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.

 

 

Inspiration

Call on your guardian angel!

(Jeannette de Beauvoir and Sister Barbara sat down recently for a conversation about Sister’s experiences with her guardian angel and her thoughts in general about angels. These are notes from that conversation.)

When I was in Catholic school, the Sisters taught us about the angels: that they protect us, and that they praise and adore God. We learned about saints who had devotions to angels. We were told that we each have a guardian angel and that angels guides us throughout our life.

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There was a painting in my bedroom of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, with pictures of angels guiding souls out of Purgatory. I always used to pray for the souls in purgatory that their guardian angel would come soon to lead them out of purgatory. I felt the presence of God when I was going to school, crossing the street, and I’m sure that sense of God’s presence came from my guardian angel.

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As I got older, my guardian angel came to my aid a lot. I used to drive a lot, taking sisters to appointments and on various errands. A few times when we were in traffic on the highway and feeling frustrated and disappointed, we realized that had we gone a few miles up the road, we might have been in that accident. Our guardian angels were with us. Sometimes we don’t understand why things are happening; but God is leading us. Throughout the day I pray the prayer to the guardian angel, I said it as a child and I still say it today.

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When I was in seventh grade our family was going to go to the beach. But the weather that day did not assure us of a sunny day. I went straight up to my room and asked why, why, why? The sun eventually came out that day, but it was too late in the day to go on our adventure. My mother suggested I go for a bike ride. I hopped on my bike and rode down the street and on the sidewalk in front of me I came upon a gift box with a medal of the Sacred Heart inside. I’d always wanted one! I checked at the drugstore right there and even asked people in the street if it belonged to them! Since no one knew where it had come from, I figured I could keep it.  I was so happy because I had always wanted a medal of the Sacred Heart! When I arrived home, I went upstairs and thanked Jesus for this gift. If we hadn’t stayed home from the trip to the beach, I would never have found the medal. I know it was my angel at work to make it possible.

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St. Gemma and St. Germaine in particular had a closeness to their guardian angels, and of course Padre Pio, whose feast day we have just celebrated, had a great devotion to his guardian angel.

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I love our book, Angels: Help from on High, because it gives such a beautiful account of devotion to angels and to our guardian angel. The book helps people know about angels in Scripture and how they can defend us from harm, inspire us with holy thoughts and teach us how to live holy lives.

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I feel that we should be confident and full of reverence for our guardian angel.

We can recall the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce to her that she was to be the mother of God’s Son. It must have been frightening, and she must have been taken aback because the angel said to her the words, in the midst of the message, “Do not fear.” That message also pertains to us when God talks to us: he is asking us not to fear. We often hear God’s voice through the inspiration of our guardian angel. We are asked to trust God and to recognize God’s message through them.

Angels can teach us a holy fear of God. Not fear as in trembling and being afraid, but rather a holy fear of God, one of adoration and reverence towards our God, Creator and Lord, who is present everywhere and is also truly present sacramentally in the Eucharist. That holy fear is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That’s what we can learn from the angels.

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We can also learn from our angels how to show concern and care for others. For example, sometimes living in community, during meals and other sharing times, I actually an inner tug from my angel, when others are having a conversation. Something tells me to join in, and I say a silent prayer to my angel to guide me in the conversation. I even pray to the other person’s guardian angel so that what I say will be interpreted the right way.  Or sometimes I’m ready to go upstairs and I have a sense that I am meant to go another way. Almost every time I realized it was a true inspiration because I encountered someone who needed help.

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Once two of us Sisters had a strong experience of the intervention of angels. We used to go door-to-door on evangelization. Upon entering a funeral home, one of the employees mentioned that his wife was dying and pleaded with us to find a priest as they weren’t church-goers. I could say it was a divine set-up! We called the priest and asked for a visit to their house. The man’s wife was able to make her confession and passed away in peace. I don’t consider this chance. We were led by an angel.

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Our devotion to the guardian angels and to all the angels in general can be helped by reading lives of saints who had devotions to their angels. St. Gemma and St. Germaine, in particular, were close to their guardian angels, and, of course, Padre Pio, whose feast day we have just celebrated, had a great devotion to his guardian angel. One could google this information as well. This would enable us to pray to our guardian angel with greater confidence in their guidance and to praising and glorifying God as they do.

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 In tight circumstances, my angel helps me find things. When I call on my angel in a moment of instant need, being mindful of the angel’s presence, I immediately get the needed help. I always tell my guardian angel if you come to my aid I will thank and praise God right away by praying, Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit immediately!

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I would encourage souls who would like to acquire devotion to their guardian angel to read in Scripture from both the old testament and the new, quotes and happenings in the bible where the angels came as messengers, were leading the people of God, such as Israel as a nation, or Tobias in the book of Tobit and so on…. And in the New Testament, how Jesus was comforted by an angel in the Garden of Gethsemane, and there are many more examples that we can reflect upon in all of Scripture.

 

 

 

Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

How can I forgive?

Scott Hurd’s groundbreaking book on forgiveness has been revised and updated, and the new Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach will be available September 20. Pauline Books & Media’s Jeannette de Beauvoir caught up with him to get some of his thoughts on forgiveness in the current age.

Jeannette: Why a revision of this book at this particular time?

Scott Hurd: A lot has happened in the eight years since the book was first published. Pope Francis was elected, and he speaks about forgiveness a great deal. I’m very grateful that he places such a strong emphasis on forgiveness in living a Christian life, and I’ve incorporated some of what he’s said. Also, I wanted to address certain topics I failed to explore in the first edition. There’s the matter of forced or premature forgiveness, which can be a real issue in certain religious and therapeutic circles, and some have written about in light of the #MeToo movement. I also wished to nuance the common assertion that God won’t forgive us until we forgive others first. And then, in light of the anger and disappointment felt by so many Catholics today, I’ve explored the question of forgiving the Church itself.

Jeannette: What is the chief obstacle to forgiveness?

Scott Hurd: I had to think about this one; I’m not sure if the chief obstacle is ongoing pain from a hurt we’ve experienced, or the desire for justice in response to that hurt. Of course, they’re both intertwined, because ongoing pain can fuel a wish for retribution. Forgiveness involves letting go of the desire for revenge, which is an essential element in allowing our pain to be healed. But forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us; it has to be learned, as it conflicts with our “natural instinct to pay back evil with evil,” as John Paul II once explained. And resisting a natural instinct is not easy.  The path to forgiveness can be a long, hard road along which we sometimes take one step forward, followed by two steps back. At some level we realize this when we begin the journey, and that fear can prevent us from taking the first step.

Jeannette: Why do people find it difficult to forgive others? And to accept forgiveness from others?

Scott Hurd: There are many reasons why people find it difficult to forgive. Sometimes people find the concept of forgiveness difficult because they misunderstand what forgiveness is, and fear that forgiving someone lets them “off the hook.” But that’s not the case. While forgiveness does indeed require letting go of the desire for revenge, it does not require that we abandon the quest for justice. “I forgive you” it not the same as “That’s okay; don’t worry about it.” If we’ve been hurt, that’s definitely not okay.  Forgiveness isn’t a denial of our pain and doesn’t pretend that nothing happened or condone what’s been done to us. In the Christian worldview, strict justice is tempered with mercy, but actions still have consequences. To give a rather lighthearted example, a teenager who lies about missing curfew can be forgiven, but they’re still grounded next weekend!

Jeannette: I’ve always been in awe of the forgiveness exhibited by the Amish families of Nickel Mines after the shooting there. Not many people can be that clear about what is necessary to follow Christ in times when emotions run high. Is there a way to open our hearts to that kind of utter forgiveness and love? 

As I said earlier, forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be learned, and it can be practiced. It’s for good reason that the Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies families as schools of forgiveness. With the Amish, it seems that they had created a culture in which forgiveness was an essential part. In face of the horrific tragedy at Nickel Mines, forgiving wasn’t counter-cultural to them. While those of us who aren’t Amish may admire that, it can also seem foreign and even unrealistic. But perhaps their witness can challenge us to help change our cultures.

I’m glad you mentioned “when emotions run high.” When we’ve been hurt, it’s natural for us to feel angry, and that’s okay. That’s a normal reaction, and we need to acknowledge and process that anger as we heal. But anger and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive. The baseline of forgiveness is the choice to not retaliate and respond to hurt with additional hurt. And we can make that choice, even when our emotions are running high.

A distinction can be made between “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.” Decisional forgiveness concerns the choice to forgive, regardless of our feelings, while emotional forgiveness is achieved only when we feel that we have forgiven. Just because the Amish quickly extended forgiveness to the gunman who killed their children doesn’t mean that they didn’t experience immense grief, anger, and sadness. They did. While they began with decisional forgiveness, emotional forgiveness only came later, after sadness and tears.

Jeannette: Do we have to think about forgiveness, work through a mental process, before we can do it?

Scott Hurd: Forgiveness is a choice and not simply a feeling, so yes. People sometimes consider forgiveness as an option only after their other ways of dealing with the pain and grief of their having been hurt aren’t working for them anymore. They become sick and tired of being sick and tired and wonder if there’s a different way forward. Then they’ll think: “Maybe I’ll try forgiveness.” And that choice to consider forgiveness will hopefully lead to making the choice to forgive – a choice that can often need to be made over and over again.

Jesus said that we should forgive others “seventy times seven times.” And sometimes we have to do that for a single hurt- especially a grave one- as we continue to contend with our feelings and perhaps a desire for revenge.

Jeannette: Forgiveness is often coupled with restoration or reconciliation of some kind. How necessary is restoration/reconciliation in the forgiveness process?

Scott Hurd: I’m glad you asked this as forgiveness and reconciliation are sometimes confused. Reconciliation is the restoration of a broken relationship, and it can be a beautiful thing. Sometimes, however, reconciliation isn’t always possible, such as if a person who hurt us has died or is no longer a part of our life. And it might be that reconciliation is inadvisable, as with dangerous or abusive people. We can forgive from a distance the people we should keep at a distance. While people who hurt us are always worthy of our forgiveness, they may no longer be worthy of our trust.

In short, true reconciliation requires forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness only requires one willing party; reconciliation necessitates two.

Jeannette: Please share one story from your book that you find the most enlightening.

Scott Hurd: My favorite story is that of the old army sergeant who was dying in a VA hospital from internal bleeding ulcers. I encountered it years ago in an issue of National Geographic, which is the last place I thought I’d find a good story about forgiveness! Thirty years after WW2, he was still wrestling with resentments against old enemies, and it was literally killing him from the inside out. It was only after a burly cigar-chomping doctor (this was the ‘70s…) blurted out, “Good God, Sarge, who do you hate?” that this hurting, tough, and dying man burst into tears and began to confront the pain he’d been carrying for decades.

While this story is certainly colorful, I also think it’s deeply compelling as it can give hope of healing for anyone who struggles under the debilitating burden of great pain and anger.

Jeannette: Why is it so easy to hold a grudge?

Scott Hurd: For many reasons. Sometimes the prevailing culture doesn’t help. While forgiveness may have been popularized in recent decades- which is a good thing – a belief still persists that forgiveness is a sign of weakness or defeat

Plus, when we’re in a wounded state we can be tempted to exploit our situation to what we think is our advantage. We can play the martyr in a quest for sympathy. We might enjoy feeling smugly superior to the one who harmed us; we’re the “good guy,” and they’re the “bad guy.” Our identity can even become one and the same with our hurt; we’re known as the cheated spouse, the unappreciated child, the wronged employee.

Because it’s so easy to fall into these traps, it’s also easy to hold a grudge. But forgiveness, thankfully, offers us a better way forward.

Jeannette: What happens if we cannot forgive someone?

Scott Hurd: The science is pretty clear about this. If we get stuck in anger and resentment, we place ourselves at risk for depression, chronic back pain, struggles with anxiety and sleep, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and cancer. Even our memory and our ability to think straight are compromised.

But failing to forgive can impact our relationships too. Perhaps our response to being hurt is to retreat into a shell, cutting ourselves off from others and their friendship and love. Or, since misery often loves company, our bitterness can drive people away.

Those who refuse to forgive should dig two graves, warns an ancient Chinese proverb. But those who forgive can enrich their lives, benefitting not only themselves, but those around them too.

Jeannette: What happens if we cannot forgive ourselves?

Scott Hurd: There’s an old wisdom that says that we can’t give what we don’t have. And I think that’s true of forgiveness. If we don’t forgive ourselves, we’ll find it that much harder to forgive anyone else. Even more, when we don’t forgive ourselves, we often end up punishing ourselves.

Guilt is not a bad thing; it’s a sign that we have a conscience and are in touch with reality. But seeking to make amends or restitution for what we’ve done is far healthier than getting stuck in chronic guilt. It’s better to do good, than to feel bad.

Jeannette: How do you forgive an institution?

Scott Hurd: That is a complicated question! Some would insist that only people, not institutions, can be forgiven. Bernie Madoff might be forgiven by those he ripped off in his Ponzi scheme, but how might Enron be forgiven by those who lost jobs and retirement—especially since Enron no longer exists? No, it’s the Enron decision-makers who are candidates for forgiveness.

Some say that this is true of the Church as well. Then again, the Church is no ordinary institution, but is like a sacrament, meant to be a sign of God’s love to the world. It is the Body of Christ: Christ is the head, Christians are the members, and the whole body is filled with the Holy Spirit. “We are the Church,” it can be rightly said, which is why some maintain that the Church itself can be forgiven for when it reflects God’s love imperfectly, or not at all. However, the traditional understanding is that while the Church as Christ’s perfect body isn’t a candidate for forgiveness, its sinful members are.

When we’re in pain, distinctions like these may not matter much. As I say in the book, maybe who or what we forgive depends on how we’ve been hurt, and what approach will best help us heal.

Jeannette: How do people explain to others (lapsed Catholics, nonbelievers, etc.) how they can still love the Church?

Scott Hurd: That’s a hard one; there’s a lot of understandable anger toward the Church right now, especially in view of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. This scandal exemplifies the Church at its institutional worst. But even those outside the Church might be able to love it, I guess, through admiring its witness and fundamental commitment to serving the sick, the poor, and the disenfranchised- those “on the margins.” This, I believe, is the Church at its institutional best, which can elicit the admiration and support of those who themselves are not a part of it.

I think of what the French philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus said to a Catholic audience just three years after the Second World War. Camus was certainly an agnostic, and quite possibly an atheist. But he understood that the Church could be a great force for good, and he wanted to encourage that.

Here’s what he said:

 What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. […] Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?