X… X-ray

For they bring down evil upon me,
and with fury they persecute me.
My heart quakes within me;
terror has fallen upon me.

Psalm 55:4-5

X is for X-ray. Sometimes, we need x-ray vision to get to the bottom of things.

During a college theology class, a distraught classmate couldn’t help seeking guidance from our “God-centered” gathering. Though it was off-topic, the professor allowed this student to elaborate. When my classmate took a breath, the professor voiced a reference to John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul.” The professor likened this student’s situation to the trauma experienced by John and others as they deepened their relationships with God. Though this student didn’t know much about St. John’s experience, he appreciated the professor’s willingness to take his dilemma seriously. As the discussion continued, the entire class became involved. We agreed that our classmate was likely immersed in the closest thing to a “dark night of the soul” that any of us had ever seen. We also agreed that our support at the moment was far more important than attending to the course syllabus that day.

You know, there are many suffering souls nearby. The problem is that most of us remain unaware because we don’t have the time or the wherewithal to take a closer look. We can’t peek deep within the strangers who wait in line with us at the grocery store or within our own family members for that matter. Because we can’t x-ray one another’s souls, we miss a lot. This is where my professor’s example comes into play.

First, we need to make ourselves approachable. Replacing a cranky scowl with a smile goes a long way. Second, we need to set aside our own agendas. Problems don’t arise in accordance with anyone’s syllabus. They just happen. Finally, we need to listen. When we get this far, leave the response to God. God will give us the words to help. After all, God sees what lies deep within us more clearly than any x-ray ever will.

Compassionate God, help us to see one other with your x-ray vision and to respond to one another with your love.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Comfort Them As Only You Can

Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
…They will meet with joy and gladness.

From Isaiah 35:4-10

Gift Weekend at my parish church was a huge success. Hundreds of my fellow parishioners arrived for Mass with gifts they’d purchased for needy children and teens. The tremendous need which was met turned my thoughts to some of my students from long ago…

Most of the children in my classroom could hardly wait for Christmas. There were a few, however, who dreaded Christmas vacation. They found comfort in the structure of our classroom where the expected almost always came to fruition. Their school lunch was often the best of their meals and our simple class parties were the best of their Christmases. More sadly, the lack of material treasures in their lives paled in the shadow of their lack of security. The adults around them, heavily burdened with their own troubles, didn’t have the luxury of detecting the hopelessness growing in their children’s eyes.

My thoughts wander further to a child of long ago. While Joseph searched for a place where Mary could give birth, Mary focused upon the child within her. When they finally settled among the livestock that night, perhaps Joseph arranged the hay in that manger while Mary labored. Though it wasn’t much, that warm hay provided the best bed Mary and Joseph could offer Jesus that night. Perhaps the best we can do for those in need around us is to provide them with our own variety of hay. Though it may not be much, our best is always enough to those in need and to God.

God of love, help me to comfort those who need you most with my own variety of hay.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Advent of Joy

Love your neighbor as yourself.
From Matthew 22:19

As I strung lights around our Christmas Tree, I remembered my mom doing the same half a century ago. I loved watching her transform the year’s bare tree into our living room’s centerpiece. While perched on a small ladder, she placed ornaments strategically. Those that reflected most were hung near the brightest lights. Though we lived in a crowded flat, there was always room for that tree and the tiny village she’d fashion beneath it.

The Christmas I recall most vividly, our dad had passed away the previous July. Young as I was, I wondered how my mom found the strength to celebrate that year. In spite of the sadness which remained with us all of those months, my older sister Rita joined Mom in preparing special gifts for each of us. On Christmas Eve, our parish priests asked my brother to walk his wagon down to the rectory. Raoul returned with a beautifully wrapped package for himself and his five sisters. Who could have expected more? None of us did, but it came…

After Christmas dinner at home, we went on to Aunt Claire’s and Uncle Steve’s home to celebrate with our extended family. My aunt and uncle ushered us to their Christmas Tree for more gifts. Though all concerned knew that nothing could replace my dad, they did their best to emulate his love for us. Though I can’t name the gifts I received that year, I continue to feel the love offered which has sustained me for a lifetime.

In spite of the terrible loss my family experienced, those who loved us did their best to bring joy to that long ago Christmas. It seems to me that we observe Advent best when we do the same for one another.

Loving God, help me to bring joy to others in everything I say and do.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Knows and God Cares

They laid them at his feet and he cured them…
“My heart is moved with pity for the crowd.”

From Matthew 15:30

My joyful Advent journey took a turn earlier today. It’s difficult to read about the miracles of Jesus when so many suffer in the here and now. Oddly, I deal with my own illnesses reasonably well. I tell myself that these inconveniences are mere reminders that I’m not yet in heaven. Unfortunately, I dismiss this wisdom when others are ill or in dire straights. I admit to turning my eyes upward more often than I should and daring to ask, “Why not this time, Lord? If you could cure the sick back then, why not now?”

I eventually calm down by considering Jesus’ behavior when he faced his own demise. Do you remember? Jesus left his friends behind and ventured further into the Garden of Gethsemane alone. In desperation, Jesus threw himself to the ground as droplets of red perspiration fell from his face. “Can you take this cup from me?” Heartsick as Jesus was, he realized that God, who is Loving Parent to us all, would be with him through everything. In the end, Jesus was certain that he would more than survive whatever the next few days held for him.

With that, I placed all of those who suffer in any way into God’s hands. Though I continue to pray in full earnest, I’ve stopped worrying. In the end, God remains with them and all of us through everything as well.

Loving God, my worries disperse and my hope becomes joy as I journey in your company toward Christmas and toward my home with you.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Mary

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

Jonah 2:3

This is the Feast of Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary. My mom had great devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. My mom saw to it that my siblings and I all reference Mary in one way or another through our first and middle names. My mom’s devotion was 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 became ill.

My mom seemed convinced that, of all of heaven’s inhabitants, Mary best 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.

Most of the time, I address the Lord God and all of my allies above in my own words. Still, occasions arise when my pain is so great that words escape me. It is then that I lose myself in the comfort of the Rosary just as my mom did so long ago. Knowing that Mary endured and survived difficulties far greater than my own really is comforting. So it is that I pray…

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.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved