Inspiration

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to reflect on the reality of my baptism. I was visiting my family and I asked my mom to pull out my baptismal certificate so that I could see exactly when I was baptized. As I unfolded the certificate, I was shocked at what I found.

My name was spelled wrong.

In that moment, the importance of my baptism hit me like a ton of bricks. I know that I was baptized and that a parish secretary’s typo couldn’t change that. But as I looked at the certificate with a name that was not my own on it, I had to stop and think about what my baptism really meant. If it was merely a legal formality, then the typo might have rendered it questionable.

Baptism is never a formality, though. It is valid and changes us forever whether we have a certificate that tells us about it or not. That’s because once we belong to Christ, that can never be taken back. Thanks be to God.

Because here’s the thing: Jesus loves you.

Over and over again, we need to be reminded of that fact. In our world where we can become so easily discouraged, where relationships can be betrayed so quickly, and where things our constantly changing, this is the one thing that remains. This is what gives us the freedom to follow God’s plan for us, even when it seems crazy or painful. It is the knowledge that we can trust him because he really, truly loves us.

Throughout history, there have been many people who allowed their entire lives to be defined by the fact that they were loved by God. These are saints. But there’s one saint in particular who quite literally allowed his entire identity to rest in the knowledge that Jesus loved him: St. John the Apostle and Evangelist.

St. John wrote the fourth Gospel. He was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, present at many key events in the life of Christ. And so, as he was recording the life of Christ, he naturally included himself in the story. But he didn’t just want to refer to himself as “John.” No, that wouldn’t accurately convey his identity. Ultimately, he made a bold decision as to how he wanted to be remembered.

Throughout the Gospel, John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” That’s how he wanted to be remembered: as one who was loved by Jesus.

Sometimes we take the fact that we are loved by God for granted, as a given. After all, everyone is loved by God, aren’t they? So that isn’t what makes us special. We would rather be remembered by what makes us stand apart. Maybe it’s the beautiful family we’ve raised, the job that we worked hard for, or how we have helped the people that we love.

But God’s love for each person is unique. God has never loved another person in that way that he loves you because there has never been another person who has ever existed who has been just like you. He created you just so that he could love you and you could know his love. Your greatest identity lies in the fact that the Creator of the Universe has loved you to the point of death.

Through Baptism, we fully take on this identity of being ones who are loved by God. Whether we are baptized as infants or as adults, at the moment of our Baptism we become children of God, totally engulfed by his great love for us.

“I claim you for Christ our Savior,” the priest says as he makes the Sign of the Cross on the person about to be baptized. When we are baptized, we are no longer our own. We are no longer defined by our failures nor even our successes, no longer defined by our sin nor by our greatest works of charity, but are defined by the fact that the King of the Universe has claimed us as his own. Nothing else can compare to that.

You have undoubtedly done things throughout your life that you deserve to be proud of. They are things that have taken great skill and effort or challenges that you have overcome with great perseverance. There are also likely some things that you have done or have happened to you that you are less proud of. But wherever you find yourself today, may you find peace in knowing that God has already given you the greatest gift to be remembered by: his unique love for you.

 

By Sr Cecilia Ciccone, novice

Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

This New Year, focus on memories, not resolutions

Every January first, and after my annual retreat, and countless days in between, I get a sudden surge of determination and I buckle down with a new regimen of resolutions which I keep for about… I’m sorry to say… a few days….

There was the time I was determined to drink kefir twice a day for my health. After about two weeks, it became harder and harder to drink it even once a day! Eventually it became an on-again, off-again resolution. I tell myself I love variety, that’s why I don’t keep to such a regimen. And eventually I get back on it… for a while!

Or the year I was determined to pray an extra hour at night… Right now I’ve gone back to praying and writing at night, but more realistically I get up later in the morning. Age or common sense have caught up with me!

Beginnings offer us that window of optimism that allows us to surf on an untainted wave of goodwill. As soon as difficulties or slips occur, that good will begins to wane. Even if you have a character that thrives on order and repetition, resolutions can render our hearts hard when they’re reduced to duty and devoid of love’s freshness.

I’ve noticed that something new comes about in my life most often when I’m not trying to make it happen. Often I have no doubt it is an outright gift from God.

Like the afternoon when I was doing research in the writings of St. Augustine for a project while taking care of our front desk here at the convent. I was alone in the room. I’m certain of that. Yet, at a certain point, as I read a sentence from Augustine in which he talked about our struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil, I was able to be honest about an inner struggle I had tried to hide even from myself. I had tried for years to fix it, dress it up, make it go away, hide it—to no avail. It was there. I had to admit it was mine. That afternoon, an arrow of truth pierced the lies I’d tried to tell myself about myself. And in that very instant when my heart was broken open in contrition, I knew I was seen deeply and loved even more deeply.

I remember looking around the room because I knew unmistakably that I was no longer alone in my struggle. The eyes of Jesus held my heart in their tender yet truthful gaze, as these words resounded in my heart: “I don’t care if you ever get this fixed. That isn’t the point. As long as you look at me and allow me to look at you, and we keep gazing into each other’s eyes, that is what I truly desire. It is what more deeply matters.” No longer was I carrying my secret burden alone. In an instant it had been taken from me. Something no resolution had been able to vanquish. Now it was gone. As if it no longer existed. Had never existed. Replaced only with the face of my Redeemer who wanted a relationship with me. That was all. And that was everything.

Marko Rupnik, S.J. would call this a moment of radical reconciliation. “It deals with a new creation, because it leads us back to living the radical newness constituted by Baptism, its general and gratuitous pardon” (Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God, page 111). It is a Lazarus moment, in which we hear the voice of the Lord calling us out of our tomb. “In this event, one experiences not only the forgiveness of individual sins, but the Father’s forgiveness of all of our sins. One has been washed clean. All at once one sees that one’s sins have been in some way a choice, and that perhaps one’s openness to God was only a pretense. At this moment our eyes are completely opened” (page 110).

This moment of reconciliation, the passing through the Red Sea, death and resurrection, is a foundational event in our life. It changed me. It marked me forever. There will always be a “before” and “after” that event. It is a memory, a spiritual memory, more powerful than any resolution for recalling me to a relationship in which God takes the initiative to draw my heart’s attention to what is most valuable: the delight of his love, his loving delight in me in my poverty and weakness.

I still decide to take up habits as though they were hobbies. These resolutions add spice to my life, and open up exciting possibilities. I always learn from them, as short-lived as they sometimes are. Perhaps they fail because they are rooted in anxious desires for getting it right. They emerge from isolation. They are my attempts to be the protagonist of my own life and holiness.

The spiritual memory of how I have been radically reconciled to God, on the other hand, puts me in contact with the Father who cares for me. I relive how God takes the initiative in my life. How I am not alone. How by focusing on what I think is important, I can miss entirely what in my Father’s heart.

So as this new year begins, before you begin to plan out your “new you,” stop just long enough to ask what is behind your resolutions and strategies. Maybe instead of looking forward, look back toward your moment of radical reconciliation, when you knew utterly that you had been redeemed, saved even from yourself. When God made a way through the sea for you. When you had been raised from death as an utter gift. Take what you learned there, what you heard in your heart, the defining point of that experience.

This year, make that the theme of your year, to walk in the path that God has created, the path on which he waits for you.

 

by Sr. Kathryn James Hermes, FSP

photo: José Ignacio Heredia for Cathopic

Christmas, Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

Widening Our Love at Christmas

My first Christmas in the convent was last year. I had been in the United States only one month, and was far away from my home in Portugal. Those weeks before Christmas became the stage for me to ponder the question that Advent poses to each of us: What is Christmas?

As I found myself with my co-novices in St. Louis over Christmas, I sensed within me a reluctance or resistance to accepting that things in my life had changed so radically and so quickly. I began to wonder whether Christmas was what I had always believed it to be.

As the Advent season wore on, my inner struggle increased. Being stripped of everything I knew about Christmas—my family, my home, our traditions with our flavors, music, and decorations, my community, my country—my heart was stretched more than I felt able to bear. It seemed to me Jesus needed a space to be born in me, a space greater than the ocean I had crossed.

It was almost Christmas night when, I don’t know if I was feeling sorry for myself or being honest for the first time, I told Jesus I couldn’t stretch my heart open any more to receive him. If I stretched another millimeter I would break. After all, how could a child occupy so much space inside me?

In the silence, after all my energy had been used to really say what I felt, I heard Jesus say that he would stretch from heaven to earth for me. This immediately made the ocean that separated me from Portugal seem very small. And Jesus would do this for me, even if my heart was preoccupied, even if the only thing I had to offer, almost if only to avoid feeling guilty, was a stable…

And in that moment my heart widened another millimeter and did not break.

After that widening of my heart, I received a letter on Christmas Eve, a Christmas card from a sister in my community in Portugal, which reminded me about the One I was expecting, that One we are expecting on Christmas:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Each of us will be given this Child, who is born to be Light. To be the great light that guides us and illuminates the darkness that exists in our lives, in the darkness that exists in the world. And confident of this promise, on Christmas Eve, we go to church at night, so that this light may shine within us.

We go at night, because in us there is darkness that only the coming of Jesus can dispel. We go at night, because so often we do not see the way, and Jesus is born to give us the counsel. We go at night, because sometimes the future brings fears, and Jesus is born to give us the fortress. We go at night, because death makes us distrust the promise of God’s life, and Jesus is born to give us Eternity. We go at night, because divisions continue to exist in us and in the world, and Jesus is born to give us peace.

When I think of my first Christmas at the convent, I realize that the dispossession of all I knew as Christmas, far from moving me away from its true meaning, increased my openness to the mystery I was living. And it has increased my openness to a new family, a new home, new traditions and all that Christmas is, too.

It is true that the whole context helped me in this deepening, but I believe the first step of this journey took place within me. I have realized that sometimes we want to live Advent in a serious way and really take a spiritual path. We want to create this space for Jesus to be born within us and we come to Christmas Eve, and we only have a stable inside us to receive it. But Christmas is also accepting our poverty to welcome Jesus, yet still doing the best we can. Because we can trust that he, in his love for us, will come—no matter what.

And in this trust, everything we know as Christmas, family, traditions, decorations, presents, memories, can be lived as a gift. Can be lived with this deep understanding, that the ultimate end of every gift is to love God and our brothers and sisters. Anything that does not have this purpose is not a gift, it is not Christmas.

At Midnight Mass, I saw many families sitting together in the pews of the church, and for a moment I found myself remembering so many times in the past in which I had sat in the pews of my parish together with my family, celebrating the birth of Jesus. But with my new community, with my co-novices, with all those people from a parish that was not mine, I felt very deeply the joy of Jesus being born among humanity, I felt a joy that was greater than what I knew, I felt the joy of what I’ve believed as far back as I can remember.

A child has been given to us, the child of God who comes to save us!

 

by Sr. Marta Gaspar, novice, Daughters of St. Paul

image: Christmas at Faro, Portugal, wikicommons

Inspiration

The Transformation of Suffering

Sometimes a life experience is so dramatic, so poignant, that it stops us in our tracks and forces us to pay attention. This is true of many of the situations and events experienced by the saints. Not only do we sit up and take notice, but in many ways we are challenged by these moments. Some of us change our lives’ trajectories because of them. All of us are called to be grateful for them.

In 1975, Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận was arrested by the Communist government of Vietnam and imprisoned for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement, before being finally exiled from Vietnam in 1991. Following the example of Saint Paul while he was in prison, Francis-Xavier wrote messages to his people from captivity; his writings would eventually blossom into three books.

Chapter six of St. John’s Gospel relates an extraordinary story: seeing a vast crowd coming to hear him speak, Jesus takes the five barley loaves and the two fish offered him by a young boy and makes that bread and those fish into food enough for the five thousand. Francis-Xavier takes that story for the title and indeed the operating principle of his book, Five Loaves and Two Fish.

The first loaf is living the present moment; the second loaf, discerning between God and God’s works; the third loaf, prayer as a fixed point of reference; the fourth loaf, the Eucharist as his only strength; and the fifth loaf, love and unity as Jesus’ testimony. And then we come to the first fish: My First Love: The Immaculate Virgin Mary and the second fish: I Have Chosen Jesus.

Five loaves and two fish. “Stay with us,” prayed the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them to eat. Francis-Xavier’s sister writes that “during an interview with the media after his release, he was asked what his secret strength had been that kept him alive and sane. His answer was always, ‘The Eucharist.’ He explained how when he was arrested, he had to leave immediately, empty-handed. The following day he was allowed to write to his faithful to ask for some personal effects. He wrote: ‘Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach pain.’ They understood right away. A few days later, the guards handed him a small container addressed to him, labeled ‘Medicine for stomach ailments.’ He also received another small container containing small pieces of Holy Host. With three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand, he would celebrate Mass. ‘Each time I celebrated Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with Him the bitter chalice.’ And those were the most beautiful Masses of his life. He always carried in his shirt pocket the little container holding the Blessed Sacrament. He would repeat, “Jesus, You in me and I in You,’ adoring the Father.”

During 13 years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for Francis-Xavier an increasing power of hope that enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope that doesn’t disappear, even in long nights of solitude.

Francis-Xavier himself spoke of what his imprisonment had taught him during a talk he gave shortly before his death. “From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for 12 years in Communist China, came to my mind. On the day of his liberation, Bishop Walsh said, ‘I have spent half my life waiting.’

“It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die.

“No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.

“A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”

There is so much to learn from these words and this witness! Those of us who have never been imprisoned have no idea the fear—the panic, even—that must be one’s first, second, and last feeling. To transcend that fear and reach out to others is extraordinary. To find in it something of holiness is even beyond.

“Those in prison,” wrote Saint John Paul II, “look back with regret or remorse to the days when they were free, and they experience their time now as a burden which never seems to pass. In this difficult situation, a strong experience of faith can greatly help in finding the inner balance which every human being needs. This is one reason why the Jubilee is so relevant to prison life: the experience of the Jubilee lived behind bars can open up unexpected human and spiritual vistas (…) To celebrate the Jubilee means to strive to find new paths of redemption in every personal and social situation, even if the situation seems desperate.”

How many of our own situations feel desperate? How many of our own present days seem like “a burden which never seems to pass”? How many of our own problems feel unsolvable? Yet there is meaning in everything, and, as Francis-Xavier reminds us, no situation is there to merely be endured, to be waited through: we’re called upon to participate everywhere and in every way, by being beacons of Christ’s light for those around us and by bringing his word to a world that needs it now more than ever.

photo credit: Mitch Lensink for Unsplash

Advent, Christmas, Inspiration

The Big Three

The big three holidays are almost here: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Hooray! we say. As you read this, we will be in the immediate preparation for the first of these, Thanksgiving, praying that we make it through with family and friends, and without too much fuss.

We all recognize these three as the extreme sports among our holidays. We flex our best resolutions before entering into this season. Somehow we will power our way through them.

It might be more worthwhile to spend some time with the little three. Now, by this I mean no disrespect, and I really should call them the humble and holy three: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We do well to ask how they negotiated the original version of what we celebrate.

Let’s begin with Advent, which is the season of preparation for the next two celebrations. We often reduce Advent to the season of shopping rather than of reflection on the coming of the Savior. So, let’s pick up Advent partway through its four-week pattern. The young woman, Mary, had an angel in her living room announcing she was chosen to be mother of the long-awaited Messiah. This certainly trumps all the robo sales calls we have to put up with! How calmly did she acquiesce to this turn of events? We don’t know, but she wholeheartedly consented: “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary’s immediate response was to set out on a mission of mercy to visit an older cousin who was also unexpectedly pregnant. We can see how invested Mary now was in God’s plan. When her cousin Elizabeth’s son, John (the Baptist), was born, Mary returned to her own family and to the scrutiny of her fiancé, Joseph. He was taken aback to find her obviously with child, knowing it wasn’t his own. God decided to clarify the situation for Joseph as he had for Mary, through an angel. Joseph wasn’t to be distressed, the angel said. This Child is of God so go ahead as you planned and take Mary as your wife. )Do you notice anything stressful yet?)

Another curveball is thrown into this original Christmas preparation. No quiet sitting at home, no little shopping expeditions, no cozy chats with happy grandparents-to-be. No, the foreign governing body has called for a census. It isn’t a paper form to be mailed in, but a trek to the ancestral home to register in person. So off they go at a very inconvenient time. Mary was literally expecting the Christmas Child. She was seated on a donkey; no Uber rides were available. She had to balance on the swaying beast while feeling her time was close at hand. Joseph, for his part, could only worry and put on a strong face and pray his heart out that everything would be okay.

When they make it to Bethlehem, it is late. There is no room to be rented. Again it falls to Joseph to provide. We picture him in popular films running from house to house begging for some place, any place, to prepare for what is imminent. How inadequate he must feel: such a mission and such a predicament! Why? he could have lamented, but we believe he was more of a man of providence. God would show him how he was to provide for Mary and the Infant. What Joseph found – a poor animal stable – has become the icon of our individual devotion. We ourselves are poor, unworthy, but welcoming abodes of the Son of God. Thank you, Joseph, for this spiritual gift.

It is a holiday, a birth day–was there a party? Yes, there was one large decoration, the star. The locals, friendly and curious, came. The angels again pointed out the event to shepherds who hurried over to see. Later unexpected kings arrived with precious, symbolic gifts. Privacy didn’t exist and soon neither did safety. The three had to flee in the night, making another treacherous journey, this time into Egypt where they would again be strangers trying to fit in.

>All of this was certainly a stressful time for Mary and Joseph. Our religious paintings and cards portray a peaceful, serene image for the season. The will of God seems to have been like a soft comforter over these harsh circumstances. Sweet smiles and calm nerves prevailed. I think not. I see Mary and Joseph as the true patron saints of our modern holiday season. Think of the emotions, the misunderstandings, the anxiety, the exhaustion of all these days. They were in love with God and totally dedicated to His will, but they had to feel each moment as it came. They didn’t know what was coming next. They definitely experienced stress. They were thrown into it; we on our part create most of our stress.

We find that our stress doesn’t come solely from world or church affairs, but from personal interaction with those around us–the near and dear, but even more so from inner action, from our own unpeaceful spirits. Let’s do as Mary and Joseph and put all of our energy and attention on the Child who is the reason, literally, for the season, the Gift, the charm, the center of everything. If our heart is with Him, we will be able to weather this seasonal squall of stress with grace and even with joy. And we will be able to put a new ring on the coming of 2020.

by Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP

 

Advent, Inspiration

3 Ways to Open Doors of Hope

Don’t go through the next month and a half straight to Christmas. Take time to hope!

“Advent,” wrote then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986, “is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope.”

Our problem? We want to go straight to Christmas without taking the time the Church gives us for waiting, for expectation, for longing, for looking back, for looking forward… for hope! It’s easy for that to happen. Shops and online merchants lure us with promises of more to buy, more to do, more, more, more—until Advent gets lost in a headlong tumble of activity, anxiety, and stress.

“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

Here are three ways to open those doors:

#1: Start now

Download our free #PutJesusFirst Advent planner. What differentiates our planner is that it’s integrated: every week, along with practical reminders to buy stamps for Christmas cards and make travel arrangements, you will find prayers, family activities, Scripture readings, and more.

#2: Look ahead

Now is the time to plan for your Advent reading for yourself—and Christmas giving for others. Visit our webstore or one of our Pauline Books and Media Centers and get your children a reminder of what Christmas is really about—or find books for your friends. Choose some reading for yourself that will either challenge or comfort you, depending on this year’s needs. Order from our webstore now and you’ll be taking advantage of our free postage through December 8th!

#3: Be present every day

People talk about experiencing “the best Advent ever,” but even that is missing the point. Advent needs to change you, to allow God to act inside you and your family, to prepare you for the greatest gift of all: God come to earth as a tiny, poor, refugee child. In the birth of that child alone is our whole hope for the future.

Let us help you go through the doors of  hope this year!

Inspiration

Why I Hate (Sort of) Being Middle-Aged

It’s probably fair to say that middle age took most of us by surprise. One day—or so it seems—you can eat whatever you like, go to bed at two in the morning, and fit into all your clothes. The next day you’ve developed allergies, consider 10:00 “staying up late,” and find there’s more belly on you than there used to be. And I won’t even talk about wrinkles!

But by far the most difficult part of being middle-aged is that we begin losing people.

For many of us, it starts with our parents’ deaths, and the world feels suddenly far colder and more lonely when there’s not that generational buffer between us and death anymore. Then, slowly, friends develop life-threatening diseases—diabetes, cancer, respiratory infections—that limit their quality of life and eventually end it altogether.

And who’s ready for that? Who’s ready to say good-bye to people who are special, beloved, important? Who’s ready to start thinking about inching closer every day to it being our turn?

The truth is, we’re woefully unprepared. Our culture doesn’t deal with death very well. Instead of confronting our own or anybody else’s mortality, we stave it off. If someone mentions death or dying, we act as though they breached the most egregious of etiquette taboos and we describe their interest as “morbid.” Most Americans view death as the enemy, something to be fought at all costs.

It’s counterintuitive, but even Catholics follow those cultural norms. We know that death is not the end of our lives, but the beginning, a passageway to the kingdom of God. We’re like someone who’s lived in a small apartment their whole life and now is leaving to go live in a palace—for eternity. You’d think we’d want to talk about death! You’d think we would spend time every day imagining our futures, where there would be no pain, no sorrow, no hatred, only happiness and love. You’d think we’d teach our children about it, that we’d go joyfully to the bedside of someone dying.

You’d be wrong. We’re as uncomfortable as everybody else.

This came home to me the last time I sat in a hospital room with a person dear to me who was dying. I thought I was pretty sophisticated about the whole thing, but what actually happened was—nothing. I had nothing. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I could offer. I didn’t know how to be close to this person in this incredibly important moment. I left that room impoverished, not only by my loss, but by my inadequacy to the event.

I wish she were dying now, because something amazing happened to me recently that would have changed that whole interaction: I picked up a book about to be published by Pauline Books & Media. Simple enough—I read all our books before they’re published, and I had no reason to think that the Memento Mori: Prayers on Last Things prayer book would change me in any significant way.

It did.

Reading this book, which gathers together both the strongest and the most comforting prayers and thoughts, felt like those moments when dark clouds part and sunlight comes streaming through—only it was the light of Heaven that was surrounding me. It enabled me within minutes to really understand death as a passage and not as an event. If I had had this book in my hand at my dying friend’s bedside, I wouldn’t have been uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have been tongue-tied. I would have had the right words to say, to read, to pray. She is with Jesus now, of course; but the next time that happens (and as I said, the moment we pass 40 or 45 the inevitability of losing people becomes very real indeed, and there will be a next time, and a time after that, and a time after that), the next time, I will be prepared. I will have the words. I will be the presence God is calling me to be.

I can’t share everything, all the incredible wonders of this book, but I can give you a taste of them. For example, the prayer for those close to death would have made all the difference in my friend’s hospital room:

Merciful Father, with the death of Christ you opened the gateway to eternal life. Look kindly on all those who are close to death, especially [name]. United to the passion and death of your Son, and saved by the blood he shed for us, may [name] come before you with confidence, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

But it’s not just a book to be read and prayed at deathbeds. We really can be different from the culture around us, and this book offers us a way there. Saint Francis called her “Sister Death,” and we can see dying in that light, too, but only if thinking, reading, and praying about it becomes part of our daily routines. I have added the prayer to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to my own personal evening prayers, so that every night I can ponder the mysteries of death, and entrust myself to God:

O Immaculate Virgin, glory and splendor of Carmel, look kindly upon me and cover me with the mantle of your maternal protection. Strengthen my weakness with your prayers, illumine the darkness of my mind with your wisdom, increase in me the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Adorn my soul with grace and virtue so that it may be pleasing to you and your divine Son. Assist me in life, console me at the hour of my death with your presence, and present me to the Holy Trinity as your child and devoted servant to praise and bless you forever in heaven. Amen.

Everything you will need to shift your perspective and open yourself to God and the passage from life to eternity is in this book. You’ll find New Testament Scripture passages, the writings of the saints, and the most comforting of Psalms. It will instruct you in doing an examen and in making a good confession. It addresses your fears with prayers to combat evil, prayers for protection, and spiritual warfare prayers, as well as a renewal of baptismal vows. It includes litanies, chapelets, Rosaries, and then rightly shifts your perception onto Heaven itself. There is no other prayer book like this one.

Okay, so I still sort of hate being middle-aged. But I’m learning to lean into it more gracefully, and to accept help when it’s offered… like through the words of the Memento Mori prayer book.

 

Image: Clément Falize for Unsplash

Inspiration, Seasonal

Running with the Saints

Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:14). I think this is the verse our sisters had in mind when they planned the location of our motherhouse!

For exercise, I like to go jogging. It gets my heart pumping, it’s good for me, and afterward I usually feel great. But our motherhouse here in Boston sits at the top of an extremely steep hill. So no matter what direction I start jogging in, the very last part of my run is always a huge hill.

Usually when I get to the bottom of this hill, I’m exhausted. I’ve already gone pretty far and when I see the hill, it intimidates me. I wonder if I have the energy and the strength to get up it. But if I can get going, running slowly but steadily, keeping my eyes fixed on the entrance to our property, not focused on how fast I’m going or how ridiculous I may look… then, I can get there.

If I’m being honest, the hill that leads up to our convent is probably one of the smallest obstacles I’ll have to overcome in my life. When I consider that becoming a saint is my goal, I could list off any number of reasons why I can’t get there. With the wounds I carry from my past, my own weaknesses and limitations, and my sins, it seems impossible. The events of life can leave me exhausted. And it’s easy to get discouraged when I compare myself to how well other people are doing.

But, friends, Jesus knows this. He knows that the goal of becoming a saint is, in a way, too big for us. We cannot do it on our own.

St. Paul likes to refer to the spiritual life as a race. He tells us, “Run in such a way that you may win the race” (1 Cor. 9:24). When I run, I often think of this quote from the letter to the Hebrews: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Heb. 12:1).

We must run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Yes, this race, our earthly lives, can be difficult. Sometimes we may get a little bit off course. We may be exhausted. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we will need nourishment and support. We’re in it for the long haul.

The good news is Jesus has not left us to run this race alone. Not only is he always there pouring grace upon us, but he also founded a community, the Church. And this Church does not exist only on this earth but in heaven as well. Some of the most important members of the Church are the saints who form a “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us as we journey toward heaven.

These saints are people who have already run the race. They know the course and they have made it to the finish line. Whether you have a wild and crazy past life or have always been close to Jesus, are married or single, feeling the aches and pains of aging or are in the prime of your youth, there is a saint (or maybe ten) who has been there too.

We really are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, whether we realize it or not. They’re quietly (or sometimes loudly) cheering for us, praying for us, giving us every bit of encouragement to help us to reach our final goal. They help us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We may get worried about how far we still have to go before we reach that goal of holiness. We may get distracted by other things, other worries, and look away from him. But they are a part of our lives, gently nudging us to look back at Jesus.

When we interact with the saints, praying through their intercession, getting to know their life stories, and learning from their paths of holiness, we become aware of just how much God loves us. It becomes evident that he really does want us to be in heaven with him and that he will hold nothing back that might help us to get there. Just saying that makes me feel loved deeply and helps me to see my God-given dignity. I hope it does the same for you.

When we get to heaven, the finish line of this race that we are running, we will be united totally with Jesus, who is our goal. And the saints will be there, excited and rejoicing to welcome us home.

What saints have been a part of your life, encouraging you as you journey toward God? It doesn’t have to be a canonized saint. Maybe it’s a deceased loved one who you’ve felt especially close to even after they’ve passed away. Whoever it is, make sure you ask for their intercession, especially when you’re having a difficult time in your spiritual life. We really are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who will encourage us and help us along this path that we are walking, the race that we are running. Let them cheer you on, even when you feel like you might not make it, and don’t stop running until you cross that finish line.

 

by Sr. Cecilia Cicone, novice

Image: Goh Rhy Yan for Unsplash

Inspiration

She said she’d never read Cardinal Newman. This changed her mind

Sister Mary Emmanuel Alves, FSP, never thought John Henry Newman would—or even could—inspire her. “Newman wrote the book entitled University Sermons; he was a high-class theologian,” she remembers with a twinkle in her eye. “Definitely not for me!” she thought. “Give me the Curé d’Ars instead, this Newman will be over my head.”

That all changed when she came across a quote from Cardinal Newman that shed light on her life at a particularly difficult time:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.

“I met him through that quote,” Sister Mary Emmanuel says, and she is smiling at the memory. “I just had to find where he said it, so I located a copy of Parochial and Plain Sermons—it turned out the quote I was looking for wasn’t there, but I started reading anyway. And as I was reading, I kept thinking, ‘My goodness, I understand the man!’ I kept reading, I had to go back and re-read what he said several times because there are so many layers of meaning to everything he writes.”

She started reading Newman, and kept reading Newman. “What attracts me to him,” she says now, “is his laser-focus on the invisible world, his relentless search for light in a dark world, and his continuous awareness of being in the presence of God.”

Sister’s books by Newman are well-thumbed, marked with notations, filled with colorful sticky notes; this is clearly where she turns, again and again, for strength and inspiration. “Most people live good lives,” she says. “They go through their days, but they don’t know that God has an eternal purpose for their lives and why he put us here. Newman says, ‘God leads us by strange ways’ and it’s true: so many people are taking the wrong way simply because they do not know. But if you read Newman… what he says transcends the ages, it transcends errors, it transcends public opinion. Many doubters have found their way to God through Newman. He is a man for our times because his sources are the timeless wisdom drawn from the Scriptures and Fathers of the Church.”

So Newman really is, at the end of the day, someone who can speak to anyone and everyone. “There’s a beautiful chapter on finding God and sanctity in our daily rounds,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel. “We’re all engaged in the exhausting cycle of everyday routine. But Newman wanted to help people see God in their daily rounds. Each day is to bring forth its own treasure. He speaks of the sacrament of the present moment. Keep your mind on what you’re doing, and God is there with you in that moment.” Newman wrote, “Look out for his presence in everything that happens, however trivial.”

“Mark my words,” Sister says, “he will eventually be a doctor of the Church. He is for everyone: theologians, philosophers, and even for those of us who have not studied extensively. Newman has taught me to be continually aware of what he calls “the secret supernatural system going on under the visible scene.” It is faith that sees it and love that chooses it.

John Henry Newman’s canonization is an excellent opportunity to start reading more of his work and learning about his life. “I don’t want people to be afraid of him,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel. “Give him a chance. There is so much to understand. God wants you to understand why he gave you this life, and Newman can help with that. You will find the peace you’re looking for!”

Newman_SALE

 

Inspiration

How God challenged St. Francis of Assisi—and challenges us

Fall is a challenging time of year. For many people, that challenge is going back to school, or starting a college or graduate degree. For everyone, fall is the end of summer, a time traditionally associated with vacations and rest. Leaves turn brilliant colors before disappearing. The very air trembles with the threat of cold, of winter.

So perhaps it’s an appropriate time to think about some other challenges. And as on October 4 we celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, it’s also appropriate to look to him for guidance. He was in many ways very much like us in his weaknesses: like us, there were people, things, and situations that made him uncomfortable.

Francis was born into a wealthy family, and spent the early part of his life doing precisely what he wanted when he wanted. Perhaps his fastidiousness was a leftover relic from those times, but we’re told in the Legend of the Three Companions that he had a particular aversion to lepers, the unfortunate victims of an infection that wasn’t understood (or treated) for centuries, and that often left sufferers blind and with lesions that led to amputation and death. The Legend says Francis shuddered at the sight of lepers, holding his nose and averting his eyes from them.

One day Francis was riding outside the city proper when a leper suddenly appeared on the path in front of him. This time, however, the Holy Spirit spoke to him, and he made himself get off his horse, forced himself to do what he didn’t want to do—approach the leper. Suddenly inspired, he embraced the man as a brother in Christ, and in doing so was transformed. Later he would write about the encounter, and say that “what was so bitter was changed into sweetness.”

Clearly, if Francis was to found and live in community, he had to extend his love and acceptance to all people, not just those he found appealing. God made that clear, by sending a single leper to encounter the saint and challenge him to change and grow.

It’s recorded in several sources that Francis was not a particularly organized person, nor did he have any natural leadership skills or gifts. He would have been perfectly fine living out his life as the humblest of friars in his new community, rather than being the community’s head and leader. He must have felt lost and ill-equipped to deal with his growing order and all the problems that growth engendered. God could have called someone who had those skills, but it was Francis he wanted, and Francis rose to the challenge.

John Henry Newman assures us that God has a plan for each of us. That doesn’t mean the plan will be obvious or feel natural or comfortable; God often calls people out of their comfort zones as he did St. Francis. Francis rose to the occasion because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and because he relied on God to help him do what he couldn’t do alone.

It’s often when we’re outside of our comfort zones that we experience the most spiritual growth—and that we accomplish things we never thought we could. God challenges us to step outside of what we like, where we feel good, in order to work out his plan for our lives. It’s in these situations, where we feel inept, incompetent, and afraid, that we have to rely on God to do what we alone cannot.

We are so quick to associate Francis with the natural world he loved so deeply. But perhaps today on his feast-day we can learn a different lesson from the saint. God challenged him to do what didn’t feel comfortable, and it changed his life. Perhaps doing the same thing can change ours, as well.