Sister’s Life Lessons

Some months ago, I received an email from a high school friend. Nadine had written to tell me that fellow alums were planning a reunion. My classmates and I have reached a milestone anniversary of our graduation from high school and a party is definitely in order! Thoughts of Nadine and many other classmates elicited a smile. After sending a grateful response to that email, I hurried to our calendar to record the date. As soon as I turned to September, I realized that I won’t be able to attend that reunion. The same day, my dear husband will witness the marriage of a very special couple. Mike and I wouldn’t miss their wedding for anything. So it was that I sent Nadine a subsequent email to express my regret. This past week, when I received a follow-up reminder of that reunion, I decided to enjoy a small reunion of my own. I pulled my yearbook from the shelf and nestled into my recliner. As soon as I opened that book, memories filled me up. I admit to some tears as I read the kind comments my classmates and teachers had written to me inside the covers and in the margins of almost every page. The four years we shared were a gift…

After returning my yearbook to its shelf, I checked the Sisters of Mercy website for tidbits regarding my former teachers. As expected, I found that most of them are enjoying the fruits of their labor in the hereafter. When I scrolled down the names of the sisters who’ve passed away, Sister Imelda evoked a smile. Sister Imelda held the dubious honor of serving as my freshman homeroom teacher. This role required her to account for her students’ whereabouts every weekday morning and to immerse us into the freshman religion curriculum. It was during religion class that Sister Imelda left an indelible mark on me. Difficult as it could have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease. She provided a question box for our anonymous queries on any topic. At the beginning of every class, Sister responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk before my own students. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided extremely creative questions. Every time, Sister responded graciously and thoroughly. We’d learned far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of that year. More importantly, by June each of us also saw God in a completely different and truly awesome light.

I continue to embrace Sister Imelda’s image of God because Sister insisted that ours is the God of Love. Rather than guilting us into submission, Sister presented the rules we tried to live by quite practically. She insisted that these guidelines for living served as shields to keep us safe. When we did our best to do the right thing, we stayed close to God. Sister added that our close proximity to God was our most prized possession. “As long as God is nearby,” Sister said, “you’ll be fine.” Of course, we concluded that God’s presence depended upon us. When a classmate submitted an anonymous question regarding God’s proximity when one managed to commit a mortal sin, Sister reassured us. I’ll never forget Sister rising from her seat with her finger pointed at us as she proclaimed, “That’s when God is closest to you and don’t you forget that! God doesn’t want to lose a single one us!” This was probably the first time in my life that I actually believed that God loves me and remains with me regardless of my guilt. On that day, I began to take even the harshest lessons from my religion classes and sermons as reassurances that God remains with me in everything.

Today’s scripture passages and those we’ve encountered in recent weeks are about as unsettling as some of the questions my classmates and I posed to Sister Imelda that year. The passage from Wisdom (Wisdom 9:13-18) tells us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. But what if someone isn’t among the gifted, we wonder. Sister Imelda would say, “God speaks to all of us. We simply need to take the time to listen.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon (Philemon 9-10;12-17), Paul tells his friend how to deal with his runaway slave. Paul had befriended this slave and he wanted the man to remain with him. Because this wasn’t possible, Paul sent the slave back to Philemon and asked Philemon to see his slave in a new light. Paul asked his friend to treat the slave as he would treat Paul himself and he fully expected Philemon to do nothing less. But what if Philemon refused? Sister Imelda would say, “You can’t make choices for other people. You can only give them your best shot, offer them good counsel and pray for the best.” In the end, Philemon did as Paul asked. Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:25-33) further forsakes this world’s view of things. Luke tells us that Jesus called the people to hate everything they held dear in order to free themselves to be disciples. But who can look upon their families and their wealth and walk away from them? Sister Imelda would say, “Jesus used strong examples to show us that it’s really hard to live as he did. All Jesus really asks is that we do our best with what we’re given and that we love one another. That will be enough!”

Sister Imelda’s wisdom has served me well. Though today’s scriptures seem difficult to follow, God’s underlying message urges us on just as Sister Imelda did. Sister Imelda convinced this high school freshman that God loves us though, sometimes, difficult words are necessary to get our attention. In the end, Sister Imelda would say, “As God’s much-loved children, we’re asked to allow God into our lives, to do our best within the circumstances we’re given and to help others to do the same. It’s just that simple!” I couldn’t agree more!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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God’s Enduring Presence

If you read my daily posts with any regularity, you’ve likely discovered that I’ve been struggling with the terrible suffering which seems to have engulfed our world as of late. While I have absolutely no doubt that God is with us in all of this, I’ve been wrestling with how I can possibly improve things for those both near and far. Sunday morning, as I spoke with some fellow parishioners at my parish, I discovered that they, too, have been stressed with pain which seems too difficult to bear. Though I tried to find the words to offer some much-needed comfort, I don’t know that I succeeded. I went home determined to use this space to inspire us all with what we need to deal with whatever lies ahead. When I failed to type even a paragraph in this regard by Monday morning, I attended my parish’s 9:00 Mass on Labor Day in observance of the holiday and to pray very hard for inspiration.

After greeting the usual morning Mass crowd, I saw a familiar face across the gathering space. It was Father Charles! He occasionally stops in when he’s in town visiting family. Our priests always welcome him to join them at the altar and Father Charles always happily accepts. Though I’m not a regular at morning Mass, I met Father Charles some years ago when he joined our pastor at the altar. Afterward, we spoke a bit and discovered that we share a very dear friend. Father Bill O’Connell mentored each of us throughout our youth and as we explored our vocations. Father O’Connell also inadvertently introduced my husband and me. Every time I see Father Charles, I can’t help recalling Father O’Connell’s smile and the lifetime of wisdom he shared with me. Still, when I left Mass on Labor Day, I was convinced that I had nothing to share with you.

When my husband and I returned home after Mass, he headed outdoors to water flowers and I ran upstairs to my desk. On the way, I prayed aloud, “Please help me! I don’t know what to say!!!” Before returning to the few sentences I’d rejected Sunday night, I reopened today’s scripture passages. Though I was already convinced that they are rich with meaning, I told myself, “Maybe I’ve missed something…” I slowly reread every line of the selections from Ezekiel (35:7-9), Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:8-10) and Matthew’s Gospel (18:15-20). It was when I read the very last line of today’s gospel that I spoke aloud once again, “Thank you, Father Charles, thank you Father O’Connell and THANK YOU, DEAR GOD!”

Matthew tells us that, after telling his disciples how to deal with one another’s transgressions, Jesus reminded them, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” As soon as I read the line, an image of Father O’Connell after a rather contentious meeting came to mind. Father was extremely frustrated that he and a group of parishioners weren’t seeing eye-to-eye at the moment. Though he was usually a diplomatic leader, Father was extremely passionate, and correct as it turned out, regarding the topic of discussion and he wasn’t about to give in. His only comment was to quote the last line of today’s gospel with a minor and quite meaningful change: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there will be a fight!” Though Father was far from laughter that day, I laughed until I cried. I deleted what I’d already written on this page and began anew. Though Jesus’ observation concerning God’s presence among us is absolutely true, we humans have seen to it that Father O’Connell’s edited version is also true more often than it should be.

You know, loving one another is seriously difficult business, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of unhappiness, disappointment, suffering and loss. Though I’ve done my best to remind you and myself that God is with us in everything, I find myself as troubled as people with no faith at all when the misery of this world threatens to overwhelm us. Then, I remember Father O’Connell’s frustration after that painful meeting and the positive outcome which came after he calmed down, listened and then worked with his people toward a solution. Then, I remember Jesus’ promise that whenever two or three are gathered, God is with us as well.

Though we may argue with those around us or wrestle with ourselves deep within, when we calm down and listen, answers do come. While it is unlikely that God will use words, it is absolutely certain that God will use you and me to bring God’s loving presence to the needy souls around us and to ourselves. Though none of us can promise a miraculous cure, the overnight rebuilding of Houston, an end to poverty or a loved ones depression or this world’s conflicts, we can roll up our sleeves and do our best to bring love to the moment at hand. More often than not, we’ll manage to do something which makes a very important difference to someone in need and to ourselves.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Profoundly Simple Lessons

My sister texted the other day to ask if I will attend our high school reunion this year. Since we all graduated too many decades ago, the alums who plan these gatherings invite members of every class to attend. This year, the reunion falls on September 24. Since our new pastor will be installed that day, I texted my sister back to let her know that I’ll be celebrating at church instead. After Mass, we’re all invited to a reception in honor of Father Greg. Before returning to the task at hand, I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving for Father Greg’s arrival and for the continued presence of his sidekick, Father Dave. We’re very fortunate to have two parish priests these days. Having Father Bernie and Father Leopold who drive a good distance to celebrate Mass with us every few weeks is truly the frosting on the cake. When I tried to return to my work once again, I realized that I had another prayer of gratitude to offer before I continued…

Early on, our high school reunions included many of the sisters and lay teachers who staffed the school. With every passing decade, fewer were available to attend. Today, most of my former teachers are enjoying the fruits of their labor in a much better place. In spite of the passage of time, I can still name all of my teachers from kindergarten through senior year. Most of their names evoke a smile, especially Sister Imelda, R.S.M. Sister Imelda holds the dubious honor of being my freshman year homeroom teacher. This role included teaching religion to my classmates and me. Difficult as it might have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease by providing a “question box.” At the beginning of every class, Sister responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk for a few years. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided some extremely creative questions. Every time, Sister responded graciously and thoroughly. We all knew far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of that year. More importantly, by June, each of us also saw our God in a completely different and truly awesome light.

I continue to hold onto Sister Imelda’s image of God because, first and foremost, Sister insisted that ours is the God of love. Rather than “guilting” us into submission, Sister presented the “rules” as shields held around us by our loving God. Sister insisted that if we allowed God to remain nearby, we would be protected. Even when our hearts led us in other directions, as long as God was nearby, Sister said, “You’ll be fine.” I looked at life and at myself very differently because of Sister Imelda. By the end of freshman year, I had left my elementary school attitudes behind me and began to develop the vision which guided me to adulthood.

Sometimes, scripture passages can be just as unsettling as some of the questions we posed to Sister Imelda that year. Wisdom 9:13-18 insures us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. But what if one isn’t among the gifted? Sister Imelda would say, “God speaks to all of us. You simply need to take the time to listen.” In Paul’s letter to his dear friend Philemon (Philemon 9-10;12-17), he tells the man how to deal with his runaway slave. Paul somehow befriended this slave whom he wanted to remain with him. Because this wasn’t possible, Paul sent the slave back to Philemon, asking Philemon to see his slave in a new light. Paul asked his friend to treat the slave as he would treat Paul himself. Paul fully expected Philemon to turn life as he knew topsy-turvy to accommodate this request. But what if Philemon refused? Sister Imelda would say, “You can’t make choices for other people. You can only give them your best example and pray for them. Then you move on.” Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:25-33) further forsakes the world’s view of things when Jesus calls the people to hate everything they hold dear. Only then would they be free to be disciples. But who can look upon all that is dear in this world and walk away from it? Sister Imelda would say, “Jesus is simply telling us that it’s really hard to live as he did. All he asks is that we do the best we can with what we’re given. That will be enough!”

As I reflect upon my high school blessings and the blessings to come, it seems that Sister Imelda’s lessons serve us all well. Though particular scriptures get tricky, the message remains the same: As much-loved children of God, we’re asked to allow God into our lives; we’re asked to do our best humbly and honestly with the circumstances we’re given; and we’re asked to help others to do the same. Simple!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

See With God’s Eyes

A recent invitation to my childhood neighborhood reunion elicited numerous memories. Amazingly, I found myself still able to list each of my teachers from kindergarten through senior year of high school. Much to my surprise, a smile or queasy stomach accompanied each name. Fortunately, most of my former teachers continue to cause me to smile, especially Sister Imelda, R.S.M.

Sister Imelda holds the dubious honor of being my first high school homeroom teacher. This role included teaching religion to my classmates and me. Difficult as it might have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease by providing us with a “question box.” At the beginning of each class, Sister read and responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk for a few years myself. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided some extremely creative questions specifically designed to require a class-length response. The intent was to avoid getting to the previous day’s homework and to prevent the rendering of the current day’s assignment.

Our devious plan might have worked with a less ingenious teacher. In this case, Sister Imelda beat us at our own game. Rather than assigning “the next chapter,” Sister turned our questions into homework. Though she responded to them graciously and thoroughly, she sent us off each day to research “just one more source” regarding the day’s topic. Needless to say, we all knew far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of the year. More importantly, by June, each of us saw this God of ours and ourselves with different eyes.

Those “different eyes” explain why I hold on to something Sister Imelda repeated often that year. You see, rather than preaching at us or “guilting” us into submission, Sister presented moral living as a kind of insurance policy which would keep us in our most desirable states. When one of our questions concerned physical intimacy, for example, Sister spoke to the wonder of this gift and the possible consequences. She looked upon the “rules” as shields held around us by a most loving God. If we allowed God to remain nearby, we were protected. “Human beings are drawn to goodness,” Sister often said. “If we keep ourselves good, we will always enjoy the company of someone who truly loves us.”

I cannot speak for my classmates, but Sister’s observation kept me out of the arms of a potential boyfriend or two who were not the least bit interested in my goodness. Sister’s observation also gave me the courage to pursue some friendships which were not necessarily in keeping with being popular. I looked at life and at myself very differently because of Sister Imelda. By the end of freshman year, I had left my elementary school attitudes behind me as I began to develop the vision which guided me to adulthood.

The scriptures are sometimes as unsettling as the questions we mercilessly posed to Sister Imelda that year. When read with the eyes of this world, these passages leave us quite confused. Wisdom (9:13-18) insures us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. What if one is not among the gifted? In Philemon 9-10;12-17, Paul writes to his dear friend. Philemon’s slave ran away, and Paul somehow befriended him. Paul wanted this former slave to remain with him, but realized this could not be. Thus, Paul sent the man back to Philemon, asking his friend to see this slave as Paul himself and to treat him accordingly. Paul fully expected Philemon to turn the world he knew topsy-turvy in order to accommodate this request. What if Philemon refused? In Luke’s gospel (4:25-33), Jesus further forsakes the world’s view of things when he calls the crowds before him to hate everything they hold dear. Only then would they be free to be disciples. What type of eyes can look upon all that is dear in this world and walk away from it?

Sister Imelda understood the sort of eyes needed by true disciples, the same eyes needed by each of us: Eyes which value oneself as a child of God; eyes that appreciate goodness, first in God’s children and then in God’s gifts; eyes that rejoice in the joy of others and weep at another’s pain; eyes that visualize the wonder that could be; eyes that make that vision a reality; eyes, once human, but no longer; God’s eyes.
Dear God, please bless us with your vision…

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved