Who Am I?

It’s been more than a dozen years since my husband began to search for his Croatian cousins. Mike was raised next door to his dad’s parents who migrated from their homeland as teens. This close proximity made Mike privy to bits and pieces of his grandparents’ story which no one else heard. It’s no wonder he engaged in a years-long search to find the family his grandparents had left behind. After extensive research, numerous phone calls and a letter to his grandfather’s childhood parish, it was his cousins’ parish priest who provided their contact information. All of this resulted in an amazing visit with Mike’s family in Krasic, Croatia. We’ve been in contact with these wonderful new additions to our family ever since.

Though I wish I could tell you that Mike was satisfied with these efforts to discover his roots, I cannot. Some years later, he began a similar search on his mother’s side of the family. Though Mike didn’t live next door, he visited his grandmother often at her home just a few miles away. Mike’s maternal grandfather had passed away just prior to Mike’s birth. As a result, his grandmother looked upon him as a blessing who filled the hole in her heart. As a child, Mike listened intently to this grandmother’s stories as well. Like those Croatian tales, they stoked his curiosity regarding his grandparents’ life in their homeland. So it was that the research, phone calls and correspondence began again. A few years ago, we spent a week in Sicily and a day in Mike’s grandparents’ village. Our friend Onofrio arranged for his Sicilian army buddy Gianfranco and his wife Aurora to explore Altofonte with us that day. This enjoyable adventure provided Mike with far more information. It also added many more questions to his need-to-know list.

Today, Mike and I are in Sicily. This time, two locals are exploring Altofonte with us. While researching via the internet, Mike came across a high school student’s video which featured her hometown. When Mike commented that his grandparents were born there, Pietro joined in the conversation. He shared that he lives in Altofonte and might be able to find additional information for Mike. Since that first online meeting, Pietro was elected councilman in Altofonte and he and Mike have communicated regularly regarding local news as well as Mike’s family history. In the mean time, Mike discovered the Sicilian Genealogy page on Facebook. Someone used the page to request on site help in discovering her family roots. When law student Francesco came highly recommended, Mike decided to contact him. In the midst of his studies, Francesco engages in genealogy searches as a hobby. At this writing, Mike and I are anxious to meet these two in person. Mike is anxious to meet his grandparents’ history in person as well.

Since I packed my bags to join him in this undertaking, I think it’s obvious that I support Mike’s efforts in this regard. I spent my childhood listening to my family stories, too, and I certainly appreciate their value. The difference, I think, is that I’ve never felt the need to know more. I loved my parents who made me who I am today. My grandparents, aunts and uncles were the frosting on the cake who enhanced my parents’ influence. Of course, my own siblings and my sixty-plus cousins added to the mix as well. I’ve never wondered where I came from or who I am because I felt that I knew. The truth is that, until this writing, I continued to feel this way. It is the question Jesus posed in Mark’s gospel ( 8:27-35) which urges me to acknowledge that I have more to learn after all…

Mark tells us that, as they walked between villages, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” I’m fairly certain that Jesus knew how he would answer this question. Our Loving Creator meant everything to Jesus and he had made his people’s history his own. Jesus knew from whence he’d come and he lived accordingly. Perhaps Jesus posed the question to help his disciples to discover who they were and where they were on this life’s journey. They’d enjoyed friendships with Jesus and they’d witnessed his preaching, his miracles and his compassion. Still, they also shook their heads at some of what Jesus said and did. When Jesus posed his question, most of them didn’t have the courage to express what they felt. They merely quoted what they’d heard from others. Only Peter stepped up to say, “You are the Christ.” When he identified Jesus, Peter identified himself. Peter was willing to follow wherever Jesus lead him because in knowing Jesus he came to know himself. Though Peter balked when Jesus spoke of his suffering, Peter remained. Though Peter denied Jesus during his passion, he embraced their friendship at the foot of the cross. By the time Peter joined Jesus in eternity, Peter knew exactly who he was.

Discovering his extended family has enriched Mike’s sense of self beyond expectations. I think Mike will agree that his relationship with God defines him even more so. As for me, I have much to learn from my relationship with God and my own history as well. One day, I’ll really know who God is and I’ll really know me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


The Leper Within

Our return trip to Israel stirred memories of our first adventure there. As was the case last time, it rained a bit for a few days. Still, I appreciated the weather. The fifty and sixty-degree temperatures provided welcomed relief from the cold we’d left behind in Gurnee. Our guide Yossi shared our gratitude for the weather. However, it was the rainfall which pleased him. Israel currently suffers with a drought and Yossi viewed every raindrop as a precious commodity. While driving between sites, I marveled once again at the stark contrasts in Israel’s geography. Because Yossi’s commentary was familiar this time around, I concentrated more fully on the view beyond my window. A short bus trip often carried us through both rocky stretches of desert and lush greenery. While the bulk of Israel’s population fills its flourishing cities, a persistent remnant of its citizenry abides in the desert. Those who make their homes in these arid conditions are particularly attentive to any decrease in rainfall. Their struggles multiply when this occurs. So it was that this rainfall was a much appreciated blessing.

Community takes on great importance for desert-dwellers. Their survival depends upon their supportive interactions with one another. One of our fellow tourists is a seasoned traveler who has learned a great deal along the way. She was familiar with a sort of “desert code of hospitality” which compels those who dwell there to welcome travelers. Offering shelter to one who happens by is simply the humane thing to do. Yossi pointed out that though some who inhabit these tiny hamlets voiced displeasure with government supported settlements which abutted their property, they eventually welcomed these newcomers as well. Their new neighbors’ efforts have provided improved irrigation, fresh crops and work opportunities for them. In spite of the difficult conditions, these cooperative efforts have transformed vast lifeless parcels into productive green oases. I smiled each time I passed one of these Bedouin settlements. “What amazing things God’s people can do,” I thought, “when we work together,”

Today’s scripture passages drew my thoughts back to those unlikely desert communities. Both today and in ancient times, relationships with ones neighbors made the difference between survival and extinction. This is the reason a leper’s plight was so completely devastating. Leprosy was one of the most dreaded afflictions encountered by our Old Testament counterparts. Today’s passage from Leviticus (13:1-2, 44-46) tells us that isolation was the indisputable remedy for the disease. Though being plucked away from ones life and loved ones did nothing for the leper, isolating him or her from others protected the community from the same fate. The people felt no sympathy for lepers because they considered sin to be the cause of their disease. They believed that those afflicted were simply living out the consequences of evildoing on the parts of their parents or themselves. Centuries later, Jesus’ contemporaries treated lepers with equal contempt. In today’s gospel (Mark 1:40-45), Mark tells us of a leper who ignored the law’s mandates to remain isolated and who boldly approached Jesus. This man had lost everything and he had nothing more to lose. Jesus welcomed the poor man in spite of the sores which betrayed his disease. Then, somehow through his ravaged skin, this leper felt the warmth of Jesus’ love. Somehow, in spite of the hatred and disdain in the eyes of his neighbors, this man saw acceptance in Jesus’ eyes. Somehow, this leper found the courage to kneel before his Lord. Moved with compassion for this suffering soul, Jesus cured him with a single touch.

I think each of us can recall moments when we’ve felt the misery of the lepers chronicled by Leviticus and Mark. Painful circumstances chip away at our spirits. They wound us both psychologically and physically. Sometimes, they isolate us from those whom we need most. Fortunately for us all, Jesus recognizes our pain. Jesus separates the appearances of things from the reality of our suffering and Jesus heals us. Though our recoveries may not be as visually dramatic as that of the leper, we do recover.

The desert communities I observed in Israel will continue to flourish because of their unlikely liaisons. Those involved have set aside their religious, political and cultural differences in order to dwell with one another on common ground. Today and every day, you and I are invited to do the same. Though each of us has a bit of that loathsome leper within us, we also carry a bit of Jesus everywhere we go. Like the leper who couldn’t keep his healing a secret, we share our good news with those whom we meet along the way. Through one act of kindness after another, we bring life to the deserts of suffering which afflict us all.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Life IS Worth Living!

Return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he…

Joel 2:12-13

A dear friend recently lost her brother. This parting was painful for many reasons. These siblings had shared a very troubled childhood, but both their lives recently took a turn for the better. This change made their parting even more difficult than it might have been. As I wrote a note to her, I stopped to listen to the voice of a newscaster which echoed from the television downstairs. He reported that a young boy had lost his life in a senseless shooting. This parting is painful as well. No parent should ever have to bury a child.

Though the God of Love knows full well that every life will end with a parting which pains other souls, God gives us life just the same. Short or long, each of our lives impacts this world in a unique and lasting way. Even Jesus was not spared the loss of others and the loss of his own life. Still, though Jesus knew full well what was in store, he came to live and to die as one of us.

Loving God, these losses bring to mind the fragility and the importance of all of our lives. Help us to make the most of every day we are given.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

You’re A Best Seller

Not long ago, the homily at a funeral I attended touched me deeply, so much so that it inspired the following week’s reflection which I write for my parish bulletin and share in this space. The priest described the woman for whom we had gathered with great tenderness. When he summarized her life, Father said, “You know, Trudy wrote her own gospel with the way she lived.” Then he added, “Maybe this is the point of all of our lives –to write our own gospels by the way we live.” Though he offered many more bits of wisdom, I held tightly to Father’s suggestion that we actually write gospels with our lives. The thought of writing a gospel with my life certainly presents a daunting challenge. Still, it also inspires me to make a whole-hearted attempt to do so.

While in the midst of contemplating The Gospel According to Me, I received an email from my friend Larry. My husband and I became acquainted with Larry through his involvement with RCIA, and Larry helped me to get started with publishing my first books. Though Larry is a master encourager, he outdid himself when he responded to this reflection and my recent post regarding our personal gospels. Larry shared, “I love your emphasis lately about our writing of the Gospel with our lives. It has caused me to think in terms that are rooted in eternity. For those of us who create books, it is our greatest fear that after all the hard work no one will bother to pick it up and read it. Not so with our lives. For better or worse, we market our gospel with every breath and every step. I sometimes think that our best teaching comes when we make mistakes. Our students can then identify with us better and are more ready to hear of how we worked through our mistakes. Maybe we should not care too much if our dust jackets are torn and dirty or our pages are dog-eared and marked up. Maybe then we are finally ready to be read and enjoyed the most. So live your life like it is a best seller, knowing that your greatest accomplishments may come only after it is left in the remainder bin.”

Larry’s email prodded me to think more deeply about The Gospel According to Me. Whatever the gospel I write, it has value. I admit that I find myself discouraged at times because I cannot see the worth of much that I do. Then, a chance remark or a years’ later encounter reveals the unexpected impact I had upon someone. Oddly, these revelations are often the results of actions which I viewed as insignificant at best. Even in the midst of my mistakes, the encouragement of those around me uncovers the hidden lessons in my errors which actually assisted all concerned. When Larry suggested that we live our lives like a “best seller”, the purpose of The Gospel According to Me became more clear. However tattered I may be, my life is the best I have to offer to those God has placed in my path. When God chose to publish me and to circulate me in this world of ours, I received God’s stamp of approval to give my best on whichever shelf within whichever bookstore, library or remainder bin I might land. God has done the same for us all.

Mark’s gospel (1:40-45) tells us of a man stricken with leprosy who risks everything to meet Jesus. Though The Law requires this man to isolate himself from his faith community, Jesus welcomes him into his company. Jesus cannot turn away from this poor outcast whose wrappings and sores betray his disease because there is a gospel to be written with his tattered life. Mark tells us, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand.” When Jesus cures the man, he empowers him to get to the gospel which only he can write. Jesus sends the man off to be pronounced clean by the temple priest, just as Jesus sends us off to carry on. Our mercifully loving God recognizes both the leprosy and the minor afflictions which trouble us. Just as Jesus sees to it that this man is given every opportunity to write his life’s gospel, God sees to it that you and I can do the same.

You know, no bookstore owner can predict who will pick up and browse through the best sellers, travel books and bibles in stock. It is equally impossible for you or me to predict who will read our attitudes, our next words or the things we do. Whether we opt to do so or not, you and I are writing our gospels with every breath we take. The good news in all of this is that we join the leper in having great value in God’s eyes. Like the leper, God has placed absolute trust in us to put forth our best work. It seems to me that our best response is to take this writing project of ours to heart.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Loved

Before I went to kindergarten, I knew God. My parents taught me to say my prayers every night, to attend Mass every Sunday and to seek out God in the best and worst of times. I was almost four years old the first time my family gathered in the living room to pray. My uncle lay in the hospital fighting pneumonia, a tough battle before penicillin became available. Uncle Gee’s severely curved spine complicated matters because he simply couldn’t breathe as deeply as the rest of us. When his prognosis dimmed, we adjusted our prayer. Rather than praying for his speedy recovery, we prayed for my dear uncle’s happy death. A few days later, my dad assured us all that Uncle Gee happily embraced his new home in heaven where he enjoyed perfect health and happiness. Little as I was, I thanked God as best I could for my uncle’s good fortune.

By the time I began second grade, it was my dad who received the dim prognosis. Because he continued to work and both he and my mom kept things as normal as possible around the house, my dad’s last year went rather well. This is the year I received First Communion, so I became immersed in pursuing a relationship with Jesus himself. I liked what I learned about him. Jesus took care of everyone he met, and even after dying on the cross, he continues to take care of us. This was the perfect lesson for a little girl who’d soon lose her dad. I’m certain my mom’s demeanor, her gentleness toward my father and her amazing faith helped me along. I’m also certain that my conviction regarding God’s deep concern in all of this also pulled me through. Many a night after my dad passed away, I prayed tearfully to thank God that my dad was well. I always added that I missed my dad terribly.

This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though our dear Lord never actually spoke a word to me, I always knew deep down that I had a great ally in God. During those emotionally devastating teen years, I sometimes ran the other way. Yet God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me, I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

I’m happy to share that I enjoyed high school and college far more than I might have because God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. I began working at age sixteen and often had to rush from school to make it to my job. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to keep up with my studies, work, life at home and a boyfriend or two, I continued to make time for Mass. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers that characterized my childhood worship. Still, the opportunity to celebrate Mass in English thrilled me. During the week, I often attended noon Mass at the college chapel because this energized me for what lay ahead. Though lots of tough times and tragedy punctuated my high school and college years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto the relationship with God that began so long ago.

I’m sharing all of this because I don’t want you to be misled by the tone of today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-27). When Jesus began to prepare his friends for the inevitable suffering that would take Jesus from their midst, Peter pulled Jesus aside. The last thing Peter wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus went on to insist that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life in order to find what matters most.

While all of this is true, I join Peter in reminding you that, in spite of his failures, my failures and your own, Jesus never abandons any one of us. Though we sometimes try to refuse our crosses, Jesus helps us to carry them just the same. Though we sometimes ignore God’s presence, God never abandons us. Jesus asks only that we allow God to be a part of our lives. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our joy is exponentially greater. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our sorrows are lighter to bear. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter, to you and to me is steeped in absolute love.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Joy In Every Moment

They carried to him all those afflicted
with various diseases and racked with pain:
the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed.
He cured them all.

From Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

After enjoying a weeklong visit with my cousin from California, a wonderful family picnic, July 4th festivities and my nephew’s wedding, I will go on to celebrate my granddaughter’s birthday today. Still, these happy occasions have been unexpectedly accompanied by poignant memories of many loved ones passed. Though my certainty in the current bliss of these dear souls remains steadfast, the sting of their departures remains as well. My parents’ absence is tangible today and I cannot help recalling the details of each of their last days among us.

When the people we love are sick, it is difficult to see God’s hand in their suffering. When depression, addiction or a misguided heart brings them pain, we wonder why. When their days are numbered, the inevitable is difficult to accept. The scriptures teem with examples of the healing powers of Jesus, and we ask why not now?

When I find myself struggling with these questions as I have today, I am impelled to look to Jesus who hung on a cross and endured his suffering willingly. You see, Jesus knew what was coming afterward, and he determined that eternal life was worth the trouble. Aren’t our woes worth the trouble as well?

Amazing Jesus, you walked among us to reveal the gifts of this life and to show us that the best of this life is a mere taste of the things to come. How can I thank you? Today, I will try to show my gratitude by embracing every moment I have been given; for it is in these moments that you reveal the joy to come.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved