In Mary’s Footsteps

Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven devils had gone out…
From Luke 8:2

I admit that the attitudes of Jesus’ contemporaries toward illness and other maladies have troubled me most of my life. I was surrounded by sick people from the time I was very young and I couldn’t accept that any of my loved ones deserved their suffering. The adults around me must have agreed because they explained that these events were simply a part of life. All that one could do in response was the best he or she could. “Poor Mary Magdalene,” I thought. My only consolation in her case was that she knew Jesus’ personally. “Lucky Mary!” I added.

As I considered Magdala in Jesus’ day, I imagined Mary Magdalene doing her best to maintain her stature in spite of the mysterious illness which plagued her. I also wondered if Mary maintained this facade when she first met Jesus or if she immediately revealed the pain which tormented her. Whichever the case, when Mary made her way to Jesus, her life changed forever.

While looking over the ruins in Magdala, I recalled the main street which is flanked by the remains of numerous shops. Archaeologists suggest that pottery, fresh produce and woven cloth were likely sold there. Shops which sported small pools likely sold locally caught fish. Another street flanked by a row of houses was part of a neighborhood arranged in grid-like fashion much like ours at home. Near the shore of the Sea of Galilee are remains of a warehouse and huge storage vessels. Magdala was home to a bustling economy and, in spite of her mysterious affliction, Mary Magdalene held her own among prosperous business people and her well-to-do neighbors. This was quite an accomplishment for a First Century woman.

Dear God, help me to walk through my circumstances with the persistent competence of Mary Magdalene.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


My Walk With Jesus

We left for Israel just three weeks after Christmas Day. As I prepared for this trip, I questioned the wisdom of our timing. We found ourselves scrambling to dismantle our Christmas decorations at home and to help with the same at church. January sales made shopping for last-minute necessitates economical, but the crowds who joined me contributed to my time-crunch. I finally breathed a much-anticipated sigh of relief when I zipped up my suitcase and found that it weighed only thirty-one pounds. “I hope this is a good omen,” I told myself. The following day, when we met our tour-mates at O’Hare Airport, I determined that our timing was perfect after all. Suddenly, I morphed into a pilgrim who could hardly wait to begin her walk through the land of her ancestors. Even the dozen-plus hours I’d spend in flight failed to dampen my enthusiasm. Last year, during our first trip to Israel, I fell in love with this country which I couldn’t help identifying as my homeland. This year, I looked forward to rekindling my love for the place Jesus called home so long ago.

I admit that this time around our tour seemed to fly by. To be certain that I didn’t miss a thing, I prepped for each day by focusing upon what I wanted to experience most. Though I enjoyed everything, some sites touched me deeply as a result of the events which occurred there two millenniums ago. Mary’s home and a neighbor’s home in Nazareth framed Jesus’ childhood and his young adult years. Activity within Jesus’ family home, on the streets of his neighborhood and at the synagogue had much to do with Jesus’ public ministry. When Jesus allowed John to baptize him on the shores of the Jordan River, Jesus offered a glimpse of the direction in which his ministry would lead us. The excavated streets of Magdala and the nearby ruins of the synagogue there served as the backdrop for the friendship which developed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In each of these places, I breathed deeply to draw in the air which gave Jesus and his loved ones life. I knelt to touch the soil on which they walked. I dipped my fingers into the waters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee which nourished Jesus and his people in body and spirit. I found it impossible not to immerse myself in these eerily familiar places.

It was in Jerusalem that I experienced perhaps the most profound of the treasures I sought. In a small monastery chapel located near what is called The Upper Room, I sat before a life-sized sculpture of Jesus’ last supper. The images took my breath away just as they had a year earlier. Still, though it was difficult to look away from this extraordinary artwork, my eyes searched for the lone figure I’d discovered during my first visit. There, nestled into a niche just large enough for her to hide in the shadows, I found Mary Magdalene. With her arms wrapped around herself, perhaps in an effort not to distract from the drama unfolding before her, Mary stood and watched. I imagined her eyes filled with love and her heart filled with sorrow as Jesus’ last hours began to unfold before her. Like Mary, I found it very difficult to move from my place in that holy setting…

I share this aspect of my journey today because this is the First Sunday of Lent 2018. I specify “Lent 2018” because this is our only opportunity to live this particular block of forty days as best we can. As I write, I return to the feelings of ambivalence I experienced when trying to prepare for my trip to Israel. It was the eve of Ash Wednesday when I realized I had only a few hours to determine my Lent 2018 plans. Much to my good fortune, I wasn’t in danger of packing inappropriately or missing my plane. Regardless of the luggage I carried and my tardiness at departure time, Jesus welcomed me with a cross of ashes on my forehead to join him for the journey ahead. On this First Sunday of Lent 2018, Jesus repeats his invitation to me and to all of us who need to hear his welcome once again. Jesus will repeat his welcome every day of our Lenten journeys and every day thereafter. It is up to us to determine how we’ll proceed today, tomorrow and on every day we’re given.

As for me, I’ve decided to repeat my Holy Land effort to make the most of each day. Every morning, I’ll prep myself by focusing upon what I want to experience most. If you are like I am, you have a bit of character-reshaping to tend to. If your corner of the world is like mine, numerous areas can be improved with some effort on our parts. We can also change our focus a bit by turning to the world-at-large. Though I cannot alleviate poverty everywhere, I can give up a personal luxury in order to fill my Sharing envelope or my St. Vincent De Paul envelope or my Rice Bowl more generously. Though I cannot see to world peace alone, I can certainly add joy to my little corner of our world by loving my way through the moments at hand. My Holy Land trek reminded me that, wherever Jesus was, he embraced every opportunity to do good. We’ve been given Lent 2018 to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Gift of You

Tell it to your children,
and your children to their children,
and their children to the next generation.

Joel 1:3

When my extended family gathered at our house over the holidays, we gathered at the table to play a new game. While we organized our play pieces and reviewed the rules, I ran upstairs to get a toy vacuum for my grandson. We’d settled down after our meal and it was good time for Danny to busy himself with cleaning up. On the way, I couldn’t resist pausing at our family picture wall. This collection includes photos from my childhood. Many of those pictured have passed away including my parents, sister and brother who have joined the heavenly host. Because I didn’t want to delay our game-playing, I left my reminiscing until I said my last good-byes that evening. After the family left, I returned to that wall to consider each one of my loved ones passed. Though I know that they’re all alive and well in another place, I miss their physical presence.

I stared longingly at the photos of so many who have “moved on.” Each one touched my life as no one else has or ever will. Each one, with his foibles and her imperfections, will never be replaced. Each one added something special to my life and to life on this earth which no one else will replicate or replace. I whispered a prayer of thanks for them all.

This New Year 2018, I will pray that we all become good souls who thrive in spite of our imperfections because we generously share ourselves and our gifts with one another.

Thank you, dear God, for the good souls who so creatively brighten our lives.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Surprising Plans

That is my joy, and it is complete.
He must increase, while I must decrease.

John 3:29-30

A recent conversation with a friend who was once in the convent elicited memories of my own aspirations in that regard. Though my friend found that a different calling better suited her, she continues to treasure the years she spent with her “sisters”. From the time I realized who the nuns and sisters were, I wanted to join them as well. When discussing this with my mom, I often shared potential “sister names” which I might have liked. My mom always responded by expressing the same sentiment. She would have been thrilled if one of her five daughters did just that.

As it happened, I spent a lot of time with these religious women over the years which included an entire summer during college. Still, I never did become one of them. Oddly, it was during that very summer that my “sister friends” encouraged me to accept a date with the young man who eventually became my husband. Who would have known?

In spite of my marital state, my desire to emulate the good sisters’ work among us has remained with me. Fortunately, my husband not only supports my ministry, but also joins me in it. Like my friend and the other nuns whom I encountered along the way, we have found amazing and unexpected ways to make God’s work our own.

Dear God, you never cease to surprise us with the direction of your call. During this new year, help each of us to respond generously to your heartfelt invitation to join in your loving work.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love with Words and Deeds

The near-zero temperature didn’t keep me indoors this morning. I had a few last-minute items to pick up for tomorrow’s family gathering. Much to my good fortune, the store wasn’t yet crowded and I found everything I needed with minimal effort. As I walked to the car, the cold imposed a piercing chill in spite of my warm clothing. During the drive home, I offered a serious prayer of gratitude when the car heater kicked in and its warmth penetrated my tingling toes. More cold greeted me when I stepped into our garage. As I hurried into the house, I offered my thanks once again, this time for our humming furnace. Though I don’t often think much of the conditions around me, this cold spell has certainly captured my attention. After stowing the groceries, I allowed myself a few minutes to warm up in the good company of our Christmas Tree.

A few needles had fallen here and there. Still, our Fraser Fir reigned majestically over our living room. “Dear Tree, you’ve served us well,” I said aloud. Though I continued to shiver a bit in spite of that humming furnace, I soon forgot my discomfort as I perused our decorated tree from top to bottom. My eyes eventually rested on the little village and crèche which lie at its feet. Though I love my husband’s handiwork in creating this tiny version of Bethlehem each year, I know that the Bethlehem which greeted Mary and Joseph more than two millenniums ago wasn’t nearly as peaceful. Our visit to the Holy Land last year offered us a taste of the narrow bustling streets which Mary and Joseph navigated to find lodging. After having no success, Mary and Joseph had to welcome their newborn son in a dark and dingy cave. I imagined what life must have been like after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah.

What struck me most about the Holy Family’s homeland was the close proximity of the important places mentioned in the scriptures. Throughout our travels, we often visited three or more sites in a given day. Of course, we did so via a comfortable coach bus which traveled paved highways at a clip. All the while, I noted the arid rocky landscape. Even with paths trodden by the scores of pilgrims who’d gone before them, travel for Mary and Joseph was difficult at best. What seemed “close proximity” to me presented a daunting challenge every time Mary and Joseph ventured beyond their own village limits. This is the reason that the efforts of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus were so remarkable.

These astrologers traveled a terribly long distance to find Jesus, probably more than five hundred miles. By the time the Magi arrived at Joseph and Mary’s door, Jesus was probably two years old. How amazed Mary and Joseph must have been by the Magi’s great reverence for Jesus! Unfortunately, this unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. These travelers had stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about the newborn king. Their inquiry unintentionally alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Of course, Herod’s only response was to rid his world of this potential king. Fortunately, the Magi were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. Sadly, while the Magi planned to share with their own countrymen the good news that they’d found Jesus, Herod plotted to protect his throne with the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two. Herod was determined to rid himself of the potential king. As I turned my eyes back to the little village under our tree, I sadly acknowledged that humankind’s hope for peace on earth and good will toward others was far from reality in Jesus’ day just as it is today. Still, the Magi shared the news of the treasure they’d traveled so far to encounter. Still, Mary and Joseph persisted in loving and caring for Jesus as only they could.

I had sat before our Christmas Tree for almost an hour when I looked up to discover snowflakes fluttering about. Idyllic as this vision seemed to be, reality quickly set in. When I approached the window for a closer look, I brushed against the cold glass and shivered once again. As I rubbed my arm in an effort to dispel the cold, I realized that Jesus’ world was uncomfortable as well. Just as I was forced to attend to this morning’s freezing temperature, all concerned had to dispel doubt and discouragement to make room for Jesus in their hearts. Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives to parent Jesus. The Magi traveled treacherous byways to find Jesus. Jesus himself turned his quiet life topsy-turvy when he began teaching and living out God’s message of love and mercy and welcome. In the end, Jesus’ life among us changed those he met along the way and it changed the course of human history. That wonderful life has changed me as well.

My husband and I truly enjoy decorating for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. I think everything we do speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. It seems to me that today’s feast provides each of us the perfect opportunity to assess what our lives are saying to those around us. I’m grateful that I have all of New Year 2018 to respond!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Reason To Be Joyful!

Summoning two of his disciples,
John sent them to ask the Lord,
“Are you He who is to come
or are we to expect someone else?”

Luke 7:19

I’ve decided to hold tightly to the peace with which I’ve been blessed these days while I also turn my attention to Christmas Joy. Though the house is decorated and most of the shopping is finished, we continue to tackle the tasks at hand. My husband the deacon works on his homily. I prepare an article due to the early Christmas bulletin deadline. I breathe deeply every time I pass our Christmas Tree. I’ve wrapped most of the gifts and checked our stocking stuffers. Our budget includes more than I’d hoped for those who need a little boost just now and our parish gift-giving campaign characteristically reached beyond all of our expectations. In the midst of this all, we’ve spent a good deal of quality time with our family.

Yes, in spite of the world’s troubles both near and far, I’m experiencing tangible joy. When John the Baptist posed the question I cite above, Jesus answered with absolute proof of better things to come: “The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Two millenniums later, God hints at those better things in the loving care we give and receive every single day.

Dear God, thank you for the joy which comes in the goodness of others and in your presence among us all.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved