God Always Responds… ALWAYS!

A few weeks ago, Grandpa and I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden with our daughter-in-law and grandsons. As soon as three-year-old Danny returned from preschool that day, we put on our warm coats, packed the car and drove off to Highland Park. When we arrived, Baby Ben nuzzled in the cuddly carrier which Kim had donned for the occasion. We made our way to the outdoor railroad exhibit, a quaint wonderland featuring eighteen model trains which chug along a maze of tracks. Each one snakes its way around beautifully carved wooden replicas of familiar sites such as The Lincoln Memorial and Wrigley Field, Mount St. Helen’s and a Napa Valley vineyard. Though we’d enjoyed the exhibit earlier this past summer, we returned to allow Danny another glimpse of his favorite things: TRAINS!

As we ambled into the exhibit, I noted Danny’s excitement and his extremely cooperative demeanor. Danny remembered our last visit and he seemed determined not to allow anything to prevent him from spending as much time as possible with his beloved trains that day. As it happened, we traced and retraced our steps through the exhibit for two wonderful hours. In the end, Danny’s hunger got the best of him and he happily joined us for the walk to the car. The promise of a hot dog from a favorite local eatery quickly sealed the deal!

As Mike drove to the restaurant, I listened to the chatter in the backseat between Kim and her little boys. Because Ben had awakened during the transfer from baby carrier to car seat, Kim attended to both simultaneously. I smiled as she cooed at Ben while also reading to Danny. Our grandsons seemed quite satisfied with Mommy’s ability to multi-task. When we arrived at the restaurant, Kim toted Ben in his car carrier and Grandpa took Danny’s hand. We ordered that precious hot dog for Danny, another for Grandpa and a salad and wrap for Kim and me. While we waited, Danny once again assumed his sweetest demeanor to coax Mommy into allowing Grandpa to show him the video games and candy machines hidden in a nearby nook. Don’t worry. No purchases were made. Just looking at that amazing array kept Danny’s attention until the smell of that hot dog drew him back to our table.

As we ate, I watched as Danny negotiated with Mommy regarding his lunch. Though he really wanted that wonderful hot dog, he seemed to want the French fries that accompanied it even more. So it was that Danny talked his way into being allowed two fries between each bite of hot dog until both were gone. In the mean time, Ben howled. While she explained the lunch rules to Danny, Kim nuzzled Ben under her cover-up and into position for his lunch. All the while, Kim also managed to enjoy her salad and to converse with Mike and me. I smiled to myself as I recalled similar days with our own sons. As hectic as life proved to be much of the time, Mike and I would do it all again for them. I’m certain Kim and our son Tim feel the same way.

I share this adventure with you because it seems to get the core of today’s passage from Mark’s gospel (Mark 10:46-52). Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples had just left Jericho amidst a sizable crowd. In spite of the circus around Jesus, Bartimaeus who had been born blind called out, fully expecting Jesus to hear him. Those with Jesus seemed oblivious to the poor man’s plight. They told him to be quiet, perhaps in an effort to keep Jesus from being bothered. Still, Bartimaeus persisted. When Jesus heard him, he asked the others to bring him forward. When Jesus asked what he wanted, Bartimaeus responded, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus responded immediately.

Bartimaeus’ faith in Jesus’ love for him touches me. As I consider his story, my grandsons come to mind. Older brother Danny shares Bartimaeus’ faith. When something is really important to him, Danny knows he can turn to his Mommy and Daddy without risk of disappointment. Though Danny’s every whim isn’t fulfilled, his parents provide him all that is necessary and so much more, like that trip to the railroad exhibit. Ben is only three months old, yet he’s already learned the same. Though his requests often come through tears of hunger rather than sweetly engineered negotiations, Ben’s needs are also fulfilled in generously loving fashion.

God does the same for each of us. Recently, Meg prayed, seemingly without avail, for a measure of peace in a very important area of her life. I listened and I prayed with her, also seemingly without result. Meg’s cause was desperate and reached to the core of her being. Hopeless as her plight seemed, she prayed with all of her might. So did I. We prayed in unison and alone for some time. Then, in a single day, in the midst of seemingly mindless kindness at the hands of a few friends, everything changed. Joy replaced Meg’s despair; confidence replaced her uncertainty; a bright future replaced the dark days which threatened. In that cluster of what seemed to be unremarkable moments, God responded. Just as Jesus responded to Bartimaeus, just and Kim and Tim respond to Danny and Ben, just as Mike and I respond to our sons, God responds to you and me… ALWAYS!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Love God, Your Neighbor and You!

In an effort to distract myself from some gnawing worries, I engaged in a bit of therapeutic behavior. Productivity has always been an effective antidote to my frustration, so I headed to our spare bedroom to purge the closet. I invested an hour in this self-help therapy during which I hoped to dispel my fretting. The mementos I unearthed in that closet immersed me into an equally troubling scenario which unfolded almost two decades ago. Little did I realize that this unplanned trip down Memory Lane was precisely what I needed to adjust my perspective.

On the closet’s shelf, I found several textbooks and notebooks which had been my constant companions during the 1998-1999 School Year. This year of intense training impacted both my career and my family life. The career effects unfolded in the expected positive manner. This would have been a thrilling opportunity if its effects on my family life weren’t so difficult. My husband’s response caused him to morph into “the good deacon” that year. While managing life as a school principal and our parish deacon, Mike took on the majority of our household responsibilities. Tim, an eighth grader at the time, happily engaged in pre-graduation and high school prepping. Mike, a senior in college, busied himself lining up the “perfect” job to begin his career. In my absence, the three men in my life rose to the occasion in stellar fashion. As for me, I barely managed survival-mode.

Throughout that year, I continued to staff the desk at Saint Paul’s on weekends, to write this weekly reflection and to complete an annulment case each month. What was I thinking? I joined Mike and the boys for important events which were at a minimum. Though parenting is my favorite role, I probably uttered, “Thank God!” in response. Just prior to Christmas, the stress caught up with me. My colleagues and I had gathered for the last class of the first term. When our professor arrived, we greeted her with smiles and asked about her holiday plans. Our excitement kept us from noticing the books cradled in her arms. When class began, she congratulated us for the productive semester and promised not to keep us for the entire day. Then, she handed each of us a textbook which we were to read by our first class in January. An awkward silence reigned until I spoke up. I’d been living for an uninterrupted Christmas break with my family and it was with tear-filled eyes that I asked, “You are kidding, aren’t you?” In appropriately stern fashion, my professor responded, “You are engaged in doctoral level coursework. This assignment is the least I can expect of you.”

My unfortunate question put an unmistakable damper on our remaining hour together. As soon as my classmates and I left the building, they unanimously congratulated me for my courage in speaking up and chided me for my stupidity in doing so. “Mary, are you crazy? Don’t read the book. Just don’t read it.” They planned to scan the table of contents and index just before that next class. They’d garner enough information to suggest that they’d actually read the book. As they headed to their cars, they laughed over my exchange with the professor. As for me, tears stung my eyes as I drove off. In the end, I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family and I didn’t worry about that book until school started. I had another week before my coursework began again. So, rather than catching up at school and relaxing a bit, I read that book. As it happened, I was the only one who did so. What was worse, after having given the assignment, our professor never referenced the book again. Go figure!

When I found that book on my closet shelf the other day, today’s gospel (Matthew 22:34-40) took on much deeper meaning for me. The passage chronicles one of the Pharisees’ final efforts to discredit Jesus. This time, they asked Jesus which were the greatest of the commandments. Because the Pharisees had made an art of complicating the lives of the faithful, Jesus countered quite simply: The greatest commandments are to love God with all of our hearts, minds and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It seems to me that we love God best when we acknowledge God’s loving presence in our lives. We love our neighbors best when we share that love with them.

During that difficult training year, I allowed my focus on God’s love to blur. I failed to acknowledge God’s appreciation for me just as I am. In the process, I also failed to acknowledge my appreciation for God. I was simply too busy. Though on paper I’d completed a very successful year, I didn’t feel very good about it until I stored those books and notebooks for future reference and got back to attending to the people in my life: my family, my students and the people of St. Paul’s. Oddly enough, when I put all of this into perspective, I was better able to express my love for God and for my neighbors quite tangibly. As for those worries which urged me to clean that closet, I’m putting them into perspective as well.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Bask In God’s Care

A few weeks ago, my husband and I embarked upon a journey to the north in an effort to rediscover my Canadian roots. When we boarded our plane, genuine anticipation replaced my standard travel fears. The truth is that I could hardly wait to begin this trek into my family’s past. As I fastened my seat-belt and settled in for the flight, I thanked God for the generations before me whose impact enticed me to learn more about them.

Throughout our flight, episodes from my family lore flooded my thoughts. In the midst of this deluge, I looked over our itinerary. Though a visit with my Canadian cousins topped our list, our visit to St. Anne de Beaupre struck me as particularly important as well. For as long as I can remember, family members’ visits to Canada included a stop at this church. In spite of the distance from their destinations, every effort was made to visit this basilica which is dedicated to the mother of Mary. It was built to honor St. Anne by grateful sailors who had sought her intervention as they struggled to navigate a horrific storm. Though they might have lost their lives, they miraculously survived the ordeal. They responded with this beautiful building.

In the years since, pilgrims have traveled to St. Anne’s in search of their own miracles. Family members’ photographs of the church’s interior reveal numerous canes and crutches left behind by those who were healed there. I’m unaware of any miracles among my family members. Still, those who visited this place left their worries at St. Anne’s feet and returned home with more peaceful hearts. When my mom shared her experiences regarding St. Anne de Beaupre, she expressed amazement regarding the numerous miracles which those crutches and canes represented. Oddly, she never spoke of disappointment over not experiencing a miracle of her own. It seemed that just being listened to in that holy place was enough for her.

My mom’s contentment with being listened to has taken root within me. I find great consolation in knowing that someone other than me truly understands my worries and concerns. I share this revelation because today’s scripture readings address prayer. Earlier on, Luke’s gospel reminded us to pray persistently with the parable of the widow who pursued a dishonest judge until he ruled justly in her favor. Today, the focus isn’t so much our persistence as it is our attitude when we speak to God. Sirach (35:12-14, 16-18) suggests humility in our prayer. For some of us, humility is a given, though not necessarily our choice, especially when we find ourselves in the face of burdens too heavy to bear. Sirach points out that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal…” I suspect that such prayer pierces God’s heart as well. In 2 Timothy (4:6-8, 16-18), Saint Paul prays boastfully. However, he does so not regarding himself, but regarding Jesus. All that Jesus chose to accomplish through him overwhelmed Paul. Though Paul viewed himself as among the lowliest of God’s people, Jesus chose to be at his side in everything. So it was that Paul trusted completely in God. He asks us to have the humility to do the same.

It is Jesus who has the final word regarding prayer in Luke’s gospel (18:9-14) when he tells the parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. The first was a Pharisee and the second, a tax collector. The Pharisee took his place before God and everyone else in the temple to thank God, “…that I am not like the rest of men.” He saw no need to bow in supplication. Unlike Paul, the Pharisee didn’t attribute the good he had accomplished to God; he held himself completely responsible for the marvelous state of affairs in which he found himself. The tax collector stood far behind the Pharisee with his eyes lowered to the floor. He bowed down low and beat his breast, begging for God’s mercy. He prayed as though everything depended on God because indeed it did. Jesus told this story to invite us to do the same.

It seems to me that my mom had good reason to be content with simply being listened to by God. Like Sirach, she turned to God with humility. Like Paul, she fully appreciated God’s presence in her life. Like the tax collector, she stood back and allowed God to handle things for her. A few days into our trip, when I visited St. Anne de Beaupre, I humbly whispered my laundry list of requests. Like my mom, I felt convinced that God had listened carefully to every word. Like my mom, I felt certain that God understood. With that, I basked in the warmth of St. Anne de Beaupre and in the warmth of God’s care just as my family has done for more than a hundred years.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s All About Love

This year, my husband and I are celebrating our granddaughters’ birthdays with a sleepover and a special outing. In July, our eldest granddaughter traveled to Chicago with us for a performance of Charlotte’s Web as part of her overnight stay. A few week’s ago, it was our middle granddaughter’s turn to celebrate with us. When we asked Lauren what she would like to do for her birthday, she asked if we could visit a dinosaur museum. Grandpa Mike investigated online and found a child-friendly venue. We planned to top off our time together with a special dinner and a bit of shopping.

When Grandpa arrived to pick up Lauren for her birthday adventure, she was standing at the door with her suitcase. Lauren could hardly wait to begin this special time away from her younger and older sisters. Grandpa offered to carry her bag to the car, but Lauren insisted upon pulling it along herself. During the drive, Lauren confirmed our plans with great anticipation. When she arrived here, Lauren carried her little suitcase up to her dad’s old room. “I’m going to sleep in Daddy’s bed, right Grandma?” When bedtime arrived, Lauren announced, “It’s strange to be here without Ellie and Claire.” We immediately picked up the phone so Lauren could wish a good night to her parents and sisters. With that, she slept soundly. The next day, after breakfast, church and an early lunch, we drove to the dinosaur museum. Though it was much smaller and less adventurous than we had hoped, Lauren reassured Grandpa and me. “It wasn’t what I expected,” she told us, “but it was still fun.” We filled the rest of the afternoon with a stroll by Lake Michigan and a visit to the pumpkin patch which we’d frequented decades earlier with our sons. These unexpected detours delighted Lauren beyond words.

That evening, when Lauren climbed into bed, she said her nighttime prayers. Afterward, she shared what she thought of this weekend together. “Grandma, I love being here with you and Grandpa. It’s fun to have you all to myself, but do you know what would be even better?” Before I could reply, Lauren went on. “It would be the most fun of all if Ellie and Claire and Mommy and Daddy could be here, and Uncle Tim and Aunt Kim, too. Then, we could all have fun together. Wouldn’t that be great?” I had no choice but to agree with this wise little child who had learned and shared an extremely important lesson regarding love. I couldn’t help considering Lauren’s observation when I turned to Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew (22:34-40) tells us that the Pharisees tested Jesus once again when they asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Without hesitation, Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” Lauren demonstrated her understanding of both commandments throughout her stay. During rare moments of quiet, Lauren sang. She sang songs from vacation bible school and a hymn she recognized while at Mass here at St. Paul’s. She enjoyed walking around the church with Grandpa and she offered her prayers without prompting. God definitely has a place in her life. What surprised me more was Lauren’s understanding of that second commandment. Lauren could hardly wait to have her own special time with Grandpa and me. In addition to our outings, we played together, read together and watched a favorite movie together. Lauren had all of the attention she could ever hope for. Still, when all was said and done, she realized that this special time would have been even more wonderful if she could have shared it with those God has given her to love. Lauren discovered what Jesus hoped to teach the Pharisees and all who would listen so long ago: Being loved blossoms into absolute joy when we share that love with others.

You know, God doesn’t ask for our love to burden us with guilt or unreasonable demands. It does our hearts good to express gratitude to the One who loves us unconditionally and who responds to all of our needs. God doesn’t ask us to love one another to complicate our lives. God knows firsthand the joy that comes when we share our lives with one another. Jesus designated the Two Greatest Commandments for good reason. These two simple requests are the means to our happiness today and forever. Just ask Lauren.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Halloween Hope

As I examined the opened bag of candy, I found that the my husband has been trick-or-treating early. Apparently, he favors M&Ms because there were only a few packages left at the bottom of the mini assortment bag. As I contemplated where to hide what was left of our Halloween cache, I realized that I had not yet settled on a topic for this writing. I have read the scriptures several times over the past few days, hoping for inspiration. After I secured what remained of our Halloween candy in what I hope is a husband-proof hiding place, I returned to my computer. As I began to write, I admitted that my husband’s candy assault reminded me of how much I enjoy our annual “Halloween Trilogy.”

When I was in elementary school, the sisters made it clear that there was no Halloween without All Saints Day. Halloween evolved from “The Eve of All Hallows”. In centuries past, on the Eve of All Saints Day, adults in some European countries paraded in costumes. They depicted various stages of life and position on this earth as a reminder that no one is exempt from death. Today, children dress up with the hope of gathering as much candy as possible without a giving a thought to their mortality.

The second day of my Halloween Trilogy is November 1, All Saints Day. On this day, we honor all who enjoy God’s company in eternity, but who have not been formally declared saints by the church. When we celebrate All Saints Day, we celebrate our hope that, even at our worst, the potential for sainthood remains within us all. Now that is something to contemplate as we dole out candy to the princesses, super heroes, hobos and vampires who knock at our doors this weekend!

The final day of my Halloween Trilogy is November 2, All Souls’ Day, The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. On this day, we remember all of our loved ones who have passed away. The truth is that none of us can be certain of how God handles our imperfections when we take them along with us from this life to the next. The hope we hold as a faith community compels us to pray for those who have passed away. We ask that their journeys to God’s embrace are mercifully swift. We also celebrate the knowledge that the potential for sainthood remains within them as it does within us all.

As I turn my thoughts turn from my Halloween Trilogy to Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14), I consider the Pharisee and tax collector who went to the temple to pray. It occurs to me that the reason for both men’s prayer was hope. Though they displayed their hope with very different attitudes and words, each man came to the temple with hope in God’s promises.

The Pharisee was a devout man who followed the letter of the law to the nth degree. He offered his prayer at the front of the temple. With his eyes turned upward to heaven, he prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity…” The Pharisee listed his virtues and good works, contrasting his situation and that of the lowly tax collector who bowed down at the back of the temple. The tax collector knelt on the floor with his head bent low to the floor. He dared not raise his eyes as he prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” After giving those present a moment to consider the scene, Jesus assured them that the tax collector’s hope was fulfilled by the Lord. This poor man asked for forgiveness and he received it. The Pharisee, on the other hand, asked for nothing and he received nothing in return. Both men prayed with hope, one daring to hope for God’s mercy and one quite hopeful that he was already “good enough.”

Hope is the driving force behind many things this weekend. Trick-or-treaters long for hope-fulfilled as we drop treats into their bags. As for me, between doorbell rings, I will consider the hopeful lives of sinners-turned-saints like Augustine and Paul, and I will pray with hope for my dearly departed. I will pray for myself as well, hoping that both the Pharisee and the tax collector within me will walk among all souls and all saints one day.
©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved