Our Best Friend Forever

God is near to all who call…
From Psalm 145:18

While de-cluttering my bookshelves for the umpteenth time, I came across a stack of prayer cards. One caught my attention because it is a homemade creation I picked up at a craft sale some time ago. The anonymous prayer featured on the card expresses the sentiments of someone who wishes each of us to experience God as powerfully as he or she does. This prayer doesn’t ask that others are blessed with a keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. Though these are all good places to seek some understanding of God, this prayer asks that we sense God’s presence not only with our minds, but with our hearts as well. It occurred to me that this prayer’s author knows God in the same way that he or she knows the best of friends. What is more amazing is that God seems to reciprocate this relationship in very tangible ways.

I’ve taken that prayer card and given it a new home on my desk. Every day when I check my calendar, it reminds me to talk to God with the open and loving heart of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always. Indeed, God is a best friend to us all.

Dear God, thank you for showing yourself to us in so many ways. Please, reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we can’t miss your presence around us and within us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Spread God’s Love…

By September of my senior year in high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. A few years earlier, I’d volunteered to assist a religious education team from the diocese who was developing a program for special children. They were ready to pilot their work and needed a few high school volunteers to assist with preparing and tending to their teaching space each week. Because I had a special place in my heart for the children who would be involved, I embraced this opportunity. When a classmate and I arrived for our orientation, I knew immediately that this was the place for me. The sister, priest and lay people involved cared deeply for the children who were referred to as their special friends. My classmate and I were charged with preparing the environment and acting as gofers during the sessions. Busy as we were, I couldn’t help watching as the helper catechists and children interacted. When the lead catechist offered the day’s message, I found myself attending with as much interest as the children. My only regret was that I didn’t have the training at the time to do the same. After assisting on the sidelines for the next two years, I determined that this would be my life’s work.

At the onset of senior year, I applied to potential colleges. On each application, I listed “special religious education” as my major of choice. This was in spite of the fact that there was no such major at the time. Eventually, I determined that a double major was in order: Special Education and Theology. This would certainly provide the tools I needed to achieve my objective. By the time I began college the following fall, the special religious education program in the Archdiocese of Chicago had debuted as SPRED and I debuted as a helper catechist. In spite of commuting to classes every day and working as close to full-time hours as possible, I served in this capacity throughout all four years of college. Though I’d tweaked my majors and my career path by this time, my SPRED friends, both the children and the adults, had made indelible impressions on me which remain to this day.

I’m sharing this chapter of my personal history with good reason. My SPRED experience offered me an encounter with God’s love and an example of what moments spent with Jesus must have been like. The SPRED catechists prepared together for every lesson. They worked hard to ensure that the environment, the topic of the day and their own hearts were ready to be shared with the young souls in their care. Their top priority was to reveal God’s love to the children as tangibly as possible. Every gathering began with activities which calmed the children and freed them to attend to the day’s message. I recall sitting with my special friend as we molded clay or poured rice from a pitcher to a bowl for as long as it took for him to relax and to focus. It was during these activities that the one-to-one relationship between adult and child grew into a special friendship. When we gathered as a group, the children were attentive and ready to receive the good news of the day. These SPRED encounters offered me a taste of heaven which I’ve only rarely recaptured. I had no doubt that God sat with us all the while. This is the reason God sent Jesus to walk among us. Like my SPRED friends, we needed tangible evidence of God’s love as well.

Today, Mark’s gospel (Mark 5:21-43) places Jesus in the midst of a pressing crowd. If the masses of people who scurry about the Holy Land today are any indication, keeping that crowd’s attention was no easy task. Still, in the midst of the circus around him, Jesus drew them in. Somehow, Jesus’ loving and perceptive awareness of each one urged them nearer to hear more. On this particular occasion, Jairus, a synagogue official, made his way through the throng and knelt before Jesus. His young daughter lay dying and Jairus was convinced that Jesus could help her. Jairus’ request was remarkable because religious leaders constantly questioned Jesus’ behavior and his authority. Still, in spite of their doubt, Jesus’ work had touched Jairus’ heart and this was enough. While Jesus and the crowd moved toward Jairus’ home, a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for more than a decade pushed her way to him. Jesus’ loving ways had filled this woman with such hope that she wished only to touch his cloak. This touch would certainly be enough to heal her. Amazingly, that boisterous crowd failed to distract Jesus from this woman. As soon as she touched his garment, Jesus felt the woman’s presence. At the same instant, the woman was healed. Afterward, Jesus continued on to Jairus’ home where they were told the girl had already died. Jesus reassured Jairus and then went to his child and said, “Little girl, I say to you arise!” And so she did…

My experiences with SPRED touched me deeply because they mirrored Jesus’ work among us. My fellow SPRED catechists’ presence to their special friends echoed God’s presence to each one of us just as Jesus had. Everyone was welcome. Everyone was taken as he or she was. Everyone was given as much time as needed to open up to the message of the day. Though SPRED didn’t become my life’s work after all, spreading all that my special friends taught me about God’s love has become just that.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Extraordinary Reality

As I sat at my keyboard to begin this reflection, I remembered that I needed to return a phone call to a long-distance friend. I dialed her number with the hope of offering her and her seriously ill husband some support and consolation. Though I’m not certain that I helped either of them, I assure you that my friend helped me. She calmly shared her conviction that things will unfold as best they can and as they are meant to be. This elicited a few tears on my end of the conversation. My friend has no idea that her efforts to be compassionate, wise and strong while easing her family through this difficult time also brought comfort to me. Her practical approach to dealing with her possibly life-changing circumstances gave me reason to pause. There isn’t much that is earth-shattering in my life, yet I’ve recently found myself in panic-mode. As I set down the phone after that conversation, it occurred to me that my friend had embraced two extraordinary realities. Though I’ve shared both in recent reflections, I seemed to have loosened my own grip on these encouraging truths.

When I returned to my keyboard, I lamented the fact that my friend and her husband aren’t alone in their suffering. Each of us can list loved ones near and far who are plagued with difficulties. When we consider our own struggles and those of many of this world’s people, it’s difficult to see the point of it all. In an effort to open my eyes to what my friend seems to see so clearly, I’m taking another look at those encouraging truths which make all of the difference in everything. The first is God’s presence within us. Wherever we are, God is as well. Whether or not we acknowledge God, God remains. The second truth is that a peace-filled eternity awaits each of us. When we complete our earthly journeys, we will share an everlasting home with God. The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time offers a timely opportunity to celebrate these gifts because they can transform our ordinary lives into so much more. When I remind myself of these things, the obstacles in my path become manageable and the joy in my life grows.

The scripture readings for the next several Sundays in Ordinary Time focus upon the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary trials and tribulations of earthly life. This week’s selections are no exception. In the passage from Genesis (3:9-15), God approached Adam and Eve after the two had eaten from the one tree in the Garden of Eden which they were told to avoid. Adam provided a classic example of our human frailty when he blamed Eve for his disobedience. Eve did the same when she blamed the serpent for her sin. Though God first turned to the serpent to deal with his wrongdoing, God dealt with Adam and Eve as well. God sent them off with the clothes on their backs and the stubborn pride they’d harbored in their hearts. “If you think you know best,” God seemed to say, “get by on your own.” In the gospel (Mark 3:20-35), Jesus exhibited a similar mindset. Some of the people questioned Jesus and suggested that he was possessed. Jesus responded by pointing out that one possessed by a demon cannot also cast out a demon because he would be fighting against himself. Jesus observed, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The people’s comments so disturbed Jesus that he added, though all sins would be forgiven, blasphemy against God’s Spirit would never be forgiven.

Fortunately, in the second reading from 2 Corinthians (4:13-5:1) Paul put the apparent harshness of both our Creator and of Jesus into perspective. In the end, God didn’t leave Adam and Eve on their own and Jesus went on to remind the people that God’s love is absolute and that God’s capacity to forgive is unlimited. 2 Corinthians is a compilation of five letters in which Paul responded to the internal and external suffering around him and within himself. Paul reminded his followers that, regardless of the suffering we endure, God continues to renew us within. Paul added that, even when we find no inner peace here, the peace found in the hereafter is worth all of our effort.

I admit that my initial reaction to these passages was frustration. I have great difficulty with images of a vindictive and unforgiving God. In the face of these descriptors, I had to remind myself that these stern portrayals were offered to a specific audience at a specific time. Perhaps they resulted from frustration with a thick-headed people who had forgotten that God was in their midst. I also have great difficulty with the suffering of both loved ones and of all people for whom relief seems improbable. So it is that in the midst of my difficulty, I turn to the lesson which my friend taught me during that phone call earlier today: Though none of us knows what the next week or day or hour will bring, we do know that God is with us in everything. Though none of us is certain that we will find even a morsel of joy in the moment at hand or in the moments awaiting us down the road, we do know that God will shower us with eternal joy at the end of this life’s journey.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

X… X-ray Vision?

I rock with grief, and am troubled…
From Psalm 55:3

X is for X-ray Vision… If only we had it!

I encountered the term “dark night of the soul” during my college theology courses. I learned that St. John of the Cross coined this term which references a sense of feeling completely abandoned by God. More recently, the early writings of Mother Teresa of Calcutta revealed her lifelong sadness over God’s apparent absence to her. Still, in spite of this sense of loneliness, she persisted in caring for God’s most desperately needy children. I don’t have to look far to see others who find themselves in this predicament. As I consider these suffering people, I wonder if still others are disguising their sense of abandonment with their kindnesses.

There are many suffering souls nearby. We often remain unaware because they put up a good front or we don’t have the time or the wherewithal to take a closer look. We can’t peek into the hearts of those waiting in line with us at the market or of our own family members and friends for that matter. So it is that we miss a lot.

Though I reference X-ray vision, I realize that none of us share this gift with Superman. Still, we can make up for our deficit. We can make ourselves approachable. Replacing a scowl with a smile goes a long way. We can also set aside our own agendas on occasion. Problems don’t arise in accordance with anyone’s schedule. They just happen. Finally, we can listen. The rest is up to God. Trust me. The words we need and that nudge in the right direction will come. God sees more clearly than any x-ray ever could and God will help us to respond appropriately.

Compassionate God, help us to see and to respond to one another as you would.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Dearest Friend

The Lord is near to all who call upon him…
From Psalm 145:18

While de-cluttering my bookshelves for the umpteenth time, I came across a stack of prayer cards. One caught my attention because it is a homemade creation I picked up at a craft sale some time ago. The anonymous prayer featured on the card expresses the sentiments of someone who wishes each of us to experience God as powerfully as he does. This prayer doesn’t ask that others are blessed with a keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. Though these are all good places to seek some understanding of God, this prayer asks that we sense God’s presence not only with our minds, but also with our hearts. It occurred to me that this prayer’s author knows God in the same way that he knows his closest friends. What is more amazing is that God seems to reciprocate this relationship in very tangible ways.

I’ve taken that prayer card and given it a new home on my desk. Every day when I check my calendar, it reminds me to talk to God with the open and loving heart of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always. Indeed, God is a very dear friend to us all.

Dear God, thank you for showing yourself to us in so many ways. Please, reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we can’t miss your presence around us and within us.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved