Side Gifts

The holiday season is a time when many of us think about buying presents. If we’re not careful, it’s a moment when we might get caught up in the frenzy of consumerism. Thankfully, it’s also a time of “joy and hope brought to us by Christ, the most valuable gift any of us can possess.” according to my pastor Fr. Mark. The challenge for many is real – how do we balance our desire to share material gifts while remaining true to the real spirit of Christmas?

Looking back, I am not sure how she did it. There were so many balls in the air including 10 smallish children, 4 young couples, dinner menus, bedroom preparations and so much more. Somehow though, Mom managed to make every Christmas holiday on Cape Cod uniquely special. She had an uncanny way of finding just the right gift(s) for each person. These special things were not huge or expensive, rather they were hand-picked treasures, chosen with love and incredible thought by a person who wished only good for others.

To be clear, Mom was always very fair in her gift giving thus a tradition evolved where family members received additional gifts that she liked to call side-gifts, which were different than the main Christmas gift. I am not sure how she came up with this clever name but it certainly made for a jolly holiday visit. It also enabled Mom to experience the joy of giving over several days – watching her loved ones open treasures which she had selected throughout the year.

Upon arrival at her beautifully decorated Cape Cod home, one could expect to receive a few side-gifts leading up to Christmas Day. These treats ranged in scope from handmade jewelry to sweets, books, personalized items and much more – all impeccably wrapped and tied up with a matching bow. When it came to her grandkids, she managed to sneak in extra toys which they’d been asking for since she kindly reminded the parents that they were just side-gifts. Over time, it became a much anticipated exchange between the children and their grandmother – celebrating Nona’s creative side-gifts.

Looking back, I believe Mom’s giving of side-gifts reflects the beautiful virtues we are called to live during the holy season of Advent – hope, faith, joy and peace. Mom patiently chose her side-gifts throughout the preceding year, waiting in joyful hope for her family to come together again. She lived a joy-filled life, trusting in God’s day-to-day presence thus was a witness to peace and hope when any type of challenge arose. We all looked to her as a beacon of faith and she didn’t disappoint, guiding us through the mountains and valleys of family life. As Catholic Christians, we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the infant Lord who is Love. Mom’s side gift giving was simply an extra outpouring of the Love which she welcomed into her heart daily and which she shared generously with those around her. This holiday season, may we all find ways to be and share that Love with those we cherish. Perhaps it might even be in the form of a side-gift!

Thanksgiving – more than just a holiday

“Always assume the best in people.” This is something my mom told me often – and she was absolutely right. Over the course of the last few weeks, three different individuals have made an impression on me in the very best way. They have expanded my understanding of the word “thanksgiving” in a manner that I didn’t think was possible. My encounters with these folks was unplanned and organic thus the impact was even more significant. On this national holiday which Americans have been celebrating since 1621 – I’d like to offer my own perspective. Thanksgiving is more than just a day – it is a way of life, an attitude and a pathway to lasting happiness and peace as evidenced by the folks I recently met along life’s journey. Keep reading to find out what a T driver, an inmate and a religious sister all have in common.

He was holding the building door for me. We had both parked our cars in the garage underneath the building and he saw me struggling with a mound of groceries which balanced precariously from my small pushcart. “Thanks so much.” I said. He responded with a tired smile in a disheveled looking T uniform (T is our subway, for non Boston folks). I could tell that he probably had just gotten off a long shift. We chatted by the elevator and I learned that he had an injured back. I commented that driving the T must be tough with a bad back to which he responded, “It’s okay, I have a good job for which I’m thankful. Once I rest up, I’ll be good to go for another day. Not everyone can say that.” I was blown away by his resolve knowing the toll that back pain takes on a person. This kind soul managed to smile, show kindness to a stranger and give thanks for his blessings amidst real pain in his own life. Inspiring.

Even more amazing was the testimony of an incarcerated woman which I recently heard at Mass inside a maximum security prison. During the homily, the celebrant invited all of the women present to share something they were grateful for. I sat in awe and amazement as the inmates each declared something or someone for which they are grateful. One woman’s words in particular caused my eyes to fill with tears as I considered her current circumstances. “I am grateful to wake each morning and enjoy my cup of coffee while watching the news. I am also thankful to live in this great country where I can worship freely by participating in this Mass each week. Despite my circumstances, I have much to give thanks for.” Whoa…. In today’s materialistic society, this type of testimony flies high above the noise and chaos caused by individualism and the like, and serves as an incredible example for all of us who take any good and comfortable thing in our lives for granted. Walking out of the prison that day I thought, “Sometimes we have to descend into the unknown, seemingly dark places in life in order to rediscover the truth which leads us back to the light, illuminating the path of goodness ahead.”

Finally, I received a much needed “spiritual shot in the arm” thanks to a recent presentation by a gifted Sister of St. Joseph. Her talk to our women’s group aimed to teach us how to better be in relationship with God. There is so much I could share about her presentation but there was one particular line which really stuck with me. With calmness and love, she shared, “I cannot dance, O Lord, unless YOU lead me.” This line was actually written hundreds of years ago by a 13th century mystic but Sister uses it often to create a vision for how we are called to live our lives daily – open to God’s plan, rather than our own. This reminder was so simple, yet so powerful for me. How often in life do we try to “take the lead” with the result being less than stellar? In Philippians 4:6-7, God has promised us peace -as we are called to live a life of gratitude. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God that transcends all understanding will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.”

At your Thanksgiving table this year, perhaps you might reflect on these three incredible people. Allow the faith of the inmate, the hope of the T driver and the love of the religious sister to propel you forward into a state of living gratitude. After all, thanksgiving is more thank just an annual holiday. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

To Live is to Change

Everywhere I looked the landscape in my wooded hideaway kept changing as each colorful leaf gently touched the ground. I had planned to walk a familiar path but my pup had other plans and I yielded to her lead like a grateful child in a candy shop. Satisfied for taking the risk, this new trail led me under a canopy of brilliant golden leaves which fell slowly upon my capped head. It felt good to act with spontaneity given my ‘control type’ personality. Wandering through the shifting trees, I was reminded of a quote by well-known theologian and Catholic convert, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Thus I found myself pondering the many recent changes in my own life.

There was a time when the idea of change frightened me. But over time, change just kept happening in my life – and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. So my challenge was one of personal response – would I remain static – stuck in an old ways of thinking or would I evolve using the gifts and experiences that a changing life had afforded me?

A recent visit to a women’s prison reminded me that I have indeed evolved over the years. My attitude about visiting prisons has certainly changed. Many years ago, a priest friend invited me to participate in a Mass at a local prison and I reluctantly agreed. Back then, I was afraid of the experience as I thought only of my own security and well being. I had no idea of the gifts awaiting me inside the barbed wire and stone walls.

Twenty years later, after enduring years of spine health challenges which have left me a little bit broken, but hopefully wiser and certainly more grateful for the gift of my changing journey, I now enter the prison ready to meet the women inside with solidarity and friendship. Reflecting back, I realized that in my youth, the person I thought most about was me. I worried about my comfort, security and happiness rather than what I might be able to offer the women I would be visiting, or better yet, what they might offer me.

I am not entirely sure what Newman meant when he wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. But given his willingness to convert to Catholicism at the height of his Anglican career at Oxford, it might mean something like, “a willingness to trust your heart enough to know when Truth is inviting you to change course in life.” Oftentimes, this change of direction comes with pain, as it did for Newman and as it did for me. But that is not a reason to avoid change. In chapter sixteen of Matthew’s gospel, our Lord told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (MT 16:24-25) When we follow the voice of Truth, we do indeed save our life because we surrender our will for God’s holy will which always leads to our ultimate happiness amidst all life’s unexpected changes.

Gazing upward at my canopy of beauty, I mused that a New England tree endures a lot of annual change – frigid cold and ice in winter, blazing heat in summer and wet rains in spring. Yet every autumn, these changes – difficult as they may be – result in stunning beauty for all to enjoy. It is no different with us when we surrender our lives to the Author of Life. The same God who commands the oceans and turns green leaves to gold, safely guides us through the rush of life’s changes. Like Newman, we can also grow in strength, faith and wisdom if only we have the courage to change.

See and be Seen

When he walked into the routine procedure room I didn’t expect his first words to be, “What do you do?” In fact, this aloof question – asked without even looking at me – caught me so off guard that I failed to respond for more than a comfortable minute. When I finally did speak, all I could do was answer with a somewhat sarcastic, “What do I do?” Then before I could offer any other type of response, I fell victim to the anesthesia beginning to flow through my veins. Later in the recovery room, I was treated with overwhelming kindness by the nurses – they saw me with one even bringing me a heating pad for my aching back. As for the doctor, unfortunately he did not see me. I may never know why but the interaction had left me feeling empty and I had vowed not to let anyone feel that way after being with me.

There are moments in life when we experience the unexpected. The other morning, a lovely woman in our new condo complex greeted me by name (I think I met her maybe once before) and reminded me that she lived on the 3rd floor should I need anything. This friendly greeting changed my whole morning which had started out a bit rough due to a difficult pain night. It took just ONE kindly neighbor to change my bad mood. She saw me…looked me in the eye and called me by name. It was a difference maker moment.

Recently, I attended Mass at a local prison and had another one of those unexpected moments. It was a day where I was filled with worry over my son’s health – he had contracted COVID as a college freshman and was really run down from the virus due to his asthma. Before Mass began, one of the incarcerated women greeted me with a smile and complemented my nail polish color. (It was a new color that one of my daughter’s had picked out for me.) We then got into an interesting conversation and she shared moving stories about her own baby son. I was so touched by her kindness – in the midst of her own pain and present life suffering- that it made me turn away from my own concerns and offer my prayers for her quick release and reunion with her son. In this case, I think we had seen each other. We were simply two moms worried about ours sons, sharing comfort in our mutual love for them.

Being seen is a gift, but seeing others can be an even greater gift we give to ourselves. My husband and I attended Sunday Mass at another parish this week so we could watch our niece play college field hockey. Since it was not our parish, we didn’t know what to expect – we seem to have stumbled into the children’s Mass. We sat behind a young couple – barely 30’s – who had a small boy and infant baby girl. I watched them tag team with the crying baby without using words. One would get up and go out with her while the other stayed with their son and prayed. They did this seamlessly and without frustration. Toward the end of Mass I felt a prompting to compliment their faith and willingness to attend Mass despite the age of their children but thought better of it, “Mind your own business.” I said to myself. Then without even knowing what I was doing it, my hand tapped the Dad on the back and I said, “You and your wife are doing a great job. Our youngest just left for college and it is beautiful to see young families at Mass.” He thanked me and apologized for the chaos and crying baby to which I said, “None of us mind, we are just glad you are here, that is what matters most.” He seemed to sigh heavily and utter a final “thank you.” He was seen, and it felt good!

September is the anniversary of my much loved Mom going home to God. After 6 years, it has not gotten easier to live without her. But my comfort is trying to live like her. Mom always saw people! We chose a quote from St. Mother Teresa for the back side of her grave which beautifully sums up her life, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” Mom’s example has propelled me forward each day to try and live in love and truly see people in their joys and sufferings.

It takes effort to really see people – we need to look up, get off our phones, and gaze into the eyes of our family, neighbors and friends. Sometimes it doesn’t happen – like in the case of the doctor at my procedure. In situations like this we should still respond in love because we don’t know what that person is going through. We are all called to respond and act in a way that makes others lives better, as Mother Teresa said. When we do, the world shines just a bit brighter as I experienced through the kindness of strangers this past week.

Love with All You have Left

My sister’s recent Facebook post of a cherished memory from six years ago caused my heart to stir in an unfamiliar way. I haven’t thought about the summer of 2016 for quite a while until I saw a photo of my parents in front of a favorite lobster spot in the cool of a beautiful Cape Cod summer evening. The smile on my Mom’s face looked pure and real. She must have been enjoying herself, or so I thought. We now know that Mom was called home to God only a few short weeks after that photo was taken.

On that evening, I imagine Mom was loving us through her actions, despite how she may have felt with advanced stage 4 cancer. This notion of loving others despite experiencing pain or some other cross puts others ahead of self. It is a a way of willing another’s happiness and good – it is a way of walking in the footsteps of Christ. Mom always did that when she was well, so it makes sense to me that she would continue doing that during her 3 year trial with cancer.

I recently listened to an interesting lecture on this topic of “loving when all is lost,” by Fr. Mike Schmitz of Ascension Press. He said, “When all is lost – a person you’ve loved, a job, your health or some other catastrophic situation – we can either give up or choose to love God with all we have left. There is only one choice.” I thought about Fr. Mike’s words for a long time (since I could personally relate to this topic) and realized that he was spot on – abandoning our grief, pain and anger really is the only option if we want to find peace again. Loving God and others leads to freedom when we are experiencing these feelings of loss. By giving our love to the One who is love, we release ourselves of the responsibility to find all the answers. This is HUGE. God’s grace working through our desire to love will allow us to live our way into the answers which are best for our lives and to ultimately experience real peace again.

We’ve recently had a lot of activity around our large extended family – an Eagle Scout ceremony, three high school graduations, a baby shower, two engagements and a family move. All of this is wonderful, happy stuff but it has meant a lot of travel, chaos and activity – not great for my ongoing aching back. I’ve struggled with “staying positive/not giving up” amidst the turmoil of events and have not always succeeded. Looking at that beautiful photo of my Mom from the summer 2016 was the reminder I needed to “love with all I have left” despite how my bad back feels on most days. It’s such a small thing BUT it can and does make a huge impact on those in my midst (and on me.)

When we choose to “love with all we have left” despite our feelings, pains and struggles, it is simply good enough for God. Much good WILL come from our efforts! God multiplies our meager raindrops and turns them into showers of goodness. And somehow, the pain – whatever it is – just works itself out. Either God gives us the strength to bear it or sees fit to take it away for a time. Love, with all you have left – it is the only way.

Saying Goodbye to 260, after 23 years!

Who is my Neighbor?

The aisle was crowded with locals and summer vacationers hoping to buy the delicious smelling baked goods emerging from the hot ovens. This famous Maine store also made tasty gluten free/vegan muffins which I was eager to try given my allergies. We were heading home from a lovely Fourth of July family celebration and I was feeling grateful for the time spent together. As we waited for our order, I gave my niece a big hug, thanking her for accompanying me to the doctor that morning. A specialist in Maine was caring for my wrist which happened to get caught in a dog’s mouth during vacation. As I took my arm down from my niece’s shoulders, I heard a small voice behind me exclaim, “Are you giving out those hugs for free?” I turned around to see a tanned, elderly woman in the crowd looking at us. I instinctively reached out to give her the hug she so clearly sought. She told us that she hadn’t had a hug or any physical contact with another person since her husband had died and that she really missed being loved by other people. After a short conversation, I reached out to her again and offered another, longer hug to let her know that she mattered and was not alone. As we left the store, I kept thinking about this woman and wondered, “Who is her neighbor?”

(Fourth of July photos in Maine – celebrating Grace & Andrew’s engagement.)

Saint Mother Teresa said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” She also said that “the poor” can often be found right in our own families. As I thought about the woman from the store in Maine, I wondered how had she become so lonely that she would risk asking a stranger for a hug. Where were all the people in her life; extended family, friends, neighbors and possibly children? The whole situation tugged at my heart and forced me to reevaluate my own life. Was I was truly loving the lonely people around me?

A few weeks ago, after reading the familiar story of the Good Samaritan (from the Gospel of Luke) at Mass, I returned to my thoughts of the woman from the Maine store. In many ways, she was the broken person laying on the ground in this famous parable. As in the story, many had passed by her without noticing her pain (including me before she called out). Or perhaps they did notice and chose to keep walking for fear of getting involved. It’s easy to see how this can happen in today’s busy world – we don’t look up from our phones to see the people around us who may need a friend. We are all responsible, but the Good Samaritan – Jesus – reminds us to pay attention and treat every person in our midst as our neighbor. We may not have to go as far as to pay for someone’s health care or lodging, but we can at least show kindness, friendship, and love in our daily lives.

My encounter with the woman in Maine has had a profound impact on me. She is my neighbor – despite the fact that I live in Massachusetts and she in Maine. Perhaps I could have done more to show love to her, but I do know that our encounter had meaning for both of us. She remains in my prayers as do all those who live in loneliness and despair. Perhaps we can all respond to the invitation from the Good Samaritan and reach out to folks who need a hug or helping hand, wherever we find them amid our busy lives. Joy, smiles, and a better world will follow every encounter of love.

(Photos from our July visit to Nashville – Courtney & Matt’s engagement.)

Better, not Bitter

I recently attended a Zoom meeting with leaders from my parish women’s group. I expected the gathering to be an uneventful planning session and was only half paying attention when one of the participants knocked me out of my seat with her unexpected positive attitude in the midst of a painful health situation.

Like most of you, I’ve discovered that it’s a lot easier to have faith when life is carefree and fun. It is much more difficult to remain steadfast and positive when suffering, trial or illness unexpectedly knock on your door. It can be a quandary – how do you grow in faith, enduring the hard times in life, without becoming bitter? My friend from the women’s group recently showed me the way.

I’m good today. I’m in a good week, so life is joyful. Since I’ll be getting these treatments forever, I try to look at things from a positive perspective each day. Next week, I won’t feel so great because of the Monday chemo treatment but after awhile, I’ll be good again.

As my friend finished sharing her latest cancer update, I noticed that the light behind her silhouette became a bit brighter on the computer screen. It could have been her radiant smile or perhaps the way she spoke with confidence about such a difficult subject – but whatever the reason, her whole person shone like the beauty of a rising sun over a calm sea. “Is this what real faith looks like?” I wondered in the silence of my heart.

For me, the words of my wise friend were a beautiful reminder that faith doesn’t just happen – it takes time to grow and flourish like a bountiful garden. My friend has tended to her garden over many years. She’s prayed, read scripture, participated in various faith enrichment groups and always challenged herself to grow deeper in understanding the gift of Catholicism. But it hasn’t been without toil. Her faith has been tested and tried over many years and through various struggles. But she never stopped asking questions, never stopped meeting Jesus in weekly Mass – and always kept listening for the voice of her Beloved in the quiet of her soul. Her faith has slowly matured through painstaking daily efforts to surrender her will for that of the Father’s will and it reveals something beautiful about her, and in common with St. Paul who said, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

My friend’s life of ongoing faith development has made her better in every sense of the word. Bitter is left to those unwilling to embrace hope, love and the promises of Christ found in Sacred Scripture. (examples below) My friend’s relentless efforts are an encouragement to all of us who struggle to deepen our own faith in the midst of this difficult, tumultuous world. I truly believe that we become better when we learn to surrender everything to the One who knows us best and loves us most. In this apparent act of weakness, we actually grow stronger thanks to the gift of God’s grace. This abandonment of control and willingness to trust in God allows us to live happier, more fulfilled lives. Perhaps we can all strive to be just a little bit better today. Over time it sure does make a difference.

Scripture Passages which Encourage my Faith

God will never leave youDeuteronomy 31:6Be strong and steadfast; have no fear or dread of them, for it is the LORD, your God, who marches with you; he will never fail you or forsake you.” 
God will always protect you2 Thessalonians 3:3But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.”
God will give you the graces necessary to endure all suffering2 Corinthians 12:9“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”

Show Up

There are moments in life when it feels difficult to put one foot in front of the other. At times like this, we have a decision to make – show up or give up. Through a myriad of life experiences, I have learned that showing up is the only option. It’s a signal to ourselves and others that we believe in hope over fear. It is also a quiet nod in the darkness of despair that we refuse to give in to negativity and defeat. Showing up might not seem like a big deal to some but it is a positive sign that despite the challenges we are facing, we are still willing to trust in the God of love who says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating as a Volunteer Leader at a Lenten Retreat for about 40 women inmates at a local prison. I didn’t know what to expect since I normally attend Mass with these beautiful women but this event turned out to be a gift which has helped me on my journey of learning how to just show up when life is challenging. After an encouraging program centered on trusting Jesus, our retreat leaders – a religious sister and Jesuit priest – asked the volunteers to form a line so the retreat participants could receive a blessing before returning to their buildings in the prison. When we were finished blessing everyone, one of the participants jumped over to the volunteer side of the line, followed by a few other women and then invited us, the volunteers, to take our turn passing through the line. The next few moments were surreal. With love and gratitude, the retreat participants prayerfully blessed us, the volunteers, as we passed through the line. It was a moment of grace and beauty which I will never forget.

The women who had chosen to attend the retreat had made a conscience decision – to show up in faith, despite the tragedy of their circumstances. Many of them have been victims of abuse, violence and horror – much more than most of us can imagine. But, in spite of their plight as incarcerated women, they showed up, sharing the gift of themselves with grateful beneficiaries. As I drove home that day I thought about these women – their heroic courage, deep faith and downright determination to show up and work towards a better day. They are an inspiration to me and so many other volunteers. Indeed they have much to teach us.

Showing up when we don’t feel like it can be tough, believe me, I know. Recently my pain levels have been high and I have not been able to go about my daily routine as normal. Thinking about these beautiful women at the prison has given me the courage to hang in there and give it my best each day, whatever that may be. Over the years, I have learned that when we refrain from complaining, self-pity and the like – we demonstrate a willingness to put our own challenges into proper perspective, remembering that everyone is carrying a cross of some kind. I’ve also learned that it is in the midst of our sufferings, when we choose to go forward, that we glorify God thus making a positive difference in life for ourselves and others. (Of course my mom Joanie demonstrated this heroic reality throughout her lifetime and especially during her 3-year battle with cancer. )

(A few current and past photos below of showing up.)

If for any reason you find yourself feeling stuck, struggling, uncertain, suffering, hopeless or in pain – I invite you to – just show up. Others are doing it under very difficult circumstances and so can you. Through the example of heroes like the women at the prison and my Mom, I have learned to take life one day at a time, not look back with regret- and just show up trusting in the mercy and love of God.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27

Words Matter

After enduring frigid temperatures back home, the warm Florida sun beckoned us out among the lush green flora and endless blue sea. A morning of beach walking and shell picking inspired us for an afternoon of exploring. Our first stop was a place promising “the most scenic hiking trails in Northeast Florida.” Fresh snow at home made us eager to experience the promised “majestic live oaks draped in Spanish moss” enjoyed by hikers and bikers.

We fell into a comfortable walking rhythm on the trail, quietly delighting in our natural surroundings. After a few minutes, a bike zoomed past us and we had to quickly move over among the brush. This happened another few times and we commented on how fast the bikers were riding. We hiked awhile longer, taking in the beauty of the trees when suddenly another biker came up behind us. This one didn’t race past us though, she stopped and looked at us kindly saying, “Hey, do you guys know that this is the bike trail? You might want to be careful because riders usually go really fast along this route.” When we told her that we were visitors from Boston, she directed us to the nearby hiking trails. We had a pleasant hike thereafter – and the trail was just as lovely, only a little bit safer thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

Away from home, Pete and I discovered a Saturday Vigil Mass at the first Catholic parish in the nation – the beautiful Cathedral Parish of St. Augustine founded in 1797. In the weekend’s gospel from the sixth chapter of Luke, Jesus advised us to beware of judging others. I’ve heard this gospel (and accompanying homily) many times, thus was surprised when the priest focused his entire homily on the very last line of the gospel – “for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

The priest invited us to consider the reality that spoken words reveal the condition of one’s heart. (Really, I thought?) “If your hearts are far from God, your words reveal that.” he shared. He tied his message to the familiar ‘judging others’ part of the story by observing that a hardened heart will easily revert to words of judgement rather than love. He then invited us to look within ourselves first – fix what needs fixing through prayer – then speak with kindness, not judgement. His words really hit home for me and I silently promised to try and practice his good advice during Lent and beyond.

As we ended our rejuvenating excursion south, I thought about a few memorable people we had met during our trip. There was the biker, of course, who advised a few strangers with unsolicited, helpful advice revealing a kind hearted person. – “for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” Then there was this TSA agent I encountered on our departure home. It had been a long, rainy travel day and my back was throbbing (perhaps the pain showed on my face.) When he glanced at my license he smiled at me from beneath his large mask and said, “Another Christmas baby! You must have been the best gift for your Momma that year, just like me. I was born on the 24th.” This simple act of unexpected kindness allowed me to forget about my pain for a few moments and focus on a beautiful memory of my beloved Mom who always reminded me that I was indeed truly special because I was born a mere four days before the baby Jesus. “for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

These folks reminded me that kind words make a huge difference! God invites us to look within our hearts and prayerfully work on ourselves before judging others. This good advice is particularly needed in the world today. Look around, there is too much division, strife and now – a war in Ukraine! Words matter and kind words make the world a better place for our families and children. We can heal our broken world but to do so, we must first heal our wounded hearts. I believe that this requires a constant dose of God. When we fill our hearts with LOVE each day, our words of kindness naturally follow.

Red Sea Moments

Spending time with a dear friend on a recent cold morning reminded me of the simple blessings in life. We sat comfortably in the local coffee shop sipping our steaming hot drinks and sharing the latest life stories. By the time we departed, I was rejuvenated enough to face another week of uncertain pain challenges amid the unpleasantness of a messy Boston winter. I have much to be grateful for, I thought, and I was intent not to forget it.

But let’s face it – sometimes we do forget it. Sometimes life sails along quite well but we find reasons to be unsatisfied and complain. I don’t think we intend to sabotage our happiness, it just happens – like water turning to solid ice during an overnight freeze. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and realize that complaining does nothing to enhance our quality of life. In fact, most of what we complain about never actually materializes. Biblical history has shown that God is always on our side, constantly working for our good. He works in the little ways of daily life and sometimes in big ways when there is no other explanation for a positive outcome other than divine intercession. I like to call these miraculous occurrences Red Sea moments.

In my Bible in a Year reading course, we just finished the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery from Egypt. I’ll be honest – I almost skipped this story since I’ve heard it a million times. But I am glad that I didn’t because when I actually read the text in Exodus, I was astounded at the number of times the Israelites complained against God. In Exodus 14:12 they said to Moses, “Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? Far better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Of course God enabled Moses to part the Red Sea thus saving the Israelites from the aggressive Egyptians so the people believed in God again, but not for long. When they got hungry and thirsty, they complained again. But as I read, I wondered, why didn’t they trust? Time and again God met their needs yet any time they were slightly uncomfortable, they questioned him and complained again.

Unfortunately, I realized that I am not that different from the ancient Israelites. When I look back on my life I see that God has provided for all of my needs and much, much more. And yet, sometimes I still complain when I get weary or concerned about certain things. Reading the story about the parting of the Red Sea reminded me that God is always fighting for us. He is silently willing our good and leading us to the promised land in our daily lives. Our job is to trust him.

Trusting is hard for many of us. But we are called to be persistent, alert and prayerful in order to find and give thanks to God for the Red Sea moments in our own lives. I recognized one of these moments just the other day. I was due to receive pain injections but my appointment was cancelled due to last month’s positive COVID test. After a series of missed calls and confusing messages from the Pain Clinic, I was left to believe that my appointment was firmly cancelled. I decided to give it one more try when I called back and spoke to a kindly front desk gal. After hearing my story, which included an extra long period of time since my last set of injections, she decided to allow me to come in saying, “It’s obvious you are not contagious since it’s been weeks since the COVID test, plus you’ve been vaccinated and boosted. I can also hear the pain in your voice. Yes, you can come in for your appointment tomorrow.Red Sea moment, thank YOU God!

What are your Red Sea moments? We’ve all had them because God fights for all his people. It’s good to recognize the many ways that God has blessed us. By doing so, we tend to complain less and enjoy life more – like having coffee with a good friend. 🙂

Plan B Life

Her comments caught me completely off guard. But she was so confident so sure of herself that I had to take her words seriously. A new member of my Pain Support Group, who joined our Zoom gathering for the first time, said something that has really stayed with me. “I think it’s impressive that you have been able to accept the life you are living instead of the one that you had planned.” Am I, I thought?

I have been delving into the Old Testament these past weeks using Father Mike Schmitz Bible in a Year podcast. I have to admit that I’m overwhelmed, in a good way, by how much I am enjoying it. I have always struggled with reading the Bible but felt like I wanted to give it another chance with this popular tool. The thing that has struck me the most is how relatable all of these Old Testament people are – I mean really regular folks. They come from imperfect families, struggle with life and often sin in ways which offend God and one another. What a relief! In addition, the God of the Old Testament is forgiving and loving in the face of those who seek him, follow him and embrace him – regardless of their imperfections.

One scripture passage that has truly stayed with me is the story of Jacob’s eleventh son Joseph. Without anger or resentment, this young man embraced the Plan B life that God had intended for him. Joseph was the apple of his father’s eye and his older brother’s hated him for it. These jealous men wanted to kill him but in the end decided to sell him as a slave. Joseph’s journey was not easy – he was a household slave in Egypt, away from his family and was then thrown into jail for something he didn’t do. In the end, God used Joseph’s gifts as a dream interpreter to raise him to the highest office in Egypt. Joseph served alongside Pharaoh and saved the entire land from famine, including his own family, who eventually came back to him. When Joseph saw his brothers again he did not rebuke them rather he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Gen 45:5)

I wondered if I were Joseph, would I be so forgiving? Joseph knew something important: God invites us to realize that He has a beautiful plan for our lives but it may not be the one that we think is correct. Oftentimes God’s plan will take us to places that we do not want to go. But like Joseph’s life, His plan will lead us to great things if we trust. I like to call this God’s Plan B. I find myself living a Plan B life and for awhile, I was not too happy about it. After my spine surgeries, countless minor procedures and doctor visits, I was miserable wondering why God had not fixed my back pain. It wasn’t until I accepted and embraced the life I was living that I realized all was well. While I did have to give up some things that I loved – my full time job, running, long travel, and more – I gained other things that I could never have imagined – a Board role for an amazing non-profit which supports homeless women – Dignity Matters, volunteer roles at my local food pantry & prison, more time with my wonderful family, reading great literature, writing, walking my dog and taking interesting courses to deepen my faith. It was only when I accepted God’s Plan B that I found the serenity and joy of every day life again. I had to be willing to trust God, not myself. I had to be willing to give up the life I thought I would live.

When my mom received her cancer diagnosis in 2016, it was not what she wanted. I can still see her face when she told me the results of her scans. But in the midst of her pain, Mom did not crumble. She embraced Plan B and lived the remaining 3 years of her life with joy and purpose. Of course she had days of despair – we all do. But she trusted in the God of love who wills the good of the other. She knew that she had nothing to fear. Neither do we. If you find yourself in the midst of an unwelcome change in life – embrace Plan B – God’s plan. Make it the best life you can by asking God to take the wheel. He will never steer you wrong.

Make Every Moment Count

The restaurant was bustling with holiday shoppers. Folks were standing in the doorway hoping to get a table. The air was crisp, cold and magical, lights were shining from every window – Christmastime in Boston. One could actually feel the surge of energy from the crowds shopping for treasures, stopping for dinner, or lining up for holiday traditions like the Nutcracker. I delighted in the splendor of it all, trying not to miss a moment of the magic which brought unabated joy to my grateful heart.

There are times in life when we simply take in the beauty all around us and willingly offer heartfelt gratitude and praise to God for the immense gift of the moment. This is how I felt on the evening of December 21, 2021 – my birthday – as I enjoyed a night out in Boston with my beautiful family. But then there are other moments in life when we are called to endure a more ordinary existence – devoid of glamour or overwhelming fun – and we are reminded to recall past moments of joy as a way to sustain us through life’s difficulties when perhaps we may not feel like thanking God for anything. Fr. Mike Schmitz of Ascension Press reminds us, “God’s providence is always at work – when we see it and when we don’t. As people of faith, we are challenged to always give praise to God.”

It was easy for me to be happy and feel grateful to God on an evening like my recent birthday, which was celebrated with love and style in Boston. But what about the rest of the year – when things are not as festive? Through the example of my beloved Mom, I believe that joyful memories can carry us through more challenging days when God’s presence may seem distant. Mom showed me that daily prayer during the normal days of life, helps us emerge stronger and more hopeful as women of faith. She used to tell me to make every moment count – the ordinary ones and the extraordinary ones saying, “Don’t waste time complaining, give thanks to God daily no matter what is happening in your life. He is always working things out even if you don’t understand it.

I slowly walked up to a seated gentleman eating alone as we were leaving the lovely Boston restaurant. Shopping bags were piled high on the booth across from where he was sitting. I smiled at him and said, “Excuse me sir, I could not help but notice that you are sitting alone on this festive evening and I wanted to say hello and offer you one of my birthday cupcakes.” He looked at me with a warm smile and responded, “Thank you so much! I am alone this Christmas. I am a health care worker and went home for Thanksgiving – my family lives far away – so I am working this Christmas.” We chatted awhile about his shopping purchases, his family and the delicious food at the restaurant. As I walked away, he bid me Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas saying, “Thank you for taking the time to say hello. That meant so much to me. You have a beautiful family.” I nodded in agreement and wished him a Merry Christmas.

I cherish the days of our recent Christmas holiday, having enjoyed all the special moments and outings with my family. But “ordinary life” was lurking in the shadows and came knocking on our door a few weeks later. Like many people, my family received vaccinations for the COVID-19 virus. This evil disease has taken the lives of too many good people across the world and we wanted to do our part to help stop the spread of it. Unfortunately, we were recently exposed to the Omicron variant and three out of four of us living at home tested positive. (Gracie is happy that she’s in CT by now.) Thanks to our vaccinations, we have suffered only mild symptoms, but it has still been an annoying and uncomfortable period of time – something that we certainly had not planned! On the surface, one might offer anger and frustration at this situation because despite our best planning, we still got sick. But I know better after years of suffering with a debilitating back disease that it could have been much worse!

