bedtime, I left Ellie and Lauren with Grandpa while I headed upstairs to get their pajamas. While retrieving Ellie’s pajamas from her closet, I noticed the beautiful white dress that she wore for Uncle Tim’s and Aunt Kim’s wedding. “That would make a beautiful First Communion dress.“ I thought to myself. As you’ve discovered by now, it doesn’t take much to encourage me down Memory Lane. Before I knew it, I was back at Presentation School for the 1958-59 school year.

I made my first confession and received First Eucharist in second grade. Sister Mary Carmelice, B.V.M., who taught us best by modeling what she expected us to learn, revealed the wonder of Jesus to me and my classmates that year. Sister began by helping us to develop reverence toward the Eucharist. Sister walked us to our parish church and right up to the tabernacle to show us where the Eucharist is kept. We stood quietly and in awe as Sister explained what a miracle it is that Jesus is present and available to us in Holy Communion. She pointed out that Jesus didn’t have to leave himself with us, but Jesus did this because he wanted to be with us in a very special way. By the time we returned to our classroom that day, my classmates and I were convinced that receiving the Eucharist would be an amazing honor.

In the days that followed our trip to church, Sister taught us of a second aspect of Jesus’ wonder. Sister told us about the miracle of the loaves and fishes and many other miracles recorded in the scriptures. She told us of the cures of the lepers, the centurian’s daughter and the blind man. She told us of the raising of Lazarus and of Jesus’ tears over the loss of John the Baptist. More importantly, Sister told us of Jesus’ uncommon generosity and his unconditional love for God’s people. She told us of the times that Peter and the others failed to understand what Jesus taught them. Sister was careful to add that Jesus never gave up on his friends. He offered the disciples chance after chance to do their best. Sister didn’t only introduce us to Jesus in the Eucharist. She also introduced us to the Jesus who walked this earth as one of us. I left my second grade classroom convinced that regardless of how often I failed others or myself, Jesus would always be there for me. Though I can’t speak for my classmates, I can attest that I anxiously awaited my First Communion Day. I wanted more than anything to receive this Jesus whom I had come to love and who loved me so.

Today’s gospel (Matthew 14:13-21) joins Ellie’s white dress in stirring my memories of the wonderful sister who encouraged my friendship with Jesus. Sister’s gentle nudges that year have helped me throughout my life to savor the gospel stories that reveal the person of Jesus. Today’s gospel gets to the heart of what I’ve discovered. This story begins just after Jesus receives the news that John the Baptist has been murdered. Jesus attempts to withdraw from his friends to mourn because he loves his cousin John. Though he perches himself in a small boat, far away from the others, word of Jesus’ whereabouts spreads quickly. Before Jesus can shed a tear, a crowd surrounds him once again. Matthew tells us, “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” As heartbroken as he is, Jesus knows that there is nothing for him to do for John the Baptist just now. The crowds before him are another story. So it is that Jesus abandons his own sorrow to embrace the needs of the people gathered on the shore.

In second grade, Sister Mary Carmelice caught my attention with Jesus’ miracles and kept my attention by revealing Jesus’ uncommon and unmistakable love for each one of us. Sister’s effort made all of the difference in the world to me. Perhaps it’s time for us to do the same for our own children –and grandchildren! A trip to the tabernacle or a chat about the bread and wine we are offered during our liturgies is a start. St. Paul’s is open all day, every day, so a visit to the holy space that we call our day chapel is easy. We can share the stories of Jesus’ kindness any time. As we busy ourselves sharing Jesus with the children we’ve been given to love, Jesus will continue to busy himself, loving you and loving me.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Light and Darkness

I love light. The brighter the environment the better. This likely explains the pleasure I take in walking outdoors. Rays of sun peeking down at me between tree branches fill me up. When I’m inside, I admit to turning on more lamps than the good deacon cares for to accommodate my need to brighten a room. I’ve done the same at my sisters’ and children’s homes when the lighting isn’t to my liking. When we built our own home, my love for light compelled me to tell our builder that I wanted “lots of windows”. Monday, July 11, was the first time in twenty-three years that I regretted that request.

Blustering wind and rain pelted every pane of glass around me with a mighty force that shook me from my bed. Since Mike was up north with our friend Matt, I was on my own. The slices of light that frame our blinds every morning were an ominous brownish gray that day. Relentless pounding almost frightened me away from the windows. Still, I abandoned common sense and slowly raised the blind to the west. I should have run for cover, but I couldn’t turn my eyes from the large white birch tree just inches away from me. It leaned over to touch the ground and then brushed the window as it stood upright. After watching the tree repeat this exercise three times, it occurred to me that I needed to get downstairs and perhaps to the basement. On my way, I opened the rest of the blinds and tried to assess the wind’s velocity. The bank of arbor vitae along the back of our yard swayed in unison with each gust. The trees out front bent to the east, not quite enough to snap their trunks. Foot-long twigs covered the lawn and driveway. As I watched our newspapers fly down the street, I decided it was best to let them go. I retreated to the family room to consider my options. It was then that the lights flickered several times. A few minutes later, an eerie silence surrounded me. The lights went out as the refrigerator and air conditioner stopped humming.

In the midst of the raging storm and darkness, I turned my eyes upward and asked our dear Lord to keep everyone safe. Then, as though God needed assistance, I asked Michael the Archangel to protect our homes and property as best he could. Then, as though the good archangel needed assistance, I asked my loved ones in the hereafter to offer any protection they could muster. Convinced that I’d placed us all and our property in the best of hands, I picked up the phone to call Mike. No dial tone… I gave thanks for having remembered to charge my cell phone overnight as I keyed in the number. After warning the good deacon to take care on the drive home, I settled into the chair next to the window. As I kept vigil in the darkness, I came to realize just how much light means to me… Light from the sun. Light from the array of fixtures that brighten our home. Light from Mike’s presence, especially when we have to knuckle down to solve a problem together. Light from above, especially when only God can shed just the right light to ease our troubles.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 13:44-52), Matthew tells us that Jesus is teaching through parables once again. Jesus tells the crowds, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it…” During that terrible storm and the difficult days that followed, Jesus may have added, “The kingdom of heaven is a like a lifeless light bulb that suddenly flickers and then burns brightly. Those who bask in its light dance with delight.” Or, Jesus might have said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a neighborhood without power where families pour out of their homes in a storm’s aftermath to be certain that everyone is safe. And when they find that all are well, they grill together and eat together and give thanks that only the electricity has been taken from them.”

Before the storm, I might have said that kingdom of God is like the most brilliant light that reveals every detail of the people and things that I love. After the storm, I say, “The kingdom of heaven is like the light of our community, the kindness that abounded among neighbors and spilled over onto strangers, the unexpected hand that helped those who thought they couldn’t make it another day. The kingdom of heaven is precious light restored, not by ComEd, but by God’s children who responded only as God’s children can.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Uncertainty and Fear

A few weeks ago, my husband and I enjoyed an overnight visit with our three granddaughters. This extended stay made us privy to the subtle changes in our youngest granddaughter. Claire has become acutely aware of Mommy’s absence. When I rescued her from hunger in the wee hours of the morning, Claire made it perfectly clear that she was expecting Mommy. Only after several minutes of rocking and humming did she snuggle up to me and return to sleep. While I held Claire, images from what seemed like yesterday filled me up. When was it that Mike held our baby son during that terrible thunderstorm? When was it that Mikie nuzzled close to me as we watched Ghostbusters? When was it that Mike and Timmy scrambled into our laps in the basement when that tornado threatened?

Some of the most tender moments shared by parents and their children are the results of uncertainty and fear. In their parents’ embrace, children find comfort in carefully chosen words that promise that everything will be all right. It seems to me that the most tender moments shared by God and humankind are the results of uncertainty and fear as well. Throughout God’s relationship with us, over and over again, God speaks words meant to bring comfort, to soothe and to encourage. When Adam and Eve left the beauty of Eden, God knew every detail of the rocky path that lay before them. The scriptures report the numerous times God spoke through the prophets to make the people less fearful and more hopeful about what lay ahead.

Today’s readings begin with one such attempt from the Book of Wisdom (12:13, 16-19). While the writer affirms that God is the Source of Justice and the Master of Might, he quickly adds that God rules with leniency. God offers mercy, clemency and forgiveness again and again. No matter how often or how badly our Old Testament counterparts stray from their paths, each time, God invites them back into the fold. In the second reading from Romans (8:26-27), Saint Paul shares his experience of God’s constancy. Paul recognizes his followers’ weakness with little difficulty because he is acutely aware of his own frailty. Paul also witnessed firsthand God’s boundless mercy and endless love. Paul wants everyone within earshot to be keenly aware of both. Paul tells us that, in addition to everything else, God also helps us with prayer. When we find it impossible to express our uncertainty and fear, God’s Holy Spirit speaks of them for us. This Spirit makes known to Abba, our ever loving parent, all that we hold in our aching hearts.

We who are God’s children are not very different from Claire, are we? When we fail to make sense of the world around us, we become frightened as well. Our uncertainty and fear overwhelm us, and we’re forced to seek comfort outside of ourselves. These are the very reasons we parents hold tightly to our frightened children as we console them. These are the very reasons that God’s arms opened to our Old Testament sisters and brothers again and again. These are the very reasons that Jesus offers hope to the crowds in today’s gospel (Matthew 13:24-43) and to us. Matthew tells us that eager listeners surround Jesus. Once again, Jesus hopes to convince them of the hope and the promise that lie within the friendly confines of the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks of the man whose enemies invade his fields and sow weeds among the wheat. The man invests such faith in the fruitfulness of his own seeds that he refuses to allow his workers to pull up the weeds sown by the culprits. Rather than endanger the potential of his own seedlings, the man allows the weeds to thrive beside them. The weeds will be dealt with later. The man’s seedlings have only one opportunity to make it in this world, and he is determined to keep them safe to do so. Though the weeds are ever present, the man sees to it that his seedlings have everything they need to thrive. And so they do!

The care and embrace of a parent make all of the difference in the world to a frightened child. Just the same, God’s care and embrace make all of the difference in the world to you and me. Though the weeds that interfere with our lives will always be there, God gives us everything we need to thrive in spite of them. Just as we promise to do our best to keep our children safe, God promises to do whatever it takes to keep us safe and to get us safely home.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

No Better Garden Spot

A few weeks ago, my extended family gathered at my cousin’s home for our annual family picnic. I enjoy these gatherings as they’re reminiscent of the best of my childhood. I loved the family get-togethers that spilled out of our flat, onto the front and back porches and into the backyard. Wherever I wandered on these occasions, there were stories to be heard regarding our family’s past, current events and dreams of things to come. Regardless of the numerous tragedies that touched us –and they were numerous, my parents, aunts and uncles always managed to find reason to laugh. Apparently, this propensity to smile in the face of adversity hasn’t been lost on my cousins, my siblings and me. Though there was a lot on all of our minds this picnic day, smiles punctuated every conversation that I observed.

I admit that I was a little tired going into this year’s picnic. Mike and I had spent the previous night with our granddaughters while Mommy and Daddy attended an out-of-town wedding. Apparently, Claire enjoyed my company so much that she wanted to extend our time together. When she woke for the early morning bottle after which she always returns to sleep for a few hours, Claire refused to drink it. Instead, she nestled into me and went back to sleep. When I returned Claire to her crib, she immediately wailed until I picked her up again. After three attempts, I decided Claire would finish her night’s sleep in my arms. Tired as I was, I couldn’t help admiring Claire’s sweet little face as she slept. Tired as I was, I enjoyed these precious moments that brought me back to similar encounters with my own little ones too many years earlier. Two hours later, Ellie called, “Grandma, it’s morning!” and Lauren woke up singing Ring Around the Rosie. Claire and I rescued Ellie from her bed, while Grandpa Mike tended to Lauren. After an amazingly crazed morning, Grandpa and I brought Ellie, Lauren and Claire to the picnic where Uncle Tim and Aunt Kim welcomed us. Mike and I must have looked tired because Tim and Kim immediately took charge of the girls. When Mike and Abby arrived not long afterward, Claire welcomed Mommy with a huge smile, and Ellie and Lauren headed to the jumpy house and then to the pool with Daddy. After watching for a while, this grandma greeted a few more cousins and then settled into a comfortable chair.

I’m usually very helpful at our family picnics. In the past, I’ve come early to help set up, with trays of taco dip and chips in tow. I’ve helped to arrange the food and replenish as needed. I’ve picked up stray dishes and cups throughout the day, visiting all the while with the various families represented. But not this year. Mike and I were lucky to arrive almost on time, and I had no taco dip to share. Though I cleaned up after myself, I can’t recall doing the same for anyone else. Thank goodness that my sister Rita managed the food so well as I didn’t do a thing to help. Though I shared a few words with some of my cousins, I only breezed by others of them. And, though I usually stay until nightfall, Mike and I left a few hours earlier this year.

The truth is that none of what I did or didn’t do was intentional. I was overly tired and extremely distracted. I’m not complaining about the fatigue as I’ll always happily watch our granddaughters for a few hours, overnight, whenever. I’m a grandma and this is what I do. Though I’m not complaining about being distracted, I don’t welcome the circumstances that caused it. My cousin Janet is a big part of our family picnics, but she didn’t attend this year. Janet’s battling a brain tumor, and the cancer seems to be winning the war just now. Though Janet’s family attended, their faces betrayed their concern and fed my own. I didn’t choose not to enjoy myself. I just couldn’t engage as usual at the time. Perhaps this is the reason that I look with great hope to today’s gospel (Matthew 13:1-23) where Jesus offers the parable of the sower and the seed.

Who haphazardly scatters seed as Jesus describes? Who wastes the time and resources to plant in places where seed seemingly has no chance to grow? Apparently, our indiscriminate Sower-God does just that. Rather than to predict what is fertile ground, God plants grace and love everywhere -on heavily trodden paths, on rocky ground, in the midst of thorny shrubs, as well as on obviously fertile patches. God plants with every confidence in the souls upon whom these seeds fall. It doesn’t matter that we’re having a good day or a bad day. It doesn’t matter that we’re beginning our journey here or nearing its end. God’s grace comes just the same. You see, to God, there’s no better garden spot than the place that lies within you and me.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved