Our Journeys Home

My husband and I are planning a return trip to Italy. Since our 2009 visit, I’ve managed to overcome my dislike for long flights and small places. As a result, I’m looking forward to this adventure with great expectation. Though we’ll visit unfamiliar territory, I’ve been reacquainting myself with all that we experienced during our first visit. Our photo album and my journal have guided me on an amazing walk down Memory Lane. As I perused the pictures, I stopped at the one which announces the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. I didn’t have to refer to my journal to refresh my memory regarding that place. It was one of the most memorable encounters of that trip and of my life. I shivered as I recalled that I almost allowed this opportunity to slip by me. With that realization, I turned to my journal. I didn’t want to forget a single detail of this inspiring encounter…

We were outside Rome’s city walls when our guide Oresto led us toward the catacombs. Though I’d anticipated this visit for some time, my fear of small spaces was getting the best of me. When we arrived, our guide promised an unforgettable and moving encounter. In spite of his palpable devotion to this holy place, I was more anxious than ever. As we waited for our catacomb guide, I explained to Oresto that I might not be able to manage the tour. He assured me that I wasn’t alone as he showed me the gift shop and grounds that I could enjoy while the others went on. As we continued our wait, I peered down the stairway where tourists exit the catacombs. The thirty-plus stairs that emerged from the darkness below convinced me that I couldn’t take the tour. Still, when Oresto introduced us to our catacomb guide, I followed along. The tiny woman ushered us to a small, ground-level room where she opened the tour with a short lecture. I’d planned to leave the tour when the group headed down the path to the crypts. Three minutes into her talk, Giovanne Maria had me. Five minutes after that, I followed her into the depths of perhaps the holiest place I’ve ever visited.

Giovanne’s words revealed the depth of her faith. The earth around us revealed the deep faith of those who once rested there. Giovanne explained that catacomb has a far different meaning than the word the pagans used to describe their graveyards. Catacomb describes a dormitory or sleeping place. The Christians who committed the bodies of their loved ones to this place firmly believed that they were only resting until they were called to eternal life. Giovanne left no doubt that she fully agreed. I found myself eager to step onto the same earth, touch the same walls and breathe in the same air that these brothers and sisters breathed before me. Though many of the bodies once buried there had been moved to churches, the sacredness, joy and serenity they had brought to this place remained. As we made our way through numerous tunnels and vaults, Giovanne continued her lessons in history and faith and I continued to absorb it all. When Giovanni lead us to the foot of the exit stairs, she thanked us for sharing this journey with her. Giovanne told us that the catacombs are the embodiment of all of that it means to be a part of God’s family. Giovanne’s words, her grace and her passionate faith indicated that God’s work continued in all of those who find joy and contentment in God’s ways.

Afterward the tour, I caught up with our guide to thank her and to tell her that it was her obvious love for this holy place that coaxed me underground. Though she had only a minute to spare, Giovanne asked me to wait while she ran off to the catacomb office. She returned with a medal, a brochure and a warm embrace to help me to remember this visit. Even without these mementos, I took a bit of the catacombs home with me that day.

Today’s gospel (John 6:60-69) urged me to share this memory. Jesus had been living and teaching among the people for quite some time when he referenced himself as living bread. The passages prior to this excerpt indicate the people had become uneasy with this concept. When Jesus explained again that he had come to reveal God to those who needed God most, the people balked. Did they finally realize that free bread and cures weren’t the heart of Jesus’ work? Anyone who intended to follow Jesus needed to be prepared to live as Jesus lived and to be whatever was needed to care for those less fortunate. When the skeptics slipped away, Jesus turned to his closest friends and asked, “Do you want to leave me too?” Outspoken Peter responded for them all: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” With that, the disciples embraced the difficult, but simple path before them.

When Giovanne guided me though the catacombs, she guided me down the same path. She helped me to set aside my fear and to embrace the opportunities to be found in the moment at hand. Like those who celebrated the new life of their loved ones in the catacombs, we celebrate the new life Jesus offers each one of us whenever we make the most of our own journeys home.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Make The Most of It!

He instructed them to
take nothing on the journey
but a walking stick…

Mark 6:8

When we discovered that our newest grandchild was on the way, we adjusted our travel plans a bit. This grandma will never be out of town when a birth is imminent! Now that our fifth grandchild has arrived, we’re preparing to take our leave for a few days.

My husband has always been an avid fan of the travel section of any newspaper. When we retired, he began to dissect each edition with even greater interest. He kept various pages in a folder for future reference. This effort paid off as his propaganda urged me to commit to our first trip overseas. I used to avoid the planning stage of any trip because my husband’s wanderlust guides him with such precision. The results of his efforts never disappoint. We’ve enjoyed a wonderful time every time we’ve reached our destination. My only issue continues to be those final days of packing. Regardless of my checklists and my care in preparing, I’m convinced that we’ll leave home without some item that we’ll desperately need. Actually, this has never happened!

Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he sent out his disciples with no luggage. Perhaps he didn’t want anything to keep them from making the most of their travels among us. Perhaps he also doesn’t want anything to stop us from making the most of our time here.

Dear God, thank you for the persistent reminders to make the most of our journeys on this earth.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Ready To Listen…

I breathe a sigh of relief as I recall Holy Week and Easter. Paschal preparations kept many of us here at St. Paul’s extremely busy. Hopefully, the collective efforts of all concerned filled those who prayed with us throughout those holy days with heartfelt inspiration. I’m happy to report that it wasn’t until the week after Easter that my fatigue caught up with me. Though I’d hoped for a day or two to relax, the realities of life dictated otherwise. I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and to address the tasks at hand. In the midst of my efforts, I realized that I had a good deal of writing to attend to as well. I needed two editions of these longer Sunday reflections as a result of my Easter weekend hiatus. I also needed another week of daily reflections to post here.

I admit that I panicked as I grasped for ideas. I’d referenced the last of my notes from our trip to the Holy Land and had to turn to life-after-Israel for inspiration. So it was that, while picking up the house and starting the laundry, I considered the aftermath of the first Easter. After all, the disciples had returned to the realities of life-after-Jesus. Though stray strands of Easter grass, spots on the kitchen floor and the clothes dryer’s buzz attempted to distract me, I quickly found myself in the disciples’ mindset. By noon, I set aside my chores and sat at my computer to write.

Sometimes, the tasks at hand overwhelm us so completely that we miss the joy that lingers within our reach. Much to my good fortune, Jesus’ nudged his way into my thoughts. Just as Jesus responded to the disciples with perfectly timed appearances after his death, he continues to gift each one of us with his gracious and loving presence. Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:35-48) points out how amazingly nearby Jesus always is.

The story begins with two disciples who were recounting to the others what happened to them on their way home from Jerusalem. Distraught over Jesus’ crucifixion, the duo walked home to Emmaus together. After all, there was no reason to remain in the Holy City. All seemed to be lost for the not-so-faithful band who had followed The Teacher. As they commiserated along the way, the two friends met a stranger who asked many questions about what had happened during Passover. The two disciples were amazed that there was anyone in the vicinity who didn’t know what had become of Jesus. They recounted the prior week’s events as best they could, but this stranger pressed on. Finally, this man took the lead and began to cite scripture passages for them. He explained that the events which led to Jesus’ demise fulfilled the prophets’ predictions from generations past. Intrigued, the disciples begged the stranger to remain with them through the night so they could continue their exchange the following day. The man agreed to have supper with them. As they ate, the stranger took bread and broke it, finally revealing himself as Jesus. Luke’s passage begins with the two back in Jerusalem. They’d returned to their friends to share the good news of their encounter with the Lord. Much to their surprise, Jesus appeared in their midst before they’d finished their story. Jesus greeted them with the now-familiar words: “Peace be with you!”

I think it was no accident that this duo traveled together to Emmaus. After all, there is nothing more consoling than to share hard times with a friend who understands. It also seemed only natural for these two to share their good news with the others as well. This is the reason they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell Peter and the rest about their encounter with Jesus. I can’t help recalling the numerous times someone’s presence has helped me through an illness, a loss or an insurmountable mound of worry. Their intentional offers of kindness made all of the difference in the world to me. Jesus’ subsequent appearances were also intentional. Life was difficult for Jesus’ friends after his crucifixion. They needed one another and they needed Jesus more than ever. Still, Jesus ignored the obvious and asked, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see…” Though that should have been quite enough to reassure his friends, Jesus went on to share a meal with them. As they ate together and listened further, Jesus opened them up to many things which they would never have understood on their own. Being in Jesus’ company was all that they needed.

Like the disciples, whether our worries are great or small, we sometimes succumb to despair. Whatever our troubles, they too often push us beyond our capacity to cope. This is when we must open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to the one with whom we share the path. Even when we don’t understand the sorrows which plague us, we must open ourselves to this Jesus who invites us to look and to see that it is he. Just as Jesus sat and listened and consoled his friends after the first Easter, Jesus sits ready to listen to each one of us today and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Memories… Memories…

“Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked
to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?”

From Luke 24:32

Because we diligently chronicled our first trip to Israel, we have two albums which we lingered over after that trip and before we returned. We realize that this is the digital age and that we can enjoy our memories in full color on our laptop. Still, having them in hand is a luxury we’re not ready to give up. We keep all of our photo albums in our family room. This prompts visitors and us to enjoy them often. There’s no easier way to acknowledge our blessings on a regular basis.

Luke’s gospel tells us that Cleopas and his companion were confused by the stranger whom they met on the road to Emmaus. They had just left Jerusalem where Jesus had been crucified. It seemed everyone they knew was affected in some way by this tragedy, yet this man seemed to know nothing of it. Finally, when this stranger conjured up their memory of the breaking of the bread, they realized he was Jesus. This precious memory clarified everything!

Both of my visits to Israel have enriched me beyond words. Every time I open our albums, another precious memory enhances the moment at hand. As was the case for those fellows who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, my heart continues to burn within me.

Loving God, help me never to forget the wonder of your presence in my life.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Like Us…

As he walked along the Sea of Galilee he watched two brothers,
Simon and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea. They were fishermen.

Matthew 4:18

Today is Friday. Tonight, my husband and I will enjoy a fish fry at our parish church. We’ll join our fellow parishioners and friends for this Lenten ritual.

While in Israel, we ate a lot of fish. Like Jesus and his disciples, we took advantage of the well-stocked Sea of Galilee. I enjoyed my favorite meal in a restaurant on the shore of Galilee which specializes in preparing St. Peter’s Fish also known as tilapia. We were offered the opportunity to enjoy this local delicacy, just as Jesus’ contemporaries did, with head and scales intact. I admit that the authenticity of that offer didn’t tempt me a bit. I happily ordered a scaled filet without the head!

While we waited for our food, I enjoyed the circus around us. The restaurant was filled to the gills. Pardon my pun! Still, guests and wait-staff alike were in good spirits. A gentle breeze off the sea carried me back two millenniums to Jesus and his friends who likely enjoyed several meals on this very shore. Perhaps these were the few times when they felt truly carefree as they enjoyed one another’s company. I don’t often think of Jesus in “care-free mode” and I found this mental image of him to be quite inspiring.

You know, Jesus-the-Miracle-Worker is also Jesus-the-Human Being. When I remember that Jesus experienced everything just as you and I do, I find myself far more appreciative of all that he did for us.

Dear Jesus, thank you for being just like we are.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Encouraged!

The seeds on good ground are those who
hear the word in a spirit of openness,
retain it, and bear fruit through perseverance.

Luke 8:15

I’m coming to the end of my journal of our trip to Israel. I admit to struggling a bit regarding what to share next. To clear my head, I decided to engage in a mindless errand. I left my cluttered desk and grabbed my car-wash coupon. My car was a mess. Though I habitually keep the interior free of clutter, the exterior hasn’t been washed for over a month. While treating my vehicle to a serious cleaning, I treated myself to a few moments of inspiration.

The waiting area at the car wash was empty so I settled into the chair of my choice. I picked one which allowed by back to face the window. While I waited, I felt the sun’s warmth on my shoulders. I thoroughly enjoyed this much-needed hug. “You are so good, Dear God!” I said to myself. “You offer consolation everywhere, even in a car-wash!”

As I basked in the sunshine, my thoughts returned to Israel and the many unexpected encounters with Jesus which occurred there. Though I realized I was in The Holy Land, I didn’t expect that “holiness” to be tangible. Yet, it was. At every turn, I caught glimpses of Jesus’ life and that of his closest friends. Since childhood, I’ve tried to imagine the realities of Jesus’ time among us. My encounter with Jesus’ homeland brought that reality into focus.

With that, I retrieved my car and headed home to write.

Persistent God, thank you for your encouragement which finds us wherever we are.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved