Merry Christmas!

On this unusual Christmas Day, I’m sharing the story of a little boy who taught me that we can celebrate Christmas even in the midst of our troubles…

Isaac became my student because he needed help with reading. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we talked. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and Isaac took full advantage of the situation. He told me about his mother’s debilitating illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. Isaac told me about his older brother in the military and that he read from a little prayer-book every night. Just before winter break, Isaac shared something very special which remains with me today.

I’d purchased a small Christmas gift for each of my students. When I gave Isaac his package, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his parents wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. When Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast and ready to do his best. He also wore the same shirt and slacks for the week. Though Isaac didn’t enjoy any luxuries, his family was rich with love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he announced, “I have something for you, too.”

Isaac took me completely by surprise. His dad was among the working poor and certainly couldn’t afford gifts for his children’s teachers. I understood when Isaac reached into his bag and pulled out a green two-headed dragon. I told Isaac that it was a great dragon, but that I would be very happy just knowing that he enjoyed playing with it. Still, Isaac persisted. “I was going to trade it for Poke’mon, but I want you to have it instead.” At the time, anything Poke’mon was a valued commodity. Isaac abandoned this plan to show his reading teacher how much he cared for her.

When I finally composed myself, I asked Isaac if his mom or dad would mind his leaving that toy with me. “Oh, no, Mrs. P. They would want me to give it to you. It’s for Christmas.” With that, Isaac and I made a prominent place on my bookshelf for that dragon. Afterward, I told Isaac he could take that dragon home anytime he wanted to. “Are you taking your present back?” he asked. “Never,” I told him. Isaac responded, “Neither am I.” I kept that two-headed dragon for more than a decade. After Isaac had been promoted from eighth grade and graduated high school, I gave it to another little boy who needed a taste of the love which filled Isaac’s heart.

God touched this world with selfless love that first Christmas. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents had paid attention and they passed on what they learned to their son. Isaac paid attention and he passed on what he learned to me. Today, we pay attention as well. Now, it is up to us to pass on what we’ve learned as we tend lovingly to those we meet along the way. Merry Christmas!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate the Present? Yes!

It was a tough morning. I woke with a heavy heart. Just as we were all looking forward to easing out of our stay-in-place regimen, our ailing world was turned upside-down once again. One man’s brutal overreaction to an alleged misdeed robbed another man of his life. This time, that overreaction reached to our collective core. Once again, our lives were placed on lock-down. This time, rather than battling a virus, we battled injustice in an effort to find justice for all concerned. Once again, we found ourselves deeply troubled. Yes, it was a tough morning and my heart ached. As I crawled out of bed, I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all.”

As I considered how next to address the Lord God, I grabbed one of the sources I frequently turn to for inspiration. YOU ARE THE BELOVED* is a book of daily reflections drawn from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen, a favorite author of mine. Because his words always touch me deeply, I opened that book to the day’s date in search of something I could hold onto. I read the title of that morning’s offering aloud: Celebrate in the Present. I quickly responded to myself, “Are you kidding me? The last thing I want to do today is celebrate!” With that, I almost closed the book without reading another word. I write almost because something –okay, Someone– encouraged me to take a second look. I’m most grateful that I did. Thank you, God!

Henri Nouwen’s words that day addressed the core of my dilemma that morning and of all of our heartache these days. When he asked that we celebrate in the present, Nouwen added that it is impossible to celebrate any given moment or event if we don’t fully embrace everything which that moment entails. He wrote that we can’t celebrate Christmas if nothing new is born out of Jesus’ birth. We can’t celebrate Easter if we don’t embrace the promise of new life that comes with it. We can’t celebrate Pentecost if God’s Spirit doesn’t continue to be alive and well among us. When he said to celebrate the present, Nouwen meant that we must be a living part of that present and we must deal with whatever challenges that present sets before us.

Though that passage from Henri Nouwen ended there, I had to consider what he might have written about today’s feast of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. As I wondered, I shook my head with sadness. Those of us with pre-Vatican II roots recall that we once referred to this feast as Corpus Christi. We celebrated by honoring the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Vatican II and many of our spiritual leaders since have reminded us that Jesus also challenged us to become his body and blood for one another, his most holy body and blood to be precise. I admit that I looked upward from my keyboard after writing that and said aloud, “I know. We’re not acting most holy these days.” Regardless of the externals that separate us -our politics, our tendencies to the left or to the right, our likes or dislikes, our upbringing, our social status, our sinfulness or our holiness, even the colors of our skin, we are called to be the body and blood of Jesus together and for one another.

I take my inspiration from Henri Nouwen and one other who inspires me even more so. The scriptures tell us that Jesus habitually shared himself with his contemporaries who were as diverse as we are. At his last supper with them, Jesus washed the feet of twelve very different, but beloved friends, even the friend who denied him and the friend who betrayed him. Jesus refused to distinguish between saints and sinners, women and men, slaves and free persons, Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor. Even prostitutes and tax collectors received his friendship. In each face, Jesus saw God’s handiwork. Jesus spent every ounce of his own body and blood caring for every one whom he met along the way with the hope of inspiring us to do the same. Ever since, Jesus has invited us over and over again to become his body and blood by caring for one another with the same unconditional love.

I woke with a headache and a heartache that morning with good reason. When I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all,” I didn’t expect an immediate answer. Yet, it came. After I closed Nouwen’s book, I took a deep breath, looked upward and sighed. I couldn’t help smiling as I announced to my ever-patient God, “Yes, I’ll celebrate the present. I’ll embrace this heartbreaking, frustrating and frightening time. I’ll spend my body, my blood and my heart in service of those you give me to love.” So it is that I will celebrate the gift of Jesus’ body and blood by becoming Jesus’ body and blood and caring for my fellow humans as he did. I’ll begin by facing the injustice that plagues us today and doing something about it.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2017), You Are The Beloved, p. 72. Convergent Books, Penguin Random House LLC.

Share Your Wisdom Generously

Therefore I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded and God’s wisdom came to me.

Wisdom 7:7

Times are tough. When we lose a loved one and cannot mourn with those who love us, our pain is amplified beyond measure. Though I couldn’t be with a friend in this situation, I sent her a favorite book which might bring her a measure of peace. I spent far more time than necessary perusing the literary treasures which fill my bookshelves because I needed peace as well. Just reading the titles by these favorite authors eased my own worry.

Though our encounters weren’t face-to-face, these amazing authors changed my life. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross pioneered near-death experience studies. I first encountered her work during a college class on death and dying. The good doctor’s scientific research regarding life after this life underscored what I already believed to be true. Though she endured ridicule from the medical community, Kübler-Ross persisted. In the decades since, many medical professionals have substantiated and added to her research. More recent works by Dr. Eben Alexander and Dr. Mary C. Neal, now in my collection, describe their own near death experiences in detail.

While in college, I also read Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. This amazing man’s stalwart spirit sustained him through one of human history’s most heinous episodes. Just reading his name strengthened me for the day.

A decade ago, I encountered another author whose bravery took a slightly different turn. George Anderson was a very young boy when he almost lost his life to a terrible illness. When he recovered, little George realized that he’d endured this ordeal in the company of “friends” whom others were unable to see. This connection with loved ones and saints no longer present in this life set George apart in painful ways. When he reached adulthood, he realized that contact with these precious souls brought him closer to God. His book WALKING IN THE GARDEN OF SOULS has brought me the most consolation of all. His is the book I chose to share with my friend.

These authors aren’t the only ones meant to share their wisdom. You and I are also called to inspire others by revealing the treasures in our hearts. What better way is there to lead one another toward our new normal?

Generous God, be with us as we inspire one another with our personal varieties of wisdom.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Instinctively Good

Light shines through the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious and merciful and just.

Psalm 112:4

I’ve been blessed by the kindness of many people. When I thank them for their efforts, they respond, “It was nothing!” or “Don’t be silly!” or “What did I do?” Their good deeds are so habitual that they fail to realize the impact they have upon the rest of us.

It seems to me that this is what “being good” is all about: Simply doing our best to respond lovingly to those we meet along the way. Many times, our smile will be enough. Occasionally, time spent just listening will do the trick. Sometimes, we will need to give of our talents or our treasure to make things right for a suffering soul. Whatever the case, it seems that our gut instincts serve us well when it comes to doing good. I think that those internal urges which nudge us toward our good deeds are strategically inspired by our very wise Creator. All we need to do is respond.

Creator God, you fashioned us with a natural desire to do good. Help us never to miss an opportunity to live up to your expectations.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Christmas Love

This is Christmas Day. In my parish church, our Nativity scene, a forest of lighted trees and a garden of beautiful poinsettias set the scene. I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to celebrate Christmas. Things were a little different three weeks ago when our parish family immersed itself in Gift Weekend. The sanctuary was filled with packages and gift bags of every size and color. Our statue of Mary was lost behind that mountain of generosity. Rather than today’s folding chairs which provide extra seating, the gathering space was filled with an assortment of bicycles. As that weekend unfolded, I found myself wiping away tears multiple times. I pictured my fellow parishioners shopping with gift tags for those in need in hand. I also imagined this Christmas Day when hundreds of men and women, teens and toddlers will open those gifts with great excitement and appreciation. When I left church that day, my heart was filled with at least as much love as our church building had been. When I arrived at home, I decided I was in the perfect mindset to prepare this Christmas reflection.

As I pondered the miracle of this holy day, I couldn’t shake the images of those gifts and the smiling people who would welcome them. Suddenly, a little boy I met many years ago came to mind. Isaac was an expert regarding matters of the heart and his capacity to love was second to few. Just like my parish’s efforts on Gift Weekend, and throughout the year for that matter, it seemed to me that his generous gesture many Christmases ago captured the spirit and the love with which God touched this earth on the first Christmas Day…

Isaac was one of my students because he needed a little direction in developing his reading skills. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we had the opportunity to talk. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and my students took full advantage of the situation. Isaac was no exception. I knew the latest regarding his mother’s lengthy disabling illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. I knew about his older brother’s return from the military for an early Christmas visit and that Isaac read from a little prayer-book every night. The last day of school before winter break, Isaac shared something very special which remains with me today.

I’d purchased a small Christmas gift for each of my students. When I retrieved them for their lessons, I asked that they bring their book bags along so they could put away their gifts and forget about them until they arrived at home after school. When I gave Isaac the package with his name on it, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card addressed to him. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his mom and dad wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. Now when Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast, and ready to do his best, though in the same shirt and slacks for the week. Isaac didn’t enjoy the luxuries we sometimes take for granted. Still, his family was rich in love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he said, “I have something for you. I have a gift for you.”

Isaac took me completely by surprise. His dad was among the working poor and certainly couldn’t afford gifts for his children’s teachers. I finally understood when Isaac reached into his bag and pulled out a green two-headed dragon. I told Isaac that it was a great dragon, but that I would be very happy just knowing that he enjoyed playing with it. Still, Isaac persisted. “I was going to trade it for Poke’mon, but I want you to have it instead.” At the time, anything Poke’mon was a valued commodity. Isaac had planned to trade his dragon for one of his classmate’s coveted collectibles. He abandoned this plan to show his reading teacher how much he cared for her. When I finally composed myself, I asked Isaac if his mom or dad would mind that he left the toy with me. “Oh, no, Mrs. P. They would want me to give it to you. It’s for Christmas.” With that, Isaac and I made a prominent place on my bookshelf for that dragon. Afterward, I told Isaac that he could take the dragon home anytime he wanted to. “Are you taking your present back?” he asked. “Never,” I told him. Isaac responded, “Neither am I.” I kept that two-headed dragon for more than a decade. After Isaac had been promoted from eighth grade and graduated high school, I gave it to another little boy who needed a taste of the love which filled Isaac’s heart.

God touched this world with selfless love two thousand Christmases ago. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents paid attention and they passed on what they learned to their son. Isaac paid attention and he passed on what he learned to me. Today, we pay attention as well. Now, it is up to us to pass on what we’ve learned as we tend lovingly to those we meet along the way.

Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Someone Needs A Blanket

When the poor one called out, God heard,
and from all his distress God saved him.

Psalm 34:7

Every year, my husband begins our Christmas Tree decorating by trimming its trunk and securing it in its stand. For a day or two afterward, I string the lights and hang ornaments. While I work, my husband contemplates the tree’s lowest branches and the area beneath the tree. With great care, Mike plans the village which will fill that space. I offer meager assistance by unpacking numerous little houses, tiny trees and our crèche. I admit that I delay a bit as I unpack the stable and figures which will be the focal point of our little town of Bethlehem. Though I love the little structures which resemble the buildings of Jesus’ day, I pour over the tiny figures far longer.

I fully expect these tiny figures to answer when I ask what they were feeling back then. Though I can imagine what Mary and Joseph might say, I puzzle over the baby. “How aware where you that day? Were you planning out your life with that first cry in the night or where you simply protesting the cold? ‘Where’s my blanket?’ you might have wailed.” In the midst of my musing, the baby who rests in that tiny manger seems to ask that I leave him to his rest. He sends me off to bring blankets to those who need them far more than he.

As I reflect upon the miracle of God Among Us, I consider who it is who might need a blanket to ease his cold or to comfort her aching soul. That Bethlehem Baby seems insistent that it is up to me to do what I can to provide what is needed.

Loving God, your invitation to love one another sets the tone of every new day. Help me to respond as you would.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved