We Are God’s Beloved

Though clouds grayed the sky overhead, the unseasonably warm temperature coaxed me into a celebratory mood. On this particular day, I abandoned the “To Do” list which had monopolized my time in recent days to attend a wedding. I could only imagine what my friend Patrice was feeling as she prepared for the fourth time to watch one of her seven children walk down the aisle. I imagined her smiling eyes as she primped her daughter’s gown and offered that last hug before the ceremony.

As expected, this wedding day unfolded beautifully. The bride and groom tended to every detail with great care. The family and friends involved implemented this couple’s plans with tangible love. Yet, in spite of their hard work, I found myself touched most deeply by something over which these newlyweds had no control. Though Beth and Nathan certainly had a hand in determining who would offer toasts at their reception, they had no choice but to allow those who would speak to determine what they wanted to say.

As I consider the commentaries offered, it seems to me that neither the bride nor the groom could have scripted more touching tributes than those offered that evening. Space limitations prohibit my recounting everything that was said, much to the bride and groom’s relief, I’m sure. Still, I must tell you some of what Beth’s mom and sister shared because their words get to the heart of love –our love for one another and God’s love for each one of us.

The bride’s mother expressed gratitude for our presence and for the love that brought us to this day. After thanking those who had added so much to this celebration, Patrice turned to her daughter. She spoke very specifically about Beth and the woman she has become. Patrice’s pride, admiration, gratitude and love for this child of hers is unmistakable. Characteristics and behaviors which Beth likely takes for granted have not escaped her mom. Though she has seven children, six of whom are twins, Patrice’s words on that particular night -and through the years- convince me that she can offer a uniquely personal discourse about each one of her children. As I marveled over this mother’s appreciation of the children she has been given to love, I took in the faces of those seated around me. It occurred to me that God loves each of us with even greater devotion. The qualities and peculiarities which make us unique are just the things that cause God to love us so.

A while later, the bride’s sister interrupted my musing. Amy is Beth’s twin. After amusing us with the obligatory selection of anecdotes, Amy eased into serious mode. She reminded those present that she and Beth have spent their entire lives side-by-side, even in the womb. Amy noted that she took her first steps with Beth at her side. On every first day of school, Beth had been with her. When things went well, Beth was their to celebrate. When their father passed away far too early in their young lives, Amy and Beth had one another to cling to. “It’s always been Amy and Beth and Beth and Amy. Beth has always had my back,” Amy shared. “Now,” she added tearfully, “It’s Beth and Nathan, and that’s the way it’s meant to be.”

I admit that my own tears flowed with Amy’s as I considered the recent loss of my own sister. Though Beth will continue to be tangibly present in Amy’s life, things will be different in the days ahead. Still, in both cases, nothing has changed regarding love. Amy and Beth will always care deeply for one another just as my sister and I do. This “always caring deeply” draws me back to God’s love for us once again.

This Sunday when we celebrate The Feast of Christ the King, we close the church year with images from Jesus’ life that least resemble a wedding celebration. Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the accused blasphemer. No one raises a glass to Jesus for revealing God’s love to humanity firsthand. No one raises a glass to Jesus’ generosity, acceptance, mercy and forgiveness. Rather, Pilate washes his hands of any responsibility for Jesus’ fate. The crowd raises a collective fist to demand Jesus’ demise. Yet, in spite of his impending suffering and death, Jesus offers the lessons which no doubt inspire Patrice’s love for all of her children and Amy’s love for her sister. While those around him clamor for his execution, Jesus’ divine heart embraces each one with full knowledge and with absolute love.

The Feast of Christ the King gives us much to celebrate, for we are children of the God of love and siblings of Jesus of Nazareth. We are the beloved of God who knows us better than we know ourselves and who remains at our sides just the same.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hope Is A Glimpse of Heaven’s Promise

A glimpse at the calendar, the chilly autumn air and a recent conversation with my son ushered me back in time to November 1984.  Our son Mike was almost eight.  Two years earlier, specialists filled us with despair when they determined that we could not have any more children.  We tried in vain to adopt.  After more than a year, we cancelled our last appointment in pursuit of a baby because I was too ill to attend.  Strangely enough, those symptoms led to the discovery that I was with child after all.  This seemingly impossible pregnancy transformed our hopelessness into joy.

It was Thanksgiving Day when we deposited our older son next door.  Our neighbor Ellie and her family would share their turkey dinner with Mike, while my husband and I went on to St. Therese Hospital.  Several hours and a cold turkey sandwich later, we returned to our neighbors’ doorstep, completely baffled by the “false labor” diagnosis.

The following Monday, authentic contractions gained us re-admission to the hospital.  It had been a very long day by the time our priest dropped by to check my progress.  Father Slattery informed me that this was indeed taking entirely too long and that he would give me his blessing “to get things going.”  I smiled weakly, hoping this blessing would have an immediate effect.  Within seconds, a nurse pushed Father and my husband aside and rushed me to a delivery room.  The fetal monitor revealed that our baby was in serious distress and my powerful contractions were not doing the job.  The nurse threw a surgical gown at the father-to-be, ordering him to “Hurry up!”

As I watched, the faces of those around me betrayed their worry.  The doctor rushed in, attempting a smile, but his furrowed brow betrayed him as well.  After several very tense minutes, my body began to cooperate and a little boy finally saw the light of day.  This joy was short-lived as the nurses whisked our frighteningly pale son off to the nursery.  We were not allowed to hold him, yet we had held older son after his birth seven years and seven months earlier.  “What’s wrong?” I half-wondered and half-prayed.

During the next several hours, nurses watched our son very closely.  His pale complexion remained as did the symptoms of a very a serious disease that bore a painful and mortal prognosis.  The pediatric specialist ordered tests and we waited.  Frightened beyond our endurance, we waited.  It was Sister Charles, director of the hospital lab, who gave us hope.  “I’ve looked him over. That baby is as healthy as any I’ve seen,” she said. “You watch. He’ll be fine.”

We did watch.  We watched very carefully.  A day later, tests confirmed Sister’s interpretation of the signs.  Our son was a bit anemic because he and his mother managed to exchange some blood during their lengthy labor, but he was fine, perfectly fine.  While we were grateful for the doctors’ thoroughness, we were more grateful for Sister Charles’ experience and her willingness to share what her gut and her heart had told her.  Just for the record, Timothy will be twenty-eight in a few days.

This experience mirrors many of the difficult times we experience on this earth.  Whether these burdens last but a few days or a lifetime, it is hope that gets us through them all.  Imagine the pain of those who have no hope!  To them, the difficulties that are part and parcel of our human experience become insurmountable obstacles.  People without hope view life’s difficulties as triumphs of evil or as signs of God’s wrath and punishment for our sins.  People of hope, on the other hand, see the sadness around us with different eyes. They look upon these circumstances as challenges to live with joy in spite of our troubles.  Sometimes, the results of this effort come quickly and positively.  Sometimes, embracing hope becomes a lifelong process.  Either way, living with hope strengthens our spirits and offers the certainty that our efforts will be richly rewarded in the life to come.

The scriptures underscore this promise in full earnest!  Daniel (12:1-3) consoles his friends as he reminds them to remain focused upon their final reward, for God will provide justice in the end.  In his letter to the Hebrews (10:11-14,18), Paul cites the sacrifice of Jesus as he promises that goodness will ultimately prevail.  Jesus himself proclaims final victory in the gospel (Mark 13: 24-32) when he says, “…they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds… he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds.”  The scriptures assure us that God knows our sadness and, long before we notice, God fills us with the hope we need to conquer it.  I can tell you from my own experience that when we hold on to hope, we do not merely survive.  When we hold on to hope, this life becomes a celebration of the joys and the trials that precede the amazing things that will indeed come to us all.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Make The Widow’s Generosity Our Own

A few weeks ago, my husband and I ignored the cold and tackled a mound of boxes in our garage.  In the process, I found some of my mom’s things which have awaited my attention for far too long.  Among these treasures, I encountered an image of Mary.  Immediately, my thoughts turned to my mom’s beaming face the evening she returned home with this beautiful piece in hand.  She could hardly wait to show it to us and to display it in the center of our dining room table.  This piece served as a planter as well and my mom knew just which flowers and bits of greenery would showcase it best.  My mom treasured this ceramic creation for the forty-plus years that remained of her life.  It is the story behind this rediscovered artifact that explains my mom’s excitement.

My mom had attended a gathering hosted for the Helpers of the Holy Souls that evening.  The Helpers are a congregation of sisters whom my mom held close to her heart.  The sisters’ devotion to the souls completing their journeys to heaven touched my mom probably because we had lost many beloved family members, including my dad, within a few short years.  So it was that she had become part of the women’s group which supported the sisters’ work though card parties, various fundraisers and prayer.  On this particular evening, my mom won at either Bunco, cards or a raffle.  I am quite certain that from the moment she eyed that image my mom was determined to win it. You see, my mom also had great devotion to Our Lady.  Never mind that there was a small chip in the ceramic.  In my mom’s mind, this only added to the character of the statue.

The rest of the story is that my mom ran our household on a tight budget.  She had joined the ranks of the widowed with six children in tow.  A monthly death benefit from my dad’s job, my mom’s position at Sears, my sister’s pay from her receptionist job at the rectory and my brother’s pay from delivering groceries allowed us to eke by most weeks.  Unexpected expenses such as doctors’ visits and outgrown shoes sometimes taxed our resources beyond capacity.  Still, my mom supported the Helpers of the Holy Souls, dropped her weekly envelope into the collection basket and sent us to church with a silver coin in our children’s envelopes.  My siblings and I each donated a can to the holiday food drive and we sold wrapping paper with everyone else in the neighborhood to support our school.  When our sales failed to meet our quota, our mom purchased items enough to allow each of us to do so.  If one of my mom’s sisters found herself short of funds during a given week, my mom offered what was needed to help her sister to get by.  I call my mom’s ceramic planter a treasure because it symbolizes one of the greatest lessons my mom taught me:  To be generous.
I share all of this with you because the scriptures relate the stories of two widows whose generosity endeared them for generations to come.  Perhaps it is they who inspired my mom!  1 Kings 17:1016 tells of a widow and her son caught in a great famine.  This widow finds that she has only enough flour and oil to prepare a single tiny loaf.  After consuming this final ration, she and her son will surely die for they have nothing more to eat.  In spite of her impending demise, when Elijah happens by, the widow shares what she has with him.  Though she has no reason to do so, the woman listens with her heart to Elijah’s promise of God’s sustained nourishment and she gives Elijah her last morsel of bread.  Just as Elijah promised, God rewards the woman’s generosity with a jar of flour and a jug of oil that never empty.  The widow, her son and Elijah eat well throughout the yearlong famine that continues.

Mark’s gospel (12:38-44) introduces a second widow who appears in the temple, completely unaware that she is in Jesus’ presence.  The woman is very much aware, however, that she kneels before her Creator.  It is with great reverence for her God that she reaches deeply into her worn purse to offer all that she has, two coins worth just a few pennies.  Though meaningless in the shadow of the offerings of the wealthy, these coins mean everything to the widow for she has nothing else.  Though she might have traded these coins for bread, she hands them over to the temple, perhaps to assist another whose need is greater than her own.

The women in today’s scriptures tug at my heartstrings just as memories of my mom do.  Each of them displayed heroic generosity that was no single event.  It seems to me that placing the needs of others before themselves had become a way of life for each of them.  My mom’s generosity provided a lifelong lesson to me.  The widows of the scriptures have done the same for us all.  Perhaps the best way to heed the scriptures and to honor these women is to do the same.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Sainthood… It’s All About Love!

Our town always designates the Sunday nearest Halloween for trick-or-treating.   So it happened that last Sunday, I rushed home after the 12:15 Mass to prepare for the multitude of trick-or-treaters who would soon greet me at my door.  I arrived just in time to reward the first of them with candy.  As the afternoon wore on, I gave up the possibility of getting anything done and retreated to my favorite easy chair between trips to the door.  In the midst of one such reprieve, my thoughts turned to Halloween Past.  I wondered if any of today’s children take this particular day as seriously as I did so long ago…

I can still recall Eddie’s beaming face the year Sister Mary Carmelice determined that ours would be the best Eve of All Hallows Party in the school.  Sister took the public’s lack of attention to All Saints Day personally, and she decided to do something about it.  She knew that we all need heroes to imitate and that the pool of saints provides the perfect place to find one.  When Sister announced her plans for a truly “heavenly feast” made up of all the goodies we could convince our mothers -or dads- to supply, she convinced us that saintly costumes were a small price to pay for all of the fun and food we would enjoy. Sister’s sweet tooth and her love of parties ran a very close second to our own.  I think my classmates and I spent far less time on our costumes than we did begging our parents to provide goodies for our classroom feast.

When Halloween arrived, our class boasted the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint Patrick, and a variety of apostles and other popular patrons.  Sister’s face glowed until my friend Eddie arrived.  I could not believe that he had forgotten to dress as a saint.  Sister had been very clear for the past three weeks regarding just how special the saints are.  In spite of her effort, Eddie wore a crisp white shirt and a tie, both of which lost themselves under a very large suit coat.  Eddie’s eyes hid under a handsome hat that must have belonged to his dad.  From the frown on Sister’s face, I knew Eddie was in big trouble.

Sister took Eddie into the hall for a little talk.  Though is seemed an hour to me, a few minutes later, a smile had replaced Sister’s frown when she and Eddie returned.  Sister called us all together because she wanted to share some very big news.  Eddie sported a huge grin as Sister announced to the class that Eddie deserved an “A” in catechism on his next report card.  Our wide-eyed amazement must have amused her as Sister went on to explain that Eddie’s costume represented his very clear understanding of sainthood.

Eddie explained that his mother often observed that his dad had to be a saint.  After all, he put up with Eddie and all of his sisters and brothers.  He went to work every day to make enough money to feed and clothe them.  As tired as he was when he came home each night, Eddie’s dad always helped Eddie’s mom with dinner.  After dinner, Eddie’s dad patiently assisted with homework, and he always asked how things had gone that day.  When his dad helped at bedtime, Eddie reported that his mother often said, “Honey, you’re a saint.”  Being the good boy that he was, Eddie listened to his mother.  Though his status was still “saint-in-the-making,” the saint Eddie chose to portray was his dad.

As I share this memory, it occurs to me that the children among us are as astute as Eddie in recognizing goodness.  Though they may not label the adults around them as saints, they determine who is and who is not a good example with uncanny precision.  Eddie’s and our own children’s observations relate closely to the scriptures.

In Deuteronomy (6:2-6), Moses calls the people to “Fear the Lord, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life.”  Moses realizes that God’s laws provide the basis for lasting relationships.  God seeks friendship with each one of us, and God rejoices in the potential for lasting friendships among us.

Hebrews (7:23-28) reminds us that Jesus is always at our sides.  Jesus continues to work to maintain a relationship between God and his people.  How often Eddie’s father and we parents turn to Jesus for the strength to persist in loving our families well!

In the gospel (Mark 12:28-34), Jesus teaches the greatest commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Eddie’s dad kept those rules through a very ordinary life lived with love.  Today, the scriptures invite you and me to do the same.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved