We Find Our Treasure When We Let Go…

In mid-September, my husband-the-good-deacon and I enjoyed an eight-day tour of Puglia. This quaint Italian wonderland is located on the southeast side of the big boot. After eating, exploring and eating even more, Mike and I questioned the wisdom of adding four additional days to our travel. Happy as we were with the tour, we were tired and wanted to go home. Still, while our fellow tourists boarded that plane back to O’Hare, Mike and I settled in on the smaller aircraft which would take us to Palermo, Sicily. Though the flight lasted less than an hour, fatigue dug in its heels. When our luggage appeared an hour after we landed, we were convinced that we were doomed to four days of misery. With that, we pulled our bags out of the terminal and headed outdoors. Amazingly, it took only a second to spot the young man who was waving and smiling broadly as he called our names. In an instant, our fatigue faded. Mike and I bubbled with joy as walked to Francesco and the four memorable days which awaited us.

Mike met Francesco a few years ago via Facebook and a recommendation regarding his work. The two have communicated all the while via private messages and WhatsApp chats. During this time, Francesco completed a genealogy search for us. Francesco’s enthusiasm suggested that he was as pleased as we were with the results. It was as though Mike’s Sicilian family had become Francesco’s long lost relatives as well. Throughout our time together, this impression proved accurate. Amazingly, while our hopes regarding this visit to Mike’s grandparents’ village were abundantly fulfilled, it was an unexpected encounter in a nearby town which best illustrates the tone of our time in Sicily and the amazing friendships which have resulted.

We spoke about this impending trip with our friends Mary Lou and Dave. Mary Lou shared that her aunt and uncle live in a town close to Mike’s grandparents’ home in Altofonte. On a whim, Mike asked for their address thinking that we might find the time to greet this elderly couple and their daughter. When we mentioned the possibility to Francesco, he promised to make this happen. While Francesco confirmed the directions to Casteldaccia, Mike called Mary Lou to ensure that we’d be welcomed and that we wouldn’t frighten her family. With that, we made our way into their neighborhood. We soon discovered that the house numbers had recently changed and that the address we had was no longer accurate. Fortunately, it was early evening and many of the locals were sitting outdoors. When Francesco asked a gentleman if he knew where Paolo and Maria lived, I noticed a woman a few doors down. She poked her husband and said, “Paolo e Maria?” Sure enough, we’d found Mary Lou’s family!

While Francesco explained our presence, I pulled out my cell phone and retrieved a photo of Mary Lou, Dave and their kids. Before Francesco could complete his explanation, Maria jumped up to greet us. After I shared the photo with her, Maria ran (Yes, she ran!) into the house to get her daughter Angelina. Francesco explained for us that we were so close, we simply had to bring our greetings, smiles and hugs to Mary Lou’s family. Though we were a little nervous about this encounter, it took only seconds for Mike and me to feel that we were among family. We smiled all the while as we shared news regarding Mary Lou and Dave, Valerie and Ryan. Francesco documented this visit with photographs and a video of the hugs I collected for Mary Lou and her family. As for me, I’ve fulfilled my promise to bring those hugs and a full account of our time together all the way home to Gurnee.

I share our Sicilian adventure with you because it gets to the heart of the young man’s problem in today’s gospel (Mark 10:17-30). This rich fellow spent his life carefully adhering to The Law. His well-intentioned heart and his desire to do more drew him to Jesus. Jesus recognized the young man’s goodness and he invited him to give his wealth to the poor and to follow him. This generosity of spirit was beyond the young man’s comprehension. He couldn’t imagine himself without his wealth in hand.

You know, fatigue almost kept Mike and me from embracing the joy we found in Sicily. Mary Lou’s family might have allowed fear to keep them from welcoming us into their home. Rather, it was without hesitation that they embraced us as their own. Their love for Mary Lou compelled them to do nothing less. That truly poor rich man had busied himself so completely with calculating The Law’s dictates and his own profits that he couldn’t imagine opening himself to a different way of life. His material concerns kept him from the joy which awaited him in Jesus and in all of those he’d meet along the way. I wish that young man could have joined us in Paolo and Maria’s home. They would have shown him that when we open our hands to let go, we free ourselves to embrace the best of this life. What we have at the moment is not nearly as valuable as what we will have when we open our hearts to one another.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Welcome to God’s Banquet!

Last Sunday before Mass began, I looked around the church at the many people who’d gathered to pray with me. I found myself moved unexpectedly by both familiar faces and those who were new to me. Our parish has a new Mass schedule which prompted many of us to rethink our Sunday routines and to choose an alternate “favorite Mass” to attend. The increased attendance at all of the Masses indicates that we’ve distributed ourselves among the Masses quite efficiently. It’s been twenty-five years and seven months since I waited for our first Mass together as a parish to begin in the in the gym of a local school. As I considered the good people who surrounded me at Mass last Sunday, I couldn’t help feeling amazed at all that has happened since then.

My parish community which began with just sixty-seven families has grown to include more than three thousand two hundred families. If every parishioner attended Mass on any given weekend, more than six thousand adults and children would gather there. This number boggles my mind! Most of the time, I find it difficult to greet many who are there because I’m helping people at our information desk. At the end of each weekend when my husband-the-deacon asks me if I saw this person or that, I admit that I missed him or her. Actually, I miss my fellow parish family members whenever things like severe weather or a nice three-day weekend keep them away. The liturgy we share and the activity in the gathering space after Mass just isn’t the same without everyone there. Perhaps this is the message of Jesus’ parable today. We miss our people when they aren’t around us because we love them and they love us. We enjoy their company and they enjoy ours because we’re comfortable enough with one another to be ourselves. Our joy increases when we share it with others just as the burden of our deepest sorrows is lightened by the company of those who care. Perhaps Jesus teaches about God’s kingdom in the context of a wedding banquet because those invited are the people loved most by the host.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 22:1-14) is one of Jesus’ more familiar stories. Nonetheless, I’m struggling with this writing more than usual. It seems to me that there is more to consider here than the obvious problems of the invited guests’ refusals to attend and one man’s failure to put on the wedding garment which the host had provided for him. Scripture scholars tell us that Old and New Testament authors alike often used banquets to symbolize the joy to be experienced in the God’s kingdom. This makes perfect sense to me as some of the happiest events in my own life have been celebrated within the context of shared meals as small as a dinner for two and as large as a wedding reception. It occurs to me that the joy of these events lay not in the meal which was served, but in the company of those who shared these precious moments with me.

I would have been absolutely heartbroken if those we invited to our sons’ weddings had refused their invitations as the king’s guests did in today’s parable. In both cases, it was extremely difficult to whittle down our guest list to the numbers our budget could accommodate. We wanted to share these awesome days with everyone we care about. When I looked around at those who attended Mass with me last Sunday morning, I realized that the people before me numbered among the “everyone” with whom God hopes to share every new day we’re given. I thought about everyone who filed in for Mass last weekend. Every single one, whether familiar to me or not, is one of the “everyone” whom God loves. I could stand in the midst of Great America’s Fright Fest or at Entrance F at Gurnee Mills and say the same about every person who’s wonders in: “You and you and you are one of God’s loved ones. You and you and you are one of the ‘everyone’ whom God invites to the greatest feast of all.”

Every day, God offers each one of us an invitation to the banquet that is this life. We accept God’s invitation when we embrace the moments we’re given. When we’re at work and at leisure, when we’re alone and with others, when we’re well and when we’re ill, when we’re filled with joy and when we wallow in the depths of despair, God invites us to partake of the moment at hand to the full. God planned the banquet which is my life, just as God planned yours. Good host that God is, God provides everything that will be necessary along the way. There’s no need to worry about a wedding garment because God has already clothed us in all that we require. There’s no need to RSVP because we’re already in God’s company and there we will remain until God delivers us safely home.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Happiness to Come…

My renewed need to purge our home of non-necessities nudged me up the stairs to our spare bedroom. This was a huge mistake as that particular room is likely the most nostalgic place in our house. The wall of antique pictures of great-grandparents and grandparents and photos from my husband’s and my childhood eased the urgency I’d felt just a minute earlier. When I finally opened the first dresser drawer, I found one of the treasures my mom left when she passed away. As I paged through the seventy-four-year-old album, I rediscovered my mom’s bridal shower and wedding greeting cards. Suddenly, I realized that my definition of non-necessities was evolving quickly. My parents were married in October and I couldn’t resist this opportunity to celebrate their anniversary once again…

As I gently perused the yellowed cards, I was taken aback by their diminutive size. Most are no larger than three inches by four inches. One is just two inches by two. Still, these tiny cards carry grand wishes. Single phrases added to the manufactured verses spoke eloquently of love felt for my mom and dad. I imagined my someday-to-be-parents smiling over this album which teemed with kindness. As I read the various signatures, images of loved ones filled me up. “Auntie C. Dionne” clarified the origins of my propensity to address all of my aunts as “Auntie.” Isabelle, who attended my mom’s bridal shower, wrote a lovely poem to accompany her gift. Perhaps she inspired my mom always to add a note to her greeting cards. Emily Gutchick’s signature confirmed that she was married before my mom and dad. Her name also conjured fond memories of my first dance with a boy -her son, Bobby.

Telegrams from Auntie Lucille and Uncle Leonard, Mr. and Mrs. Belanger and soon-to-be Uncle Clarence underscored everyone’s excitement over this union. My dad’s co-workers sent their greetings as well. Perhaps the most touching message came from the president of the company where my mother worked: “Dear Rita: I am happy to learn that you are to be married on Saturday and want to extend my best wishes to you and your husband. May your wedded life be full of joy and happiness. Do not let the present gloomy world conditions put a damper on your hopes and ambitions. Marriage is a wonderful venture in life and I know it is going to mean much happiness to you both in the years to come. With kindest regards, I remain… W. R. Barker”.

My parents married on October 17, 1942. World War II raged and times were tough. Family members and friends served in the military. Damage done by a bout with rheumatic fever kept my dad from joining them. My mom had been working for years by then. She took a job during high school and continued after graduation because her family needed this added income. My mom’s greatest regret was her inability to attend college. Neither she nor her parents could afford the tuition. I’m certain that meeting my dad dulled the sting of that unrealized dream as a new dream took shape in their relationship. Indeed, my parents’ wedding day proved to be the first of 6112 amazing days together. It seems Mr. Barker predicted the joy which lay ahead. His greeting summed up everything that we can hope for in this life: A measure of happiness, the love of others, encouragement in spite of troubling times and friends who are always at our sides. Apparently, my mom appreciated Mr. Barker’s sentiments because his letter is displayed quite beautifully in her album.

Mr. Barker’s touching words reflect the empathy Jesus exhibits in Luke’s gospel (Luke 17:11-19). As he walked along, Jesus encountered ten lepers who cried out, “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” Jesus looked upon them and felt their pain as only Jesus could. With little ado, Jesus sent the men off to show themselves to the priests of the temple. On the way, one leper realized he was cured. He raced back, fell at Jesus’ feet and worshiped him. Though the others knew by then that they, too, were healed, only this man recognized the more significant blessing. He had encountered the Lord! Not only his body, but his spirit as well had been made whole. Jesus knew that a healthy spirit would flourish in spite of gloomy world conditions. Nothing would ever again discourage this man’s hope and ambition. So it was that he returned to say, “Thank you, Lord!”

As I consider the greeting cards which fill my mother’s album, I realize she kept them to remember the love which surrounded her and my dad throughout their life together. Just as the leper’s cure reminded him of God’s presence in his life, my mother’s album kept her cognizant of the loved ones who walked this life’s journey with her. It seems to me that Mr. Barker described perfectly how we are to respond to the miracle we celebrate today: We must never allow gloomy world conditions to put a damper on our hopes and ambitions. Life is a wonderful venture which will mean much happiness to us in the days to come –on this earth and in heaven above.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Priceless Treasure

I recently reconnected with a childhood friend. When we met for lunch, within minutes we were laughing and sharing stories from the old neighborhood. As we visited, I recalled the day Kevin announced that he would be leaving the area for college. He had been accepted at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Within a year or two of his departure, Kevin made another announcement. He had decided to join the Benedictines for the long haul and eventually to be ordained a priest. After a wonderful journey with the Benedictines who continue to be counted among his friends, Kevin eventually left them to pursue a different career. As we talked, I recalled the leg of my own journey which took an unexpected turn much as Kevin’s had.

I had celebrated my twenty-first birthday late as this milestone had arrived before my broken ankle healed. Perhaps it was the realization that I was just a year from college graduation, my recent convalescence, having never lived away from home or all of the above. Whichever the cause, I suffered from an extreme case of restlessness. I couldn’t afford to backpack across Europe or anywhere else because I was responsible for senior year’s tuition. So it was that I picked up the phone to seek a less costly remedy for my unrest.

I was almost disappointed when Father O’Connell answered. I wasn’t at all sure of what I was going to say. My uncertainty vanished when Father greeted me with happy surprise. Without hesitation, I asked if there was something I might do to help at his parish during the coming summer. I explained that it was time for me to leave the comforts of home, at least for a while. Father surprised me with his excitement as he explained that he had already arranged for two nuns to spend the summer there. Father had asked them to teach “survival” English to Spanish-speaking children entering school in the fall. Since I had studied Spanish and was a teacher-in-training, Father determined that I would be a natural in the program. With that, I asked Father when I could start.

When the sisters and I arrived, I discovered that Sister Liz had grown up in my neighborhood. Though they were a generation ahead of me, I was very much at home with her and Sister Rose. We immediately delved into planning, gathering materials and setting up house in the convent. Father provided a car for Sister Liz who served as chauffeur. Our morning routine included Mass, breakfast and school. The children happily endured our lessons on those hot summer mornings, likely in anticipation of the mid-morning snacks we provided. Afterward, the sisters and I spent the afternoon planning the coming day’s lessons and visiting parish families. When we returned to the convent, we enjoyed dinner and relaxed. Occasionally, I spent the evening at the rectory answering the telephone and door. It was on one such occasion that I met my husband -but that is another story.

While I was away, I didn’t handle a bit of currency. Father provided for our groceries and other necessities. I didn’t shop because my seven-plus-one outfits lasted through each week. Six weeks later, when I left the children, my new sister-friends and that convent, I worked extra hours at my job to make up the money I hadn’t earned toward my college tuition. Still, I wouldn’t have traded that time away for anything. It was truly freeing not to worry about myself and to concentrate on the children. I treasured this experience more than anything else I might have done with those six weeks.

I share my adventure away from home with you because, in today’s gospel (Mark 10:17-30), we encounter a young man whose life also took an unexpected turn. This rich young man had spent his life carefully following The Law. He seemed to have had a plan in place much as Kevin and I did. His well-intentioned heart and his desire to do more drew him to Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him, loved him and said, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” Sadly, Jesus asked more than the young man was able to give and he walked away with a heavy heart. You know, neither Kevin nor I had all that much when he joined the Benedictines and I spent that summer in the convent. Yet, I think we both agree that our lives were changed forever by these experiences. I wish we could have told Jesus’ young friend that letting go is not as painful as he thought. I wish we could have shown him that when he opened his hands to let go, he freed himself to embrace the authentic treasure which Jesus offered. Though it is a little late to share this wisdom with the rich young man, it is just the right time to remind ourselves that what we have is not nearly as valuable as what we give.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Wedding Garment

I watched as my husband carefully removed his suit from the cleaner’s bag. He was dressing for the wedding which he witnessed here at our parish church last weekend. His careful handling of his wedding garment carried me back to a similar event four decades ago…

From the moment Mike slipped the engagement ring onto my finger, we began to plan our wedding day. We booked the church and the reception hall and then sat down with our priest for our marriage prep sessions. The last session was devoted to planning our Nuptial Mass. A dear friend typed the entire liturgy in booklet form so all of our guests could fully participate. This was a labor of love as word processing other than via a typewriter was non-existent. Mike and I assembled our wedding party from among our family and special friends. My mother fashioned each of the attendants’ dresses, while Mike perused the latest formal wear. Everything unfolded quite smoothly until my mother told my stepdad about the tuxedos.

Now, you have to have known my stepdad to understand his reaction. He had functioned without a mother from the time he was age seven. By fourteen, he was out on his own. Bill’s experiences as a water boy for the Green Bay Packers (Yes, the Packers!) and as a soldier in World War II gave him no training in the art of “dressing up.” My stepdad considered such things to be folly which he could not afford. When he began his career as a carpenter, Bill’s wardrobe consisted of enough overalls to get him through the week without having to do a load of laundry. One certain sign of Bill’s devotion to my mom during their courtship was his willingness to “dress up” for their dates. He actually wore a new suit on their wedding day. A tuxedo –or “monkey suit,” in Bill’s words– was too much. He informed my mother that a suit would work just fine for my wedding day as well. Needless to say, there was much ado about what my stepdad considered to be nothing over the months to come. As the day to be fitted for formal wear approached, Mike paced with sweaty palms, fretting over what to do about his soon-to-be father-in-law. Everything else had gone so well. He wondered why Bill was so stubborn about this. Bill was the one who would appear first in the church with the bride on his arm. Why would he not give in?

I admit that my mom and I had a few good chuckles at poor Mike’s expense. I knew that my mom had smitten Bill without his knowing and that he would do anything for her. I also knew that Bill’s gruff exterior was a remnant of the pain which had punctuated his past far too frequently. My mom and I both knew that my stepdad was devoted to her and to me, the daughter he would soon give over to someone else’s care. Unfortunately, my mom and I also knew that coercion never budged Bill when his mind was made up. So, we decided to assume the best. The evening before Mike and the groomsmen were to be fitted for their tuxedos, I approached my stepdad. “Daddy, the guys are going for their tuxes tomorrow night. Can you meet them at seven o’clock?” Bill peeked over his glasses with a smile and said, “I’ll be there.”

There is a man in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 22:1-14) who gets into all kinds of trouble with a wedding host because he does not bother to put on the appropriate dress. He refuses to wear the garment provided for him and, therefore, to enter fully into the celebration with everyone else. I’m sorry that this man did not have access to my stepdad’s counsel. Bill would have told him that the garment would be uncomfortable at best. That was a certainty. Bill would also have told him about the other sure thing –the joy he would experience at the celebration, joy that would be his simply by doing what love asked of him.

Every day, God graciously offers each one of us a wedding garment. Every day, God provides opportunities to enter fully into the celebration of this life. When we wrap ourselves in the fabric of humankind and weave ourselves into the lives of those we have been given to love, we embrace that wedding garment. Clothed in God’s love, we experience the joy of this life to the fullest. When we’re clothed in God’s love, we prepare best for the amazing celebration to come in heaven.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Unexpected Messengers

Before my husband and I left for Alaska, we utilized numerous sources of information to insure ourselves an enjoyable time. We perused brochures and websites to determine the places we wanted to visit. We consulted with family and friends who kindly shared the best and worst of their Alaskan adventures. When we visited our travel agent, Cindy referenced her own Alaskan travels and her most valued contacts to inform her recommendations regarding our trip. After we settled upon our itinerary, we explored a variety of excursions. The comments and ratings offered by prior travelers proved to be most helpful when we made our final selections. As I packed my suitcase, I offered a prayer of thanks for all of the unexpected messengers who helped us to prepare for this much anticipated trip.

In spite of all of this planning, there was a good deal of information that we needed when we embarked upon our land tour. Meeting times and places, recommended clothing and gear, meal arrangements and a plethora of other details required our attention. Much to our relief, our guide equipped us with all that we needed to know along the way. When we transferred to the ship, we watched for the daily activity bulletins which our travel agent told us to expect. “Be sure to read them,” Cindy said, “because they tell you everything that is happening on board each day.” I am happy to report that we complied and enjoyed many shipboard surprises as a result.

The ship’s public address system proved to be the most unexpected mode of communication we encountered. Though we knew it would be utilized during the mandatory pre-cruise emergency drill, we did not expect the captain to announce special sightings along the way. Once, he directed us to look starboard to view a pod of whales. Another time, he directed us astern to see a glacier. He then maneuvered the boat to provide a good view from every side. Amusing communications came as well. Whenever the PA echoed, “This is Ronny, your cruise director,” we knew that sometimes comical and always welcome information would follow.

My husband and I agree that each of these knowledgeable messengers enhanced our travels beyond expectation. We would not have enjoyed our Alaskan adventure as much as we did if we had not taken into account what they had to say. I share all of this with you because the scriptures frequently feature some equally unexpected and helpful messengers.

In Second Kings (2Kings 5:14-17), Naaman, a Gentile general, suffers with leprosy. A servant girl tells Naaman’s wife of the great prophet of Samaria who might help her husband. Against his better judgment, but at his wife’s urging, Naaman approaches Elisha for help. Elisha responds by directing Naaman to plunge himself into the Jordan River seven times. This passage begins with Naaman’s compliance and his cure. Because the general responds to a most unexpected messenger, he turns his life around in amazing ways.

In 2 Timothy 2:8-13, Paul encourages Timothy with an equally unexpected message. Though Paul agonizes in prison, he rejoices in this “necessary suffering” which will give birth to the reign of God. Though a message of hope is the last thing Timothy expects from his imprisoned friend, Timothy takes Paul’s words to heart and finds strength and courage in them.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus encounters ten men who suffer with leprosy as Naaman did. Among the group is one Samaritan who boldly approaches with the others. Their suffering touches Jesus and he sends them off to show themselves to the priests. On the way, the lepers realize they are cured. While the other nine go on to the temple, the Samaritan runs back and throws himself at Jesus’ feet. The Samaritan sought what he needed from a most unexpected source and found new life in the process.

God loves us more than we will ever realize in this life. This love is so great that God uses even the most unexpected messengers to urge us on. It is up to us to open our ears and our hearts and to listen, for it is through these loving nudges that unexpected and amazing blessings come our way.
©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved