Celebrate the Present? Yes!

It was a tough morning. I woke with a heavy heart. Just as we were all looking forward to easing out of our stay-in-place regimen, our ailing world was turned upside-down once again. One man’s brutal overreaction to an alleged misdeed robbed another man of his life. This time, that overreaction reached to our collective core. Once again, our lives were placed on lock-down. This time, rather than battling a virus, we battled injustice in an effort to find justice for all concerned. Once again, we found ourselves deeply troubled. Yes, it was a tough morning and my heart ached. As I crawled out of bed, I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all.”

As I considered how next to address the Lord God, I grabbed one of the sources I frequently turn to for inspiration. YOU ARE THE BELOVED* is a book of daily reflections drawn from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen, a favorite author of mine. Because his words always touch me deeply, I opened that book to the day’s date in search of something I could hold onto. I read the title of that morning’s offering aloud: Celebrate in the Present. I quickly responded to myself, “Are you kidding me? The last thing I want to do today is celebrate!” With that, I almost closed the book without reading another word. I write almost because something –okay, Someone– encouraged me to take a second look. I’m most grateful that I did. Thank you, God!

Henri Nouwen’s words that day addressed the core of my dilemma that morning and of all of our heartache these days. When he asked that we celebrate in the present, Nouwen added that it is impossible to celebrate any given moment or event if we don’t fully embrace everything which that moment entails. He wrote that we can’t celebrate Christmas if nothing new is born out of Jesus’ birth. We can’t celebrate Easter if we don’t embrace the promise of new life that comes with it. We can’t celebrate Pentecost if God’s Spirit doesn’t continue to be alive and well among us. When he said to celebrate the present, Nouwen meant that we must be a living part of that present and we must deal with whatever challenges that present sets before us.

Though that passage from Henri Nouwen ended there, I had to consider what he might have written about today’s feast of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. As I wondered, I shook my head with sadness. Those of us with pre-Vatican II roots recall that we once referred to this feast as Corpus Christi. We celebrated by honoring the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Vatican II and many of our spiritual leaders since have reminded us that Jesus also challenged us to become his body and blood for one another, his most holy body and blood to be precise. I admit that I looked upward from my keyboard after writing that and said aloud, “I know. We’re not acting most holy these days.” Regardless of the externals that separate us -our politics, our tendencies to the left or to the right, our likes or dislikes, our upbringing, our social status, our sinfulness or our holiness, even the colors of our skin, we are called to be the body and blood of Jesus together and for one another.

I take my inspiration from Henri Nouwen and one other who inspires me even more so. The scriptures tell us that Jesus habitually shared himself with his contemporaries who were as diverse as we are. At his last supper with them, Jesus washed the feet of twelve very different, but beloved friends, even the friend who denied him and the friend who betrayed him. Jesus refused to distinguish between saints and sinners, women and men, slaves and free persons, Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor. Even prostitutes and tax collectors received his friendship. In each face, Jesus saw God’s handiwork. Jesus spent every ounce of his own body and blood caring for every one whom he met along the way with the hope of inspiring us to do the same. Ever since, Jesus has invited us over and over again to become his body and blood by caring for one another with the same unconditional love.

I woke with a headache and a heartache that morning with good reason. When I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all,” I didn’t expect an immediate answer. Yet, it came. After I closed Nouwen’s book, I took a deep breath, looked upward and sighed. I couldn’t help smiling as I announced to my ever-patient God, “Yes, I’ll celebrate the present. I’ll embrace this heartbreaking, frustrating and frightening time. I’ll spend my body, my blood and my heart in service of those you give me to love.” So it is that I will celebrate the gift of Jesus’ body and blood by becoming Jesus’ body and blood and caring for my fellow humans as he did. I’ll begin by facing the injustice that plagues us today and doing something about it.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2017), You Are The Beloved, p. 72. Convergent Books, Penguin Random House LLC.

The Body, Blood and Heart of Jesus

I’d been running most of the day. By mid-afternoon, I realized that I needed to sit for just a few minutes to relax and to regroup. My heart ached under the weight of a long list of woes which needed attention. People around me were suffering in varying degrees and there seemed to be little that I could do for any of them. Though I’d kept my promise to pray for each one, I felt the need to do more. So it was that I decided to share this bit of quiet time with The One who understood completely. Before voicing my petitions once again, I wondered, “How many more of God’s kids are suffering today?” My Friend from above didn’t need to respond. I already knew that God’s family teems with broken people.

“The human condition is tough,” I whispered to myself and to God above. As I contemplated this reality, a hymn we’d sung at church the previous Sunday came to mind. When I was a child, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name often. I found comfort in Ignaz Franz’s Eighteenth Century lyrics because each verse acknowledges God’s greatness and that, indeed, God is in charge. Though it isn’t one of my favorites, this hymn truly touched me that day. In the midst of my worry, it helped me to focus upon God’s wonder and my smallness. I became less regretful regarding my inability to end the suffering around me because God is in charge and presenting God with all of these needs was the most productive thing I could do at the moment.

After arriving at that bit of wisdom, I recalled how I’ve relied upon Matt Wessel’s Be With Me to lift my spirits over the past several months: “Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray.” Years ago, these words filled my car every time I drove from Gurnee to Glenview to visit my dying mom. They were the mantra which carried me through my sister’s passing as well. Matt’s lyrics touch me deeply because they dare to be as familiar with our God as Jesus invited us to be. Just as our children ask Daddy or Mommy to linger a bit longer at their bedsides while they travel off to Dreamland, we ask God, our loving parent, to linger with us through tough and frightening times. What is most consoling is that we needn’t end our prayer with “Be with me.” Matt’s lyrics urge us on to invite God to remain with us for the long haul: “Stand beside me; walk beside me; give me comfort; make me stronger, and raise me higher.”

Before returning to all I had to do that day, I considered one more favorite. On Eagle’s Wings has been sung at almost every funeral I’ve attended for the past several decades. “Perhaps I won’t cry if I sing the words to myself,” I thought. So it was that I quietly voiced Michael Joncas’ lyrics to myself and to God above. The thought of soaring toward the sky on an eagle and then nestling into the palm of God’s hand assured me that my prayers were well-placed. With that and a full measure of peace in my heart, I took a deep breath and embraced the remainder of the day.

Though some of those for whom I prayed that day aren’t yet out of the woods, it is with a lighter heart that I celebrate today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Though Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t have these familiar hymns in which to find comfort, Jesus gave them far more tangible means to do so. Jesus offered the gift of himself through every moment of every day he walked among them. Though we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s gospel isn’t a Last Supper narrative. Rather, Luke’s gospel (9:11-17) recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. While the disciples missed the significance of what occurred, early Christians came to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ blessing, breaking and sharing of that bread and fish. Offering nourishment to the hungry provided a poignant example of God’s call for us to do the same. Jesus echoed that call through the meals he shared with outcasts of every sort. Jesus echoed that call when he healed the leper, the blind man and the Roman’s Centurion’s servant. Jesus echoed that call in parables like The Prodigal Son which revealed God’s unlimited love for us and our amazing capacity to love one other. Jesus echoed that call in every look, touch and in every accepting and healing embrace. When we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, we celebrate this Jesus who gave his body, his blood and his loving heart in service to us all.

On this very special day, we consider the way of life with which Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Just as Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do, Jesus urges you and me spend ourselves, our bodies, our blood and our own loving hearts, in service of those we’ve been given to love. While we cherish the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to share this gift through our relationships with one another as well. Those wonderful hymns reminded me that Jesus shared his body and blood every time he responded to the needs of others. Jesus asks only that we try to do the same. When we do, we will transform this world and relieve the suffering of God’s family as only we can. We will truly partake of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ loving heart, one act of kindness at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, text by Ignaz Franz 1719-1790; translated by Clarence Walworth 1820-1900

Be With Me, text and music by Matt Wessel. ©2003 Matt Wessel

On Eagle’s Wings, Text and music by Michael Joncas, text based upon Psalm 91. Text and music ©1979, OCP.

Making Things Right Again and Again…

I find it very difficult to be at odds with just about anyone. The truth is that I’m happiest when the people around me not only get along, but also enjoy one another. This propensity to be at peace with my fellow humans is likely a remnant from lessons offered by my parents, extended family and teachers far too long ago. In spite of the passage of time, their insistence that I love everyone remains etched in my memory. My parents taught me through their words and their example. They were sweetly affectionate toward one another and each let us know in his and her own way that we were loved as well. They also made it clear that we were to love one another accordingly. As a result, my sisters, brother and I were expected not to fight. When we did, our mom brought the error of our ways to our immediate attention. She reminded whichever of us were the culprits that we needed to have “charity” in our hearts. Eventually, I accepted that there was something to this “getting along” business. Ever since, I’ve tried to live accordingly. At times, I’ve experienced great success. At times, I’ve failed miserably. My successful attempts resulted in the relationships I’ve enjoyed throughout the years. My failures resulted in lost intimacy, lost trust, lost understanding, lost companionship, lost friendship, lost… You get the idea.

Though I’ve stored these losses in the recesses of my memory, the most minimal prompts return them to the forefront of my psyche. In an instant, the pain is back in full force. I find myself reviewing my mistakes. Over and over again, I ask myself what else I would have, could have or should have done to make things end differently. Sometimes, I truthfully answer that I did my best. I found it necessary to shake the dust from my sandals and to move on because I could do no more. Jesus himself offered this alternative when nothing else was possible. Sometimes, I shamefully answer that I was too fearful, too proud, too stubborn or too shallow to see the alternatives, much less to respond accordingly. On these occasions, the guilt sets in and I ask myself once again how I can make things right. My failures in this regard make today’s gospel (John 21:1-19) a most welcome reminder of Jesus’ position regarding such quandaries.

John tells us that the disciples had set out to fish for the day. Perhaps this was their attempt to regroup and to come to some understanding regarding all that had happened to Jesus before and after his death. Perhaps they hoped that this excursion into familiar waters would clear their heads. Perhaps they hoped to revisit the time when life was simpler and a torn net was their greatest worry. So it was that the disciples embraced their former trade. They were fishers-of-people turned fishers-of-fish once again. As it happened, after hours at sea, their nets remained empty. Their hearts remained empty of the peace they sought as well. The good news is that this wasn’t the case for long. In the midst of their disappointment, a voice called from the shore. The man who spoke invited the disciples to throw their nets to the other side of the boat. This familiar suggestion revealed immediately that the man on the shore was no stranger. Do you remember? Jesus told his friends to do the same thing on a less-than-productive day when he first met them. Unable to contain himself, Peter dove into the water and swam to Jesus. The others made their way in the boat with their net full of fish. When they arrived, they found that Jesus had prepared a small fire so they could share a meal with him. During this third appearance after his death, Jesus offered each of the disciples the bread and fish he had ready for them. Through this shared meal, Jesus assured his friends that they were one family again. Jesus also invited each one to get on with God’s work by serving others just as he had served them.

Though all had gone quite well during this happy reunion between Jesus and his friends, a bit of unfinished business remained between Jesus and Peter. If my own experience has taught me anything, it assures me that guilt is a pesky reminder of our misdeeds and that Peter hadn’t quite gotten over his guilt regarding his denial of Jesus. Perceptive and loving friend that he was, Jesus didn’t allow Peter to carry this burden with him. Rather, he gave Peter the opportunity to make things right again. Jesus asked The Rock in whom he’d placed so much faith, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter embraced the opportunity when he responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Still, Jesus repeated, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter responded again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Finally, Jesus asked a third time, “Do you love me?” Poor Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter’s heart had filled with remorse the moment he realized that he’d denied Jesus three times. So it was that Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to express his love three times. To seal their friendship, Jesus charged Peter with his greatest work: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.” Jesus’ unconditional love allowed Peter to put his failures behind him and to get on with simply doing the best he could. How grateful I am to acknowledge that his same love allows you and me to do the same!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Remember When?

I sat at my computer to check the email messages I hadn’t been able to get to. Just before my husband and I headed north for a few days, my printer broke. Though I’d hoped to remedy the situation before Mike and I left, my inability to print remained until the day after we returned. The family tech experts (a.k.a. our sons) indicated that a new printer was in order. After purchasing said printer, I turned to my inbox. While determining which messages to deal with first, I found a “Forward” from a dear friend. In spite of my frustration regarding all I had to do and though my fear of computer viruses usually keeps me from opening forwarded emails, I gave this one a look. The friend who sent it dislikes SPAM and viruses as much as I do and he is as busy as I am, so I assumed his message merited my attention. The subject line “Remember When…” enticed me to take a stroll down Memory Lane.

The truth is that I wasn’t disappointed by my friend’s email. My printer issue had really gotten to me because I do my final proofreading of these reflections from a printed copy. Keri, our ever-patient bulletin editor can tell you that my submission last week was certainly last-minute. Perhaps I needed this interlude with nostalgia to forget my printer woes and to move on. As it happened, from the first photo in my friend’s email, I was hooked. It featured two high school girls wearing gym uniforms suspiciously similar to the one I wore for four years. As I scrolled down to each subsequent photograph, images from my childhood filled me up. A small television set with a very tiny screen which took several minutes to warm up brought me back to my childhood living room. There I saw my brother who insisted that we watch “Sing Along with Mitch” every week. And, every week, my brother sang every song with great gusto and completely off-key. It was in that same living room that I often nestled next to my mother in an overstuffed chair to enjoy the vintage movies playing on that tiny screen.

As I continued through that email, I encountered Hula Hoops and a full-service gas station where attendants actually wiped windshields with every fill-up and provided tire air at no cost. A vintage class picture featured clones of my own grade school classmates who donned familiar uniforms. A cloud which resembled a heart transported me to the rusty old swing set in our backyard. I loved swinging alone while I stared at the sky. When I did this, I found shapes of every sort among the clouds. Sometimes, I imagined God looking down at me from behind those clouds where I truly believed heaven awaits us all. Pictures of a dial telephone, S&H Green Stamps and a cel from a vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon caused me to tear up a bit. Suddenly, my Uncle Gee appeared before me as he dialed up my grandmother on our family’s single black telephone. I couldn’t help reciting “VanBuren 6-1-0-9-9”, the first telephone number I’d ever memorized. By the time I’d scrolled down to the end of that email, I’d mentally celebrated numerous high points from long ago. Though I’d intended to allow myself only a few minutes, I’d spent a half-hour on Memory Lane.

The following weekend, when I arrived at St. Paul’s for Mass, a lone First Communion booklet on the gathering space desk whisked me back to Memory Lane. Once again, I was immersed in the heartwarming comfort brought on by that nostalgic email. While walking to my pew for Mass, I remembered kneeling in my parish church decades earlier. I recalled my parish priest’s suggestion that we begin every Mass by asking God to take care of our family and friends and to forgive us for anything that needed forgiving. I’ve done this for decades, always ending with a bit of quiet to allow for God’s contribution to the conversation. Though God can be very quiet at times, that morning, God seemed to look with me as I saw myself walking toward the altar to receive Holy Communion for the very first time. The heartwarming comfort which that email had elicited morphed into a soul-drenching fullness that I truly cannot explain. I only know that I found myself filled up from top to bottom, inside and outside with God’s presence.

On this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, I can find no better way to celebrate than to stroll down Memory Lane once again. This time, rather than focusing upon old photos, I turn my eyes and my heart to Jesus. Jesus shared himself completely when he walked among us. The love between Father and Son filled Jesus so much so that it permeated Jesus’ every word and deed. To be certain that this love remained with us, Jesus left us the gift of himself in the Eucharist. Happily, there is no need to walk down Memory Lane to embrace this gift. Jesus who walked among us so long ago remains with us today and he will be with us always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Taste For Everyone

At a recent family gathering, our conversations covered an unexpectedly broad array of topics. My contributions included accounts from our childhood neighborhood, how I met my husband and experiences from the early days of my teaching career. One would think that the family memories would have piqued my emotions most that day. As it happened, however, reminiscing about my former students moistened my eyes and tugged at my heart. Without thinking, I blurted out, “I loved those kids!”

Life has been busy and I haven’t thought of my former students in a very long time. Still, as we spoke at my sister’s dining room table, I felt as though I had been with them just the other day. A subsequent drive past our neighborhood school elicited further long-forgotten memories of the many children who had spent a school year with me. I admit that I was taken aback by the surge of emotion which filled me up as I considered the best and most trying events of our time together. The good times often included special projects and programs and, of course, our class parties. A day when everyone cooperated was also reason to celebrate. Unexplained misbehavior and incidences which were sadly explainable were no fun for anyone involved. Even innocent onlookers shuddered when one of their own was in trouble.

I will never forget the year when three of my third graders misbehaved just enough to compel me to ban them from our class Christmas Party. When I told the boys that they would spend that precious afternoon in the principal’s office, they were crestfallen. The truth is they were so upset that they melted into the woodwork by party day. I hardly knew they were in class because they had joined in their classmates’ good behavior so completely. When they gathered up their pencils and papers to leave the room that Friday afternoon, I asked if they understood why they were leaving. After they mumbled something about “being bad,” I invited them to stay. Our party just wouldn’t have been the same if they weren’t there and I didn’t want them to miss the treats and little gifts I’d prepared for them. You see, I really did love those kids. Those three boys would never have forgotten third grade if that was the year that they missed their class Christmas Party. Perhaps they haven’t forgotten third grade because it was the year that their teacher extended unexpected mercy to them.

I know. We celebrated Christmas five months ago and Easter has come and gone. Why, then, am I writing about a children’s Christmas Party from four decades ago on this Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ? Perhaps I’m compelled to do so by the same Spirit who inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to record the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Of all that Jesus did, this event is one of a select few which appear in all four gospels. It is no wonder. This story highlights Jesus’ favorite activity -sharing a meal with his friends.

Jesus invited everyone within his proximity into friendship with him. Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding dinner. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus welcomed a woman of questionable reputation when she interrupted a meal to bathe his feet with her tears. Jesus broke bread with whoever invited him in. He sometimes invited himself in. Jesus called Zacchaeus down from a tree and asked the man to take him home for supper. Jesus cured Peter’s ailing mother-in-law after which she prepared a meal for Jesus, Peter and their friends. Today, I reference Luke’s gospel which offers an account of the best-attended meal Jesus ever hosted.

Jesus had spent the day preaching to a crowd of over five thousand. When the disciples told Jesus to disperse the people so they could find food on their own, Jesus told the disciples to feed them themselves. When they found a boy who had only a few fish and some bread, Jesus blessed it. Then he asked his friends to distribute it. Jesus didn’t tell them to feed his neighbors from Nazareth first or to feed their fellow Jews before the Gentiles. Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to feed the men or women or children in any particular order. Jesus simply asked that the disciples give them all some food. God loved the motley crowd who had spent hours listening to Jesus that day and Jesus was determined to make that love known to them through this meal.

I can’t help thinking that Jesus’ efforts in this regard inspired me to include my three troublesome students in our class party. To have done otherwise would have deprived them of a small taste of God’s all-inclusive love. It seems to me that we are all invited to offer a taste of the same by sitting at table, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, with everyone we meet along the way.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

One Family

“This is the bread that came down from heaven.”
From John 6:58

This weekend, many of our parish families are celebrating their second graders’ reception of First Eucharist. I remember my own First Communion Day as though it was yesterday. My classmates and I had spent the entire year preparing to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus. My parents prepared as well by organizing a family party to celebrate this milestone. I remember our walk down the block to our parish church and the sense of awe I felt. Little as I was, it made perfect sense to me that I wore a white dress and veil. After all, I was meeting Jesus as I had never met him before.

These decades later, my awe regarding the Eucharist remains. Though I know that God is always with me, there is something very special about receiving and sharing Communion together. Regardless of what separates us from one another outside of this meal, when we break bread together we are one family -God’s family.

Dear God, bless all of the children who break bread at your table for the first time. Inspire them with the assurance that you are always with them.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved