Overflowing With Hope

In spite of the persistent pandemic which continues to turn our lives upside-down and which sours my disposition far more often than I should allow, I couldn’t help smiling when I began writing this reflection. Before I sat at my keyboard, I’d read today’s scripture passages. The first reading from Wisdom (6:12-16) and the second from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18) offer a good deal of encouragement which certainly lightened my mood. Still, it was the passage from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) which elicited audible laughter. Suddenly, I found myself back in fifth grade in the midst of a serious discussion with our parish priest regarding the parable we hear Jesus offer today.

At the ripe age of ten, I’d determined that Jesus was completely wrong in his presentation of his Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Jesus told the people that ten virgins waited dutifully for a bridegroom’s arrival at his wedding. Jesus considered five of the virgins (we call them bridesmaids today) to be wise because they brought their lamps to light the groom’s way and extra oil in preparation for the wedding. They left nothing to chance as their wait for the groom might have been longer than expected. They were prepared to relight their lamps if they needed to in order to guide his way. Jesus went on to explain that he considered the five remaining virgins to be foolish. They had arrived with only their lamps and the oil that filled them. They had made no provisions for the possibility that the groom might be late.

Though I normally found myself in full agreement with what Jesus and my parish priest had to say, I had no patience with either one when it came to these ten young women who I felt had done their best to prepare for that wedding. I found myself in total disagreement with both of their assessments of the situation. I explained to Father that I felt sorry for the foolish virgins. After all, the groom was about to be married and it was his responsibility to be on time for his wedding. The oil in the foolish virgins’ lamps should have been enough. In my young mind, I found the groom to be foolish and quite rude for being inexcusably late on such an important day!

Though I won’t admit how many decades have passed since my original interpretation of this parable, I will share that the wisdom of biblical scholars and many good homilies have enlightened my thinking along the way. I learned that the bridegroom in this parable represented Jesus and that the wedding banquet is God’s Kingdom. The wise virgins were those who opened their hearts and welcomed God into their lives. The foolish virgins missed the opportunity because they weren’t quite ready for what God had to offer them and each of us. When we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, we assume the roles of the wise virgins. We’re ready to embrace what God has in store, always full of hope regarding what is to come. I admit to considering myself to be among these wise ones most of the time. I consider myself to be very blessed. When sorrow touches my life, I usually find my way. I look deep within where God, who promises always to be with me, resides. In my darkest moments, I find God there. Yes, I’ve been one of the wise ones holding tightly to the lamp of my faith which overflows with the oil of perpetual hope. How could I ever walk with the foolish ones? Me? Oh yes…

Patient and kind readers that you are, you have born witness to many of the difficult times which have threatened to drain the oil of hope from my lamp. Over the years, I’ve expressed my sadness over so many things… circumstances while I was teaching that hurt children, yet couldn’t be changed in spite of my hard work; worries over family members, friends and fellow parishioners whose names I disguised, but whose difficulties I couldn’t erase. I shared my difficult journey through my mom’s final illness and passing. Recently, I’ve shared my frustration with being unable to remold Year 2020 for us all. In the midst of these troubles, I’ve joined the foolish virgins with barely a drop of oil left to keep the flame of hope burning within me. Yet, somehow, that the oil was replenished by a kind word, an unexpected show of support or some other unmistakable sign that I wasn’t alone. God lived through all of this with me and the hope that God would remain assured me that all would be well in the end.

Whenever difficulties plague me, the hope within me and in the eyes of those around me urges me on. Our common willingness to try, try again strengthens my resolve to move beyond the misery at hand. Our parish family and all of God’s human family have suffered serious illness, lost employment, ailing parents and broken marriages. Some have buried a child. While our loved ones stand quietly beside us, knowing we can never completely heal one another’s pain, we live on, allowing the oil of our hope to be filled once again by God who remains within us. I laughed as I wrote today because this one-time ten-year-old is so grateful and thrilled to have finally learned what Jesus’ parable means to me and to us all…

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Pray… God Is Listening!

I’ve shared this often, I know… Throughout his time among us, Jesus offered countless revealing glimpses of our generously loving God. As amazing as each of these renderings is, my favorite is Jesus’ portrayal in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The image of that ever-patient and forgiving father who opened his arms to his terribly wayward child is something I’ve held dear all of my life. It is this image of God as my loving parent which encourages me to open my heart to God without reservation or fear. It is this image which encourages me to seek true intimacy in every utterance I send God’s way. I admit that this is a lifelong process which will likely continue well into my venture into the hereafter!

If you’ve been blessed with a close relationship, you understand the implications of intimacy. When we open our hearts to someone special, we hide nothing from him or her. We don’t allow pretenses or formalities or social norms to get in the way of the reality of who we are. When we share ourselves at this level, we put every flaw and every virtue in full view. When God is our partner in such a relationship, even the things we don’t know about ourselves are known to God. Far too frequently, I face the reality that I’m not perfect. When this occurs, I remind myself that God has been well aware of my glaring flaws all along. I know that, in spite of the pettiness or grandeur of my imperfections, God looks upon me with persistent and consistent love. Because God loves me and all of us so completely, I find the courage to approach God with the confidence Abraham exhibited in today’s passage from Genesis (18:20-32).

Did you notice that each time Abraham spoke he found God to be both approachable and compassionate? The author of Genesis carefully portrayed this encounter as a conversation during which God and Abraham walked side-by-side. In spite of being very much aware that he was in God’s presence, Abraham bargained with his Maker. He pleaded for the lives of the innocent inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. God’s apparent anger was in response to the outcries of many righteous people regarding the evil that festered in the two cities. Still, God listened to Abraham. Initially, Abraham asked that the cities be spared if there were just fifty innocent inhabitants. Then, Abraham begged God to preserve forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten innocent lives. Each time, God responded sympathetically. The chapter which follows tells us that God answered Abraham’s plea as the lives of the innocents in those otherwise wretched cities were spared. At the same time, we must remember that God also knew the hearts of the evildoers in Sodom and Gomorrah better than they knew themselves. God knew the reasons they did what they did and God loved them as well. I write this with great confidence because Jesus assured us that God’s mercy is never lost on anyone!

In today’s gospel (Luke 11:1-13), Luke shares another occasion on which Jesus revealed to his disciples the God with whom Abraham was so familiar. Jesus had just finished praying himself when his followers asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus responded with this advice: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.” Afterward, Jesus went on to make this instruction regarding prayer perfectly clear. In the event that the disciples had forgotten the persistence of Abraham and God’s generous response to him, Jesus reminded them in no uncertain terms. Jesus spoke of a man who responded to his neighbor’s need in the middle of the night, not so much out of love as out of weariness at the neighbor’s persistence. Jesus added, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus went on to point out the disciples’ concern for their own children: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” I assure you that the God of Abraham continues to listen and to provide us all that we need as we journey through this life!

As I wrote today, it occurred to me that I’ve found a second image of God which I must treasure at least as much as that of the father who embraced his prodigal son. In today’s passage from Genesis, the author illustrated the possibilities when we open ourselves to God’s embrace just as that regretful son did. In this account, God and Abraham walk side-by-side. There is no question that Abraham is conversing with God as he would with a dear friend. Apparently, Abraham found this to be perfectly natural. It seems to me that God’s close proximity to Abraham was no accident. God’s close proximity to you and me is no accident either. Though that prodigal son was separated from his father for a while, we are never separated from God. God walks side-by-side with each one of us every step of the way. In our goodness and in our wrong-doing, God is with us. In our joy and in our sorrow, God is with us. So it is that we must take Jesus’ lesson regarding prayer to heart. We must ask and seek and knock because, even today, the God of Abraham listens and responds… Always!

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Ever Hopeful!

It’s difficult to focus today. Recent losses touch close to home. Though words usually flow from my fingertips, they escape me when it comes time to offer condolences to those in mourning. I fret over what to say to still others whose loved ones prepare to take their leave. How can I encourage those whose families and friendships remain intact, but who are immersed in suffering the rest of us cannot imagine? How do I respond to yet another senseless act of violence which took the lives of innocent people, changed the lives of their loved ones and harmed still others? How do those who continue to rebuild after hurricanes and earthquakes process this unnecessary violence? How do those who endure in violent neighborhoods and war-torn countries find the heart to acknowledge such senseless suffering? The cloudy skies which reign over this November day reflect my mood with unwanted precision.

It was with my sadness intact that I turned to today’s scripture passages for this writing. I couldn’t help giving up my frown as I discovered once again that my current sentiments are nothing new to humanity. The passage from the Book of Wisdom (6:12-16) gives Wisdom life as a woman who is always present to those who seek her. She brings understanding where none seems possible and gives meaning when this life is most difficult to understand. At the moment, I’m impelled by my aching spirit to seek Wisdom’s help in full earnest. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18) addresses similar distress. His followers were upset because Paul had preached that Jesus would return soon to take up the righteous with him. Unfortunately, many of those good souls had since died and there was no evidence that eternal life had yet come their way. Paul consoled those who mourned by echoing Jesus’ promise of eternal life for each and every one of them. Though I needed no convincing that life in the hereafter will eventually come for us all, I couldn’t shake my frustration at being unable to find much hope in the moment at hand. It is today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) which addresses this.

This particular passage elicits memories of my childhood response to Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish virgins. According to his story, ten young women waited dutifully for a bridegroom’s arrival at his wedding. Jesus considered five of the virgins (bridesmaids in the present vernacular) to be wise because they brought along both their lamps and extra oil in preparation for the wedding. They left nothing to chance as their wait for the groom might have been longer than expected. The extra oil would allow them to relight their lamps to guide his way. Jesus considered the five remaining virgins to be foolish because they brought only their oil-filled lamps and nothing more. They had no options if the groom was late. As a fifth grader, I found myself in total disagreement with Jesus’ assessment. I felt great sympathy for the allegedly foolish virgins. After all, the groom was about to be married and it was his responsibility to be on time for his wedding. The oil in the foolish virgins’ lamps should have been enough. In my young mind, I found the groom to be the fool and quite rude for being inexcusably late for this extremely important occasion!

Over the years, the wisdom of biblical scholars has enlightened my thinking. They tell us that the bridegroom is Jesus and the wedding banquet is the kingdom of God. The wise virgins are those who prepare for and welcome this encounter. The foolish virgins miss the opportunity by being unprepared for God’s promises. Our faith in God and God’s love places us in the shoes the wise virgins. We’re prepared to embrace all that lies ahead because we’re full of hope and joy over life in the hereafter. I normally consider myself among those wise ones, but this hasn’t been the case as of late. How can I have forgotten that extra hope-filled oil for my lamp?

Patient readers that you are, you’ve born witness to many difficult times which threatened to drain the oil of hope from my lamp. In the midst of these events, I walked with the foolish virgins with barely a drop of oil to keep the flame of hope burning within me. Fortunately for me, that oil was replenished every time by an unmistakable sign offered by one good soul or another to assure me that I wasn’t alone. God joined in those efforts by sharing in every bit of my pain and by participating in every bit of kindness sent my way. Though none of us can ever completely heal the pain of another, God joins in our efforts to replenish the oil of hope every time. Though we may not always understand God’s timing any better than I understood that bridegroom’s tardiness, we can definitely count on God’s loving presence. Yes, God is with us in everything always!

©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