God’s Handiwork

Great are God’s works,
exquisite in all their delights.

Psalm 111:2

A dear friend knows that I’m a huge fan of the Aurora Borealis. Now this is in spite of the fact that, when my husband and I cruised through Alaska, it was too cloudy at night for us to see this amazing natural wonder. During our stay-in-place days, my friend spent more time than usual online. In the process, she discovered several amazing videos of the wondrous Aurora. Much to my good fortune, she shared them all with me. I watched each of those videos several times. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of God’s handiwork when it comes to the Aurora Borealis.

Though I’m certain that those images didn’t do justice to this natural wonder, they took my breath away. They also gave me a most welcome distraction from our current worry regarding the pandemic and the resulting misery that has hurt our fellow humans in so many ways. When I returned my thoughts to the troubles of the day, images of the Aurora stayed with me. It finally occurred to me that God creates this beautiful sight from a few solar flares, our earth’s magnetic field and some of the matter in our atmosphere. Imagine the beauty God could create if given free reign in our minds and hearts these days! Imagine the beautiful ways we might find to alleviate the suffering of so many around us!

Loving God, thank you for the beauty with which you surround us. Help us to reveal the even greater beauty you’ve created within each one of us as we work to heal our ailing world!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Build The Moment At Hand

Just minutes after I sat at my keyboard to begin this writing, I was tempted to retreat to my recliner for a nap. My dear husband and I had returned from the Holy Land two days earlier. In spite of my fatigue, I’d convinced myself that inspiration would come quickly and that my jet-lag would morph into a distant memory. Much to my dismay, I was wrong on both counts. Though I’d slept well the night before, I was ready for a nap before noon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give in to my fatigue. This reflection needed to be posted in short order and I had to take advantage of the small window of writing time at hand. In the end, I turned away from my keyboard to peruse the journal I’d carried across Israel. Perhaps it held the inspiration I longed for…

I wasn’t disappointed. As I read through my hurriedly scribbled notes, every phrase elicited a precious memory. Halfway through that little notebook, I saw Nazareth written at the top of a list. I’d noted the towns Jesus visited throughout his ministry. As I read Nazareth, images of the ruins of that tiny town filled me up. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before they married and it was there that Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mother. The scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth early on to comply with a census. While they were away, Jesus was born. After the Magi’s visit, the couple fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. When Herod died not long afterward, they returned to Nazareth to raise Jesus. Most visitors to Nazareth see the portion of Mary’s childhood home displayed in The Church of the Annunciation. This tiny cave-like room is connected to the remainder of Mary’s house as well as to her neighborhood. Much to our good fortune, our tour leader knows the site’s curator. This welcoming gentleman proudly ushered us toward additional unearthed homes which border the church’s exterior. It was there that I caught a glimpse of life as Joseph, Mary and Jesus knew it…

Today’s feast of The Presentation of the Lord acknowledges the journey Mary and Joseph made from their home to the temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:22-40) tells us that the couple did so because The Law required them to present Jesus to the Lord when he was forty days old. Though the trip from Nazareth to the temple was only six miles, traveling on foot with an infant through desert-like conditions certainly complicated that endeavor. We can only hope that Little Jesus cooperated by sleeping between feedings along the way. When they finally arrived, Joseph and Mary likely breathed a sigh of relief. They probably expected an uneventful experience until Simeon approached them. Simeon was a devout man who had prayed unceasingly for peace in Israel. As soon as he saw the young family before him, Simeon embraced Jesus. He’d waited a lifetime to see the one who would bring salvation to his people. With that, Simeon told Mary, “…this child is destined to be the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce.” I can only imagine what Mary and Joseph were thinking…

As I consider that tiny neighborhood hewn from rock back in Nazareth, I appreciate the power of Simeon’s comments more than ever. The simple existence suggested by that archaeological dig was complicated far beyond Mary’s and Joseph’s expectations. When Simeon spoke, did Mary’s thoughts return to the onset of her pregnancy? Did she wonder why she wasn’t warned of what was to come? Did Joseph recall the dream that explained Mary’s condition and the subsequent dream that saved his young family from Herod’s terror? Still, in spite of their worry, Mary and Joseph left the temple that day and returned home with Jesus. Though they walked an uncertain and perhaps treacherous path, Joseph and Mary persisted. They became the nurturing family which prepared Jesus for his life’s work. Luke’s gospel tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Ultimately, Jesus changed the face of humankind with his lessons in love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy, patience and humility. Jesus taught his followers to flourish amidst the unexpected just as his parents had done…

After rereading my journal, I revisited our photos from Israel. Though many feature ancient sites not as well-preserved as Nazareth, I no longer refer to any of them as ruins. It occurs to me that the world-full of artifacts which chronicles human history is far more than a collection of ruins. Indeed, they are the building blocks from which humankind has constructed the moments at hand since time began. Mary and Joseph responded to Simeon’s startling insight by building a life for Jesus which has impacted this world ever since. Today, God calls you and me to respond to the startling and joyful, heartbreaking and amazing moments at hand just as creatively. You see, God has great faith in our ability to flourish amidst the unexpected just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph did.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Patience… With Others and Ourselves

When one finds a worthy woman, her value is beyond pearls…
She brings good, not evil all the days of her life.

From Proverbs 31:10-13

Though I’m probably more patient than most, this isn’t necessarily true when I’m tired. When I’ve overextended, I become edgy and critical. Little things which I usually let go become heavy burdens. Though I don’t verbally express my displeasure with the situation at hand, my face betrays me.

Recently, a friend emailed my husband to inquire about me. He wrote that I looked distressed at church which prompted him to check on me. When Mike shared our friend’s observation with me, I thought back to that morning. Our friend had attended the last Mass of the day. I’d attended the 7:30 Mass and then stayed to assist at our parish welcome desk for the remainder of the morning. By the end of the second Mass, I felt my fatigue. By the start of the third Mass, that fatigue overwhelmed me. When our friend waved on his way into church, I smiled half-heartedly. I was cleaning up crayons and pencils and replacing chairs that had been strewn about. I’m certain I was silently wishing that people had returned what they’d used to its proper place. I’d done similar tidying up two hours earlier with a genuine smile and without complaint.

I asked my husband to tell our friend that all was well and that I was simply tired. I asked myself to be as patient with me as I usually am with others. When I’m tired, I must do what I’d tell others to do: Go home and get some rest. If I listen to my advice, I’ll likely eliminate those half-hearted interactions which aren’t helpful to anyone.

Patient God, thank you for these well-placed reminders to be patient with myself and with those you have given me to love.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Words Matter

She opens her mouth in wisdom
and on her tongue is kindly counsel.

Proverbs 31:26

I’m returning to our visit to Mount Carmel in Israel today. A recent verbal fumble on my part brings me back to an incident which occurred while we visited the chapel at the top of the mountain that day.

When we arrived at the chapel, another group had already assembled there to read scripture, preach and pray. Our guide Yossi asked permission for us to join them which they readily allowed. While the group offered their final prayer, a priest came in. Without any introductions, he announced, “This is a Catholic Church. Remove your hats!” When he saw that some of the women were about to obey, he added, “The men. Only the men must do this.” With that, he abruptly left.

Though I wasn’t certain, I was somewhat sure that this group was of a Christian denomination other than Catholic Still, they had entered this holy space with the certainty that God would hear their prayers there. They were also dressed for the windy and rainy cool weather as were the rest of us. Because they were so thrilled to be there and because the tiny chapel’s door was wide open to the outdoor elements, I surmised that these pilgrims had given little thought to the locations of their hats. In the end, I was very annoyed with that priest for not extending the welcome Jesus would have.

Now fast forward to my return home and my bout with jet-lag. On my first full day back, I had an important conversation with someone whom I consider to be a friend. Somehow, in the midst of our verbal exchange, I exhibited the unwelcoming attitude of that priest. Ugh… Though I apologized immediately and explained that my fatigue had gotten the best of me, the damage was done.

Perhaps that priest was having a bad day, too.

Merciful God, I acknowledge my thoughtlessness, my judgmental attitude and my own need for forgiveness. Please help me to do better and help me to inspire others to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Gifts of Hope and Joy

The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest…

From Isaiah 11:7

My husband and I sometimes grow weary of our full schedules. This is the reason we have happily curtailed our Christmas preparations this year. The truth is that we both enjoy our traditions. As a result, we haven’t “curtailed” our activities as much as we’ve organized our efforts. Preparing our home -both inside and out- for our family and friends is symbolic of our love for each one of them. Giving up any of this would dampen our experience of Christmas. Advent 2017 will lose its luster if we don’t prepare as is our custom. You see, our busyness during the days before Christmas keeps us focused on poor Mary and Joseph as they scrambled to prepare for Jesus’ birth so long ago. It also keeps us focused on the reasons we do what we do for others.

I’m happy to share that we have started our decorating and shopping early. This timing has energized us enough to attend to our “full schedules” with joy rather than angst. Though the phone continues to ring, our good will remains intact. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus ministered so generously to the needy souls who came his way. In offering others hope, Jesus found joy.

I know. I seem to be in a rut with all of this organizing for Advent and Christmas. I have reason for this. My hope is to inspire you to do the same. Enjoy!

Loving God, thank you for the moments of joy that come in the midst of our efforts to care for one another.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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