Always With Us!

“Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked
to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?”

From Luke 24:32

Because my husband diligently chronicled our trip to Israel with wonderful photographs, we purchased two albums for his handiwork. We realize that in this the digital age we can enjoy our memories in full color on our laptop. Still, having them in hand where we can linger over each one is a luxury we’re not ready to give up. We keep our photo albums on display in our family room. This prompts visitors and us to enjoy them often.

While looking through those albums one stay-at-home day, I came across photos of the church and monastery we visited in Emmaus. I also revisited Luke’s gospel which tells us about Cleopas and his companion who had just left Jerusalem and traveled along a road to Emmaus. It wasn’t long after Jesus’ death and they were discussing all that had happened during those dark days. As they walked, they encountered a stranger. Though everyone they’d met in Jerusalem was affected in some way by Jesus’ death, this man seemed to know nothing of it. After explaining along the way, this man offered his sense of those events. When trio eventually stopped to eat together, this stranger broke bread just as the disciples said Jesus had done. Cleopas and his friend immediately realized who this stranger was. Jesus had been with them all the while!

Throughout what remains of this COVID-19 era and for a long time afterward, we will have ample opportunity to discuss all that is and has occurred. Between those conversations, we’ll do our best to keep ourselves and our loved ones safely at home. Hopefully, we’ll also find the time to pray. It seems to me that every time we take the time to talk to God, we become more certain, like Cleopas and his friend, that God is with us all the while!

Loving God, help us never to forget that you are with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God of The Living!

While running an errand in the near-freezing cold, I realized that I should have worn my winter jacket. My favorite hoodie wasn’t doing the job that morning. As I made my way in and out of the cold, I promised myself that I’d reorganize our coat closet as soon as possible. Our winter outerwear needed to be moved center stage and our lighter jackets needed to be cleaned and stored for next year. Amazingly enough, I kept my promise to myself that very day. I not only tackled the coat closet, but our clothes closet as well. For me, the coats were easy to deal with. I’d purged my winter wear last year. It was my everyday casual clothing that posed a dilemma. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to my wardrobe. Every season, I settle into my favorite and most comfortable clothing and I ignore the rest. I’ve finally learned that if I haven’t worn something for a year, well, maybe two or three years, I need to give it away. After some serious haggling with myself, I let go of those neglected garments and added them to my giveaway pile.

My poor husband had the misfortune of returning home while I was in the midst of my closet purge. I immediately invited him to look at a few things which he hasn’t worn in a while. Mike reluctantly eyed the shirts, sweaters and slacks which he’s held onto for a little too long. Though all of them are in good condition, he’d replaced them with more stylish options over the past few years. Still, when I urged the dear man to give a particular shirt or sweater away, he insisted that it would be back in style again. When I reminded the good deacon that I’d be donating our treasures to someone who needed them far more than we, he agreed to part with them all. Mike’s only hold-out is the plaid wool jacket he purchased while a student at Western Illinois University during his first winter there. Though he claims that parting with the jacket would be like throwing away his college photo album, I believe that Mike secretly hopes to return to the joys of college by wearing that jacket in Macomb one day!

I share Mike’s and my giveaway adventure because our reluctance to part with the comfort of our old familiar clothing is reminiscent of the Sadducees’ reluctance to let go of their old familiar thinking in today’s gospel (Luke 20:27-38). Luke tells us that the Sadducees posed a question which prompted Jesus to address the afterlife. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after this life, yet they questioned Jesus about it. They reminded Jesus that The Law required a widow with no children to marry her husband’s brother. The intent was to provide the lost husband an heir and the widow the means to be cared for. The Sadducees added that if this brother passed away and the widow remained childless, she was to marry a subsequent brother. The Sadducees went so far as to offer the tale of a poor widow who had wed and lost seven brothers while remaining childless. They ended by asking Jesus which brother would be the widow’s husband at the resurrection of the dead. Though Jesus knew the Sadducees’ malicious intent, he used the opportunity to offer them an important lesson…

Jesus explained that those who pass on to the next life have no need to marry. In eternity, they find greater intimacy with God and with one another than they ever experienced in this life. Before allowing the Sadducees to respond, Jesus cited The Covenant handed down. Their beloved Moses had acknowledged the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in his encounter with the burning bush. Moses declared that the God of The Covenant is the God of the Living. Jesus pointed out that, if the Sadducees believed in the God of the Living, they must also believe that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live with God in eternity. Sadly, the Sadducees couldn’t let go of their resolve. Rather than recognizing the hope which Jesus offered them, they walked away with clenched fists, holding tightly to the things that kept them from embracing God’s gift of eternal life.

I’m happy that the good deacon and I were able to empty our closets of the things we no longer need. I’m happy to share that we’ve also let go of a few other things we don’t need. We’ve moved beyond our closet purge to take inventory of our hearts as well. We’ll hold onto the precious experiences along the way which have made us who we are today. After all, four years in Macomb changed Mike’s life forever! At the same time, we’re letting go of things which we no longer need or shouldn’t have had in the first place. Past resentments, habitual worries and tired old sins don’t help any of us. If our less cluttered closets elicit smiles, how many more smiles will our uncluttered hearts will bring? Yes, we’ll have more room for the blessings of this life. We’ll also have more room for the God of the Living –the God who dwells within us now and who awaits us all in the world to come.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share That Thread of Faith!

Though this reflection is somewhat personal to my parish family, I hope it reminds all of us to be there for the people on whom we rely most…

When I checked the date for this writing, it occurred to me that today marks the four-week anniversary of Father Chris’s and Father Joe’s arrival here at St. Paul’s. By now, most of us have experienced a homily or two from each of them as well as a few of their jokes. Corny as they were, I admit that I giggled in response to these humorous offerings. I simply couldn’t resist the new guys’ sincere attempts to ease themselves into our parish family. Sharing a few laughs with us was certainly a good way to start! Still, I can’t ignore the road which lies ahead for them and for us. Down that road, Father Chris and Father Joe will share far more than laughter with us. They’ll pray with us and they’ll celebrate with us. They’ll worry with us and keep vigil with us in tough circumstances. They’ll mourn with us and hold us up when we say goodbye to our loved ones. In addition to all of this “spiritual” activity, Father Chris and Father Joe will engage in the practical day-to-day management tasks which add to most administrators’ gray hair. Fortunately for all concerned, through everything we experience together, a common thread will hold us close. That thread is our faith.

For as long as I can remember, that thread of faith has been an important force in my life. If you’ve sewn on an almost-lost button, you understand the strength hidden in a bit of thread. Isn’t it amazing that it takes only a few inches of this lighter-than-air string to repair a holey sock or a falling hem? The same is true of our faith. Though our own faith may seem as flimsy as a bit of unraveling thread, it’s enough to keep us anchored. It holds us close to those who love us and to those God has given us to love. Most importantly, that tiny strand binds us forever to God. Through thick and thin, through illnesses, losses and our too-frequent failures, that thread holds us close to our Loving Maker. More often than we realize, God tightens the stitches which hold us close. God has done this for me more often than I can count through a chance meeting with a friend, a bird who flits at my window in spite of a brewing storm or a scribbled quote from a soul far more faith-filled than I which I’d ignored until the moment at hand. Always, God pulls at that thread which is my faith until I get the message and behave accordingly.

It seems to me that each of us is called to tighten the thread of faith which binds us to one another and to God. Though we often look to those whom we consider to be “religious” or “holy” or “spiritual” to do the job, God tells us all to do this for our fellow humans. It was twenty-one years ago when I visited a priest who’d been a lifelong friend. I’d known Father Bill O’Connell since I was four years old. By age six, I’d earned permission to walk down the block to our parish rectory to visit him. When I arrived, if he didn’t have an appointment, Father took the time to talk with me. This continued through seventh grade when my family moved. Afterward, I called Father at every opportunity. He also called me when he had people or special intentions for me to pray for. During junior year of college, I called Father to offer my services at his parish for a month the following summer. He immediately invited me to teach English to immigrant children who’d begin school that fall. While there, I met a local teacher who invited me on a date, eventually married me and grew up to become Mike-the-Deacon. As for Father, he witnessed our marriage, baptized our first son and remained a friend through it all. When I visited Father that day twenty-one years ago, he was very sick. Though he’d always held onto the full spool of thread which was his faith, Father admitted to me, “Mary, it’s hard to die…”

What was I to say to the one who’d transformed the tiny thread which was my own faith into a mighty coil of rope? If I’d asked Father that question, he would have reminded me in no uncertain terms that I’d done as much to strengthen his faith as he had done to strengthen mine. Wisely, I didn’t give him the opportunity. Rather, I told my priest-friend that he wasn’t allowed to think about dying. I ordered him to think about the living which he’d embrace very soon and so Father did. Still, while Father was the student during our final moments together, the lifetime of lessons he taught filled me up: Faith defies definition. Some of us profess to be of one faith or another. Some of us associate the depth of faith with the heights of theological training. Some regard faith as an improbable concept because nothing in this world seems worthy of our complete trust. Some rely on their faith for everything, including their next breath, just as Father Bill. In the end, Father taught me that faith is the amazing gift which gives us the courage to carry on.

Today’s gospel (Luke 12:32-48) begins with one of the most faith-filled commands Jesus offered: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy…” Faith is so much more than a feeling of hope in God’s care for us. Indeed, faith is the knowledge that God truly loves us. Father Bill needed me to remind him of this when he faced the final struggle of his life. I’ve needed this reminder many times since. Though I’m convinced that Father Chris and Father Joe each possess faith as mighty as a coil of rope as well, there will be times when they need us just as we need them. All God asks is that we do as Jesus did. All God asks is that we strengthen the thread of faith which binds us to God and to one another by being there for another as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

G… God!

For this is our God,
and we are the people God shepherds,
the flock God guides.

Psalm 95:7

G is for God… and goodness, grace, generosity, gentleness, gift, gladness, glory, grandeur, gratitude, growth, gumption and a gaggle of other descriptors which apply to the God I’ve come to know and love.

Regardless of the name you prefer or the context in which you worship, God is all of these things and more for you, for me and for every soul blessed with the gift of life. Whether we were raised down the street from our place of worship or were never exposed to anything remotely similar, God is for us.

For me, the evidence lies deep within. I’ve been aware of God’s presence in my life for as long as I can remember. If you’re searching for more concrete evidence, consider this: Numerous published books and countless references have been cited regarding encounters with life after this life. Many people have crossed death’s threshold and returned to share their experiences. Whether a believer, an agnostic or an atheist beforehand, these travelers to the Hereafter consistently speak of the unconditional love, peace and acceptance which greeted them. Most conclude with great certainty that they have indeed met God.

Though most of us will never return from this journey, we encounter God’s loving presence every day. As for me, I cannot help cultivating my relationship with God. It is the source of my greatest joy. I show my appreciation best by cultivating my relationships with those God has given me to love. After all, the best gifts are those which we share.

Generous and Gracious God, you reveal yourself in so many ways. Help us all to appreciate your unending love for us and your persistent presence among us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We Remember…

God loves the people,
and God adorns the lowly with victory.

Psalm 149:4

Our Memorial Day observances honor those who gave their lives in service of this country. Whether drafted into service or enlisted by choice, each one fulfilled a mission. Though some wrestled with doubt, wondering if anything is worth dying for, we know the final outcome. They persisted for us. This weekend, thousands of flags decorate these heroes’ graves.

Today, we also remember our civilian loved ones. Though they didn’t endure the trials of battle, they endured the trials of this life. Whether our parent or spouse, our child, another family member or friend, we miss them. They also responded to their missions in this life and they completed them as best they could. At times, our loved ones achieved great success and their impacts upon our lives were sources of great joy. At times, they failed and their impacts were precisely the opposite. Still, we mourn those who have passed, sometimes because of their humanity and sometimes in spite of it.

There is something God-like about our remembering. When we reminisce, we tend to recall happy or amusing or glorious times shared. My dad died when most of us were very young. Within a year of his passing, this dear man had become a saint in our collective consciousness. I have no doubt that God agrees!
Memorial Day offers us the opportunity to celebrate the eternal joy of all who know that joy firsthand. There is something holy to be found as we relish our relationships with those whom we mourn. The selective memories which bestow sainthood upon our very human loved ones reflect the selective vision of God. Upon each of our arrivals home, God sees only a loved one who’s been away far too long.

Today, as we remember our military personnel and all of the loved ones who have lived their lives for us, let’s smile between the tears. God gives us good reason to rejoice for them all!

Loving God, be with all of our servicewomen and men today. Keep them and all of us safe until we return home to you.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Thanks, Daddy!

“I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.”

From John 14:3

While wrapping my granddaughter’s First Communion gift, it occurred to me that I’d forgotten to celebrate the anniversary of my own First Communion day with you yesterday. Though I’m a day late, let’s celebrate…

May 3 will always be special to me. I celebrated my First Communion Day on this date decades ago. I had learned a good deal about Jesus by then and I liked what I heard. In my mind, receiving Holy Communion paid much deserved homage to this Jesus who had taught me so much. Later that afternoon, my mom surprised me with another very special encounter. My dad’s heart ailment had resulted in his hospitalization the previous week. This kept him from attending my First Communion Mass. When my Uncle Gerard offered us a ride to the hospital so my dad could see me, I was beyond elated! Though children under twelve years of age weren’t allowed to visit hospitals back then, the nurses made an exception for the little girl who was dressed like a bride. I’ll never forget my dad’s smile as I stood next to his hospital bed.

Before my dad became ill himself, he’d prepared my siblings and me for the passing of our grandfathers and our uncle. Each time, he assured us that these loved ones would end happily in heaven, never to be sick again. When my dad passed away two months later, his lessons regarding the promise of heaven made his devastating loss bearable. How could I want anything less for him than the new life that he wished so fervently for others? Oddly, this terrible loss contributed to my increased devotion to Jesus. After all, it was he who welcomed my dad home.

Dear God, thank for my brave and faithful father who trusted in your promises and taught me to do the same.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved