Running On Empty

Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent. Most years I try to “give something up” to honor the sacrifice that Christ made for all of us. This year I’m struggling more than ever. Somehow the usual desserts or alcohol or cussing that I try (and fail) to refrain from just seems like more than I can handle. Because of the pandemic I have given up too much this past year. I just don’t think I can afford to give up one more thing. I miss seeing my Dad at his assisted living facility. I miss sons who live out of state. I miss my daughter-in-law. I miss my granddaughters and most especially kissing their sweet faces. I miss hugging my friends – somehow the elbow taps or fist bumps or “air hugs” just don’t cut it.

So here it is, Lent. Time for my Lenten journey. Time to “take up my cross” and make my sacrifices. I just want to say no! No more. Nothing left to give. I’m completely empty. I’m out. Try me next year.

Maybe I really won’t give up anything. Because you know poor me, who has sacrificed so much, really deserves a year off.

And then I am met by angels. Friends who humble me by their prayer and devotion. Family members who inspire me by their spirituality and love of God and all creation. Grandchildren who love me unconditionally and who offer me glimpses of heaven. My wife who has the patience of a saint and should be canonized one day just for the miracle of putting up with me for decades.

What can a poor, sorry, selfish sinner do? Well, first I can leave the pity party. Then I can start praying. And then I can try that again because I feel like bitching and moaning during prayer doesn’t accomplish much. And then I can remember something a new friend shared with me this week. It’s okay to bring all the noise with you into your prayer. All the distractions. All the discomforts. All the sadness. All the pain. And just hand it over to God.

So that’s what I’ve decided to give up for Lent this year (and hopefully forever), trying to be holy and focused and perfect in my prayer. I’m giving it up because I give up. And maybe when I’m completely empty my soul can be filled with the love of God.

And a drink and a dessert and cussword or two this Lenten season will just be as it should be.

Peace,

Denis

Patience

Advent is counter-cultural. We’re encouraged to slow down and be patient. While advertising suggests that we must “hurry up while supplies last” our Church recommends that we take these weeks before Christmas to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus. In our waiting we are encouraged to be still.

Be still and wait! These attributes are not my strong suit. I’m usually loud and in a hurry. Quiet reflection often just annoys me. I hear the ringing in my ears. I become easily distracted. My mind jumps around to the various and assorted IMPORTANT THINGS that need to be done. You know, like when will I ever get those Christmas decorations up? Did we buy that other gift for our granddaughter that we had discussed? How much have we spent so far this year? Is it more than what my first new car cost? How much did that Pinto cost, anyway? What was that salesman’s name? I can remember his face. What am I supposed reflecting on? Something Jesus-y? Oh, Christ! I mean: Oh Christ, help me find patience. Some patience. Any patience. But please hurry!

I pray. In my clumsy, free-range sort of way. My prayers are more like fleeting thoughts – never fully formed or well-articulated. I believe that God listens to my prayers – poorly formed and selfish as they may be. I pray and God listens. I cry and God hears me. I try and God accepts my humble efforts.

So I may not be patient or even slightly non-manic but I try. And I will try again. I will slow down whenever possible. I will read and listen to music when afforded the opportunity. I will listen (really listen) to others, albeit my attention span is often that of a 3 year-old. I know my weaknesses but I am also aware of God’s strength.

I will prepare my heart for Christmas but I know it won’t be easy. I’ll let go of what I can. I’ll unplug whenever I can.

I will S L O W D O W N and trust that Christmas can be perfect even if I’m not.

And on Sunday I’ll light the pink Advent candle which symbolizes hope. And I hope to find patience.

Peace,

Denis

Saints Among Us

On September 8, 1845 a small group of young women from Baden, Germany journeyed to Steinerberg, Switzerland due to government oppression of religious orders. There they formed a community, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. The early years were not easy. Ultimately the Sisters were forced to leave Switzerland because of the Swiss government’s hostility towards them. In 1848 they found a home in French Alsace. In 1857 a request for teachers came from Gurtweil, Germany, and so back to Germany they went. Once again, a hostile German government forced the Sisters to seek refuge. This time a group of sisters from the Gurtweil foundation traveled to America. In 1870, nine Sisters arrived in Belle Prairie, Illinois. In 1873 the Sisters temporarily moved to St. Louis, and in 1875 they established the motherhouse in O’Fallon, Missouri.

175 years later, their goal is straightforward. To love God and to be the reconciling presence of Jesus in the communities they serve. Often when I’m feeling spiritually bankrupt, I think of the Sisters and their determination to bring Christ to others. And I know that I am living among saints.

With my Aunts ~ circa 1958

As a Catholic, I know that we are the Church, not the Pope nor the bishops nor the priests but we, the ordinary, everyday, sinful, struggling, prayerful, bored, loving, argumentative, forgiving, messy, mass of humanity. We are the Church. I just occasionally struggle with being part of “We”. Sometimes my prayer life is what I can best describe as anemic. “Hey God, you know what I need, and I’ll try to do better about ‘that thing’ we’ve discussed, and oh by the way, you know what I’m thankful for, too. So, thank you – bla, bla, bla – the end.”

During some of those “desert days”, when I struggle to find God in my life, I am blessed with faithful friends who lift me up and humble me by their love and devotion.

Today in addition to the professed Sisters, a group of lay people known as “Partners in Mission” have joined to help bring peace to our world. Fortunately for me, I have been accepted as a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. As Partners, we stand in solidarity with the Sisters in their commitment to social justice. Together, we join in prayer and worship. We are offered Spiritual guidance and renewal. In a world full of chaos and uncertainty we find refuge with these women who have devoted themselves to bringing the the love of Jesus to our world.

With my Partners in Mission ~ circa 2019

I’m honored to be a part of this mission. Sometimes it’s as simple as offering a kind word or a friendly smile. Which sounds simple unless I’m carrying too much anger, mistrust or heartache. Sometimes it means being involved in service to others in our community. Which can present its own challenges when I’m feeling particularly lazy or selfish.

Mostly for me it’s just being PRESENT. Giving myself to others with no expectation of anything in return. Listening to stories. Sharing joy. Making memories. Being loved. The best part is that there is no test of worthiness or holiness required – which I would almost certainly fail. No financial obligation or talent is necessary – again I am lacking in both regards.

When I am bereft of enlightenment or clarity or purpose, I am reminded that alone my journey is not easy, but I am never alone. I know that I am being carried along on this journey of love and faith and joy by the Sisters and the other Partners in Mission.

And I am part of “We”.

Peace,

Denis

If you would like to learn more about Partners in Mission, click the link: http://cpps-ofallon.org/partners-in-mission/

Rejoice Always? Yes!

Last month I was asked to give a talk on the subject of “Giving thanks to God for all—Blessings and challenges”. For me it seemed a daunting task. I’m much better at complaining about stuff. Or commiserating about about the sorry state of life on our planet. Or bitching about traffic, my neighbors’ dogs, my co-workers, life in general. Poor me!

I turned to Scripture and found in Saint Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, that he tells us to “Rejoice always.” to “Pray without ceasing.” And, “In all circumstances give thanks.”

IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES GIVE THANKS!  Think about that! We must even be thankful for the crappy stuff: Car trouble; burnt toast; a bad hair day; a headache – sometimes all these things happen on the same day.

And we need to be thankful for the trials in our life, too: Career challenges; doubts about our vocations; marital discord; financial difficulties; raising teenagers.

And most difficult (for me) is the heart-breaking stuff: Serious illness; drug or alcohol addiction; divorce; death of a loved one; facing our own mortality.

How can I give thanks in all circumstances? How can any of us?

First, for me it helps to be thankful for the good things. Having an attitude of gratitude takes patience and practice. Instead of blindly accepting all the good things in my life as if I am somehow entitled to them or that I somehow earned the goodness in my life, it helps to remember that our blessings come from God. Many of you are better at this than me – so thank you for your witness.

Secondly, I am reminded of what Fred Rogers is credited as saying on the ‘Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’ television show: He said…

 “When I was a boy I would see scary things in the news and my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

The idea of course is that even during the most unimaginable of times; during tremendous tragedies or horrific disasters, love can still be found. This doesn’t just make heroes of the helpers but also it reminds us that each of us can make a difference. Even during the darkest of days, we can bring healing to one another.

Finally, it helps me to remember that I am loved and cared for in a thousand little ways each day. I live in communion with others who will carry me when I can longer take another step. I know that I will have a hand to hold; a shoulder to cry on; a friend that I can count on; a God who will never forsake me.

So “Rejoice always.”  “Pray without ceasing.”  And “In all circumstances give thanks.”

This April my Mom passed away. Mom always seemed younger than her 90 years. She was proud, beautiful, strong, well-informed and quick-witted. Mom wasn’t large but she was definitely in charge!

Mom was a breast cancer survivor in the 1990’s and after her surgery she was blasted with radiation, which was the normal treatment at that time. Ironically the treatment that saved her life 30 years earlier, likely caused the pulmonary fibrosis which ultimately led to her death. But I am forever thankful for those 30 years.

Still it was tough watching Mom struggle with her breathing and her weakness due to oxygen deprivation for the last year or so. This was the Mom who took care of us and suddenly we were struggling with the heartbreaking reality that we needed to take care of her. Mom who was once Super Woman was now weak and helpless. Mom, who had bandaged our knees, held our hands, kissed away our tears, solved our problems, needed our help now, more than we felt we could give. But we tried.

I think about my own children and grandchildren and how my heart aches at times when I hear of their misfortunes or disappointments. I think about how my heart soars when I hear about their triumphs and accomplishments. But mostly I cherish the simple times; the quiet moments; the unspoken love we share.

I’m certain that Mom felt that way, too. One of the last times we were together, Mom and I just sat silently and held hands. There was no need for words. I remember feeling for a moment like a little boy and that Mom had everything under control. It was sublime. I have thanked God for that day many times since.

Mom taught me about God, and she taught me how to pray. Her example of faith lives on in her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. God is love. And Mom enveloped all of us in that love.

So, I rejoice not because Mom died but because I am her son and she loved me.

I pray without ceasing that the love she shared will continue to grow and touch generations of my family even beyond my imagining.

Gram in Heaven2And yes, even in her death, I give thanks for a peaceful passing and the gift she was to so many of us. My grandson Noah and my granddaughter Anna were profoundly affected by her death. They loved her and miss her terribly but because of Mom’s witness and the faith instilled in them, they also now believe that she is an angel in heaven watching over them. I believe she is, too! What great comfort it brings to know that Mom continues to surround all of us with her love. I recently discovered a drawing in my granddaughter’s sketch book – it’s her image of Mom as an angel in heaven.

With her beautiful drawing, Anna reminded me that we are NEVER alone in our rejoicing, and in our prayer, and in our thankfulness.

Peace,

Denis

 

 

Far From Home

Our son has made a career in the Air Force. Tyson loves the Air Force and he is exactly the kind of man who you would want safe guarding your freedom. He’s loyal. He’s brave. He’s dedicated. He’s a natural leader. He’s true-blue (actually he’s true-red, white and blue).

tyson11He recently left for a one-year, unaccompanied, remote assignment. Which means that he’s far away from home and his wife and daughters are left behind. Of course, there are worse jobs and there are tougher and more dangerous assignments but this is our son and it’s personal. And I’m feeling a little melancholy.

I know that he’ll be okay. I know that our daughter-in-law is strong enough and smart enough to make it on her own. She’ll keep the home fires burning. His two younger daughters are too young realize what a year without Daddy really means. I also know that Tyson will make friends and do his job well. Email and texting and video chats will help reduce the distance and hopefully will make the year pass quickly. And he will not be in harm’s way, as this is not a combat zone. He’ll receive cards and letters and care packages. So there is much for which to be thankful.

Still it’s hard not to worry. As I try to reassure him, I feel that my words sound hollow and contrite. I wish that I could be more comforting; more convincing; more articulate; more intelligent; more everything. But I realize that I’m also trying to reassure myself as I attempt to reassure him and I’m failing on both counts.

Today our grandson Noah (Ty’s five year-old nephew) said that God hears all our prayers, even the ones in our hearts. It’s amazing how kids evangelize. They bring the Gospel to us in the most simple yet profound ways.

GOD HEARS THE PRAYERS IN OUR HEARTS. Thank you Noah for helping me realize that I don’t need the words. I only need the love. And God hears it. And so will Tyson.

Peace,

Denis

Say a little prayer (or maybe a big one)…

Lately our grandson Noah has been having some tummy trouble. Nothing serious but when you’re five years-old a bad belly came be disconcerting (come to think of it, when you’re sixty it’s no fun either). Anyway, his pediatrician has prescribed some over-the-counter remedy which seems to be working. Hopefully soon he will be back to his usual life’s-a-party, happy-go lucky, free-spirited, never-say-die self.

But right now he’s scared. He’s afraid his belly will start hurting again. He’s afraid he won’t be able to play on his soccer team. He’s afraid he won’t be able to make it through an entire day of pre-school. He’s afraid to eat too much or not enough. And he WANTS MOMMY when his tummy hurts! Poor little guy. Poor little mommy.

NoahThis morning he didn’t think he could make it to school. He pleaded his case but Mom and Dad assured him that he would be okay. They offered him a favorite stuffed animal to take for “rest time” at pre-school (which is apparently a common practice for others in his class). The stuffed animal might offer some security and reminder of home but he refused it in a very adult manner: “No thank you Mommy, there are two reasons I don’t want to take my stuffed animal. First, I don’t want germs from other kids to get on it. And sometimes people play with their stuffed animals when it’s not resting time and our teacher doesn’t like that.” Apparently he knows his limitations.

What he did ask for: “Mommy, please pray to God that I’ll be okay today!” And later, “Daddy, please pray to God that I’ll be okay today!” His parents assured him that they pray for him everyday and all day and that certainly he would be prayed for today. Now there may have been a little bit of five year-old drama in that “please pray to God” plea but I prefer to think that Noah believes in the power of prayer or at least finds comfort in knowing that someone is asking God to help him. What Noah doesn’t realize is that he brought God to us today. His reminder that God is with us and will protect and help us in our time of need is the purest form of evangelization.

Of course now I’m praying, too.

Peace,

Denis

Just Be…

Recently I posted on this blog that I joined a spiritually based group that is in partnership with The Sisters of The Most Precious Blood. We are a small group, one of many groups actually, who are partners with the Sisters. Our mission is to be a reconciling presence in our world. Part of that “reconciling presence” involves prayer, another part involves service, and most significantly it involves community.

We are joined together with a common goal: To love as Jesus loves. Sounds easy, right? Wrong!

Helping handsLoving is difficult. At times it’s even hard to love the people who love us. It’s ALWAYS hard to love our enemies. And it’s often harder to be loved. I realize that occasionally I can be pretty unlovable (just ask the people who work for me). Besides being loved means opening up and making yourself accessible to others – that can get messy. So how do I get busy about this business of loving?

I’m learning from the leaders of Partners in Mission that I should stop trying to “do love”. I need to start trying to “be love”. Activities are great. Service to others is admirable and necessary but until I make myself available to others my actions will never be enough. Love is not about busyness. Love is about being present to those around me. And perhaps that’s the scary part. That’s what makes me vulnerable. Just being.

So before I get busy trying to “do love” I’m going to follow the advice of the leaders that I met: first Be, then Do.

Today I read, “Peace is made when there is a place where the stories of the wounds can be told in safety and security, when the stories and the people who tell them are given dignity and respect.” I believe that right now I need to help build that place and then maybe later I can “do” some love. It could get messy but I think it might be worth it. I’ll keep you posted.

Peace,

Denis

 

Stand

Today is Ash Wednesday and so starts my Lenten journey. Bring on the sackcloth and ashes; bring on the fasting and purging of excess! Take away the adornments and the Alleluia! Strip the altar bare and forego the glad tidings. Time to embrace suffering, loss, and sadness! REPENT!

But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus bring us the “Good News”? Why must my journey through Lent be dismal? Why must these 40 days be all doom and gloom? Following the rules of fasting and abstinence doesn’t mean my Lenten journey must be joyless – does it? I suppose due to a healthy dose of Catholic guilt I’ve always felt bad about enjoying things a little too much during Lent. But thanks to my grandson Noah, this year will be different for me. Jesus said, “Bring the little children to me” so therefore I’m a big believer in three year-old wisdom.

This is what Noah taught me:

Last Sunday at Mass the choir was singing “Stand By Me” and of course the refrain repeats “stand by me” several times. During this hymn Noah launched into a sort of free-flowing liturgical dance (this boy loves music!). Anyway, I quietly suggested that he take a seat next to me. In a very loud and emphatic three year-old voice he told me, “But them just say-ded STAND BY ME!”

And he proudly stood. Rightly so.

Noah standing and singing!

Noah standing and singing!

By Noah’s example it occurred to me that standing (or dancing) or whatever joy we feel shouldn’t be diminished because of “what we should do”. God gives us joy to share with others; love is only love when given away. Lent shouldn’t just be about ‘giving up’ but also about ‘letting go’. Letting go of my preconceptions of what is right or wrong; what is worthy or unworthy; what is vital and what is unnecessary.

So this year I will reflect and pray and atone but I will not be sad. I will carry joy in my heart and I will STAND (and with Noah’s help I might even dance a little).

I hope that your spiritual journey this Lenten season is filled with hope, love and peace. But mostly joy!

When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.                      Matthew 6:17-18

Peace,

Denis

Anticipation

In some strange way, I always have enjoyed the hustle-bustle of Christmas anticipation. Not the desperate “must find something!” gift search, but our last-minute preparations:

  • Wrapping the last gifts
  • Cleaning the house and putting up the final Christmas decorations
  • Queueing up our favorite Christmas music
  • Planning the holiday meals and purchasing the food and the wine

I find comfort in these rituals. This is what I do. This is how I prepare. I anticipate Christmas by getting things done. I am proactive.

AdventwreathBut sometimes I’m afraid that I miss out on some golden moments by working too hard; planning too much; preparing for something that won’t meet my expectations. When our children were young they would ask me what I wanted for Christmas. My answer was always the same, “A clean house and good kids.” This was most often greeted with rolled eyes and a groan. Of course I was mostly joking but still there was some truth in my wish.

And yet when I look back on my fondest Christmas memories it has nothing to do with a perfect house or well-behaved children. It has always been those things that I didn’t anticipate that brought me the greatest joy. And this year is no exception:

  • Receiving a kiss on my cheek from my sweet Noah Boy while attending the ‘Novena’ at our local convent this week without prompting.
  • Our grown son Blake unexpectedly being able to secure time off from work and be with us with for Christmas.
  • An impromptu evening with my brother and sister-in-law; sharing laughs and good memories.

Of course there are other unexpected things this year:

  • My friend and spiritual director who is dealing with horrific pain while awaiting back surgery; which will hopefully “fix her” again.
  • A beloved cousin battling cancer and kidney failure.
  • Our dear friends’ Dad who will be receiving hospice care beginning tomorrow.

I cannot think of three people more deserving of a peaceful and pain-free Christmas. It is heart-breaking to think that these three should suffer when we are preparing for the ultimate joy in the birth of Our Savior.

The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel. Isaiah 7:14

And yet I find comfort in these unexpected ‘gifts’ this year; good and bad. I know that it is our faith in God in which we find our peace; our joy.

Today as we light the fourth candle on our Advent wreath my prayer will simply be, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Peace,

Denis

Francis Gives Me Hope

Pope Francis certainly has the attention of the press. And much of the faithful. And me.

He has shown himself to be a humble man willing to embrace the poorest amongst us. He has bucked the traditionalists who wanted more theological dogma. He has exasperated the Church hierarchy while they are busy telling us what he meant to say. Francis keeps shaking things up. Today’s interview in America Magazine only serves to further frustrate his critics.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

Read the whole article here – http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview

For several years now I have felt cold, distant and isolated in my Church. Far too long I have felt marginally Catholic (or not Catholic at all). The cultural battle within our Church has divided communities, parishes and families. Instead of joining together in prayer and worship we are often focusing our time and talent on divisive issues. Who is worthy? Who is authentic? Who really belongs at this table?

But where is the charity? Where is the compassion? Where is Jesus in all of this?

When I listen to Pope Francis words, “Without hope, we can walk, but we’ll become cold, indifferent, self-absorbed,  distant and isolated” my hope is once again restored.

And with HOPE my faith is being restored.

Pope FrancisMore powerful than Francis’ words; his love for all of God’s creation and his humility should be an example for us. Ultra-conservative Catholics are in an uproar because he hasn’t devoted enough attention to church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Instead he has made poverty and social justice a priority. He is embracing all of us not just a select few who seem obsessed with dogmatic allegiance.

“This Church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

I want to belong to that Church; the one that “throws the doors open” and welcomes us all. A ‘big tent’ Church that has room for saints and sinners. I want a Church where my daughter and granddaughters will be given the same dignity and opportunity as men.

Francis gives me hope…

Peace,

Denis