We Speak Loudest through our Actions

Last year, I visited with my cousin Janet as she neared the end of her battle with cancer. In spite of the difficult regimen of treatment she endured, Janet maintained an extremely positive outlook. Perhaps this was in response to the love that surrounded her. As I accompany my sister on an equally difficult journey, thoughts of Janet return and fill me with inspiration…

I remember that when I arrived my cousin lay with her eyes closed, seemingly searching for a bit of comfort in sleep. Since she seemed to be awake behind her closed eyelids, I announced my presence. “Hey!” she said with as much of a smile as she could muster. She added an “oooh” and then another in response to her discomfort. I noted her grandsons’ artwork which decorated the wall in front of her. Janet couldn’t help smiling when I mentioned their names. I went on to fill her in on a recent family gathering and all of the prayers and good wishes that were sent her way. Again, she smiled.

Two nursing assistants interrupted our conversation. They’d been sent to move Janet from her bed to her chair. Though Janet seemed to anticipate the discomfort of this move, she responded, “Okey dokey.” The move wasn’t easy as Janet had been bedridden for weeks. Still, when she settled into her new position, she remarked, “I got it all.” Though Janet’s tumor played havoc with her speech, I understood this expression of pride at having made it from bed to chair.

A few minutes later, Janet’s fiancé Bob arrived. When I’d mentioned Bob earlier, saying that he is a good man, Janet replied with a smile, “Oh, he’s –yeah, he is.” Bob’s “hello” kiss netted only a half smile as Janet was still adjusting to the chair. Janet continued to settle in as Bob gently massaged her neck and shoulders. Though she didn’t speak, Janet seemed to become more comfortable and more peaceful. When Bob moved on to Janet’s head, I shared that I’d bring my husband next time for massage lessons. Once again, Janet offered that half smile that assured us that she was indeed attending to our presence.

This conversation was interrupted by the physical therapist. After introducing herself, she assisted Janet in moving her extremities. Poor Janet’s weeks in bed had taken their toll. Still, in spite of the difficulty and the pain, Janet cooperated as best she could. Janet reacted to the pain by singing an “oooh” here and an “aaah” there. When I complimented my cousin for singing rather than saying “bad” words, that smile appeared once again. When the therapist left, Bob congratulated Janet for her effort and returned to his massage, carefully and gently working each of the areas the therapist had exercised. Again, the peace returned to Janet’s face.

After offering good-bye hugs, I considered this loving couple as I walked to my car. If Bob had rented a billboard on Interstate 294 to profess his love for Janet to the world, it wouldn’t have been as powerful as what I witnessed in his care for her. If Janet had commandeered a hot air balloon that sported an “I love Bob” banner and flown it over Wrigley Field, it wouldn’t have been as powerful as the smile she offered in response to Bob’s name. Indeed, words weren’t necessary between these two because the way they cared for one another said it all.

Bob and the rest of Janet’s loved ones experienced a good deal of sadness over the eventual outcome of Janet’s battle. Still, the enduring love that surrounded her into her last days was far more tangible. All of Janet’s family joined Bob in loving her. They watched over her and cared for her because their love is authentic. Indeed, Janet’s life remains a priceless treasure that her loved ones will treasure until they meet Janet again in a far better place than this.

Today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) and many other gospel passages indicate that adults and children alike were drawn to Jesus. Jesus offered something very different from the repeated lectures of the scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus taught, he spoke with his words and his actions. This is an important aspect of what convinced those who listened that Jesus taught with authority. More importantly, the subject matter of much of Jesus’ teaching was love. Jesus loved more deeply and more inclusively than anyone who had come before him. Jesus offered this love to reveal God’s affection for each of us. It is this selfless love that Bob and Janet’s family extended to her. It is this love that Jesus asks you and me to extend to one another.

Adapted from Something to Think About… For Christmastime and Winter Days
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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When the Call Seems Too Difficult to Answer…

We’d come to this consultation hopeful and eager. Yes, my sister has cancer, but every indicator thus far suggested that Cecele is an excellent candidate for treatment and survival. My sister is a fighter, so this scenario seemed the only possible scenario to her and to the rest of us. In my mind, this appointment was a necessary step toward treatment.

After the doctor introduced herself and reviewed my sister’s medical history, she invited Cecele to a seat very close to her and her computer screen. She wanted Cecele to see what the scans had shown. “You have a beautiful brain!” the doctor remarked with a smile. Needless to say, we were all thrilled with that bit of news. Our cousin succumbed to brain cancer this past July, and none of us were ready to revisit that battlefield. Then, as the doctor clicked further to a full body image, she pointed out two very small, but bright colorations. One tiny dot indicated metastasis, while the other slightly larger smudge revealed a completely different cancer. As the doctor’s words spun around in my head, I stared at my sister. “This is the first day of a completely new life,” I thought to myself, “a new and difficult life.”

I admit that I missed what the doctor said next because my sister’s future passed before me like a motion picture. The past several days had been grueling as test after test moved my sister from a persistent cough, to possible asthma, to a tumor and on to cancer. This turn of events presented a hurdle that none of us were ready to leap over just yet. During the next few minutes, tears washed away our hope and left us standing in the wake of an unwelcome reality. After acknowledging that this was not what she’d planned for the rest of her life, my sister asked what this diagnosis meant. Her question gave the doctor the opportunity to share something positive. My sister’s age and health put her on the positive side of the odds. Though the road ahead will be rocky and uncertain at best, it also offers plenty of room for a serious fight. As the doctor went on, hope returned to Cecele’s face and to the rest of us in spite of the possible outcome. When we went on to her next appointment for radiation planning, my sister assured her second doctor that she’d already cried and was now ready to take action.

Throughout all of this, Cecele, her son and daughter, their families, her siblings, friends and our extended family have sought out prayers from everyone we know. Email has kept us in continued contact with prayerful souls as far away as California, Hawaii, Germany and Croatia. Each development invited more prayer. This final diagnosis has elicited story after story from cancer survivors who insist that it was their faith, hope and determination which pulled them through in spite of terrible odds. So it is that my sister is getting her house in order with a smile and the suspicion that she’ll have to update this paperwork down the road, long after she wins this battle with cancer.

I asked my sister for permission to share her story with you because today’s scriptures focus upon some very difficult calls which also drastically changed lives. In the first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10), God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, a large and sinful city, to urge its inhabitants to change their lives for the better. What this reading doesn’t include is Jonah’s initial response to God’s call. Jonah runs away because he doesn’t want to be a part of reforming non-Jews. In Jonah’s mind, God should have gone ahead and punished these evil-doing foreigners. In the end, Jonah discovers that he can’t run from God and that God’s plans always end well. Indeed, the people of Nineveh repented and renewed their relationships with the Lord. In the second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31), Paul offers no consolation to the reluctant as he declares that life as we know it is changing. My sister can certainly attest to that! The readings end with Mark’s gospel (1:14-20) when Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him. As the gospel tells it, these four fishermen willingly embrace Jesus’ invitation. Two millennia later, we recognize the wisdom of this choice as their story ultimately ended very well.

Cecele doesn’t know the end of her story, and neither do we. Still, whether God calls us to the mundane routines or to the most difficult battles of our lifetimes, we take action. We do our best as we hope for the best because, according to God’s plan, all of our stories will ultimately end very well.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We’re in This Together!

As I write, my husband is packing up the miniature buildings that make up the village beneath our Christmas Tree. Before you sympathize too much with him for tackling this job alone, please be aware that when he finishes, defrocking our Christmas Tree will be left to me. The truth is that we usually help one another with these post-Christmas chores. While Mike dismantles the village, I pack up its little houses. While I remove ornaments from the tree, Mike places them into their boxes. This time around, we’re working independently because I’m writing this afternoon and Mike is giving the homily later on at the 5:00 Mass.

I’m happy to share that Christmas decorating this year was a united effort. Last summer, we planned a trip for the first weekend of December. As a result, we decided to complete our indoor and outdoor decorating before we left. We did just that in record time, while squeezing in a bit of Christmas shopping, too. We rolled up our sleeves and dug in together which made all of the difference. Afterward, we enjoyed our trip to South Carolina and returned home relaxed and inspired. The last leg of our shopping and Christmas preparations also went surprisingly well. The Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations that followed couldn’t have been better.

This past week has been a combination of independent and joint operations in the Penich Household. We babysat for our granddaughters together. When Mike headed off to his hospice work, I stayed home to write. We dismantled the outdoor Christmas displays together. When Mike offered a wake service and two funerals, I headed out to accompany my sister to a doctor’s appointment and then to the hospital for a procedure. When I spent one night away with my sister to be sure she recovered from the anesthesia and experienced no complications, Mike managed things at home.

As I drove back from my sister’s home a few hours ago, it occurred to me that I’d enjoyed the time spent with Mike on our cooperative efforts this past December. Mike and I look forward to Christmas each year and we share common expectations for this special time. It was fun to work together, and these good times fueled our efforts when we set out to do the things we had to do on our own. This January promises lots of independent ventures for Mike and me. As I drove on, I offered thanks for the encouragement I know will be there in the days ahead. I added a prayer for my sister who faces lots of unknowns in the near future. As I wondered how best to help her, I recalled the joys of this busy December. “Just be there for her,” I told myself. “Just be there.”

Life’s circumstances have eased me out of the Christmas Season, and we experience the same here at church. Today, we begin Ordinary Time, the weeks between our celebration of Christ’s birth and Christ’s journey through Lent to Easter. During Ordinary Time, we concentrate on living out our faith in our daily lives. My sister’s journey this past week reminds me that this isn’t always easy. Today’s scriptures remind me that we receive much needed encouragement all the while through God’s presence and the presence of those who love us.

In the first reading (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19), an unrecognizable call wakens young Samuel several times throughout the night. Only after his friend Eli explains this call does Samuel finally respond appropriately. In the second reading (1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20), Paul stresses the importance of helping one another with the gift of ourselves. The gift of our presence to those who need us is the most precise means we have to bring God to one another. In the gospel (John 1:35-42), John the Baptist sees Jesus and announces, “Behold, the lamb of God.” Two disciples who hear say nothing, but they follow Jesus closely. Jesus notices the pair right away and asks what they’re looking for. So begins the relationship that changed their lives and ours as well. Of everyone who has ever walked this earth, Jesus knew and knows the value of human companionship better than anyone.

As we begin this liturgical season of Ordinary Time, life promises each of us anything but the ordinary. It is in the midst of the disruptive events that turn our lives topsy-turvy that we must move from independent to cooperative mode. It is in the midst of these troubling times that we embrace one another and encourage one another as God encourages us, arm in arm, one step at a time.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Keep the Fire Burning!

When my husband and I visited his cousin in Germany this past September, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend, Father Ludger Moliter.  Stjepan knew this priest had studied parish life in Chicago and he hoped that we and Ludger would have many common interests to discuss.  As it happened, we became fast friends who continue to keep in touch via email these days.  Ludger shared that he made my book of reflections a part of his Advent and Christmas observances which certainly sealed our friendship for me! 

 

Father Ludger has generously shared his faith journey with the good deacon and me as well.  A few weeks ago, Ludger sent us Christmas greetings which included some thoughts from his Christmas homily.  He’d drawn his inspiration from a fifteenth century painting by Konrad von Soest.  The artwork, entitled “Christi Geburt” (Birth of Christ), depicts Mary holding the child Jesus, completely in awe of the babe in her arms.  At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor of the stable.  Joseph’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the flames with his breath.  The scene seems almost comical until one realizes the significance of Joseph’s activity.  If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats after all.  If Little Jesus had not been well cared for, he might not have survived this night much less the days and years that followed.  Father Ludger’s point was that, yes, we need to adore, but we must also keep the fire burning.

 

I admit that Father Ludger’s words startled me into considering the realities of Jesus’ birth.  Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty in that cold and dingy stable.  Mary’s impending delivery likely left the stable preparations entirely to Joseph.  Imagine poor Joseph running between Mary and the animals whom he attempted to position a safe distance away.  Imagine Joseph spreading hay and then perhaps laying his own cloak over it to fashion a bed for Mary.  Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed.  It had to be ready to swaddle the baby upon his arrival.  Imagine Joseph glancing back at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her give birth.  And, in the midst of all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep the stable warm.  That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of awe and fire-keeping for Mary and Joseph.  Their love for Jesus never wavered, and the demands of living out that love never wavered either. 

 

The same is true for all of those who affiliate themselves with God’s son.  The Magi, whom we celebrate this Epiphany Day, gambled everything to follow that amazing star because the promise of the King they sought was worth everything to them.  Though the Magi eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there.  In order to spread the news of Whom they found, the Magi had to evade an angry Herod who promised to rid the world of this special child.  Though the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king to their contemporaries.  The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to walk with Jesus had a tough time of it as well.  Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message in a hostile world.  

 

It seems to me that the painting which inspired Father Ludger offers inspiration to you and me as well.  It seems to me that you and I need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as they are depicted in von Soest’s artwork.  Like Mary, we must acknowledge the gift of God in our lives.  What unfathomable and generous love it is that caused the Creator of the Universe to become one of us!  Indeed, we have much reason to sit in awe before the Lord.  Still, the same generous love which gives us pause also compels us imitate it in our daily lives in all that we say and do.  Only then will we be like Joseph and the many who followed him in nurturing God’s presence in this world.  Yes, as Father Ludger observed, we need to adore, but we must also keep the fire burning.

                                                                                                     

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved