Worth Revisiting: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

What is a church to be? Is it a place for the faithful who gather on a given Sunday, who come to offer up their private prayers and praise and then go their separate ways? Or rather, is it to be a home, a collective community who together in Christ is much stronger than its individual members? Throughout our life we witness numerous understandings of what it is to be church. Deep down we know and desire more  for our time together and yet we settle for less.

As a young child some of my earliest memories are from my time spent in God’s house, among those that both had a clear grasp of what it was to be church and those that clearly had no idea. In a small town of approximately 5,000 people my grandmother’s church, though one of the largest, certainly wasn’t without competition in this strongly church going community. So then, what was it that drew the faithful young and old on Sunday, and kept them returning throughout the week? Well, quite simply it was the way they embodied Christ and tangibly conveyed the reality of family.

Donning a handmade sundress and black patent shoes, I excitedly got ready to make the 30 minute drive to my see my grandma, attend church and enjoy lunch together afterwards. Walking in the doors, though not a member, I wasn’t considered a stranger but instead welcomed as family. Each man, woman, or child standing there wasn’t doing so out of obligation but considered it a privilege to get to know each person that came in for worship that day. Each time was an inclusive acceptance of my presence, without judgement or expectation.

Contrast that with the church that I would more often attend in my own hometown at the tender age of 6. Significantly larger, it had become a numbers game with numerous cliques that would gather in different sections to discuss politics, events, and also one another. While my mother and I were members, we truly didn’t feel as if we ever were. Rather than welcoming us in, as a divorced single parent, my mom suffered the judgmental stares and awkward silences . So while we came hoping for community what we experienced instead was far from it. Our Sunday experience became a time for us to privately pray and praise though surrounded by a multitude.

To varying degrees, you may have witnessed either of these examples. More often than not, we may attend church and glimpse snip-its of community wondering how to connect. Here, where the desired relationship is not immediately accessible we ourselves may have to reach out initially. Perhaps conscious of my own experience, I have made a point of introducing myself and my family when we attend Mass at a different church, even though I am just visiting. It isn’t though I expect to be treated differently, but I am modeling what community should be for everyone.

This understanding of community even extends to our common interactions in the supermarket, gym, and local coffee shop. Keep in mind, your  “Hello, how are you today?” might just lead to someone reconsidering returning to or feeling a part of church that Sunday. Just the other day, when picking up my morning brew, I was given such a gift of conversation with a parishioner whose face I thought I had seen but never met. Now I know his name is Alex… and it all started with “So good to see you again!”.

Reflect:

As I look around my own parish, where could we be better representatives of the body of Christ? How am I extending a welcoming presence at church, and within my community?

Peace,

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Necessary and Indispensable

“Three things are necessary for everyone: truth of faith which brings understanding,
love of Christ which brings compassion, and endurance of hope which brings perseverance. ”  St. Bonaventure

Given the recent turmoil in the church, these last few weeks have been challenging to say the least. Conversations ensued revolving around what hasn’t been done, what should be done and who’s to blame in this crisis. Wounds that had healed in part have been reopened and the hurt and broken trust now visible once again. Especially in a community that went through the worst of it in 2002 with two of the most notable priests having led the flock.

Even personally, I had questions too. How could we not have learned as the universal church from hard fought battles of the past? If you, as leadership, witnessed the effects of what transpired in Boston, Ireland and elsewhere why wouldn’t an investigation within each diocese occur?  Sins incurred do not go away simply because we close our eyes and change cannot occur if cannot face the truth. Shameful and egregious wrongs  must be addressed for healing and trust to return.

Am I angry? Absolutely! This is the church that I love- it is the faith that I chose and that also chose me. Yet, my faith does not rest solely on the actions of man, even holy men, but on Christ.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Cor. 3:5-9

As such, it cannot be shaken for my hope is in God knowing that he has called each one of us to witness to his truth and love in this broken world. We are not, however, left alone. With his Word and Spirit to guide and the Eucharist as our strength together we walk onward allowing God to rebuild us as a people. We need only look to thousands of years of tradition to see that this would not be the first time. Yet, this begins today and with each one of us.

What can we do?

Pray. I cannot emphasize enough how important this first step is. For how can we be the body of Christ in the world, his holy church, if our actions are not discerned and directed by prayer? And by prayer I mean not just tossing up a “God please fix the present circumstances”, but continually spending time with God to learn His ways rather than relying on our own. Consider adoration. It is an incredible time to listen to what God has to say, and to allow him to move your heart, mind and soul to the work ahead.

Fast.  Why fast you may ask, when the sins committed were not ours personally? First, fasting is both a way of expressing our sorrow and also to seek clarity. Secondly, our faith is not a solitary one. Every sin or injury to the body of Christ is felt by the whole. We also take responsibility in calling one another to holiness beginning with each one of us. God will raise holy men and women to be saints- and the time is now.

Work. No place to sit on the sidelines here. We are being asked to step into the messy and difficult tasks ahead. This may be to listen to a friend, co-worker or family member who simply needs to vent or is seriously considering leaving the church. It could also be explaining to others why you choose to stay. Maybe, you feel called to write to your pastor, bishop, cardinal or Pope Francis to speak to this issue requesting further measures be taken as I have done. Yet whatever you do- please do not despair. For, though “We are hard pressed on every side, (we are ) not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Cor. 4:8-9

Today I pray, fast, and work albeit willing to fight for this Church that I call home. Join me and countless others!

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: The Scent of Her Presence

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“An awareness of smells can illuminate our present. It can help us live more mindfully and gracefully. It can help us recognize that God’s goodness saturates the world, in scents that are both obvious and subtle.”

Ginny Kubitz Moyer, Taste and See ( Loyola Press)

Early morning dew, the scent of grateful peonies and roses greet me.
The aroma of homemade strawberry rhubarb and blackberry pies cooling midday meet me.
Nighttime breezes carrying a day well spent at play, leave me ..the promise of yet another summer day in the South.

My Grandmother’s house was my favorite place to be as a child, particularly in the summertime.  What might appear as lacking in structure or activity, each day was abundant in hidden treasures that could only be discovered by a slower pace and ready spirit. All this I too might have missed had I not been seeking- albeit anticipating- God’s respondent grace and presence. Grandma’s hard work in the garden wafted through her small home as she baked and canned the fruits of each day’s gifts. Receiving the present she also prepared for the future, when these would not be as easily gathered. Mindful also that nothing given should ever be wasted.

Indeed, there are so many indelible memories forever tied to the smells of my childhood spent with my Grandma. Sunday mornings brought an even more unique scent- as my Grandma readied herself for church service. Not accustomed to wearing makeup or perfume during the week, grandma was on this day a delightful combination of Ivory soap, Jergens lotion, Covergirl makeup and Emeraude perfume. How I loved this smell, so much so that I would take it all in as I cuddled close before church. Infused with the understanding that Sunday’s were intended to be special, she put forth her best for God.

Many years later I would smell that smell once again, over 1, 400 miles apart. Then 33 and in my third trimester I could not travel as she feel seriously ill this time. My heart was nonetheless with her, and almost without pause I found myself praying for her throughout the day.

“Lord let her know how very much I love her, let her know that though I cannot be there in person that I am truly beside her. If I could carry her as she carried me all these years, I would.”

God heard my prayer, and knew the close bond he had established between us would not end in death. Only moments before the phone rang, God gave me an otherwise inexplicable gift-my Grandmother visited me. In the shower, I suddenly and overwhelming experienced the all enveloping scent and presence of my Grandmother. It was all around me, permeating every space with love and memories. As tears of joy and grief streamed down my face, I said my goodbyes- for now, fully embracing the gift of being with her again. Profoundly aware that God was allowing me to experience this sacred moment of my Grandmother’s passing from this world to the next.

Then just as suddenly as she had come, she was gone. Though I tried to recover the scent for an instant, I knew that she was no longer there. As the phone rang, with my cousin who had been sitting with her in these last few moments on the line, I knew her words before they were spoken.

“Liz, Grandma just left us..”
“I know..she was here..and just left too.”

I then shared with her how I knew and the unbelievable love that I had felt in these last moments.Together we cried tears of joy for the gifts given to be with our grandmother all these years. Though eleven years have now passed- the fond memories of growing up through every season infused with the scent of her presence will forever remain, evidence of the world unseen .

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: 31 Days of St. Ignatius

31 Days with Saint IgnatiusThis month Loyola Press is inviting each of us to “discover the riches of Ignation Spirituality”  This celebration culminates on July 31st on the feast day of St. Ignatius. So please  join me along with other Catholic bloggers and authors these 31 days of St. Ignatius, for a month long Ignatian feast !

Today’s challenge:

What is it to truly fall in love? If not with the Author of love itself? Read the excerpt below and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and inner movements of gratitude for the gifts God has given. Afterwards ask yourself, Were there people or things that I had previously overlooked or even taken for granted in my day?

Fall in Love

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

 Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. (1907–1991)

Peace,

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Where We Are Meant To Be

 

Lately, I have found myself marveling once again at the way God can lead us in our ordinary day if we are receptive and listening. Whether it be an unplanned event, conversation, or the bedside of a friend- unimaginable grace and surprises await when we simply say yes to God’s movement in our day. Sometimes even God will give our souls an extra nudge to encourage our lazy spiritual dispositions when it is particularly important. Perhaps most amazing is when your examen leads you to realize that, because you had in fact listened, you had been truly blessed.

Before I lay down to sleep one night last week, I heard so clearly in prayer how God had intended the following day to go. Admittedly, I had wanted to sleep in the next day but God was asking me to listen. So, having hurried to make it to Mass I slid in a pew near the back with communion pyx in hand. From that moment on, there was such peace, and intentionality found with everything that I was encounter that day. To no surprise, I ran into someone who I hadn’t seen in a year who had unexpectedly thought of me that morning and decided to go to Mass. Then was the hospital visit for a very dear priest friend of mine, who despite the circumstances remains a fountain of peace and inner joy. As we spoke and prayed the Our Father together I could not help but wonder who was receiving the greater blessing, him or I.

Throughout my day, that God had planned, there were many more sacred moments that had I been recalcitrant I indeed would have missed. Whatever you do, you cannot go wrong by turning over your day and giving God the lead. Below is a prayer that echoes this idea of receptivity and discernment and can be especially fruitful first thing in the morning.

Prayer for Choosing a State of Life

From all eternity, O Lord, you planned my very existence and my destiny. You wrapped me in your love in baptism and gave me the faith to lead me to an eternal life of happiness with you. You have showered me with your graces and you have been always ready with your mercy and forgiveness when I have fallen. Now I beg you for the light I so earnestly need that I may find the way of life in which lies the best fulfillment of your will. Whatever state this may be, give me the grace necessary to embrace it with love of your holy will, as devotedly as your Mother did your will. I offer myself to you now, trusting in your wisdom and love to direct me in working out my salvation and in helping others to know and come close to you, so that I may find my reward in union with you for ever and ever. Amen.

From Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book © 2009 Marquette University Press.

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: 40 Days in His Way

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Written a year ago..  and while a few things have changed,  this Lenten challenge to walk in His way ever remains the same! 

Working in ministry, liturgical seasons just simply move way too fast. It seems like yesterday Advent was on our doorstep and now we are over halfway through Lent. Our 24 week bible study with Jeff Cavins is drawing to a close and small group Lenten study has already begun. We have a food pantry drive and collection over the next 2 weeks, and a Collaborative Lenten service event for End Hunger where volunteers meet to package simple, nutritious meals for those in need within the New England area. Not to mention, as new collaborative (2 parishes now working together) there is evangelistic and leadership training, council and liturgy meetings, and the gathering of individuals to write a new pastoral plan. We are most certainly a collaborative on the move! In fact, several of the leadership team are flying out today to be a part of the Amazing Parish Conference in Atlanta.

In the midst of all these incredible community blessings, I have been trying to take the time myself to rediscover all the ways God is calling me personally to conversion and transformation. This year’s Lent for me has been all about trust. Why trust? Well, with so many balls in the air, including seeking the sale of our home, I have needed to go deeper than a mere lip service of saying I trust God. Over and over again these past few weeks I have had to let go of timelines, expectations and results. Not an easy task when you are detail oriented by nature. Yet, what I have noticed is that when I am truly keeping my eyes focused on Christ, all the rest fades away into the background.

One service project that has surfaced for me this Lent is the 40 bags/boxes in 40 days challenge of de-cluttering for simplicity and charity.Perfect timing as my family prepares to potentially move out of our home of 20 years. So many things we have not used over the years that could be of use to someone else. Why do we accumulate stuff and hold on to things that we honestly do not need anymore? Sentimentality, and security? With every bag or box packed, however, my family is gaining valuable space and awareness of the way that clutter can occupy our lives. In our culture of accumulation I can honesty say we could do with “Less” in order to appreciate what it is that we”Need”. We need space in our days and our homes that only God can fill.

Reflect:

Take time today to see what is filling your day, your home, and occupies your time. Is there room for growth, and space for need?

Peace,Signature

Worth Revisiting: Dear Pope Francis

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Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World (Loyola Press)

With the incredible appeal of Pope Francis, there has been understandably a vast array of books on him or by him featuring his homilies, angelus’, addresses and encyclicals. Yet, I am so thrilled to be able to preview a book composed of letters and questions by children and the tender responses of Pope Francis.

While I could tell you how I felt reading these personal and heartfelt correspondences..I thought that instead I would share a few of my son Thomas’ thoughts as we read these preview pages together.

I asked him, “So, Thomas, what do you think?”

Pope Francis brings out the most of everyone’s questions in faith. He speaks to each child from his heart.

(Thomas, age 10, United States)

I really like the question from Alejandra, “Why didn’t God defeat the devil?” and Pope Francis’ response that he already defeated him “in his own way” on the cross. This relieves me so much because I dislike Satan and the evil things he does. (Thomas, age 10, United States)

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I think Pope Francis’ choice for a miracle is a good one because I do not wish that children or anyone else would suffer. When Pope Francis says that it’s ok to cry, that is different from saying that crying won’t change anything. He cries because he feels for us and loves. (Thomas, age 10, United States)

To Karla, You ask if everyone good or bad has a guardian angel. I feel bad for the guardian angel that has to accompany the people that do bad things! I am happy though that people are never alone and they have a guardian angel to guide them. (Thomas, age 10, United States)

Knowing that God wants us to all be saved makes me feel grateful. If I make a mistake and am sorry, he forgives me.(Thomas, age 10, United States)

To Pope Francis: Thank you, yes Jesus wants me to be his friend. But to be a good friend, you say that this means that Jesus wants me to talk to him, and spend time with him. This makes me happy because then everyone gets to be friends with Jesus!(Thomas, age 10, United States)

As you can see, the dialogue between hearts is intended to continue with each child, parent and teacher that picks up this beautiful conversation of faith. Children have a remarkable way of meeting situations and others with a profound honesty and simplicity. Perhaps this is why we too are called to be like these children in seeking the Kingdom of heaven. 

Peace, Signature

Knowing Thy True Self

“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
― Thomas Merton

New year’s resolutions and Lenten commitments have one important common thread, they are only as effective as they are intuitive about the strengths and weaknesses of the individual.  For this reason, neither can be a one size fits all and both need to strike a balance between being challenging and in some degree feeling achievable. For instance, setting a goal of running a 5k would not be a worthy goal for a marathoner, and running a marathon would not be a realistic goal for someone who has never ran around the block. A primary difference, of course, rests in where we seek strength and desire to follow through with these commitments. For the Christian, there is a fundamental understanding that the path of discipleship and virtue is not a solitary one. Through Christ, however, there is both strength and guidance at the ready to lead us to God’s will to becoming the best version of ourselves.

In conversation with a friend of mine recently, a retired corporate HR director, the idea of personality and leadership traits came up. Many of us have taken personality assessments like the Myers Briggs, the Big 5 or emotional inventories. While these assessments are far from perfect, they can give us a glimpse into how we perceive our strengths and weaknesses and react in various situations. This is not only beneficial for understanding ourselves but also in how to understand and work better with others in community.

I just so happen to be one who enjoys drawing out the introverted, sitting beside the wounded, communicating one on one or to a crowd, diplomatic but not afraid to stand up for what is right or see things through. Yet, on the flip side I have been known at times to spread myself too thin, be overly self-critical, and take on other people’s problems as my own. Delays due to indecision, and multiple projects left incomplete can frustrated me. Self awareness has been invaluable in discerning God’s will in my life, while also helping me to step back and reflect on how best to inspire others to learn and grow too.

As Catholics, the exercise of our faith is never separate from the larger community even when living a cloistered life. And the living out of our truest best self is always a choice. One that we can disguise, or utilize in our daily interactions with others. Though, as Merton would note, if we ignore who we are at our core we “cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.” Likewise, when we  live indifferent to others and their inherent values, we fail as well to fully seek the truth about ourselves.

When we experience conflict, it not only speaks to the the behavior and inner self of others but to our own sense of identity. Conflict, therefore, has the potential to be interiorly revealing if we allow ourselves to ask two seemingly simple questions. Why it is this situation troubling in the first place and what would be necessary for interior or exterior balance?  To this point, the saints were not considered so because they lived lives of perfect peace perfectly. But rather, in the midst of conflict the saints sought to know God, to know themselves and live their truest self in the world around them.

Reflect:

In what situations in my life am I making the choice to be untrue to myself and in my relationships with others? What do the conflicts in my life reveal about myself and where might God be asking me to grow?

Peace,

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This Epiphany: Still Seeking?

“It is better to be a child of God than king of the whole world!” St. Aloysius Gonzaga

With the approach of the Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12), we behold quite a scene- one of perceived royalty and the other of unassuming divinity wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. And here, this quote by St. Gonzalga finds its resonance, revealing a profound truth of the nativity story. For regardless of worldly stature or knowledge, the maneuvers by peasants and kings alike are guided by the promised birth of a savior.

King Herod, was the proclaimed king of the Jews, and yet his Idumean family had been forcibly converted to Judaism. Herod was known to play both the Romans and the Jewish leadership against the other holding no real allegiance other than to money and power. Thus when the Magi asked “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? ” That in itself spoke to their recognition of just where legitimate power truly rested, and to whom they wished to pay homage.  Couple that with the astronomical occurrence of a star foretold in Numbers 24:17, and promises in Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 7:14 of a child to be born and Herod had good reason to be concerned.

 

The Magi, perhaps more accurate than the term “wise men”, alludes to their knowledge of the movement of the stars and position as Persian priests somewhere in Babylon or Arabia. Was it mere curiosity that carried them from their lands across the desert or was it more than that? They are aware of the prophesies and scriptures accompanying the signs, so we trust that they have knowledge.   Is theirs a “faith seeking understanding” as St. Anselm proposes? Have they sought God through self-knowledge and now seek God’s revelation of himself trusting that it will be affirmed under the light of the star? Up to this point, as St. Augustine would assert, though full of worldly wisdom they had yet to even understand themselves fully until they came to encounter and know God.

What is intriguing about this consideration, and their inclusion in this story is that the Magi were gentiles. And while the Jewish priests and scribes were well versed in the scriptures and could inform Herod, they are seemingly disconnected from its fulfillment. The faith of the Jewish leadership appears content in its present knowledge, and either no longer seeking greater understanding or for its fulfillment to occur differently that they had preconceived.  Their idea of a messiah was a political leader who world provide transformation in the eyes of the rest of the world not in their own lives.

This is a reoccurring theme in the Gospels, and early church. Though initially beginning with the Jews, time and time again the Good News would also be extended to the Gentiles. Was this a conversion for the Magi, we do not know. Yet, these men left behind their lives in pursuit of understanding, and humbly acknowledged the king of kings that day. One can only wonder how their faith journey continued as they returned home.

Reflect:

Am I still desiring greater understanding in my journey with God? Or do I feel that I have my place in this world and God all figured out?

Today, I’d like to invite each of you to consider if your spiritual contentment could actually be keeping you from growing closer to Christ. Maybe, just maybe, God is asking you to leave this safe space to journey with him… to discover the “more” that he has to offer. To seek the God…who is forever faithfully seeking us!

Peace,

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Guest Post: The Present

The following guest post comes from an Advent Taize service led by my close friend and colleague from Loyola Chicago, Paula Kowalkowski.
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
                    Luke 1:26-38

The idea for this reflection came to me right after the 4th of July – lots of hot and
humid days – highs in the 90’s. Just a bit different from what we are experiencing
now…..
When an idea comes – grab it, I think.
The word PRESENT came to me as I walked along the residential streets of my
Chicago neighborhood on that summer morning.
The word PRESENT comes from the Latin praesentia – being at hand/being
present. In more modern words, being mindful, being attentive to what is.
It’s an invitation to be present to what is. And what is? We are together in this
season of Advent standing – and sitting – in the presence of our Creator God. We
are in this space at St. Thomas Becket Parish – giving praise, giving thanks, asking
our God to be with us in all things. Things we understand and things we may be
questioning. This is what is. This is being present.

In our Gospel reading, we heard that on that day – so long ago – in Mary’s life, she
was present. If Mary had not been attentive to what was happening – she may
have missed the Angel – she may have missed the message. Mary heard and
listened and responded. Mary did not understand fully what she was being
called to – yet she trusted and we are called to do the same.
— Mary and Martha – Jesus said that Mary chose the greater part/portion.

The word present – means gift, as well.
And oh, what a gift God has given to us – as we wait for this gift once again in this
holy season. This great present of God – as human being, the gift of Jesus – who
was and is and forever more will be – our greatest example of what it is to be a
fully alive human being.

Jesus, the Christ – who is given to us every time we receive him in the Eucharist –
HIS REAL PRESENCE.

God’s ongoing gift of Godself to us and to the world. This
Jesus – this great gift given to us – is life – is truth – is the way and is hope!
The writer of Deuteronomy reminds us that God has put before us life and death
– blessings and curses. And what are we called to do? Choose life! The
abundant life which God provides for us – as we follow and trust God’s
commands and will for us in God’s time, not ours.

I wish you a blessed Advent and joy-filled, abundant Christmas.

Paula

Paula Kowalkowski
Music Director at St. Thomas Becket in Chicago, Illinois ; MA Loyola Chicago