Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Angelus: Domestic Church Style

Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong.

The church bell tolls insistently from the iPhone set on my kitchen counter. My daughter comes bouncing in, American Girl doll in tow. From the distance of his room, I hear my son begin: "The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary..."

My daughter and I reply in unison: "And she conceived of the Holy Spirit." 

Like generations of Catholics before us - following a prayer tradition that possibly stretches all the way back to the thirteenth century, our domestic church stops each day at Noon to pray the Angelus. The Angelus is a short prayer reciting the key scripture verses related to the Incarnation of the Lord, punctuated by three Hail Marys between each verse.  It is traditionally recited three times per day at 6AM, Noon and 6PM and is perhaps best known by the Holy Father's public recitation of it each Sunday at Noon from his balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. 


I have always loved the painting by Jean-Francois Millet which depicts a farming couple pausing from their work in the fields to recite the Angelus. Thinking of that painting and the promise of the restful, prayerful mid-day pause that it captures led me to institute the practice here in our home.  

Boy was I  in for a shock to discover that the reality of the recitation of the Angelus here in my domestic church is a bit different than the serene, reverent image of Millet's painting. More often than not, the Angelus is interrupted by my children's demands to be the one leading the prayer, requests for lunch, or the ever-present speed Angelus - also known as "the one to finish the Hail Mary fastest wins."  Hardly the pious practice I was looking for. I have often wondered if I should even bother continuing to pray this everyday - I mean, really, is anyone even thinking about the Incarnation? Most times, I am not. I am thinking about the million things I didn't get done that morning and the fact that there is no food in the fridge for lunch. Still, we persist and everyday at Noon the Angelus bell strikes, and we begin our prayer. 

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, the recitation of the daily Angelus takes on a special meaning. It is on this day that we commemorate the events that we recite each day during the our noontime prayer - the reality that God himself has become man in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And in doing so, he entered into the messiness of our world.

In thinking about that reality this morning, I realized something very important. If our lives (and consequently the daily recitation of the Angelus) were perfect, we would have no need of the Incarnation that we pray about.  It is precisely our messy, messed-up humanity that Christ entered in order to redeem, perfect and save us. A perfect humanity has no need of a Savior. Today as my children and I pray the Angelus I am reminded of the beautiful words of the Exsultet; "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Our prayer was not perfect, but we gladly offer it to the Incarnate Lord Jesus, who came to save us, imperfections and all. 

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Are You Tired of Lent?

Dr. Regis Martin of Franciscan University of Steubenville is tired of Lent. Watch what he has to say here:


I have a confession to make: I agree with him.  Here we are at day 17 of the Lenten season and I am tired of Lent. I am worn out by the struggle of giving up my favorite beverage. Like Dr. Martin, I am embarrassed by undertaking such a pathetic fast to begin with, when others around me seem so much more ambitious in their disciplines.  I am disappointed that all my Examinations of Conscience seem to be yielding little change in my day to day behaviors.  I am frustrated that my prayer time seems dry and quite honestly, a bit of a struggle. Each morning I find myself asking: "How many days are left?"

Lent isn't easy. Jesus' 40 days in the desert were no picnic and not without temptation. Our Lord's journey on the way to the cross was one filled with mental, physical, spiritual and emotional pain. We can expect to struggle in our attempts to overcome our vices and tame our flesh.  Lent isn't easy - no one ever suggested it was.

So are we just to endure 40 days of misery each Lent? Since the church calls Lent a "season of joy", my guess is that running a mental countdown clock to Easter is not the right approach to the struggles of the season. My suspicion is that my Lenten efforts have been unsuccessful because they have been precisely that - my efforts. I have been attempting to muddle my way through Lent on my own steam.

The three synoptic Gospels all relate to us that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit prior spending 40 days in the desert. Matthew's gospel tells us: "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." (Mt 4:1) In Mark's gospel, the wording is even stronger: "At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert" (Mk 1: 12).  Finally, in Luke's Gospel we read: "Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil." (Lk 4:1) Here on day 17 of Lent I find myself asking the question: If Jesus needed the power of the Holy Spirit to endure 40 days in the desert, why do I think that I don't?

Our God is a God of new beginnings and fresh starts; of mercies which are "renewed each morning." (Lam 3:22-23) Today, I begin Lent again - this time asking the Lord to fill me with the Holy Spirit and then lead me into the desert of his choice. I pray that the Holy Spirit will empower me to withstand the temptations that come my way and I freely submit myself to the purifications that he desires that I experience. Then I will be able to sing the song of hope that Dr. Martin describes - a song which cries: "Come Lord Jesus, come again."

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

7 Lessons From Springtime

After what seems like a never ending winter of well-below freezing temperatures and record snowfalls, spring has finally arrived - leading me to reflect on all the lessons this glorious season brings with it each year. 
Spring always follows winter.
"For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone.The flowers appear on the earth..." (Song of Songs 2:11-12)  The Song of Songs poetically speaks to us of a truth that is easy to forget in the dead of winter: spring will come again. This principle does not solely pertain to the weather, but can be applied to all areas of our lives. Spring always follows winter. All of us experience seasons of suffering, darkness and pain in our lives. It is during those challenging times that the seasons that the Lord has created in nature remind us that the storms will cease, the sun will once again shine and the flowers will bloom. We have only to wait with patient trust.


"Hope springs eternal."
Alexander Pope's famous line "hope springs eternal" is never more powerfully illustrated in nature than in the picture of a spring crocus poking through the snow-covered ground. The image of new life muscling through obstacles in its path is a sign of hope in the resilience of living things. Most of us have encountered, at one point or another, someone whose life has been one of surmounting difficult, if not impossible challenges. Perhaps we are that person. For the person who struggles, hope is the virtue which drives them to rise above the day to day battles and continue to persevere.  This spring, let us ask the Lord to stir up hope in our hearts and the hearts of those who need it most.

                            --- 3 ---
Variety is to be celebrated.
For me, the temptation to envy the gifts and talents of others is one that I am constantly battling. Spring once again reminds me of the wise words of St. Therese of Lisieux on this matter: "...the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be a roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would be no longer be decked out with little wild flowers." (Story of a Soul) 


Take time to smell the roses.

On an early morning walk last spring, I looked up at a picture-perfect blue sky and back down again at my blue tee shirt - the color of which was labeled by the manufacturer as "blue sky."  My "blue sky" shirt paled in comparison to the vividness and depth of the blue sky above. I stopped and stood in awe. No one paints scenery quite the way the Lord does. The beauty of spring makes it the ideal season to get outdoors and admire the majesty and intricacy of God's creation. In the busyness of life in 21st century America, we don't always make time to stop, pause, and reflect on the world around us. We are missing something wonderful by not doing that. The tiny, perfect details of God's creation reveal to us something about God himself - his beauty, his goodness, his splendor and the meticulous way he cares for all he has created. This spring, don't just go out and smell the roses, stop and ponder every last detail of them and give thanks to God for them! 

Every rose has its thorn.
While we are on the subject of roses, each season brings with it is own thorns and spring is no exception. For me, the thorn in spring is the dreaded seasonal allergies which begin like clockwork around the first day of spring and persist until mid-summer. I have no words to inspire anyone who suffers through these pesky allergies other than to say there's more to offer up! 

Spring cleaning is a good thing. Really.
The words "spring cleaning" don't exactly cause me to jump up and down for joy. In spite of intensely disliking the process - I sure do look forward to the results of the annual spring cleaning. Closets neatly organized, winter coats and boots put away, windows scrubbed - these are the fruits of my efforts each spring. I am always shocked as to how much "stuff" I am able to accumulate in a single year. The effort of decluttering is eye-opening and freeing.  Spring cleaning for our soul can also be a good practice.  We can easily get into a rut in our relationship with the Lord leading our prayer to become routine and stale. Like our homes, our soul can accumulate a fair amount of junk and the process of cleaning it out, while not always fun, is extremely liberating and healing.  I recently found this Examination of Conscience posted by Father James Searby that has really helped me get to the heart of the matter this Lenten season and I look forward to some soul-cleaning this spring.

Spring reminds us of Resurrection. 
For all Christians, the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord is the highlight of spring and the cornerstone of our faith. Through Jesus' life, death and resurrection we have been given the promise of eternal life and the resurrection of our own bodies. The early church apologist Minicius Felix beautifully describes the relationship between the season of spring and the resurrection of the body: "A body in the grave is like the trees in winter: They hide their sap under a deceptive dryness. Why are you in haste for it to revive and return, while yet the winter is raw? We must await even the spring of the body." (Octavius 34:11–12 [A.D. 226]) 

Thank you Lord for the gift of spring and all the ways that it points us to you! 

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Witness of Faithful Fatherhood

"What do you mean Daddy's not coming?" began my son as I turned the ignition key.

"Just you and your sister and I are going" was my casual reply.

My children and I were headed to my parents' house for an overnight visit, alone. My husband was staying behind to catch up on some work. I didn't think this was a big deal, until I began to field my son's rapid-fire questions.

"How will you know how to get there?"
"Who will drive the car?"
"Will Daddy be there when we fall asleep?" 
"Will he be there when we wake up?" 

And then the zinger:

"Who will protect us?"

Who will protect us? I have spent many hours reflecting on my son's questions. My children's instincts tell them that Daddy provides safety and security. They wait anxiously for Daddy's return from work with toys that need to be fixed. It is to him that they run if they have been picked on by a neighborhood kid and they cling to him in the doctor's office when it is time to get a shot. Since the children have been infants we have gathered as a family at bedtime for my husband to lead our nightly prayers. Not having him with us for an overnight trip rattled their sense of security. None of my reassurances could convince them otherwise.

Our culture screams loud messages that Dads are dispensable. Prime-time television suggests that they are buffoons. Women are persuaded to believe that they do not need a husband to raise a child. Children are taught that a father's authority is meant to be ignored, ridiculed or subverted. However, our faith and the simplicity of our children’s questions tell us otherwise.

The scriptures relate that Jesus himself grew in age and wisdom in his childhood in Nazareth, in a home that was led by both the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph.  In matters related to the Holy Family's safety and protection, the heavenly host provided direction and instruction to St. Joseph through his dreams. (Mt. 1:19-25 and Mt 2:13). It is clear that his role was that of the head and protector of the Holy Family.

St. Joseph leads the Holy Family to safety in Egypt.
"How does St. Joseph exercise his role as protector? This was the question Pope Francis asked in his inaugural homily on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. The Pope's answer:  "Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity..." He goes on to ask: "How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. " These qualities of St. Joseph stand as a counter-cultural witness to all that the world tells us about fatherhood.

I am so grateful for a husband who has embraced his role as the head of our domestic church and as our protector, both physically and spiritually. Like St. Joseph, many of the sacrifices my husband makes on a day to day basis to be our family's provider and protector are not recorded. They are not note-worthy or news-worthy, at least by the world's standards. But they do not go unnoticed. Especially by his children.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Virtues of St. Patrick

With St. Patrick's Day upon us and legends of shamrocks and missing snakes abounding - it seems right to look at the life of this most popular saint in his own words. Reading The Confession of Saint Patrick  highlighted for me the following virtues so abundant in the life of St. Patrick.

Humility
"I am, then, first of all, countrified, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to should out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favors in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure." (art 12)

Obedience
"So it is that even if I should wish to separate from them in order to go to Britian, and most willingly was I prepared to go to my homeland and kinsfolk...God knows how strongly I desired this - I am bound by the Spirit, who witnessed to me that if I did he so he would mark me out as guilty, and I fear to waste the labour that I began, and not I, but Christ the Lord, who commanded me to come to be with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord shall will it and shield me from every evil, so that I may not sin before him." (art 43)

Perseverance
"...so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure man persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others, and if I should be worthy, I am ready to give even my life without hesitation; and most willingly for His name. And I choose to devote it to him even unto death, if God grant it to me." (art 37)

Zeal
"Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him, and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven." (art 3)

Holy Boldness
"What is more, let anyone laugh and taunt if he so wishes, I am not keeping silent, nor am I hiding the signs and wonders that were shown to me by the Lord..."(art.45)

Trust In the Lord
"So that whatever befalls me, be it good or bad, I should accept it equally, and give thanks always to God who revealed to me that I might trust him, implicitly and forever. (art. 34)

Friday, March 14, 2014

7 Lessons From Pope Francis

As Pope Francis celebrates his first anniversary as Holy Father, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share 7 lessons that I have learned from him during this first year of his pontificate.

You are never above asking for prayer.

The very first lesson I learned from Pope Francis occurred just minutes after he appeared on the balcony on the day of his election. In a demonstration of utter humility, the new Pope asked the crowds for their prayers and then bowed his head and received those prayers. This was not a rhetorical question on his part. He both needed and sincerely desired the prayers of the people now entrusted to his care. As a Mom, I am often tempted to think that I need to have all the answers - to have it all together in front of my children. The reality that Pope Francis drove home to me in that moment, is that there is no one on this earth who is too exalted to need the prayers of others, even those of whom they have been chosen to lead. 



It's all about encountering Jesus.
Over and over again during this past year, Pope Francis has stressed the importance of "encountering" Jesus. In the encyclical Lumen Fidei, the Pope writes "Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love..." When asked what Christmas meant to him his answer was: "It is about an encounter with Jesus".  In a homily in September 2013 the Pope explained how this encounter takes place. "Know Jesus with the mind - the study of the Catechism: know Jesus with the heart - in prayer, in dialogue with Him. This helps us a good bit, but it is not enough. There is a third way to know Jesus: it is by following Him. Go with Him, walk with Him.” 

Keeping these three elements of encountering Jesus in balance is essential, but not always easy.  As a theology student, I spend a good deal of time studying about Jesus and the matters of faith. I have learned the hard way that if I devote all my time to study and neglect time in prayer and that active "walking" with the Lord that I become "disconnected" from Jesus.  How do I know this? I miss his presence. I feel an unrest within my heart. I long again for that intimacy with him. It is only in that encounter that my heart is satisfied. 



Celebrate your Baptism.
In an address to his Wednesday audience, the Pope did something a little unconventional - he gave an assignment to them: "And do not forget your homework today: find out, ask for the date of your Baptism. As I know my birthday, I should know my Baptism day, because it is a feast day." He went on to explain why he was asking everyone to celebrate the date of their Baptism: "The danger of not knowing is that we can lose awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past – and not by our own will but by that of our parents – and that it has no impact on the present. We must reawaken the memory of our Baptism. We are called to live out our Baptism every day as the present reality of our lives."

Ever the dutiful student, I took his assignment to heart and for the first time since that day, I celebrated my Baptism this year. Guess what?  The Pope is RIGHT!  Through seeking out the date of my Baptism and actually celebrating it - the reality of my Baptism is something that has come alive to me as never before. Thank you Pope Francis for homework! 



Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
I'm a bit of a control freak. And like most good control freaks, I don't like relinquishing the reins of my life to anyone. I have found in my spiritual journey, however, that the Holy Spirit often has different plans than I do. 

"The Holy Spirit can make people uncomfortable", Pope Francis said. "Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we are the ones who build, program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences."


The Holy Spirit has made me uncomfortable on more occasions that I care to count. Each time, yielding to that discomfort is a challenge. When I initially read the Holy Father's words I felt led to answer again the persistent question in my heart - Do I want to be comfortable? Or do I want to be docile? In fact, answering these questions needs to occur on a daily - even hour by hour basis. Through the gift of free will, I know that the Holy Spirit will never impose his plans for my life on me, but rather, he waits for my freely given "Yes". Yet, I also recognize that I cannot give up that desire for comfort and control without his help. And so my daily prayer is: "Lord, help me to trust the Holy Spirit  - help me to be comfortable being uncomfortable."



Embrace the grace of shame.
Pope Francis has spoke often during the past year about the Sacrament of Reconcilation - encouraging the faithful to frequent the sacrament.  He even tweeted about Confession calling the sacrament a "priviledged place of encountering Christ."

In my own life I have run the gamut of experiences with Confession, from joyfully frequenting the sacrament as a young child, to being absent from it for 20 years, to returning to it in an immature way, to finally seeing it as that privileged encounter with Christ that the Holy Father talks about. My prayer before Confession is often for the gift of honesty and transparency. In light of that prayer I truly appreciated the Pope's challenge to be as direct as possible in the sacrament - something that I find can be very daunting. "And we always have the tendency to hide the reality of our failings. But there is something beautiful: when we confess our sins as they are in the presence of God, we always feel that grace of shame. Being ashamed in the sight of God is a grace. It is a grace: ‘I am ashamed of myself."

I have never considered shame to be a grace. Yet, I know from my own experience, that it has been the times when I have directly and concretely confessed my most shameful sins that I have been able to experience the healing power of the Lord through the Sacrament of Confession most profoundly.  Thank you Papa, for teaching me that shame laid before Jesus' merciful love is a grace indeed.  

See the person before us.
Pope Francis seems to have a gift to be able to zero in on the person standing before him.  Video clip after video clip show him fully engaged with whomever he is speaking with at the time, no matter what is going on around him. It is evident that in that particular moment, that individual has his undivided attention. More than just paying attention to what they are saying, the Holy Father truly "sees" that person as they are - in the fullness of their dignity as a son or daughter of God.  

In the busyness of everyday life, I often fall into the trap of getting things done at the expense of really "seeing" the people I interact with. After a year of watching the beauty of these special moments with the Holy Father, I pray that I may imitate his ability to be fully present to the people that the Lord places before me and to see them as he sees them.  

It is a joy to be a Christian.
If I had to describe the greatest lesson I have learned from Pope Francis this past year I would sum it up in one small word: JOY! Not only does the Holy Father preach joy, he provides an example for the entire world of joy of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. In one short year, Pope Francis has captured the attention of the entire world by radiating "The Joy of the Gospel".

"The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew."


Read the following related posts:
"What's the Big Deal About the Pope Going to Confession"
Pope Francis' Do's and Don'ts of Mercy


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Monday, March 3, 2014

"Do Not Worry About Tomorrow..."

"Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. 
Sufficient for the day is its own evil."

As I sat at Mass listening to these concluding words of the Gospel I was immediately transported back to a sunny summer afternoon when this scripture first came alive to me. It was early afternoon and I had just collapsed in a heap of frustrated tears onto my bed. I had spent the previous hour or so ping-ponging back and forth between the bedrooms of my newborn daughter and my less than two year old son. It was my first week tackling the task of parenting on my own since my daughter's birth. My parents had returned home and my husband had gone back to work, leaving me alone and outnumbered. Naptime was elusive that day to say the least. Attempting to soothe two crying, overtired children while I myself was sleep-deprived and hormonal resulted in all three of us crying. After what seemed like an eternity, they both finally fell asleep. I lay on my bed and prayed out loud: "Lord., I cannot do this another day. Not. one. more. day."

After laying there for a few minutes, feeling very sorry for myself and agonizing over what what would transpire at naptime tomorrow, I looked over and saw my Bible on my nightstand. UGH. I thought about how tired I was and how the last thing in the world I wanted to do was read. And then I thought about how I had made a commitment to myself when my daughter was born a few short weeks prior to begin to read through Matthew's gospel each day. I knew that reading a few short lines of scripture and uttering a few desperate prayers would be the extent of my prayer life during those first few months with a new baby.  On this day, however, even reading the few lines I had promised myself to read each day seemed overwhelming. 

I picked up my Bible, opened it to where I had left off the previous day and began to read: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for the day is its own evil." I was stunned. The peace of the Lord washed over me as I read those words. I read the passage again and let out a half-laughing, half-crying prayer of thanksgiving. The Lord had met me exactly where I was and provided for me the message that I needed to hear. All the despair and frustration I had felt just a moment before vanished. I no longer felt alone and outnumbered by my babies and I knew in my heart that the Lord would provide for us.

I learned two very valuable lessons that day in the trenches of life with two little ones - lessons that have seen me through many a struggle since then. The first lesson I learned is that the scriptures are a living word, speaking to us vividly in the present moment. The second lesson I learned is that in our striving for the heights of holiness even the tiniest effort on our part to reach out to the Lord is both fueled by grace and met with grace.  I could not have picked up that Bible on my own that afternoon. It was the Lord's grace that propelled me to do so. And I never could have planned the words I would read that day. It was the Lord's special gift to me.

I would love to say that since that day I have never been anxious about what tomorrow will bring, but that is not the case. What I can say in all sincerity is that I know that whatever tomorrow brings, the Lord's grace will be there and that will be enough.

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