God, in His mercy, did not want us to get this virus, but he has walked with my family during our week long quarantine and we have been provided with everything needed to rest, heal, and emerge stronger than before. Of course we have had to adjust our schedules and our lives but we didn’t have to leave our home or go to the hospital. We have nothing to complain about! This period of convalescence has been a time to give thanks and praise to God for the gift of being together (again) and for the fact that not one of us got seriously ill.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the gentleman from the Boston restaurant during this COVID quarantine, praying for his good health as he cares for patients in the midst of a pandemic. Meeting him was a blessed moment which I have gone back to in my mind during some of my lower moments this week. I keep thinking about his courage and positive attitude. It took quite a lot to dine alone during the holidays. In addition, he was so pleasant and grateful – not bitter for having to work over Christmas. God is so good and has a way of reminding us of our blessedness. Through the example of this stranger, I was reminded of my many blessings. It’s funny how that works out. I sought to offer kindness to a lonely person and in turn, he has inspired me in so many meaningful ways during a more difficult time. I wish I could tell him that he’s helped me but God’s grace knows no boundaries and somehow he will know what a blessing he is to others.

In the end, we are called to always trust in the providence of God – during good and tough times. We must choose to see the many beautiful moments in our lives as gifts from God and give thanks and praise to Him. Then when the chips are down – as they sometimes will be – we must reach deep into the well of our souls and pull out these little gems of beauty to help propel us forward in faith until the next beautiful moment comes along – as it always will.

He Sees You

In the midst of the chaos and shocking news of today’s world, I stopped for a brief moment to immerse myself in the sights and sounds of a ‘holy night.’ While the experience was quite different that I had anticipated, it was beautiful nonetheless and provided a much needed respite for my heart which has been deeply troubled due to the awful news of more school shootings and a new corona virus variant.

I realize that what we are facing today is not that different from what folks faced two-thousand, one-thousand and even five-hundred years ago. In every age and season, there has been strife, chaos and evil. Our response to this reality is what truly matters. God has always been present to his people – in the good and bad times. But do we call on him or try to go it alone? History has shown us that those who sought and followed the will of God had a much greater chance of navigating the storms of life with clarity, peace and success rather than those who did not. This doesn’t mean that life won’t deal us some difficult cards. It just means that we will have the grace to walk through the hard times with faith and trust if we keep our eyes on God.

Sometimes we might feel invisible when life is tough and things just don’t seem to be going as we had planned. But last night’s event reminded me that God always sees us! In the book of Genesis, a slave named Hagar was met by God at her lowest point in life. God met her in her pain and assured her that she was not alone. God encouraged her to trust in Him. So with this newfound confidence, Hagar returned to her life and bore a son named Ishmael. She gave God the name “El Roi“, which in Hebrew means, the God who sees me.

Do you believe that God sees you? Sometimes people can’t believe it because they don’t see or hear God clearly in the midst of their own busy lives and outward evidence seems to indicate that He is not there. But He is always there – behind the scenes, giving comfort, love and guidance to each one of us. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this to be true – even at the height of the horrendous race riots in twentieth century America. In his famous Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool sermon to congregants at a Chicago Baptist church on August 27, 1967 he said, “Don’t be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above.

Catholic biblical history reminds us that God is always present to his people. A recent Catholic Answers article shared the following, “God did not stop giving his word to individuals. Moreover, he did not stop inspiring Scripture then (during the time of Malachi to Matthew) any more than he did in other lulls. The view that corresponds to Scripture is the Catholic understanding of a God who gives revelation to man in all periods-even today, century after century.” While I appreciate this formal assurance, as a child I grew up *knowing* that God was always there for me by the way my mom prayed with me and my siblings. Mom had a way of bringing God into every season and situation of our lives. When life was tough, she taught us how to reach out to him in our pain. When life was good, she reminded us to thank him for our blessings. I most appreciate the many prayers, novenas and other Catholic traditions that she taught us. These precious treasures reside deep within my soul where I refer to them often. They formed the basis of my faith and led me on a journey to seek God in all things. Of course not all folks have the gift of a Mom like Joan Mary, thus it is up to each one of us to share our faith generously, with love.

God does indeed see each one of us. As evidence of his incredible love for us, God actually did something so outrageous that it is hard to comprehend. He became one of us. And this didn’t happen in a grand and glorious way, rather, it came about in the most humble of circumstances. His father Joseph probably had to clear the animal droppings from the stable ground so he could make a “clean bed” for his mother Mary to rest on after riding for days on an uncomfortable, dirty donkey. His parents were unwelcome immigrants in a strange land with no one to help them find shelter or prepare for a new baby. His first place to rest was a filthy manger which was used to feed barn animals. Can you imagine it? He did all of this for you and me because he sees us. He sees us in our poverty, in our loneliness and in our brokenness because he has willingly been there and experienced it himself.

There is so much to pray for in this modern world – school shootings and a global pandemic. But the good news is that we are not alone. As Dr. King said, “there is a God who rules above.” And he is working things out behind the scenes through people like you, me, my beloved heavenly mom and the late Dr. King. He invites us to engage the world with all the gifts that we’ve been blessed with in order to bring about goodness, change and light for those most in need. And like Hagar found out, He sees us. Give All Glory to God!

You Decide

As I pushed my overflowing cart full of stuff through the narrow aisle, something got in my way. I became annoyed at the slow moving couple in front of me. I desperately wanted to go around them but there was no where to go with all the Christmas merchandise jammed onto the shelves, so I simply took a deep breath until I reached the store exit. When I did, my annoyance turned to shame as I watched an elderly gentleman slowly help his aging wife with her coat. It was quite an effort but with patient love, the task was completed in a most dignified way.

I walked out of the store feeling ashamed of my impatience and haste. I had almost missed a beautiful moment – a Christmas moment of hope, when the infant Jesus’ birth becomes real through a profound act of love.

Walking through the woods near my home provides me with an opportunity to quietly enter into a conversation with God about all the things going on in my life. As I travel along the winding paths, I hear his voice in my heart through the rustle of the tall trees, the crunch of the leaves upon my feet, and the whistle of the wind between the nooks and crannies of an uninhabited place of beauty. It is here where I am most able to offer myself to him along with my best intentions for living the life he created me to live. Unfortunately, I am not always able to fulfill my promises when I return to the real world with it’s many issues and problems. This sincerely frustrates me. Everyday issues like constant back pain, a late teenager or an overwhelmingly busy schedule can test my patience and cause me to act less than ideal.

But my encounter with the elderly couple made me pause and really think about how I could do better in my day to day existence. Their simple act of love and patience in the midst of a chaotic shopping center was an example for not only me but all of us who struggle with patience sometimes. The thing that stood out to me is that they made a choice to prioritize each other – thus patience came naturally when love was the order of the day. When we love another, like this couple, I suppose that we are less likely to be impatient or skeptical. We are more willing to give freely from all we have and put the good of that person before our own. God gives us free will so the choice is up to us. We must make a decision to be patient and loving – especially in situations that are frustrating and annoying. This is the real test for all of us – especially during the busy Christmas season. Will we decide to make the right decision?

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:14

Perhaps we can challenge ourselves during the month of December to really think about living with more love and patience (as my beloved mom always did). Maybe if we pray first, our actions will be more pleasing to us and those around us. Bishop Barron shared the importance of being patient, “St. James reminds us that an essential element of the Christian life is waiting. As the farmer waits for the precious yield of the earth, so the believer waits while Christ does his mysterious work in the world. Thus we must learn the virtue of patient expectation.” As we await the birth of the infant babe born on a frigid winter night, let us choose to do so with an increase of love and patience. Our renewed hearts will therefore welcome the Prince of Peace in a new and beautiful way on Christmas Day. Happy Advent everyone.

A Burden can become a Blessing

The glow of the afternoon sun against the green autumn meadow took my breath away. The scene was like something out of a dream – beautiful, silent and a bit mysterious. I had unexpectedly stopped at a hidden trail on my drive home from a physical therapy appointment. The sun and warm air on this perfect September day caused me to indulge in an unplanned excursion which in turn allowed me to ease my weary back and appreciate the amazing beauty all around me.

Walking along the trail was magical. The air was warm, the grounds were lush and there wasn’t a person in sight. I wondered how I had gotten so lucky as to enjoy this outing without any distractions from other walkers, runners or dogs. Once I accepted my good fortune I decided not to put in my air pods. I felt a stirring in my heart to just listen to the sounds of nature in addition to the longings in my heart. Looking back, I believe it was a whisper from God who wanted me to take time just to be quiet.

Many of us have experienced difficulties in our lives – still do today and will in the future. These trials come in various forms, big and small, but are stressful, nonetheless. Most of the time, we look at life’s challenges as annoyances, burdens, misfortunes and even crosses. In the midst of these unexpected problems – we often lack perspective, contentment and joy. Sadly, I’ve succumbed to this type of unhelpful attitude when life has gotten tough. But something has been happening to me over the past few years that has caused my thinking on suffering and pain to change. This didn’t happen overnight or all of a sudden, rather it has been a gradual conversion taking place in my heart and mind.

My new physical therapist said something unexpected, “No matter how the procedure turns out, I am sure you will be okay based on your good attitude.” I looked at him questioningly and he continued, “It is clear from our conversation that you do everything you can to make the best of your bad back. I admire that…you are living. If this new procedure helps ease your pain, all the better.” It is amazing what some people see in us versus what we see in ourselves. Three years ago when I reluctantly retired from my career due to debilitating back pain following numerous spine surgeries and procedures, I felt like a failure. Looking back, I have begun to realize that I am not a failure rather a struggling survivor willing to embrace new opportunities and challenges. Sometimes the thing you think is a burden, can become a blessing in disguise.

A few years ago, my life was off kilter. I was so busy trying to do everything perfectly that I lost sight of my reasons for living. Even though I prayed and thought I was being faithful, I was too caught up in myself as the person who could make all things better during the storms of life like my mom’s cancer diagnosis and my back surgeries all in the midst of a busy household of three kids, two working parents and one dog. Looking back, I see that I was too attached to my busy schedule and many responsibilities and not to God thus my life remained off balance.

In the gospel story of sisters Martha and Mary, Jesus tells anxious Martha that faithful Mary has chosen the better way, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41-42) Pope Francis’ insights on this gospel are helpful, “Why then was Martha scolded, even if kindly, by Jesus? Because she considered only what she was doing to be essential; she was too absorbed and worried by the things ‘to do.’ For a Christian, works of service and charity are never detached from the principle of all our action: that is, listening to the Word of the Lord, being—like Mary—at the feet of Jesus, with the attitude of a disciple. And that is why Martha was scolded.”

Nowadays, since my “forced” retirement, I tend to my back by participating in healing programs and activities which help me to manage the pain. I spend time with my beautiful husband, children, and family, serve in volunteer capacities which utilize my professional background and heartfelt passions, and read a lot including classic literature which I somehow overlooked in my youth. I’ve also delved deeply into the study of my Catholic faith by taking numerous online courses and reading masterpieces like The Confessions and Orthodoxy. This major change in my schedule has allowed me to grow in knowledge about things which matter deeply to me. It has made me appreciate and give thanks for the faith which was handed down to me by my beloved parents. I now understand that this precious time of family, solitude, study, prayer and reflection would not have been possible if I had not had to retire from my career due to my bad back. The burden has become a blessing.

I have no idea what this next procedure will reveal – less pain, more independence, or not? I can only trust God’s will and choose to look at all the blessings in my life rather than the challenges. Folks reading this may be grappling with various difficulties. As someone who has endured a few, I would offer just a little advice based on my own experience of falling flat on my face quite a few times. Please be kind to yourself when life is hard. Ask for help. If things are tough, take a step back and try to see if something deeper is going on. Then pull on your rain boots and pray your way through the storm. God will never abandon you. He will always walk with you and perhaps he will lead you to a *better* place in life through the suffering. It’s not easy and we each have to follow our own path. In the meantime, please remember that a burden can become a blessing.

Love, Pray, Let Go

When he got out of his car I was taken aback. I did not expect to see such a young man. He was tall and handsome, reminding me of my older brother when he was a young man of the same age. “I am here to see Jennifer.” he said. I poked my head out of the local food pantry and greeted him with a smile. “Hello, thank you so much for coming. You are a huge help to us today.” He responded with a kindness and warmth that I had not experienced from a young person in some time. Intent on letting me know that he took this volunteer opportunity seriously, he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t pick up on your first call, I didn’t recognize the number.” We proceeded to discuss the grocery deliveries, the procedures, and drop off locations. As he loaded the heavy bags into his car he continued to chat with me. After a few minutes, things were ready and he drove away with a wave of his arm out the open car window. As I watched him turn the corner out of sight I thought, “there goes a terrific young man who is making this world a better place. His parents must be proud.”

With another school year approaching, I have been thinking a lot about my children. I can’t believe that this is the last year when I will have a child in high school. It seems like only yesterday when I was walking my oldest into her first day of kindergarten at our beloved little school, Milford Catholic Elementary School. I can still see her round cheeks, short pigtails, and plaid jumper with the white peter pan collar peeking out. Then, as if in a flash, she is working for a Fortune 500 company by day and studying for her MBA at night. I am nostalgic and proud at the same time.

When my children were small, I distinctly recall two important women in my life reminding me not to “wish these years away”. Both my mom and mother-in-law wanted me to cherish the moments when my children were young and growing up under our roof. At the time, I don’t think I took their advice as seriously as I wish I had. Life was chaotic with three small children and often overwhelming back then. I recall not having enough hands to accomplish what I needed to do in a day and I would silently hope that things would get easier when the children were older. Now I am the mother of older children – two mature college grads (one moved out!) and I can assure you that I’d go back to those early days in the blink of an eye.

As mothers, we want our children to always be loved, safe and happy. When they grow up and move on in life, we lose our ability to really know that they are okay – I’ve learned that I can’t control their future. All I can really do is pray, have faith in God’s goodness and trust that the good things my husband and I taught them as children will stick with them throughout their lives. As parents, it is our responsibility to teach our children to love all people and to live virtuously with good morals. I believe that it is equally important to teach children to know and love God and to place Him at the center of their lives. This alone will help them succeed in life and find lasting happiness, no matter what may come their way in the future. Folks go about this in different ways and there is no perfect method. My husband and I did our best to make God the center of our home by sending our children to Catholic schools so they could learn about their faith and by making weekly Mass a regular time to pause and thank God for his many blessings. When life got tough, as it always does, we tried to show our children that there was no magic pill; only faith, hope, and love would get our family through the difficult times and help us build stronger relationships with each other. Looking back, I am sure we could have done things differently, and probably better, but I am at peace knowing that we gave our very best to our children daily.

As an older mom, I have discovered that the single best thing I can do for my children now is to pray for them. In my youth as a mom, I didn’t have the wisdom or experience to realize that this effort of pouring out my heart’s desires to God for their well-being can make a huge difference in their lives. Thankfully, God allowed me to stumble enough times to realize that if there ever was a magic pill, prayer is it. St. Monica, whose feast day we just celebrated, is the model for all concerned, devoted mothers. She prayed persistently for her wayward son Augustine. It wasn’t until St. Augustine was over the age of 30 that he finally became the man God had created him to be – thanks to the fervent, relentless prayers of his loving mother. Children will walk their own path, and may even take a few detours that we might not like, but we can’t ever give up praying for them. God will see them through the tough times and bring them back to Him. My beloved mom taught me this and it is a role that I take quite seriously.

Thinking back to my afternoon encounter with the young man at the food pantry, I wondered what his upbringing was like. Did his mom worry about him? His dad? I’ll never know the answers to these questions, but it’s not important. What I do know is that he is a kind and thoughtful young person who was taught well. And like most of our children, he makes his parents proud by choosing to do good in the world. His mom doesn’t have to worry about him at all. But alas, she probably does and always will. Nobody’s perfect.

It’s all how You Look at it

The entrance to the trail looked inviting. The sun shone bright, casting long shadows through lush pine trees onto the sandy ground below. The path ahead seemed good for walking in sturdy sneakers. All appeared perfect for a long morning hike. Before I set out, I noticed only one other car in the wooded parking lot which caused my heart to stir. But the summer sun beckoned me forward so I ventured out into the morning light. I walked silently for quite awhile, appreciating the sheer beauty of my surroundings. After some time though, I noticed that my heart had begun to beat rapidly. I kept thinking about that single car in the parking lot and wondering, “is there danger ahead?” I tried to put this negative thought out of my mind considering the safety of my location on Cape Cod, but it was too late – I had already convinced myself that being out on the trail was a bad idea. I immediately turned around and swiftly walked back the way I came. Throughout the rest of the day and into the next, I kept wondering what had happened to cause me to become so fearful in the midst of such beauty?

Memories of special family moments on Cape Cod flood my mind with gratitude every time I drive over the familiar Bourne Bridge. On a recent July weekend my Dad and I set out to accomplish a few chores before enjoying dinner at a nearby harbor restaurant. Like most parents, Dad wanted some assistance with his computer. As we combed through his online address book, a name popped up which I didn’t recognize. Questioning him I said, “Who is this person?” He smiled, paused, then proceeded to tell me about the woman with the curious name. “She is the coordinator of the cooking program at the Noah Shelter in Hyannis. Mom cooked meals for the clients twice a month and we dropped the food off together at this gal’s home.” His response caught me off guard and brought big tears to my eyes as I thought about my loving Mom preparing delicious dishes for folks in need.

It was good to spend time talking quietly with Dad about Mom’s positive outlook on life. Her faith was a key ingredient to living a calm, optimistic “others centered” life which propelled her happily forward each day – even during the years in which she battled terminal cancer. It was also a good reminder that Mom did not live in fear. I think it was due to her deep love of our Lord! God’s love conquers every fear and breaks the power of evil in our midst. Mom knew this, which is why she always prioritized her relationship with Him – even when she was unwell.

When I walk my little dog Hannah, I like to listen to interesting lectures, podcasts and prayers. The other day, as I was slowly returning from a long walk, deeply focused on the podcast playing in my ears, I caught sight of an elderly neighbor. This gentleman lost his wife several years ago and he often sits quietly in his opened garage to watch the activity go by each day. He is a veteran, father and local townsman whom I’ve admired for years for his kindness. I didn’t really feel like stopping, I was experiencing a lot of back pain and just wanted to get home to my heating pad but something made me walk up his driveway. Hannah ran straight up to him as if he was a familiar face and wagged her tail happily when he pet her. He smiled and proceeded to chat with me for quite awhile. We spoke about his wife and memories of their lives together in Holliston. All the while, Hannah kept coming over to him in gentle ways, letting him know that he mattered. I looked around his garage and could see evidence of a life well lived – photos, awards and memorabilia from his military days. His life is different now – but he still smiles and seems to be grateful for his little piece of paradise in our small town. As I turned to leave, I promised to visit again. I also realized that I had forgotten all about the pain in my back for just a few minutes. What a gift it is to give yourself to others – Mom was right.

A friend once shared that fear is an absence of the good. Since God is all good – fear must be an absence of God. I thought this definition seemed accurate because whenever I am fearful, I notice that it’s when I forget to pray or trust in Him. My Mom demonstrated Divine trust and looked at life with eyes of faith when she cooked for friends in need during her trial with cancer. My elderly neighbor also looks at life with optimism as he is content allowing others to come to him in the golden years of his life. He could look at his situation with negativity but instead, he blesses all of us who have a chance to interact with him.

Thinking back to my Cape Cod hike, I resolved not give in to fear the next time I have a chance to enjoy the beauty of nature on my own. Perhaps my painful back contributed to my fearful attitude but that’s no excuse. Pope Benedict XVI helped me to realize that God is always looking out for us. He sees us! He shared these beautiful thoughts on Psalm 23, “He (God) tends them, looks after them as precious possessions, ready to defend them, to guarantee their well-being and enable them to live a peaceful life. They can lack nothing as long as the shepherd is with them. Those who walk with the Lord even in the dark valleys of suffering, doubt and all the human problems, feel safe.” We need live with eyes of faith – seeing, trusting and believing that all will be well.

Psalm 23, A psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Can You Drink the Cup?

I remember the day as if it was only yesterday. It was summertime, she arrived with a homemade dinner and her signature warm smile. She had driven over an hour from Cape Cod which was a miracle given her chemo and radiation treatments at the time. Somehow, she just willed herself to come the distance. I was recovering from a second major back surgery in only nine months and struggling with great pain and anguish. She knew this. Her presence that day was not meant to “fix” my pain, merely to enter into the suffering with me. She realized that the most significant thing she could do in the midst of my misery was to be present to me. As a Christian, she followed the path set before her by Him – something she had always done throughout her life.

I’ve been listening to several fascinating talks and podcasts lately. One in particular struck a chord deep within my soul – a lecture on caring for the soul through human formation. The participants spoke about the impact of suffering on the growth and development of the human person. To loosely summarize the hour-long discussion, the speakers said “we cannot get clarity of vision in life without having had an opportunity to suffer in some way. The sufferings in our lives help to burn away all the worldly clutter which prevents us from seeing clearly and living a life of authentic Christian love.” I thought these conclusions were spot on and also encouraging given my current struggle with chronic pain.

Suffering can take on the appearance of many real emotions – young moms feeling overwhelmed, teens feeling depressed, young adults feeling anxious, working moms/dads feeling exhausted, grieving folks feel sorrowful, sick people feeling burdened and the elderly feeling lonely. But sadly, I have discovered that most people today shy away from discussions on any type of suffering. We have evolved to a place where everything in this earthly life is supposed to appear perfect and beautiful. On social media, people post only the best photos showing a happy life – not the ones presenting the normal struggles of regular life. This shallow focus on the individual and her perfect world has led us down a tragic path where we are not able or willing to see the value of suffering – which actually helps to develop and refine a soul in search of truth.

In his course titled; From Books to Ballads: How Great Writers Form Wise Catholics, Dr. Tod Worner reminded me of the value of reading great books of the past. He said, “Reading great literature helps us to learn how to bear one another’s burdens. Great literature cultivates the moral imagination. We are reminded of who we are and who we are called to be – humble evangelists of God’s truth; earnest defenders of the permanent things.”

I’ve discovered something important in the writings of historical authors like Dostoyevsky and Dante. Through their literature, they have demonstrated that beauty and goodness are born from an experience of suffering. Each of these author’s clarity of vision in their stories has come from a personal experience of suffering. Through reading masterpieces like The Brothers Karamazov and The Divine Comedy, we can too can gain clarity of vision and better understand what truly matters in our own lives.

Many great Catholic Saints like Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day have gained clarity of vision from their own personal trials. They’ve united their own sufferings to God who has shown them the path to lasting joy. When we perform simple acts of love every day, we take the focus off of ourselves and thus draw our souls closer to God. This effort has a way of refocussing our vision on what matters most in life.(Like my mom’s visit to my home when she was sick.) When our Lord encountered suffering, he showed compassion and presence to his friends – like at the death of Lazarus. Jesus truly saw people who suffered – like the Samaritan woman at the well – and He promised her that he would be with her always. Sometimes that is all we can do, accompany our suffering friends with our love and our presence. When we do this, we offer them something valuable – the gift of ourselves. By giving to others, we forget about our own pain for awhile. Over time, this process of giving cleanses our souls and elevates us to a higher union with God thus opening up our hearts to lasting joy.

As I think back to that warm summer day when my beautiful mom arrived for a visit after my back surgery, I smile with an abundance of gratitude. Mom always had a way of making me feel better. Since her passing almost 5 years ago, I have tried to carry on her legacy of love, especially when I don’t feel like it due to pain. Learning from her heroic example, drawing on the lives of beautiful saints and reading timeless literature where I see myself in extraordinary stories spanning generations – I am able to press on in faith, one day at a time. I think we are all called to do that. If you have suffering in your life, don’t despair. Use it as a gift to draw closer to Christ, to help someone who is in more need than yourself. You may find that your life is transformed in beautiful, unexpected ways.

Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 

Matthew 20:22

Eat Local

We were eager to hit the road. I had no idea what to expect when we headed west for a 3-day college tour. Our little group consisted of my son who ate anything but healthy food, my recent college grad who is allergic to dairy and me. Friends know that food is something I love but unfortunately does not always love me back. After years of battling upset stomaches, hives and much worse, I have settled upon a gluten and dairy free diet which seems to suit me well. Needless to say, I never expected to encounter delicious, safe food in the land of the Bisons, Hawks and Royals.

We arrived in rain soaked Bethlehem, Pennsylvania late on Monday night feeling weary and hungry. The drive had been long due to the bad weather and my attentive driver, Emma Rose, was keen for a satisfying dinner. (I was eager to rest my aching back and eat something tasty so take-out seemed like our best option.) Emma’s good friend, a recent Lehigh graduate, recommended a local restaurant which we decided to try. (Always seek restaurant recommendations from folks who have lived in the area which you are traveling to – it makes all the difference!) We placed our order at Urbano – an eclectic little Mexican place on a side street in downtown Bethlehem. Emma and I decided on Brown Rice Bowls with roasted chicken, fresh veg, plump tomatoes, crisp lettuce and homemade guacamole – incredibly delicious. Emma added grilled onions and peppers to her dish for a little added flavor. Andrew was excited that he could order Mexican Voodoo Jambalaya at the same place as our “boring” rice bowls. This dish did not disappoint in both taste and spice – he loved every bite and cleaned his plate. What a great local find and perfect for our first meal on the road.

After a rainy yet fruitful tour of Lehigh University, we were itching for a good cup of coffee. (The bland hotel coffee never satisfies…) Our oatmeal breakfast bowls, which we brought from home and filled with hot water at the hotel, were not sustaining us after a two hour walk thus we were also on the hunt for something appetizing to eat. We headed toward our next destination – Lafayette University, where Emma found an amazing local coffee shop in Easton. We had some time to waste before the next tour so we settled into a corner table with our MacBooks and flavored iced coffees recommended by the personable barista. The place had something for everyone -gourmet egg and cheese sandwiches, vegan dishes and even super smoothies. The menu was written in festive colors on the wall behind the counter with specials circled in bright white chalk.

While Andrew took a nap in the car, we ordered him a Breakfast Burrito with sausage. Emma and I enjoyed our coffee while deciding what to eat for lunch. She ended up with a Greenulina Smoothie which was evidently one of the best she’s ever had. I was hesitant to order anything different as we still had another tour and I didn’t want to feel sick. I settled on a Vegan Vegetable wrap and was overjoyed at the result. The gal didn’t have any typical gluten free wraps so she used a warmed corn arepa as the base and piled creamy hummus, bright avocado, ripe tomatoes and crisp peppers on top! It was a beautiful presentation of colors and flavors made with kindness. I plan to remake the recipe at home using the arepa because it was just SO tasty. Finding local eateries is a great way to meet people in an unfamiliar town. You can really get a flavor of a place by the way the locals treat their visitors.

Our goal on this trip was to avoid all chain restaurants but on Tuesday night we were desperate. By the time we arrived in Lewisburg, our little group was exhausted. We hit the hotel about 6 pm and asked for local food recommendations. They didn’t have much so we settled on a Panera, which was just okay. Salads for Emma and me, Mac and Cheese for Andrew. It was the best we could do given the situation. Sometimes you have to break your own rules.

After a wonderful tour of Bucknell on Wednesday morning, Emma found yet another fabulous coffee spot & cafe which served delicious food! Andrew took a nap again in the car while Emma and I enjoyed the atmosphere of the local place sitting outside in the sun among the regulars which included university professors and students. In typical small town fashion, the shop owners were incredibly accommodating and took pains to adjust my order to fit a gluten dairy free diet. The result was outstanding – a delicious dish of fluffy scrambled eggs atop toasted gluten free bread with ripe avocado on the side. This was a breakfast treat that I truly enjoyed. Emma delighted in her breakfast wrap which included farm fresh eggs, crispy home fries, fresh avocado and spicy chipotle mayo.

After two full days of touring, we were getting restless. As the car sped east along Route 80 we belted out songs like You’re the One that I Love, Country Roads and Hey Jude – this gave us the energy needed for one last stop. The scenery in this part of PA was simply beautiful – soaring valleys, expansive green fields and picturesque farms and pastures. Emma kept a steady speed of 75 mph passing all the big trucks and we arrived an hour early for our appointment. We thankfully received a private tour of University of Scranton from a terrific young man and when it ended, we were ready for a refreshment. Before jumping onto the highway, we stopped at another local spot for iced coffees and snacks. The gals at the counter were so accommodating and happy to open a new carton of Oat Milk for my coffee. I found homemade cookies for Andrew and a dairy free bar for Emma. It was such a cute place.

Looking back, I learned quite a bit on this this little road trip – and not just from the informative college tours. At each local spot we visited, I met friendly, thoughtful people. I may never see these folks again but each one brought a little bit of love into my life. As someone who battles food allergies and chronic back pain – I found joy from eating delicious food made by caring people who demonstrated something quite important in this world – kindness and love for a stranger. These folks gave their best to an unknown who in turn tried to pass on their good will to those in her midst. I think this is the best education we can get anywhere!

Shine Bright Middle Child

The pandemic has caused many folks to refrain from the once familiar family gathering. The carefree atmosphere and simple joys of these occasions may become a thing of the past if we are not mindful of their importance in our lives. As people made in the image of God, we are created to live in community with one another – our human flourishing depends on it. Being isolated and alone – having no one to laugh with or celebrate with is not something any of us want to become the norm. My family gratefully cheered the development and mass roll out of a vaccine to combat the deadly COVID virus – folks can once again stand shoulder to shoulder in relative safety. This is good news for individuals in our society as we can finally get out from behind our personal computers and interact with real people in larger groups. We were eager to take advantage of this incredible reality and renew our commitment to one other, so on an early summer weekend in June my family gathered to celebrate two milestone occasions in the lives of two special people.

The day dawned bright and warm for family members traveling near and far to our New England home. We were excited to welcome everyone together for a celebration of my Dad’s birthday and my daughter Emma’s graduation from Loyola University. It had been quite a challenging year for many in our resilient family thus the gift of being together was not lost on any one of us. As the celebrations began, Dad was quick to point out that all attention should be given to the graduate over himself. While we appreciated his humility in the matter, this was one instance when we could not “honor thy father’s wishes.” We toasted a wonderful man who has overcome recent obstacles while staying true to his love of family. After birthday songs and gifts for our beloved dad, we turned our gaze to the young woman of the hour – our dear Emma Rose.

Many, including myself, have described Emma as a bright light who has shined in some of the darkest moments of recent life. It was fitting then, that we were able to appropriately celebrate her achievements over the past four years in our very first family gathering after the pandemic. Her Loyola graduation a few weeks ago was COVID strict and sadly did not include many of the beautiful elements of a university celebration. It was our intent then to make this family get-together a personal celebration of accomplishment and honor for a person who devoted herself to achieving something more in college and in life.

The following words are from a toast I gave to Emma on the day of our family party.

I recall Emma moving home in March of her junior year when the pandemic hit. Instead of being angry, she was thoughtful and understanding, thinking more of those dying from this horrific disease than of her own inconvenience and disappointment about having her junior year cut short. This type of attitude describes well how Emma approaches challenges in life. She has always been an empathetic, curious young person, hungry for wisdom – with a desire to understand and really know. I think this is why she began her college career as a Biology major and ended it as a double major in Political Science and English with an unofficial minor in French (which she’ll use in her new job at a BioTech company in Boston, whose headquarters are in Paris!) Graduating cum laude from the Honors Program, Emma has always sought greatness, pushing herself to new heights of achievement. She’s been inspired to excel by the heroic lives of her grandparents, Joe and Joan Powers and Bob and Sue Schiller who always set a beautiful example of holiness and happiness for her to follow. Joan and Bob watch over her lovingly from heaven now and we are blessed to still have Joe and Sue as constant mentors in her every day life.

What is most important though, is the person that Emma has become. Folks can have all the honor and accolades in the world, but without love, we have nothing. Emma knows this truth and lives it every day of her life. She was known as one of the kindest kids on her college campus. Nominated by her peers (in a class of 900) for the Cura Personalis Award, which is granted to the Loyola Senior who embodies the Jesuit value of Care for the entire human person in all their relationships, Emma has always shown kindness to every person she meets. During her four years at Loyola, she tutored young children in the city of Baltimore as part of the CCSJ (Center for Community & Justice), mentored underclassmen who were seeking clarity on their major as the President of Pathfinders, and raised money to support impoverished kids in Haiti through a non-profit led by her French teacher. The unrest in Haiti kept her group from traveling to the country for service but Emma remained committed to the cause regardless. These outreach efforts are the things which Peter and I are most proud of above anything else. Kindness and love trump worldly honors and accomplishments any day and Emma lives these important virtues with ease.

Finally, Peter and I wish only happiness and success for our dear Emma Rose as she embarks on the next chapter in her journey of life. In the gospel reading from her Baccalaureate Mass, from Matthew chapter 5, Jesus said “You are the light of the world, A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”  Fr. Linnane, SJ, President of Loyola University, encouraged the 2021 graduates, “A Loyola University education is about gaining knowledge and character to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others in the world. Go bring your light to the world.

Go Emma Rose! We can’t wait to see how bright you shine!”