God’s Attraction

They immediately abandoned their nets
and became his followers.

Mark 1:18

The other day, while sharing my joy over finally adhering to a reasonable writing schedule, a friend asked, “Where do you get all of those stories?” I laughed as I recalled my mom’s designation “Little Big Ears” in response to my uncanny ability to attend to everything the adults around me had to say. Much to my mom’s dismay, I filed this information away and too often repeated it at the wrong time. The good news is that I eventually developed some discretion. While my listening skills remained intact, my judgment regarding what to and not to repeat improved immensely. You will read none of our family secrets here!

Another bit of good news is that I’ve also attended to God’s story since childhood. I attribute this phenomenon to my parents who shared their faith freely. Their stories, a very engaging children’s bible and religion classes at school enriched my understanding of God who somehow has always seemed present to me.

When I consider how quickly the disciples walked away from their daily lives to follow Jesus, I understand what it was that drew them in. Simon and Andrew, strong, burly and hard-working men, left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Martha and Mary opened their home and their hearts to Jesus even when their brother Lazarus died. Though Mary Magdalene was a woman of means in her community, her devotion to Jesus was complete. Jesus could not contain the wonder within him and just being nearby was enough to draw people nearer. Yes, I understand the attraction.

Generous God, thank you for the gift of yourself and for the gift of Jesus. You have transformed my life from the moment I first heard your name.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Mother of Jesus

Out of my distress, I called to the Lord,
and he answered me;
From the midst of the nether world I cried for help,
and you heard my voice.

Jonah 2:3

On this feast of Mary’s arrival in heaven, my thoughts turn to my mom. My mother had great devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus. My siblings and I all reference Mary in one way or another through our first or middle names. My mom’s devotion became evident in her prayer as well. Before I went to kindergarten, I joined my family in the living room often to pray an evening Rosary for our very sick grandfather. We repeated this exercise again and again when our uncle and then our own dad also became ill.

My mom seemed convinced that, of all of heaven’s inhabitants, Mary understood her heartbreak over each of these crises. My mom also understood that prayer can be difficult when ones heart is overwhelmed with grief. So it was that she engaged us all in repeating the consoling words of the Hail Mary as we prayed.

Though I pride myself in addressing the Lord God and all of my allies above in my own words most of the time, occasions arise when my pain is so great that words escape me. It is then that I lose myself in the comfort of the prayer my mom taught me so long ago…

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed in the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Ongoing Presence

Four weeks have passed since we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of our parish’s founding. Memories from that day and the years which preceded it continue to fill me up. I’m still amazed over all that has occurred since we celebrated our first Mass together March 7, 1992! Two weeks ago, I found reason to reminisce once again. A new Co-Director of Evangelization and Catechesis has joined our parish. She will provide inspirational and educational opportunities for adults. One of these opportunities is the RCIA Program. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the pathway through which adults who wish to explore the Catholic Faith can do so. For the first twenty-four years of our parish life, my husband-the-deacon and I taught the program. In an effort to share our parish’s RCIA history with our new staff member, I gathered a sampling of our materials for her. In the process, I found our lists of those who’ve participated in RCIA since the first class met in September 1992.

My eyes moistened as I read the four hundred eighty-one names of those who had allowed Mike and me to accompany them through this phase of their faith journeys. At the close of every year’s program, those involved offered their thanks to us for working with them. Mike and I followed by expressing our own gratitude for each participant’s much-appreciated presence in our lives. Every member of those twenty-four RCIA groups inspired us in unexpected and beautiful ways. When I finally set aside those class lists, I thumbed through the materials we’d used over the years. Though my favorite resource is our most recent series, I held onto a few of our older books for reference. Among these, I found the catechism which Mike and I used with our first few classes. I’d held onto that little green book with good reason. It offers some beautifully inspiring one-liners which communicate the essence of God’s love for us and God’s enduring presence in our lives.

Much to my surprise, a bookmark which I’d placed in that catechism two decades ago still marked the chapter titled GRACE. I couldn’t help recalling my own elementary and high school religion classes. The good sisters taught me that grace is God’s own life in us and one of the benefits of being God’s child. The sisters added that special graces come with each of the sacraments. Another form of grace is the “something” which helps us in our struggles with good versus evil. The catechism in my hand also defined “grace” as God’s life within us. Grace is indeed a beautiful a word which captures a bit of the miracle of God’s presence in our lives. God is with us and within us twenty-four/seven. Whatever we choose to call it, this presence within you and me makes all of the difference in the world, especially when we’re in trouble.

Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) provides a tangible example of God’s enduring presence in good times and in bad. This passage begins shortly after Jesus fed the crowd with the bread and fish he had miraculously multiplied. Afterward, Jesus sought out the solitude of a mountainside to pray while his disciples headed off to their boat. In spite of the miraculous meal which they had helped to serve a few hours earlier, Jesus was the farthest thing from their minds when a storm threatened to capsize the disciples’ boat. In the midst of their turmoil, Jesus left his prayer and walked across the raging waters to be with them. Rather than celebrating Jesus’ intervention, the disciples screamed in fear as they thought the figure before them must be a ghost. Only Peter, who often saw things through his heart’s eyes, recognized Jesus. Peter immediately asked Jesus to allow him to come to him by walking on water as well. When Jesus obliged, Peter stepped out onto the raging sea and walked. Unfortunately, when Peter realized what he was doing, he focused upon the roaring storm rather than upon Jesus and he began to sink. Only when Peter turned back to Jesus and reached for Jesus’ hand was he safe.

Here in our parish, God’s presence has been manifested during our quarter century together in the best and worst of times. For my dear husband and me, during the two decades spent with our RCIA participants, we shared in the most important aspect of their lives. Those scores of tough questions and heartfelt discussions amplified God’s voice from deep within all concerned. Indeed, God’s presence touches us from within ourselves and within the moments of grace we share with one another. Though you and I worry as the disciples did, God calms the storms which threaten. Still, remember that God remains in good times as well! So it is that I look forward to another quarter century here at St. Paul’s. I also wish our new RCIA director and her future RCIA groups many encounters with God. May we all experience God’s gracious presence from within and without in all ways and always!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Why Not Now?

They carried to him all those afflicted
with various diseases and racked with pain…
He cured them all.

From Matthew 4:24

My sister and I attended a family baby shower last weekend. Seeing our extended family elicited fond memories of our parents, grandparents and siblings who’ve passed. Though I’m certain of their current bliss, the sting of these losses remains with me. I can still recall the details of their last days among us.

When the people we love are sick, it’s difficult to see God’s hand in their suffering. When depression, addiction or a misguided heart brings them pain, we wonder why this occurs. When their days are numbered, the inevitable isn’t easy to accept. When we recall the healing powers of Jesus, we’re tempted to ask “Why not now?”

When I ponder this and similar questions, I consider Jesus’ experience as one of us. He struggled with trials and tribulations just as we do. If that wasn’t enough, he was nailed to a cross as well. Was Jesus capable of doing all of this because he knew what was coming afterward? I admit that I also know of the things to come. If I’m honest with myself, I must admit that this should be enough to see me through. Our loved ones in the hereafter tell us again and again that this is so. It’s time I listen!

Dear God, when the going gets rough, nudge us along with reminders of the things to come.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Reason To Love

Caiaphas said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider
that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:50

This is not my favorite scripture passage. Caiaphas sends a chill down my spine. He’s speaking about Jesus, the Good Shepherd who would leave his entire flock to find one lost sheep. He’s speaking about the Father of the Prodigal Son who gave that young man half his wealth, watched him squander it and then welcomed him home. Caiaphas mustn’t have heard the parable about the pearl of great price for which a man sold everything. He must have missed the tale of the woman who swept up and dusted her house again and again until she found her precious coin. Poor Caiaphas seems to have missed everything of importance that Jesus said because he’s blinded and deafened by his desire to maintain his own stature and to remain in power.

You know, there are many people near and far who are distracted by their troubles as well. Though some have lost their perspective through selfishness much like Caiaphas, most suffer distractions wielded upon them by the unexplained and/or deliberate injustices of our human existence. Perhaps Caiaphas’ callousness serves as a reminder that many of our fellow humans have little about which to rejoice today. Perhaps Caiaphas’ hatred of Jesus encourages us to love as Caiaphas could not love. Perhaps Caiaphas’ influence finally changes its direction because it inspires us to care for those who need us most.

Good and Gracious God, thank you for using even our weaknesses to teach us to love.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Transforming Experiences

A recent Facebook post from overseas reminded me that it has been twelve years since my dear husband located his family in Croatia. Back then, when there were no replies to numerous letters Mike had sent to the only family address he knew, he did what any good Catholic would do. He wrote to the parish priest in Krasić, his family’s village. Some weeks later, Mike received a response which included names, addresses and some family history. I encouraged Mike throughout this pursuit until I realized that he actually intended to travel to this foreign land. Though I shared Mike’s interest in his newly discovered family, my intolerance for flying had drained my desire to board a plane in order to meet them.

Fortunately for me, throughout the interim I was completely taken with the communication between Mike and his Croatian cousins. When we eventually prepared to visit them, I was able to put that long flight out of my mind until I boarded the plane. I concentrated on the people and places which would await us when we arrived and I was not disappointed. When I boarded the plane for our trip home, my fear of tiny airplane seats and hours of confinement had diminished a bit. It was eased into the shadows by memories of the beautiful people who had become my family, too. Our adventure in this once foreign place transformed my spirit in truly unexpected ways.

This transformation has continued throughout the years since. When we returned to Croatia with Mike’s American cousins, I found it a little easier to set aside my fear. Later, while preparing for flights to Germany and then to Italy, my anticipation of the things to come overpowered my fear even more so. Last year, when Mike and I traveled to Israel, my transformation seemed to near completion. I was anxious to begin this journey so I could walk where Jesus and Mary of Magdala walked and sail the Sea of Galilee where Jesus engaged in so much of his ministry. Rather than being a source of discomfort and fear, the flight to the Holy Land provided the opportunity to reflect on the treasure which awaited me. When I boarded that plane to Tel Aviv, I bore little resemblance to the woman who first traveled to Croatia more than a decade earlier. When I boarded the plane home, I knew I would never be the same.

Our visit to Jesus’ homeland transformed me to my core. Though I’ve always enjoyed the ability to conjure up reasonably realistic images from Jesus’ life, his time among us took on new meaning in the dusty streets of Magdala, the ruins of Nazareth and the busy byways of Jerusalem. During those eight days, I was very much aware that I was walking among Jesus’ people. The most peculiar aspect of this was that I felt completely at home among them. Not long after this trip, Mike was invited to assist in guiding a tour in Israel this coming year. It took no transformation to make Mike-the-Traveler jump at this opportunity. As for me, because my transformation has taken a dozen years, Mike was completely surprised when I announced, “I’m going, too!”

I share all of this because today is Transfiguration Sunday. Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 17:1-9) takes us to a mountainside where hope comes alive in the glimpse of eternity which Jesus, Moses and Elijah provide the disciples. Never before have Peter, James and John seen anyone in the dazzling forms Jesus, Moses and Elijah assume. Though those heavenly entities appear to be completely comfortable in their states, poor Peter, James and John stand agape in their wonder and their confusion. Jesus’ only response is to order them to say nothing “…until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” A transfiguration of their own was certainly in the making!

You know, my fear of tiny airplane spaces was debilitating at best. It threatened to rob me of many life-changing experiences. Fortunately, the persistence of my dear husband and the treasure I discovered at the end of each flight nudged me along. Every time I responded to these urgings, I changed a bit more until the day I truly looked forward to flying. Though this isn’t the most significant transformation which has occurred in my life, I share it to illustrate the sometimes lengthy process which leads to meaningful change. Peter, James and John persisted as best they could. Though they saw Jesus in all of his glory, they ran away when Jesus needed them most. It took each one a lifetime to realize who Jesus is and who they had become. Today, we celebrate our opportunity to do the same, one small, but important step at a time.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved