The Gift of the Vineyard

When the good deacon and I traveled to Germany a few weeks ago, his cousins greeted us as soon as we passed though customs at the airport in Dusseldorf. We know Father Stjepan and his nephew Josip from our previous trips to Croatia and many emails and phone calls since. The fatigue that plagued us during the long flight disappeared in the glow of their smiling faces. Any trepidation regarding our visit was lost in their welcoming embraces. After stowing our luggage in the trunk of Stjepan’s car, we settled in for the ride to Essen. As he drove along, Stjepan relayed our itinerary for the day and Josip translated every detail. We’d begin with breakfast at the sisters’ monastery, one of the buildings that make up the Croatian Catholic Mission of St. Mary. The mission chapel is attached to the convent and rests across the courtyard from the rectory and the mission offices. When we arrived, Mike and Josip carried our luggage to the rectory’s third floor. There we found the visitors’ flat, a perfect accommodation for our visit. After a three-minute tour, we walked over to the convent where breakfast awaited us. Stjepan shares all of his meals with the sisters, and he arranged for Josip, Mike and me to do the same during our stay. While I expected to enjoy the sisters’ Croatian and German cooking, I immediately found that they offered much, much more at their table.

Cloth napkins adorned beautiful table settings at each of our places. Though most of the sisters had left earlier to begin the day’s work, the two sisters who remained welcomed Mike and me as though they’d known us forever. Stjepan led us in prayer before we took our seats to feast on a traditional European breakfast. As we passed plates of meat and cheese, bread, fresh tomatoes and peppers, Stjepan noted that it was September 8, the Birthday of Mary. He asked if I celebrated this name day in the United States. When I shared that we’d celebrated our family name days since our sons were babies, Stjepan and the sisters broke into song. Josip translated the beautiful Croatian Marian hymn that they’d sung in my honor. As we ate, the sisters asked about our flight and what we hoped to see while in Germany. They asked about our children and grandchildren and our careers. Though poor Josip had to translate most of what was said, he managed to eat heartily. No meaning seemed to be lost on Stjepan or the good sisters because what words failed to convey seemed quite obvious in our animated body language. By the end of this meal, I realized that I’d arrived at a most precious place.

This particular monastery is home to seven sisters who left Croatia to staff this mission. These gracious women saw to it that their home-away-from-home was the same to Stjepan, Josip, Mike and me all the while that we were with them. Though the sisters differ greatly in personality, their community is strong. Though each one has her own way of doing things, the sisters work together to care for one another and for those whom God places on their path. The truth is that they’ve formed a strong family much like our own, and this bond enriches the mission’s community. Each sister does her part to contribute to the whole, allowing her own gifts to shine in the process. By our third meal together, the banter across the dinner table assured me that each of these sisters and we who were their guests were considered to be among family for the duration.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who takes great care in preparing a vineyard which he’ll offer to tenants to care for. The landowner prepares everything to insure that this vineyard will yield a healthy crop of the finest grapes. Jesus tells us that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” The landowner welcomes his tenants, provides them decent housing and a living wage to tend the vineyard. Still, in spite of the landowner’s efforts, things didn’t go as he expected. When the man sent his servants to retrieve his share of the crop, the tenants beat some of them and killed others. When the landowner sent his own son to claim his harvest, the tenants repaid the landowner’s faith in them by killing his son in order to claim the young man’s inheritance for themselves.

It seems to me that each of us is invited to tend the vineyard that is our life’s circumstances. We can misuse our harvest like the tenants in Jesus’ story and ignore God’s call to share, or we can join the Sisters of the Mission of St. Mary in offering our harvest to whomever God leads to our table.

The Gift of the Vineyard

When the good deacon and I traveled to Germany a few weeks ago, his cousins greeted us as soon as we passed though customs at the airport in Dusseldorf. We know Father Stjepan and his nephew Josip from our previous trips to Croatia and many emails and phone calls since. The fatigue that plagued us during the long flight disappeared in the glow of their smiling faces. Any trepidation regarding our visit was lost in their welcoming embraces. After stowing our luggage in the trunk of Stjepan’s car, we settled in for the ride to Essen. As he drove along, Stjepan relayed our itinerary for the day and Josip translated every detail. We’d begin with breakfast at the sisters’ monastery, one of the buildings that make up the Croatian Catholic Mission of St. Mary. The mission chapel is attached to the convent and rests across the courtyard from the rectory and the mission offices. When we arrived, Mike and Josip carried our luggage to the rectory’s third floor. There we found the visitors’ flat, a perfect accommodation for our visit. After a three-minute tour, we walked over to the convent where breakfast awaited us. Stjepan shares all of his meals with the sisters, and he arranged for Josip, Mike and me to do the same during our stay. While I expected to enjoy the sisters’ Croatian and German cooking, I immediately found that they offered much, much more at their table.

Cloth napkins adorned beautiful table settings at each of our places. Though most of the sisters had left earlier to begin the day’s work, the two sisters who remained welcomed Mike and me as though they’d known us forever. Stjepan led us in prayer before we took our seats to feast on a traditional European breakfast. As we passed plates of meat and cheese, bread, fresh tomatoes and peppers, Stjepan noted that it was September 8, the Birthday of Mary. He asked if I celebrated this name day in the United States. When I shared that we’d celebrated our family name days since our sons were babies, Stjepan and the sisters broke into song. Josip translated the beautiful Croatian Marian hymn that they’d sung in my honor. As we ate, the sisters asked about our flight and what we hoped to see while in Germany. They asked about our children and grandchildren and our careers. Though poor Josip had to translate most of what was said, he managed to eat heartily. No meaning seemed to be lost on Stjepan or the good sisters because what words failed to convey seemed quite obvious in our animated body language. By the end of this meal, I realized that I’d arrived at a most precious place.

This particular monastery is home to seven sisters who left Croatia to staff this mission. These gracious women saw to it that their home-away-from-home was the same to Stjepan, Josip, Mike and me all the while that we were with them. Though the sisters differ greatly in personality, their community is strong. Though each one has her own way of doing things, the sisters work together to care for one another and for those whom God places on their path. The truth is that they’ve formed a strong family much like our own, and this bond enriches the mission’s community. Each sister does her part to contribute to the whole, allowing her own gifts to shine in the process. By our third meal together, the banter across the dinner table assured me that each of these sisters and we who were their guests were considered to be among family for the duration.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who takes great care in preparing a vineyard which he’ll offer to tenants to care for. The landowner prepares everything to insure that this vineyard will yield a healthy crop of the finest grapes. Jesus tells us that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” The landowner welcomes his tenants, provides them decent housing and a living wage to tend the vineyard. Still, in spite of the landowner’s efforts, things didn’t go as he expected. When the man sent his servants to retrieve his share of the crop, the tenants beat some of them and killed others. When the landowner sent his own son to claim his harvest, the tenants repaid the landowner’s faith in them by killing his son in order to claim the young man’s inheritance for themselves.

It seems to me that each of us is invited to tend the vineyard that is our life’s circumstances. We can misuse our harvest like the tenants in Jesus’ story and ignore God’s call to share, or we can join the Sisters of the Mission of St. Mary in offering our harvest to whomever God leads to our table.

Trepidation & Reconsideration

A few weeks ago, the good deacon and I hurried into Border’s to find a guidebook to Germany. Mike’s cousin Stjepan had sent us the itinerary for our upcoming visit with him and we hoped to familiarize ourselves with the sights we’d visit before we arrived. Unfortunately, our Gurnee neighbors took advantage of the store’s liquidation sale before we did and nothing left in the travel section was remotely related to Germany. Much to my dismay, this didn’t stop my dear husband from scanning every shelf in search of guidebooks to other equally interesting destinations. Had I not been with him, I’m certain Mike would have purchased far more than the two non-Germany guidebooks books with which we left. After dropping me off at home, Mike went on to Barnes & Noble in Vernon Hills where he reluctantly controlled himself and purchased only the guidebook to Germany that we needed.

The problem here is that my husband is a would-be world traveler and I’m a homebody. Though I enjoy driving trips and am comfortable enough with cross-country flights, the prospect of overseas travel sends chills up my spine. There is neither rhyme nor reason for this aversion as I thoroughly enjoyed myself throughout our prior stays in Croatia and Italy. Still, there is something about the preparations that fills me with paralyzing worry. As my to-do list lengthens, my fears mount. This is usually when the good deacon mentions four or five other destinations on his “bucket list.” With each sentence that begins with “Some day, I also want to go to…” my trepidation increases exponentially. It is then that I remind the poor man that his timing is impeccably poor and that I can’t think about going anywhere else until at least a few weeks after I return from this particular trip. With that, Mike rolls his eyes and sneaks away with his imagined itinerary intact. Left to my own resources, I return to my packing and my internal misery.

Finally, as our pre-travel to-do list shortens and our suitcases fill to just under fifty pounds each, I feel the tension ease a bit. Though it was absolute love and some sense of obligation that caused me to agree to this trip, I find myself perusing our guidebook. As we ride to the airport, I sense that I’m excited about our arrival in Germany. I love Mike’s cousins Stjepan and Josip, and it will be with great joy that I hug them at the airport. It will be with even greater joy that I’ll observe these three Penić men as they reunite to celebrate their much appreciated family ties. With this vision of Stjepan, Josip and Mike in mind, I fasten my seatbelt with a smile and sit back for the seven and a half hour flight.

As I read today’s gospel (Matthew 21:28-32), I identified with each of the brothers whose father asked him to work his vineyard one day. The first son replied, “I will not.” Yet, afterward, he thought better of his insolence and went out to the vineyard to work as his father asked. The second son replied immediately to his father’s request. “Yes, sir,” he said, but then went on his way and did none of the work. Sometimes, I find myself saying “no” with the first son in Jesus’ parable. When my husband suggests a trip, I respond with numerous reasons not to go at a given time. Then, something –or Someone- nudges me with the encouragement I need. I consider the treasure that our world and its people are. I withdraw my refusal and embrace what develops into an amazing encounter with the best of God’s creation. Sometimes, I find myself saying “yes” with the second son in Jesus’ parable. Out of frustration or fatigue or simply to rid myself of Mike’s insistence, I agree to go anywhere simply to end the discussion. The obvious results are my own frustration when the trip planning begins and Mike’s disappointment when I admit that this is something I’m simply not prepared to do.

One missed day of work didn’t make or break the vineyard owner’s business, just as my travel issues matter little in the grand scheme of things. Still, if the son who didn’t work that day approaches his relationship with his father with similar dishonesty, he’s cheating his dad and himself of the best of God’s gifts –our relationships with one another. If I withhold my feelings and simply say what I think Mike or anyone else wants to hear, I rob our relationships of the opportunity to deepen and grow. So it is that God invites us to do our best to speak from our hearts. If we fail to express our true intent, God invites us to edit as needed. If we find ourselves not living up to our promises, God invites us to reevaluate, to regroup and to set things right by doing the right thing.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rescued with Generosity and Hope

She stood next to my bed and gently nudged my shoulder. “Mary, can you get up? Daddy died last night. Maybe you want to go to the 8:00 Mass.” This seems an odd way for a mother to inform her eight year old of her father’s passing. Actually, it felt quite natural to me. We had prayed for my dad’s happy death for days. This was the opportunity to seal the deal with my dad’s safe arrival in the hereafter. So, I leapt from my bed, dressed quickly and ran the down the block to church. I didn’t acknowledge my grief until I stopped at the pew where our parish priest knelt. He resembled my dad just enough to elicit uncontrollable sobs through which I gave him the news. As he wiped away my tears, he reminded me that my dad would never be sick again. I sat at his side for the rest of Mass, half convinced that everything would end well, half knowing that my life would never be the same. Nothing could replace my father’s presence in my life, and, as a result, the road that lay ahead would be very different than it might have been. Fortunately for me, this priest’s kindness, my mother’s strength and the support of many family members and friends allowed my mother, my siblings and me to reassemble our lives without my dad. Those who came to our rescue made all of the difference in the world.

I revisit the loss of my father because his passing remains with me, a vivid entry that will never fade from my memory. This loss changed my life forever. Yet, it’s a drop in the ocean of devastation that washed over those in the path of Hurricane Irene just days ago. I endured and flourished in spite of the my loss because I found stability in my mother’s love, with my sisters and my brother, in our home, with our extended family, at school, with my friends and within our parish. Some of those who have survived Irene’s wrath have few of these things to hold on to. Lost homes, medications, food, changes of clothing and transportation displaced or delayed by the storm pale in comparison to the losses of family members. Though Irene’s toll was lessened for many by well-placed evacuation plans, consolation eludes many others because nothing familiar remains. Our eastern neighbors likely prayed their way through this storm, only to receive answers that are difficult to understand just now.

Life-changing events are just that, and the survival of those involved often depends upon the response of the rest of us. It seems to me that Hurricane Irene challenged all concerned in unexpected ways. For some, all that has been required is a bit of patience while dealing with transportation issues. Others may never recover from the economic and psychological toll taken. Some will eventually return, perhaps to find themselves with little to look forward to and only memories of the places that used to be home. Those who lost their lives are the only of Irene’s victims who don’t need the help of those around them. God ministers to them personally.

Like you, I find myself overwhelmed by the images that fill our television screens and newspapers in the aftermath of the many recent natural disasters that have touched us here in this country and around the world. When I add in the devastation of the wars that rage as I write, a sense of helplessness reminiscent of the events of September 11 ten years ago overwhelms me. Still, I can’t give in to the fear and hopelessness I felt that day because I also know what happened afterward. All across this country, people pulled together to do everything possible to embrace life anew for the victims and for ourselves, and our efforts netted amazing results. It seemed everyone was proud to be an American because we all exhibited our best in responding to those effected.

Sadly enough, we know too well that the attack on September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Irene will not be the last forces that attempt to devastate our human spirit. Fortunately for us all, we will rescue one another from whatever life changing events may follow with equally life changing generosity and hope.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved