Live with Gratitude, Generosity and Joy

For as long as I can remember, I’ve opened my eyes to the day at hand with words of gratitude on my lips. This is no indication of piety on my part. My mom taught me long ago to be grateful for what I have. I decided then and there to express my thanks for each new day and all that it might bring. Doing so first thing in the morning assured me that my bases were covered. I’d taken my mom’s lesson to heart and I’d acknowledged God’s generosity -not a bad way for a little kid to start her day.

I admit that it didn’t take me long to question my mother’s seemingly boundless appreciation for this life. My own grief kept me from acknowledging my mom’s pain at the time. It was years later that I wondered how she endured the losses of her brother, her dad and her husband within a three year span. Though my brother, my four sisters and I kept her busy, I’m not sure that caring for us sustained her in her sorrow. Yet, remarkably, my mother continued to live with gratitude. This gratitude manifested itself in uncommon generosity. In spite of the tough times that resulted from my dad’s untimely passing, my mom often acknowledged that there were many others who were more needy than we were. I found this difficult to believe at times. Nonetheless, I admired my mother’s ability to give so freely of her meager treasure and of herself.

It occurs to me that my mother survived her life’s trials because she embraced her life’s blessings. She moved beyond her sadness, nurtured her gratitude and lived generously because she truly appreciated her time on this earth. My mother took pride in who she was and she did her best to present her best to the world. My mother loved her family and the friends she found outside of her home. She and her sisters continued their frequent outings together until she and her older sister were in their eighties. She maintained friendships with high school classmates for almost as long. My mother found joy in babysitting for her grandchildren, sewing for the veterans and socializing at the senior center. When each step down the hall became a challenge, my mother still found joy when she finally arrived for the day’s Bingo Game. Even as she lay waiting to make her final journey home, my mother smiled as we gathered at her bedside to whisper our good-byes. Not long afterward, she passed peacefully to embrace the life for which she’d been in training.

This Second Sunday of Advent, I find that my mother’s approach to life aligns quite nicely with Isaiah’s message (Isaiah 40:1-5; 9-11). God’s people have endured intolerable misery for a very long time. Today, the prophet tells them, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated…” Through Isaiah, God assures the people that their iniquity is forgiven. Isaiah tells them it is time to welcome God back into their midst. The prophet offers his brothers and sisters God’s invitation to turn their lives around for the long haul. Not only must they rejoice in this positive turn of events; they must also rejoice in every moment they are given. God is with them and God will provide for them in all things. They need nothing more to live this life to the full. In the second reading (2 Peter 3:8-14), Peter echoes Isaiah’s call to look to the Lord for all that we need when he tells us, “The Lord does not delay his promise…” Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:1-8) also references Isaiah with words carefully chosen to underscore the importance of Jesus’ coming. Mark quotes John the Baptizer who tells us, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Indeed, God walks among us.

This Second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah echoes my mom’s challenge to live with gratitude, with generosity and with joy. Though I begin every day with a prayer of thanks for the blessings of this life, I sometimes miss the joy in the moments that follow. Though I’ve emulated my mom’s generosity as best I can, I’ve sometimes missed the joy of God’s presence in these moments of giving. This Advent provides each of us the opportunity to revisit Isaiah’s and my mother’s challenge. For the days that remain until Christmas and every day thereafter, you and I are called to be grateful, to be generous and to find joy in all that we do. God is truly with us and it is up to us to live accordingly!
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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God’s Good Company

As December approaches, each day’s demands grow exponentially. I find myself tackling my To-Do List from the time I awake each morning to the time I retire each night. It was a quick stop at the Jewel last weekend which reminded me that Thanksgiving was just a few days off. Because we gathered at our son’s home, my husband and I didn’t have to shop for a turkey this year. It was the inviting display of pumpkin pies that reminded me of Thursday’s holiday. Since I’ve written a book of Advent, Christmas and winter reflections, one would think that I’m well-prepared for the onset of the holiday season. The truth is that I’ve already started to write for Lent 2012, which causes my focus on Advent 2011 to be skewed at best. So it is that I’m determined to get with the program by attending very closely to everything around me this First Sunday of Advent.

As I enter church, our Advent Wreath catches my eye. Purple and pink candles call our attention to the four weeks ahead. The green accents that marked the hope of Ordinary Time have given way to purple. With our hope intact, Advent’s violet hues beckon us to embrace the passionate sentiments of the weeks to come. Through the scripture readings, we retrace the steps of the Israelites who cried out to God in their misery only to receive God’s comfort in response again and again. Our hymns call us to wake up and prepare. We search our hearts and adjust our priorities to make room for God to dwell among us and within us. Today, even the most familiar prayers of the Mass demand our attention as we recite from the new translation of the Roman Missal for the first time. This Advent 2011, we’re challenged to invite God into every aspect of our lives.

I’m most grateful for Advent’s arrival. This season has given me reason to slow down –at least while I’m in church– and to remember that I’m not alone in enduring the trials and tribulations of this life. For as long as God’s children have walked this earth, life among us has been difficult at best. The pain we experience when the circumstances of our lives run amok is as ancient as the scriptures. Poor Isaiah speaks from his own intense suffering in today’s first reading (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:2-7). In spite of the effort he puts into his relationship with God, Isaiah wells up with anger and doubt. He fumes over the Israelites’ continued unfaithfulness to God. He simply can’t stand by and watch their evildoing any longer. Isaiah fumes even more vigorously at the Lord God who seems content to step back to observe as the people engage in their iniquity. Isaiah glares heavenward and asks, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” In the face of the many personal and societal ills that besiege us all these days, you and I may be inclined to pose the same question to God for ourselves: “If You don’t want things to be this way, why do You allow it?” Fortunately, Isaiah moves past his anger and uncertainty toward the One who has been listening all the while. In the depths of his heart, Isaiah realizes that he and the rest of God’s children have never been alone in any of this. The prophet prays, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are the work of your hands.” Because we are the most beloved work of God’s hands, God remains with us just as God remained with Isaiah as we face all that lies ahead.

This First Sunday of Advent, we gather around God’s family table where God reminds us that we are in good Company as we journey to Christmas. Just as God was present in the best and worst of Israel’s history, God is present in the moments of our lives. Just as God placed Isaiah in the midst of Israel’s troubles to improve things as best Isaiah could, God places you and me in the midst of this world’s troubles to do the same. It occurs to me that your and my Advent To-do Lists are actually Advent Opportunity Lists. Whether we find ourselves on the arm of our elderly parent or of our unyielding child, whether we suffer with an impossible job or an endless job search, whether we are sick in body or sick in spirit, whether we long for peace in this world or peace in our own homes, each of us struggles to find our way, one moment at a time. It is during difficult moments that we must imitate Isaiah by acknowledging God’s presence. When we’re tempted to curse the heavens, we must remember Isaiah’s prayer to the Potter who created us for these very moments. When we open our eyes and our hearts to God who knows our troubles better than we know them ourselves, we will somehow manage the tasks before us. These moments of Grace in which we find God at are sides –these are what we prepare for this Advent 2011. These are what we look forward to in the things to come.
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Remembering Thanksgiving Past

A recent bout with a stomach virus robbed me of some of my enthusiasm regarding the upcoming holidays. In an effort to reacquaint myself with the Spirit of Thanksgiving, I revisited my writings from past years. I wrote what follows a few days before Thanksgiving 2002. In the process, I’ve found just what I need to revive my spirit…

Today, I enjoyed the privilege of stopping at the grocery store on the way home from work. Like the many who joined me there, I was running late. As the cars of other “before dinner” shoppers filled the parking lot, one shopper backed out just as I came along. I was able to park in a “prime” spot and slip into the store quickly. As I fumbled for the list in my pocket, I noticed a bigger than life display of stuffing mixes and turkey gravies. I thought this was rather odd until I looked up again to read the meat department’s invitation to order a fresh turkey early. I gasped as I realized that Thanksgiving is just a few days away. With everything that has occurred, both personally and in the rest of the world, I had given little thought to the holiday. As I made my way up and down aisle after aisle, I considered what Thanksgiving will be like this year.

Usually, my family gathers for a Thanksgiving Dinner that includes thirty-three family members and a traditional meal of turkey with all of the trimmings. This year, due to various familial happenings, some of us will dine with our immediate families. Later in the day, we will gather at my sister’s to continue our festivities with my mom. According to her doctors, this will likely be my mom’s last Thanksgiving Dinner with us. With this the case, I was briefly surprised and impatient with myself for having lost all sensibility regarding the holiday. I actually neglected to argue with my husband for a fresh turkey rather than his favorite -any turkey that sports a pop-up button to indicate when it’s ready. I didn’t try to convince my sisters that we all needed to eat together this year to make Thanksgiving a memorable day for my mom. As I gathered the items on my list, I found myself a bit melancholy. I realized that our scattered dining arrangements are the least of why this Thanksgiving will be very different.

I have come to know that the things for which we are grateful are relative. The blessings that enrich our lives vary as our circumstances change. What was important just a while ago may mean little to us today. This year, my mother and her housemates have put things into perspective for me…

One man, who looks very much like a descendent of Beethoven, suffers from emphysema. Some days, he buries his face in his hands putting all of his energy into breathing. He gives thanks for any breath that comes easily. Little Mary and Marie are confined to wheelchairs. Little Mary suffers from constant shoulder pain. On the rare occasions that the pain subsides, she gives thanks with a wonderfully content smile. Marie has difficulty controlling her hands. When she is able to feed herself an entire meal, she sighs a sigh of true accomplishment and a barely audible “Thank God!” Myrtle ambulates here and there on her own. Sometimes, when the confusion sets in, she fights to put herself back on track. When she wins, peace returns to her eyes. She expresses her gratitude with sociable chitchat, acknowledging the company of friends, many of whom cannot respond in kind. John takes pride in pulling himself up and out of his chair independently, not an easy task for a six-foot-four-inch former basketball player who must rely on a walker for stability. When he succeeds, John walks without hunching over and with uncommon pride. My mom considers her current living quarters to be “a nice place with very good food.” She smiles and hurries off when it’s time to play Bingo. She especially enjoys it when one of her five daughters appears to join in the fun. My mom is grateful for the pain-free days that continue in spite of the cancer. She is grateful for our outings. Our homes and the movie theater continue to be her favorite destinations. Perhaps she gives thanks most for remembering. My mom knows her children and her grandchildren, her sister and so many extended family members. She also remembers herself.

As I consider the things for which my mom and her friends are grateful, living another day with a bit of joy in their hearts seems to top the list. As I consider the things for which I am grateful, I note the blessings of my new job and new opportunities to write -things I’ve waited so very long to enjoy. Yet, when I prioritize, time with my family, time with my mom and time spent talking to God top the list. When life is painful, I find myself embracing the things that bring true joy.

This Thanksgiving Day, may God bless each one of us with true joy. May God grant us the courage to face our sorrows and the wisdom to embrace our blessings. May we bring comfort to those who need us and may we find comfort in those we love. May peace reign in our hearts and overflow into our world. May we be a grateful people, generous in our thanks to one another and to God, for what we have and what will come. Happy Thanksgiving!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

There’s Always Room for Forgiveness

Though Advent hasn’t yet begun, I found myself browsing in a Christmas store a few weeks ago. I controlled my wallet until a tiny bird’s nest beckoned me. This sweet little creation, fashioned from nature’s finest twine and twigs, closely resembles a gift I’d received from a student in my first class. Eugene’s older sister enjoyed crafts, and she’d produced many beautiful items for Christmas that year. She generously parted with this little nest to provide Eugene a gift for me. I’d told the children that no gifts were necessary. It would be enough to celebrate by enjoying our class party together. Still, on party day, Eugene joined me in ignoring this rule. Eugene’s bird’s nest has remained one of our favorite ornaments. It rests on a prominent branch of our Christmas Tree every year. As a result, this poor little nest began to show serious wear some years ago. When I saw its new counterpart, it occurred to me that Eugene’s sister could have made it as well. It looks so much like her work! So it was that I purchased this new reminder of my first Christmas as a teacher. When Eugene’s nest finally refuses to respond to my repairs, this new ornament will keep alive my memories of Christmas 1973 and the struggle within my classroom during the difficult days before Christmas.

I was a new teacher and it was during November that I finally felt confident about managing my students. I’d learned that I had to be consistent with my discipline and that I had to do what I said I’d do -no matter what! Things were going well until we began to prepare for Christmas. My students spent their music classes practicing holiday songs that they’d perform for their parents. They made paper props to wear and to decorate the school stage. We teachers organized an afternoon movie assembly and our individual class Christmas Parties. All of this was intended to “keep the lid on” until Friday, December 21, when we’d release the children for Christmas Break. Good teacher that I was, I reminded my students that they needed to cooperate by behaving and by doing their work. None of us –especially me!- wanted to miss our assembly, our evening parent program or our class Christmas Party. A few well placed references to Santa Claus did the trick for most of my third graders.

Three of my students, who’d distinguished themselves behavior-wise early on, had a terrible time throughout December. The little imps still hadn’t begun to master self-control. They couldn’t keep themselves in line; they couldn’t keep themselves quiet, and they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. By Wednesday before our party, they’d pushed beyond my fairly minimal limits. That afternoon, I informed them that they would not attend our class party. Crestfallen, they moped in line on their way home that afternoon. Thursday morning, they caroused around the playground –until they saw me. My presence must have reminded them that they’d be sitting outside the principal’s office the following afternoon. Their skips became slow walks and their smiling eyes clouded over as they focused on the blacktop beneath their feet and joined the line to enter school.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus speaks clearly regarding his appreciation of those who behave toward one another as he would. Jesus tells us that these good people will be rewarded for their trouble in his kingdom to come. Jesus goes on to say that those who fail to do as Jesus asked will not be welcomed into the eternal banquet that awaits us all. As I consider my own imperfections, I find myself moping like my wayward students who did their best to spoil Christmas for themselves that year. It was up to me to maintain an orderly classroom. It was up to me to enforce appropriate rules. Still, I couldn’t help noting that my three outcasts were somewhat subdued the day before our party. By Friday morning, I hardly noticed them at all as they’d joined in their classmates’ cooperative efforts. An hour after lunch, as my three friends gathered pencils, paper and books for the trek to the principal’s office, my heart ached. “Do you know why you’re leaving?” I asked. Each one nodded. “What are you going to do about it?” I asked. “Be good!” they said unison. With that, in spite of what I’d told them earlier, I led them back to their desks to join in the festivities.

Though Jesus is quite stern in his remarks regarding those who fail to do good, Jesus is also quite persistent in his message of forgiveness. Like this third grade teacher who couldn’t bear to hurt her students more than they’d already hurt themselves, Jesus leaves room for our regret and for God’s forgiveness. In the end, my wayward third graders fulfilled my hope that January would bring them a new beginning. I believe that Jesus allows us the same opportunity –even if it’s at our last moment– to be good!
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Better Because We Are There…

When the good deacon and I visited Germany in September, we made our last pilgrimage of this trip to Berlin. We stayed with Mike’s cousin, Father Stjepan, in Essen. If you know your German geography, you’re aware that Essen and Berlin are just under three hundred fifty miles apart. To assure us enough time to appreciate the city, Stjepan arranged our roundtrip train ride which left Essen at 5:23 A.M. and arrived in Berlin around 8:30.

Though I fully expected to complete my night’s sleep as the train sped along, I found myself peering out the window much of the time. The night sky faded into a beautiful blue, revealing a lovely sunny and breezy autumn day. The sun provided perfect lighting for the show along the way. Trees bent and leaves swirled just enough to acknowledge the wind’s might. The digital information board above my head reported a temperature of 59, and I looked forward to being embraced by the day’s cool breezes. Our cousin, Josip, interrupted my revelry to offer me breakfast. The sisters with whom we’d shared most of our meals during this trip sent sandwiches, fruit, water and juice to sustain us until lunch. After we ate, we planned our eleven-hour stay in Berlin.

When we arrived, we walked around the famed railway station, a nearby university and the government plaza before boarding a Berlin City Tour Bus. This tour allowed us to get on and off at various sites of interest. Before lunch, we visited a museum featuring an amazing collection of ancient Greek artifacts as well as an extensive display of Muslim treasures. After lunch, we attended a short prayer service at the Lutheran Cathedral which also serves as a museum. In the Catholic Cathedral of St. Hedwig, we found numerous crypts which honor saints past and present. The most touching display rested in the crypt of a man who’d saved numerous people during the Holocaust. Above this man’s remains stood a beautiful menorah with Jesus hanging on the cross behind it. Suddenly, my high school and college history classes and everything I’d read on the topic since came to life. This heroic man’s grave conjured up the horror I’d felt so many times before in the face of our inhumanity toward one another.

When we returned to the outdoors, the cool breeze that I’d enjoyed much of this day became an icy chill as we walked on in search of the Holocaust Memorial. Though neither the temperature nor the wind velocity had changed, my city tour did. This trek resembled many past walks in unfamiliar cemeteries when Mike and I searched for family members’ seemingly lost graves. No longer a tourist, I’d become a mourner in the face of the atrocities of Hitler’s regime. As we made our way along Berlin’s bustling streets, I found myself on a mission to pay my respects to these lost brothers and sisters.

Eventually, we came upon what seemed to be a concrete city. Carefully arranged rectangular gray blocks of varying heights filled this corner which was much larger than our parish property. Each block gave the impression of a crypt, though no remains are preserved in this place. The concrete blocks seemed to go on forever. After absorbing the scene, Josip, Mike and I walked the aisles that crisscross this concrete graveyard. Though I knew the souls that these giant blocks represented had long since met their Maker and their eternal rewards, I had to touch each one as I passed it. I felt impelled to pay homage to their suffering, though long after the fact. I had to let each one know that I cared. Earlier that day, when we’d walked the government plaza, Josip translated the inscription on the portico of the Old Parliament Building. It read, “For the German People.” As we left the Holocaust Memorial, I appreciated the importance of this pledge more fully. I prayed that those who governed that day and those who will govern in the future will never forget this promise to use their gifts to care justly and graciously for those in their charge.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus offers the parable of a wealthy man who leaves his servants with money to invest while he is away. The servant given five coins invests and doubles them. The servant given two coins does the same. Fearful of losing the single coin he was given, the third man buries it. When the master returns, he’s thrilled with the servants who doubled his money and furious with the servant who buried his coin. Though the rich man didn’t lose this investment, he also gained nothing. It is this disappointment in a lost opportunity that frustrates him so. You know, not many of us will be given the opportunity to change the entire world for better or worse. Still, each one of us is gifted with talents enough to make a difference where we are. It seems to me that Jesus’ parable challenges us to do just that. Our homes, our families, our schools, our workplaces, our communities –every place that we enter into should be better because we are there.
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Blessings of a Warm Welcome

I vividly recall my trepidation in anticipation of our first trip to Europe. My husband had finally found his Croatian cousins after a decades-long search, and he determined that the only appropriate end to this journey was to meet them. Little did I know that this trip would be one of the most cherished experiences of my life. Even more remarkable, when Mike’s family left us at the airport, it was I who promised that we would return one day. I’d become very fond of the Penić Cousins, and I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing them again. Five years later, I’m happy to report that my fear of being confined in an airplane for eight hours has subsided. I attribute this change of heart to the welcoming people whom I met at the end of each flight. Our subsequent trips have deepened my appreciation of the gracious souls who’ve opened their hearts and homes to us.

Mike and I spent Sunday, September 11, 2011, in Essen, Germany. On this, our fourth morning in Germany, as had become our custom, we met Cousin Stjepan at the door of his flat one floor beneath ours. As we crossed the courtyard toward the sisters’ monastery for breakfast, Stjepan showed me ten fingers and remarked, “New York. Ten years ago.” He shook his head in dismay as he folded his hands behind his back to continue our walk. I was sorry not to be home to observe this tenth anniversary, and I was most grateful that dear Stjepan understood my melancholy. When we joined the sisters for our morning meal, it became obvious that they, too, appreciated the gravity of our experience that day ten years ago. Indeed, most of the world shared in our horror. It struck me that the hospitality extended to us during this trip exceeded everything we might have hoped for. We’d found good company with whom to share both our joys and our sorrows.

Later that morning, we walked to the church where Father Stjepan celebrates Mass in Croatian every Sunday. Though we were quite early, choir members filled the loft as altar servers filed into the sacristy. Since Mike and Father Stjepan had to dress for Mass, I became the official photographer for the occasion. I admit that I enjoyed capturing numerous candid photos. Those who noticed my approach smiled broadly, perhaps to insure this tourist that they were happy to cooperate. During Mass, Cousin Josip helped me to find my place in SLAVIMO BOGA, the Croatian hymnal. Since Mike’s attempts to learn Croatian have been fruitless, he prepared his homily in English. After each paragraph he spoke, Cousin Josip read the Croatian translation. Mike’s captive congregation smiled throughout. Those who spoke English made a point of seeing Mike after Mass to assure him that they enjoyed his homily and that Josip had translated accurately. In spite of dripping with nervous perspiration, Mike couldn’t help grinning appreciatively. When Mike returned to the sacristy, a dozen middle school students surrounded him to pose question after question about the United States. These Croatian teens, educated in Germany, were fluent in German and English as well as their native tongue. They spoke to Mike as though they’d known him forever -or was it his rock star persona? Either way, they listened intently, hopeful that they’d visit this country of ours one day. As we strolled back to our flat, I gave thanks for another warm welcome.

Since Cousin Stjepan doesn’t speak English, he’d arranged for us to be in the company of competent translators and tour guides throughout our trip. This afternoon, Stjepan enlisted a parishioner to give us a tour of the New Ruhr Museum, an Essen coal mine that has been meticulously preserved. Our guide, Josip, is a civil engineer who worked on this project and knows the facility inside and out. Though the tour was remarkable, the friendship we found in Josip and his family was even more so. After our tour, Josip drove us through his neighborhood and then took us to his home. There, Josip’s wife Spomenka and their daughters welcomed us in for a visit. Once again, Mike and I found ourselves at home-away-from-home.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus seems rather harsh toward the foolish bridesmaids who don’t have enough oil to greet an annoyingly late bridegroom. Biblical scholars tell us that those who are unprepared for the groom represent those of us who are unprepared for God’s unexpected gifts. The bridesmaids who carried extra oil represent those who are always ready to embrace what God has in store, full of hope and joy over what is to come. Throughout our travels, Mike and I have been blessed with many who’ve mistaken us for the Bridegroom whom we all hope to greet one day. Then again, perhaps it’s been no mistake after all. Perhaps these modern day bridesmaids see as Jesus does –beyond our imperfections to the precious Light within us all.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved