Share That Thread of Faith!

Though this reflection is somewhat personal to my parish family, I hope it reminds all of us to be there for the people on whom we rely most…

When I checked the date for this writing, it occurred to me that today marks the four-week anniversary of Father Chris’s and Father Joe’s arrival here at St. Paul’s. By now, most of us have experienced a homily or two from each of them as well as a few of their jokes. Corny as they were, I admit that I giggled in response to these humorous offerings. I simply couldn’t resist the new guys’ sincere attempts to ease themselves into our parish family. Sharing a few laughs with us was certainly a good way to start! Still, I can’t ignore the road which lies ahead for them and for us. Down that road, Father Chris and Father Joe will share far more than laughter with us. They’ll pray with us and they’ll celebrate with us. They’ll worry with us and keep vigil with us in tough circumstances. They’ll mourn with us and hold us up when we say goodbye to our loved ones. In addition to all of this “spiritual” activity, Father Chris and Father Joe will engage in the practical day-to-day management tasks which add to most administrators’ gray hair. Fortunately for all concerned, through everything we experience together, a common thread will hold us close. That thread is our faith.

For as long as I can remember, that thread of faith has been an important force in my life. If you’ve sewn on an almost-lost button, you understand the strength hidden in a bit of thread. Isn’t it amazing that it takes only a few inches of this lighter-than-air string to repair a holey sock or a falling hem? The same is true of our faith. Though our own faith may seem as flimsy as a bit of unraveling thread, it’s enough to keep us anchored. It holds us close to those who love us and to those God has given us to love. Most importantly, that tiny strand binds us forever to God. Through thick and thin, through illnesses, losses and our too-frequent failures, that thread holds us close to our Loving Maker. More often than we realize, God tightens the stitches which hold us close. God has done this for me more often than I can count through a chance meeting with a friend, a bird who flits at my window in spite of a brewing storm or a scribbled quote from a soul far more faith-filled than I which I’d ignored until the moment at hand. Always, God pulls at that thread which is my faith until I get the message and behave accordingly.

It seems to me that each of us is called to tighten the thread of faith which binds us to one another and to God. Though we often look to those whom we consider to be “religious” or “holy” or “spiritual” to do the job, God tells us all to do this for our fellow humans. It was twenty-one years ago when I visited a priest who’d been a lifelong friend. I’d known Father Bill O’Connell since I was four years old. By age six, I’d earned permission to walk down the block to our parish rectory to visit him. When I arrived, if he didn’t have an appointment, Father took the time to talk with me. This continued through seventh grade when my family moved. Afterward, I called Father at every opportunity. He also called me when he had people or special intentions for me to pray for. During junior year of college, I called Father to offer my services at his parish for a month the following summer. He immediately invited me to teach English to immigrant children who’d begin school that fall. While there, I met a local teacher who invited me on a date, eventually married me and grew up to become Mike-the-Deacon. As for Father, he witnessed our marriage, baptized our first son and remained a friend through it all. When I visited Father that day twenty-one years ago, he was very sick. Though he’d always held onto the full spool of thread which was his faith, Father admitted to me, “Mary, it’s hard to die…”

What was I to say to the one who’d transformed the tiny thread which was my own faith into a mighty coil of rope? If I’d asked Father that question, he would have reminded me in no uncertain terms that I’d done as much to strengthen his faith as he had done to strengthen mine. Wisely, I didn’t give him the opportunity. Rather, I told my priest-friend that he wasn’t allowed to think about dying. I ordered him to think about the living which he’d embrace very soon and so Father did. Still, while Father was the student during our final moments together, the lifetime of lessons he taught filled me up: Faith defies definition. Some of us profess to be of one faith or another. Some of us associate the depth of faith with the heights of theological training. Some regard faith as an improbable concept because nothing in this world seems worthy of our complete trust. Some rely on their faith for everything, including their next breath, just as Father Bill. In the end, Father taught me that faith is the amazing gift which gives us the courage to carry on.

Today’s gospel (Luke 12:32-48) begins with one of the most faith-filled commands Jesus offered: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy…” Faith is so much more than a feeling of hope in God’s care for us. Indeed, faith is the knowledge that God truly loves us. Father Bill needed me to remind him of this when he faced the final struggle of his life. I’ve needed this reminder many times since. Though I’m convinced that Father Chris and Father Joe each possess faith as mighty as a coil of rope as well, there will be times when they need us just as we need them. All God asks is that we do as Jesus did. All God asks is that we strengthen the thread of faith which binds us to God and to one another by being there for another as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Just Standing By…

“It was not you who chose me, but I who
chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit…”

From John 15:16

A mutual friend was in the midst of a battle with cancer. Another dear friend called in anticipation of writing a note of encouragement to her. This friend wanted to confirm our ailing loved one’s address and to check on her condition. That particular day had been frustrating in terms of treatment plans and mixed messages from medical staff. I’d just returned home from a session with our friend and her doctors. This meeting left me with a headache. I didn’t know where all of this was going and I didn’t want my sick friend to suffer needlessly. The grueling traffic that lasted for the duration of my drive home didn’t help. So it was that my other friend had to endure twenty minutes of my ranting before we addressed the reason for his call.

With regret for wasting so much time with my complaints, I offered my apologies as we closed our conversation. Though he had his own troubles to deal with, this friend’s response was precisely what one would expect from a friend. He knew exactly what I was going through and dismissed my guilt with unqualified kindness. His effort enabled me to dig in and to support our ailing friend through the long days that followed. My friend’s effort also reminded me to do the same for those who looked to me for encouragement.

Loving God, thank you for the relationships in my life which mirror your love for me. Help me to return this love in kind at every opportunity.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Gifted With Faith

The other day, I flipped my calendar to August to see if I’d written in the month’s birthdays and special events. When I went to the August 22 square to list an appointment, the significance of the date hit home. This day will be the eighteenth anniversary of my loss of a dear lifelong friend. This parish priest is probably as responsible as my parents are for who I am today. Losing him was as difficult as losing my mom and dad. As I considered his loss, I couldn’t ignore the lesson in faith he’d left with me.

I vividly recall my shock when I discovered how sick he was. I fully expected my friendship with Father Bill to continue for at least another decade. When I received the news, I immediately paid him a visit. It didn’t take long for Father to reveal his concerns regarding his future. These included the immediate tasks of getting enough oxygen into his lungs and nourishment into his body to last another day. He knew the details of his condition and the pros and cons of every treatment his doctors proposed. There were no games to be played with this patient because he’d listened to the experts and done his homework. Father made the most informed choices he could every step of the way. Then, he placed himself in the hands of those who knew best. One of my most vivid memories from that visit is his frail hand wrapped tightly around what he knew best –a small crucifix. I watched as he clasped this small image of his Lord and closed his eyes to pray.

Faith defies definition. Some of us profess to be of one faith or another. Some associate the depth of faith with the heights of theological training. Some regard faith as an improbable concept because nothing in this world seems worthy of our complete trust. Some rely on their faith for everything, including their next breath. Father Bill embraced this illusive gift with all of his might. After doing everything he could to understand his prognosis and to cooperate in his care, he lay back and placed his life into someone else’s hands. Though his doctors remained nearby, God remained even closer. When he admitted to me, “Mary, it’s hard to die,” Father continued to grasp that crucifix as though it was the only source of strength worthy of his attention. That crucifix was no good luck charm. It was more like a photo of those best friends and loyal cheerleaders who spur us on no matter what. Though Father admitted that it was hard to die, he fully expected to face the challenge in the best of company.

Father isn’t the first and hasn’t been the last to inspire me with his faith in God’s close proximity. Many of you have survived impossible situations. You’ve said “good-bye” to your spouses much too soon. You’ve lost your children long before you ever expected to give them up. Dear friends with whom we’ve shared so much have passed in spite of our enduring need for them. I believe that one of the most heartbreaking realizations of this life is that a loved one is gone for what will seem like forever to us. Yet, after the illnesses, the accidents and the violence which steal our loved ones away, we continue to celebrate their lives and the promise of better things to come. In our darkest hours, we cling to one another and to what we hope we believe. Yes, the sometimes illusive gift of our faith shows itself unexpectedly and precisely when we need it most.

During his hospital stay, Father endured a procedure which might have taken his life. Though he knew this, a quiet peace seemed to envelop him. He seemed certain that everything would evolve as it should. As it happened, he was gifted with a few more months which he spent in the comfort of his home. When he did pass away, he had set aside his crucifix for a few minutes to read from his prayer-book. As he read God’s name, Father Bill heard his own name being called.

Luke’s gospel (12:32-48) chronicles an account of one of the most hope-filled commands Jesus offered his disciples: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also your heart will be.” You know, faith is more than a feeling of hope in God’s care for us. Indeed, faith is the knowledge that God truly loves us.

If you need to strengthen your faith as I do, repeat my dying friend’s hand exercises with me. Open your hand and let go of what worries you most. Then, wrap your fingers around the One who has been there all the while. Repeat until you instinctively realize God’s presence in the palm of your hand and in your heart.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Be An Encourager

“It was not you who chose me, but I who
chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit
that will remain…”

From John 15:16

When my sister was in the midst of her battle with cancer, a dear friend called in anticipation of writing a note of encouragement to her. My friend wanted to confirm Cecele’s address and to check on her condition. That particular day had been frustrating in terms of her treatment plan. I’d just returned home from a session with her and her doctors. Though this meeting was somewhat productive, I left with a headache. I didn’t know where all of this was going and I didn’t want my sister to suffer needlessly. The grueling traffic that lasted the duration of my drive home didn’t help. So it was that my poor friend had to endure twenty minutes of my ranting before we addressed the reason for this call.

With regret for wasting so much of my friend’s time with my complaints, I offered my apologies as we closed our conversation. Though my friend had his own troubles to deal with, his response was precisely what one would expect from a friend. He knew exactly what I was going through and dismissed my guilt with unqualified kindness. My friend’s effort enabled me to dig in and to support my sister through the long days that followed. My friend’s effort also reminded me to do the same for those who looked to me for encouragement.

Loving God, I thank you for the relationships in my life which mirror your love for me. Help me to return this love in kind.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved