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

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Presume To Pray…

Abraham spoke again:
“See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord,
though I am but dust and ashes.”

Genesis 18:27

While waiting to get my hair cut, I overheard a mother and daughter steeped in conversation. The younger of the two was contemplating a tattoo to commemorate her ongoing health battle. She shared that others criticized this gesture as a gloomy reminder of her situation. The girl looked upon this as a banner of hope in recognition of her successful battle. I was seated too close to pretend I didn’t hear. I apologized and then asked the young woman about her health. She identified her disease and smiled at her success to date. A few minutes later, I wished her well as she and her mom went off with their stylists for a bit of TLC.

I was grateful regarding the timing of our parting because I could no longer keep my eyes from filling with tears. Though this young woman has every reason to believe that she will enjoy a long life, I worried. My brother suffered from the same disease decades ago. He didn’t follow his dietary and treatment regimens as well as he might have. Though he had much to live for, he didn’t appreciate his predicament until was too late.

So it was that I prayed… I asked God to be with this young woman as she embraces the days ahead, especially when she becomes discouraged. Then, I prayed for my brother whom I lost too soon. “Lord, give him a warm hug for me.” Then I turned my prayer to him. “You were never one to sit still. Watch over this girl and nudge her onto the right path. Okay?” Though I didn’t hear him say a word, I know my brother rolled up his heavenly sleeves to help!

Thank you, dear God, for listening and for dispensing that hug for me.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Thank You!

One of them, realizing that he had been cured,
came back praising God in a loud voice.

Luke 17:15

My sister Rita puts the “spirit” in “family spirit”. She’s consistently seen to it that we continue with family picnics and birthday celebrations. She reminds us when it’s been a little too long since we’ve gotten together. She also spent months compiling our written family history which was a truly painstaking, but much appreciated effort. All of this is amazing in light of Rita’s role in that history…

My dear sister is the eldest of us six siblings. She was only fifteen when our dad passed away. The rest of us were 14, 8, 6, 5 and 3. Since our mom had to go to work to support us, Rita assumed a good deal of responsibility for the rest of us. Looking back, I realize that this changed what might have been my sister’s carefree teens into a much more difficult experience. Much to her credit, Rita didn’t share in only our mom’s workload. She also shared in our mom’s efforts to keep our family’s “special occasions” special. Rita helped our mom to select and wrap our Christmas gifts. She also pitched in for our birthdays and Easter. As soon as she could, Rita began to use the few dollars she earned each week at her job to supplement our mom’s gifts to us.

The scripture passage I selected above is an excerpt from Luke’s account of the healing of the ten lepers. Though all were made whole, only one took the time to return to Jesus to thank him. In an effort not to repeat the mistake of the other nine lepers, we need to do the same. Thank you, Rita, for all you did for us!

Loving God, thank you for empowering us to enrich this life with our kindness and gratitude toward one another.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Time To Be On Our Own

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.

Ecclesiastes 3:5

My need for order in my life makes it unlikely that I’ll ever embrace the opportunity to “scatter” stones. I’m far more likely to arrange them in neat piles or rows -depending upon their size. I’m even less likely to choose to be far from embraces. The human touch is extremely important to us all and I cannot imagine ever situating myself far enough away from my fellow humans to preclude hugging.

As I wrote that last sentence, the image of my mom an hour before her death came to mind. When she drifted into a coma the day before, we knew that her time left could be counted in hours. Though we all had agreed to leave our mom for the night, I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I had stayed another forty minutes or so after my sisters left when I realized the error of my ways. You see, when our mom received her terminal diagnosis, she was very specific regarding where she would spend her last days. The underlying message was that she had no intention of breathing her last in any of our homes. She couldn’t bear to leave us with that memory. My presence at her bedside had obviously interfered with my mom’s intent. After kissing her one last time, I drove the thirty-minute ride home. About ten minutes after I arrived, the phone rang. My mom had taken her leave of this earth shortly after I’d left her.

Sometimes, we need to leave the proximity of those all-important embraces in order to deal with our most important work. In the end, there are some things which we must attend to alone.

Patient God, be with me as I figure out when to embrace those you have given me to love and when to leave them in peace with you.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Time To Be Free

God has made everyone appropriate to their time,
and has put the timeless into their hearts,
from beginning to end, the work which God has done.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

Though I enjoy the revelry with which we begin the month of July, this page of the calendar also reminds me of significant losses in my life. The first is my dad who left us on July 4 six decades ago. We gathered at his sister’s wake on July 4 some years later. As I prepared to write a July 4 reflection during another year, a dear friend battled cancer.

It was June that year when news of John’s impending recovery spread among his family and friends. He was a good man and a good priest and his life made all of the difference in the world to each of us. This news elicited a collective sigh of relief from all concerned.

With this good news to inspire me, I headed to my computer to write that reflection and a letter to John. Poor John was a captive fan to whom I sent my reflections and a letter each week. We would observe July 4th in a few days and the holiday set my tone. I wished John a generous measure freedom. My litany began with “…freedom from illness, freedom to breathe in as deeply as you want to –with no pain! I wish you freedom from chemotherapy and I wish you hair! I wish you the freedom to get back to the people and the work you love and the freedom to come and go as you please.”

It’s unlikely that John read that letter because he returned to the hospital a day after its writing. His struggle to breathe had become too much. When pneumonia set in, John lacked the stamina to fight it. It was twenty years ago today that John embraced the ultimate freedom which we’ll all enjoy one day.

Loving God, as I remember John and all of those I’ve lost, touch the hearts of all who mourn with your peace.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Move Past The Pits…

If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
From John 15:20

A friend’s recent encounter with hospice conjured up memories from my husband’s experience as a hospice chaplain. Though I didn’t know Mike’s patients because their contacts were confidential, one particularly remarkable woman was the exception. Mary frequently amazed Mike with her commentaries on this life of ours, so much so that he asked if he could share a bit of it with me…

Though a day of hospice visits often proved to be taxing, my husband always returned home with a smile on the days he saw Mary. This elderly woman shared the most amazing bits of wisdom during their visits. My husband’s favorite morsel came in these words: “They can say life is a bowl of cherries, but I say it’s a bowl of cherry pits!” Throughout all of their visits, this comment stood out most. Mike and Mary often laughed over the truth found in her observation!

When we behave ourselves and try to do the right thing, we sometimes feel entitled to carefree days and smooth sailing. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for any of us. As we’re reminded in the passage above, even Jesus didn’t have an easy time on this earth. Why then would this life be any different for you and me? Like Jesus, I think we’re supposed to embrace both those elusive cherries and their all too plentiful pits!

Dear God, thank you for the gift of Jesus. He lived a truly human life to show us that, in spite of everything, this life is worth the effort. In spite of everything, like Mary, we will move past our troubles here and make it home to you.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved