Let Go to Embrace God’s Treasure

My husband and I just returned from a visit with my sister Cecele.  Since Cecele spent the past two days in bed, Mike and I were thrilled that she found the strength to get up to greet us.  When we told her so, Cecele responded, “Yeah, but I’m still in my pajamas!”  After assuring us that her sense of humor has indeed returned, Cecele became serious.  “You know, when you’re sick, people encourage you and urge you on to get well.  They know just what to say.  When you’re in hospice, it’s different.  Everyone knows you’re not going to get better.  It’s hard for them to know what to say.  It’s hard for the person in hospice, too…”  During the moments of quiet that followed, I marveled at my sister’s ability to share this very personal perspective regarding her journey.

As I read John’s gospel (6:1-15), I can’t help considering Cecele’s dilemma further.  In this passage, John offers his rendering of The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.  As the story goes, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee to seek some much needed rest for his disciples and himself.  A crowd follows along because they have been deeply touched by Jesus’ numerous healings.  The people cannot get enough of the hope that Jesus so generously offers.  When Jesus sees the fatigued and famished multitude before him, he is moved with pity and love for them.  Jesus turns to the disciples and asks where they might find food for them.  Stunned by Jesus’ incredulous request, poor Philip responds that two hundred days’ wages could not purchase enough food for the crowd.  Though he knows this will be of little help, Andrew points out that a boy among them has five barley loaves and two fish.  Jesus somehow acquires the boy’s basket of food and transforms it into a meal for thousands that has been remembered for the two millennia since.

As I consider Jesus’ miracle, it occurs to me that I have never given much thought to the boy with the bread and fish.  This poor lad finds himself in the midst of a hungry horde who has no prospects for a much needed meal.  This youngster probably aches with hunger himself after his long trek to the mountainside in search of Jesus.  I wonder if some of the adults or older children tried to cajole the boy into sharing his meager provisions.  I wonder how it happened that the boy was willing to part with what might have been his last meal for quite some time.

As I consider further, I surmise that this boy must have been impressed by Jesus to some degree or he wouldn’t have been amidst the crowd that day.  Though the boy may have been dragged into all of this by his parents, somehow he managed to get close enough to Jesus for his basket of food to be noticed.  With hundreds of hungry people in need of the boy’s food, how is it that Jesus came into possession of it?  Did Andrew urge the boy to give it up?  Did the boy’s family insist that he part with his food for Jesus?  Or did Jesus himself approach the boy with an offer he couldn’t refuse:  “If only you will let go of these few fish and loaves, I’ll replace them with something that you will have forever.  Will you let go of this small meal so I can fill you up with all that you will ever need?”

In the end, I don’t really know the reason that the boy handed over his very sustenance to Jesus.  As my thoughts return to my sister Cecele, I wonder.  How is it that she finds the courage to let go of everyone and everything that has sustained her through this life?  How is it that she slowly loosens her grasp on the things of this world to reach toward the next?  It occurs to me that the boy in John’s gospel parted with his bread and fish because he couldn’t resist Jesus.  It occurs to me that Cecele is following the boy’s lead because she, too, simply cannot resist all that awaits her in Jesus’ company.

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes gives each of us cause to let go as well.  Just as Jesus coaxed that basket from the boy’s hand and coaxes Cecele to let go of her life among us, he coaxes you and me to loosen our grips on the things of this world.  Just as the boy found his reward in Jesus’ presence and Cecele finds her reward in Jesus’ promises, you and I find our reward in the God we simply can’t resist.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


God’s Heart Is Moved With Love For Us All

At the onset of her illness, my sister prefaced every medical conversation with, “I’m a planner.”  Each time, Cecele went on to explain to her doctors that this propensity to be organized required that she know her options and what to expect all along the way.  Perhaps Cecele’s doctors weren’t used to such directness from their patients because it has taken many reminders throughout this journey to get them to comply with her simple requests for information.  I’m happy to report that, finally, everyone is on the same page and my sister is very much aware of what the future holds for her.

It was two weeks ago that the doctor explained the results of Cecele’s most recent tests.  New cancer growth and other complications seriously threatened the success of further chemotherapy.  Knowing what lay ahead, the doctor told Cecele that he understood if she opted not to continue treatment and that he would support her decision either way.  My weary sister responded quickly that she’d had enough.  That afternoon, my husband and I joined Cecele and her son for a meeting with Daniela, a hospice nurse.  Planner that she is, Cecele invited Mike and me to sit in to insure that all went well.  Planner that she is, my sister didn’t need much help from any of us.  Cecele asked all of the right questions and shared all of the pertinent information as she and Daniela began to prepare for this last leg of her journey home.

Getting all of her hospice personnel and services in place was easy enough.  Welcoming these wonderfully caring and competent people into Cecele’s life has returned some consistency and routine to her days.  Scheduling visits with her family and friends has never been a problem.  The challenges have come in the forms of changing priorities and time management.  Cecele’s interest in small talk has diminished, though her desire for her family’s company is as strong as ever.  Cecele’s precision in dealing with work, finances and running the household has taken a back seat as she concentrates on solidifying her relationships with those she loves for the long haul.

Though my sister is very much aware of the wonder that awaits her, she is also very much aware that she is giving up her life among us to experience that wonder.  So many things that she once looked forward to will never be and it is extremely difficult to look beyond this terrible loss.  As we sat together the other day, I put my arm around Cecele and told her, “I wish I could take your place for a few days.”  If only I could give Cecele a few days without the pain and the worry and the sadness.

As I struggle to find ways to console my sister, I return the place in which I’ve consistently found peace during the darkest moments of my own life.  When I’ve found myself crumpling under the weight of my burdens, I have looked deep within to the only One who truly understands my troubles.  There, I weep bitterly for myself as I enumerate the things which have brought me to the brink of despair.  When I’ve exhausted my mournful list, I weep again.  This time, I offer tears of understanding as I acknowledge that God has known my misery all along.  Finally, I cry tears of peaceful joy because I realize that I’m not alone after all.  Someone understands what I am going through even more so than I understand myself.  Sometimes this realization gives me the courage and the strength to go on.  Sometimes this realization gives me the courage and the strength to simply sit in God’s presence for as long as I need God’s warm embrace.

In Mark’s gospel (6:30-34), Jesus ushers his weary friends to a deserted place where they can find some much needed rest.  Unfortunately, the crowds who seek their own comfort in Jesus’ company also follow him.  Tired as he was, when Jesus saw the people gathered before him, “…his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

God’s heart is moved with pity and great love for my sister as well.  The best I can hope for Cecele is that she finds the source of refuge who waits deep within her to carry her to her everlasting home.  The best I can hope for each one of us is the company of the God of Love whose heart is moved with pity and with great love for us all.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Thank God Some Things Stick With Us

When I arrived to visit my sister in the hospital last week, I found her and the chaplain deep in conversation.  I managed to tip-toe away before interrupting them.  Cecele’s room is on the eighth floor of Lutheran General Hospital which means that the views in almost every direction are amazing.  The family lounge where I waited offered a large window area. Since I was alone, I sat on the sill and found the Chicago Skyline.  I quickly located the John Hancock Center, Standard Oil Building and Sears Tower in the distance.  Though the latter two names have changed for the rest of the world, I stubbornly hold onto the designations they were given “way back” when I witnessed their construction.  These landmarks are part and parcel of my high school and college years.  I simply refuse to allow their new labels to distort or detract from the precious memories of these most formative eras of my life.  For me, these building names will always remain the same.  “Funny how things stick with us,” I mumbled to myself.

As I turned my gaze skyward, billowing white clouds lingered above the hospital.  They transported me to the backyard of my childhood home where there were no buildings tall enough to obstruct my view.  Many a summer evening, I sat on a swing with my eyes fixed on the massive white clusters above me.  I loved the clouds because I knew that just beyond them God kept watch over me and my loved ones.  Though my parents had never put it quite this way, their continued reliance upon our benevolent Creator assured me of this reality.  “Funny how things stick with us,” I mumbled again.

After allowing myself to revel in these memories, I closed my eyes and turned my thoughts heavenward.  Things had not been going well for my sister for a few weeks.  Cecele underwent surgery to remove her cancerous kidney and a bleeding tumor.  Though her recovery from the surgery went quite well, the absence of chemotherapy took its toll.  Some telltale symptoms proved accurate.  After a subsequent procedure, a scan, an x-ray and more developments, the potential for the success of additional treatment seemed grim at best.  On the other hand, the potential for further discomfort and debilitating side effects promised to become my sister’s reality.  When serious illnesses threatened the loved ones of my childhood, my mother ushered us into the living room every evening.  There we prayed the Rosary together for a speedy recovery.  After using what remained of my wait to do the same for my sister, I mumbled once again, “Funny how things stick with us.”

Not long afterward, the chaplain walked by on his way from Cecele’s room.  When I arrived to start my visit, my sister shared that her conversation with the chaplain had gone well.  “Someone told him that I was having a tough time.  He told me a story, a good story.”  With that, we discussed her uncertain future and the choices that lay ahead.  Pensive as we were, we pulled out the playing cards and began a game of Gin Rummy.  My sister Rita arrived a bit later and joined in the game.  When I left that afternoon, I considered Cecele’s predicament –the same that so many of our loved ones have experienced over the years.  I couldn’t help smiling as I acknowledged that we handled the situation just as they did.  We thought.  We prayed.  We made a plan.  We played.  “Funny how things stick with us,” I said aloud as I started my car for the drive home.

Mark’s gospel (6:7-13) tells us that Jesus prepared his disciples carefully for their first missions.  After offering them the best of his teaching and the best of his example, Jesus gave a few final directives:  Take nothing but a walking stick… Wear sandals and a single tunic…  Stay where you are welcomed…  Shake off the dust of any place that doesn’t welcome you…  I can’t help wondering what Jesus said as he watched his best friends walk out into the distance:  Remember I am with you…  Reveal our loving God in every word and deed…  Know that your best is good enough for me…  I love you…  Mark closes this passage with the happy news of the disciples’ surprising success.  Funny how the things Jesus shared stuck with them, isn’t it?  Funny how the things Jesus shared stick with you and me.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


O Lord, I Am Not Worthy

“I will heal their defection,” says the Lord.
“I will love them freely.”
From Hosea 14:2-10

My cousin and I engaged in a lengthy conversation this afternoon when she called to inquire about my sister’s battle with cancer.  My cousin lost both of her sisters and one brother to cancer within just three years.  Understandably, she continues to have difficulty comprehending the reason for all of this.  Sadly, she also asks, “Why them and not me?  They were much better people than I am…”

My cousin has difficulty imagining her value, though she is very dear to us all.  As I struggled to find the words to console her, a long past conversation with my husband came to mind…

My mom was in the midst of her own battle with cancer.  At 83, she was grateful for her family and her long and productive life.  Though her diagnosis came as a surprise, she accepted it and determined that she would enjoy the days that remained as best she could.  Occasionally, my mom had memory lapses.  Though she always knew her children, she was sometimes uncertain of other things that were of importance to her.  It pained me to see this.  In my frustration, I asked my husband why God hadn’t yet taken her home.  He replied, “You don’t get to judge the value of her life now.  You have no idea of the good she may be doing.”  After my mom passed, I returned to her final home for a memorial honoring those who had recently died.  As I wandered by the dining room on my way to the chapel, the dismal tone startled me.  “It was never like that when Mom was there,” I thought.  “She was always smiling and talking to her housemates.  She brought life to this place.”  Suddenly, I realized that even my mom’s forgetful days were of great value to those around her.

I told my dear cousin this story.  I added that I can’t count the times that a simple smile or greeting or kindness has brightened an otherwise dark day for me.  Without thinking, my cousin resmarked, “I always respond to people.  If there’s one thing I’ve done right with my son it is teaching him to be considerate of others.  Yep!  That’s what I do!”  As it happened, I didn’t have to console my cousin because she recognized a bit of her value after all.

None of us can place limits upon or undo the awesome work that is our life on this earth.  The length of time spent here is of little matter to God.  What matters is the effort we put into that time.  More importantly, even when our effort doesn’t measure up to our gifts, God draws goodness from us.  Indeed, each of us is worthy because God has made it so!

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Times Have Changed and Remained the Same

This past Sunday, though I usually spend the morning at my parish, I left a bit early to attend our annual family picnic.  I stopped for gas and loaded the car with my contributions to our potluck feast.  Though my husband the good deacon usually helps with such things, I was on my own for the moment.  Mike was preaching the 10:45 Mass after which he would fly in, change clothes and hop into the car for the trek out to St. Charles for this family gathering.

As I gathered my bag of coloring books, crayons and bubbles for the kids, images of my mom, Aunt Pauline and Aunt Lucille filled me up.  These much beloved matriarchs oversaw our family picnics for decades.  Though my sister or my cousin usually reserved a forest preserve grove for us each year, my mom and my aunts were among the earliest to arrive on picnic day to stake their claim to our territory.

My mom and my aunts arranged games for the kids and adults alike.  They also supplied a piñata filled with candy and loose change.  The rest of us trickled in at the appointed time with our families and food in tow.  As I continued to load my car, I whispered a prayer of thanks for my sister Rita who currently coordinates this event and for my cousin Bob who has allowed us to trade in our forest preserve shelter for his beautiful home.  Bob offers both indoor plumbing and a pool for our collective enjoyment.  Rita and Bob also supply the main course so the rest of us need only to bring along ourselves and a side dish to share.  How wonderful it is that times have changed!  And how wonderful it is that times have remained the same…

The last items I put into my car were sugar cookies I had baked for my niece Shirley and her new husband Cory.  Though I admit that these cookies are good, Shirley has been a lifelong fan of these apparent culinary treasures.  When my sister Rita told me that her daughter Shirley, Cory and her granddaughter Taylor were driving in from Denver for this picnic, I decided to acknowledge the newlyweds with my cookies.  So  it was that I spent the day before the picnic baking and frosting mini wedding cakes.

When the good deacon arrived home after Mass, he assisted me in repositioning my cookie-filled glass platters so they wouldn’t budge as we drove.  As we worked, images of our sons and my nieces and nephews filled me up.  I recalled the numerous forms these sugar cookies have taken over the years and the kids’ smiling faces as they gobbled them down –especially Shirley’s.  My sisters’ and brother’s children have all grown to adulthood and found their places in the world.  Some have families of their own which include an assortment of great nieces and great nephews who are making their way up the ranks.  How wonderful it is that times have changed!  And how wonderful it is that times have remained the same…

When Mike and I arrived at my cousin Bob’s house, Rita greeted us –and the cookies- with a huge smile.  After we made a place for these little wedding cakes, Rita ushered Shirley, Cory and Taylor into the house to see what I’d brought.  Without hesitation, Shirley giggled with delight over the cookies.  “Oh, Auntie Mary!  Thank you so much!   This is so sweet.  Thank you!”  With that, I was awarded a huge hug. How wonderful it is that times have changed!  And how wonderful it is that times have remained the same…

Perhaps I enjoy our family picnics because they allow me to savor the best of my family memories and the best of who each of us is today.  This likely explains Jesus’ pain in today’s gospel (Mark 6:1-6).  It is early in his ministry, and Jesus has done well for himself.  He has cured the sick and worked wonders that have attracted quite a following.  On this particular day, Jesus is in the place where he grew up, surrounded by his family and neighbors.  Here, Jesus expects to be himself and to relax.  Here, Jesus expects to share his mission without restraint.

Here, indeed!  It is here that Jesus experiences unexpected and painful rejection.  Jesus is among his own, and his own find Jesus too good to be true.  Rather than embracing Jesus as my niece embraced me, Jesus’ neighbors and friends reject him.  How wonderful it is that times have changed, for we recognize the gift that Jesus is! And how wonderful it is that times have remained the same, for Jesus has come home again to be himself, to relax and to share his mission with you and me.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Resurrection Fireworks

“ Taste and see how good the Lord is;
happy the man who takes refuge in him.”
Psalm 34:9

My dad had a “spell” while romping with us in tiny Lake Ripley that Summer of 1958.  My mother asked my fourteen-year-old sister Rita to shoo us to the shore as she helped my dad to his feet.  I was seven and my younger sisters were five, four and two, so we didn’t give the incident much thought as we continued to play.  Our older brother had not seen what happened, so he was temporarily spared this invitation to worry.  When we returned to our Chicago home, the doctor found that my father’s childhood bout with rheumatic fever had damaged his heart.  At thirty-eight, he bore the heart of an eighty-year-old man.  The doctor also predicted that Daddy had but one year to live.

Now my dad had been our greatest source of consolation when Uncle Gee and both my grandfathers died within the three previous years.  He knelt beside us as we prayed the rosary, first for their recoveries and then for their happy deaths.  As each one passed, Daddy assured us that he was happy in heaven and that we should be happy for him.  So, when my mother woke me July 4, 1959, to tell me, “Daddy died during the night,”  I had nothing to do but to be happy for him, too.  Right?  The truth is that I dressed as quickly as I could and ran down the block to our church.  Father O’Connell knelt at prayer in his pew when I startled him with my sobs.  He gave me a hug and let me sit with him for Mass that morning.  I prayed through my tears to my dad, asking if he was better.  That afternoon, my aunt and uncle took us to the family picnic to give our mother some time alone to prepare for Daddy’s funeral.  That night, we huddled in the living room to pray the rosary again, this time in thanksgiving for Daddy’s happy death.

Each July 4th, I am blessed with a powerful appreciation of my dad’s new life.  I never miss this annual opportunity to view the fireworks that fill the night sky with bursts of light and color.  Each glittering spectacle reaches out farther than the one before it, filling me with images of resurrection.  I imagine my dad bursting from this life and into the next on that July 4th so long ago.  I cannot help smiling with him as I imagine myself doing the same one day.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved