Not coincidence, but grace

This blog post from Bishop-Elect Barron is excellent (shocking, I know), and got me thinking about all the threads in our lives that are woven together in ways we can’t see. Our decisions can affect people generations later.  Events in our lives can put us in the path of others or connect us to other people or events later.  What some people would call coincidence, we would call God’s Providence.

Even with things on a less dramatic level as Father Barron’s connect-the-dots, I like to think of the quirky connections in our lives that just show God’s sense of humor.  Like when I’m walking through Target and think of being in that same Target over 15 years ago with my sister (pre-convent), never dreaming that some day I would live in this city and shop at that Target.  But God knew.  And I like to think of Him laughing to Himself, thinking, “If she only knew…”

On one level, thinking about these things should give us confidence and peace of mind, knowing that He sees the end of it all.  Even though we can’t see the picture on the tapestry that all these crazy strings and knots are making, He can.  And as out of control as it all seems sometimes, He’s always in control.

On the other level, it can just make us smile and laugh.  For example…

Today is my friend’s due date.  (It’s not likely the day her baby is actually going to be born, seeing that she’s at work and feeling great.  But still, it’s her due date.)  Many years ago, when I was visiting Rome for John Paul II’s feast day, I prayed in the Church of Sant’Agostino for this friend.  You see, there’s a famous statue in the church, Madonna del Parto, where Roman women go to pray for pregnancies.  When their prayers are answered, they put pink and blue ribbons near the statue (or pillows or baby booties or pictures…) to thank Our Lady for her intercession.  (You can see a picture of it in this post.)

Well, my friend and her husband announced several months later that they were expecting!  She ended up giving birth to a wonderful little boy on the feast of John Henry Newman, which also happened to be their year anniversary of coming into full communion with the Church.

Last December found me back in Rome, and I was armed with several intentions for Madonna del Parto, both intercession and thanksgiving.  Just like 2011, I prayed for Liza and Paul.

Did I mention that Liza took the name Augustine when she came into the Church?  And did I mention that she had recently also been praying to Augustine’s mom, St. Monica?  And did I mention that Monica just happens to be buried in the same church where the Madonna del Parto can be found?

….And did I mention that today… her DUE DATE… is the feast of St. Monica?

And up in heaven, God laughed.  He’s got this.

St. Monica, pray for us!
Madonna del Parto, pray for us!

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The real reason for Martha’s sorrow

For some reason, a little snippet from the daily reflection in the Magnificat really struck a chord with me this morning.  It’s the feast of St. Martha, who like St. Thomas, always seems to get a bad rap even know we know that we’d all do the exact same thing in that position.

St. Teresa of Avila has this gem as she writes her thoughts to Our Lord:

“I sometimes remember the complaint of that holy woman, Martha.  She did not complain only about her sister, rather, I hold it is certain that her greatest sorrow was the thought that you, Lord, did not feel sad about the trial she was undergoing and didn’t have as much love for her as for her sister.”

Such an honest, open confession to our Lord.  To be so real with Him and tell Him something that we know in our minds can’t be true- but to be real with Him about what’s in our heart. It leaves me kind of speechless with that feeling of recognition/sorrow/relief that hits you right in the stomach. The fear that the Lord doesn’t love us as much as our neighbor… So real, so human. He shows us He loves us everyday, but we are so weak and so in need of His mercy.  We need Him to show His love again and again.  Lord, help my unbelief.  Give me some little consolation of Your love.

2 Conferences and a Home Visit

Every once and awhile over the past two months I would plan to blog.  Then I would stare at the computer screen and the date of the last post, glance at all the photos in iPhoto from the past two months, stare some more, then get completely overwhelmed and close WordPress.

Let’s just say this has been an incredible summer.  I think it’s the fastest summer to date – I can’t believe it’s already August – but it has also been one of the most fun summers to date.

Part of the reason the summer went so fast (besides my packed social calendar) is that I was out of town for large chunks of it.  I spent two wonderful weeks in theology-land, attending two conferences at Franciscan University, with a home visit sandwiched between the two.  Have I mentioned that I put 3,500 miles on my car this summer?  yeah.

The first conference was the Bosco Conference, a catechetical conference that is full of practical workshops, great people, and beautiful times for prayer.  I was able to stay with my dear friend Amy (so there was a lot of sleep lost over late-night conversations), catch up with a few friends from the catechetical world, drink in the wealth of knowledge that is Dr. Petroc Willey, and spend time with Sefanit (for those of you truly veteran blog-readers, you’ll recognize that name from Rome!).

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The Portiuncula Chapel is my favorite place in Steubenville.  Okay, in all of Ohio.

This trip came at the perfect time — I needed the time to be with Jesus.  Attend a few talks, go to Mass, sit in the chapel, eat.  repeat.

I skipped a workshop one afternoon to head into Pittsburgh and meet up with my friend Mike Aquilina and his daughter Mary Agnes.  He gives a great tour of the saints of Pittsburgh.  St. John Neumann, Bl Francis Seelos, St. John Paul II, Bl Mother Frances Siedliska… it’s quite impressive.  Mike knows so much about the history of the Church in that area, I could have listened to him all day.

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After the conference was over, I headed home — but met up with my sister and her family on their way through Ohio.  We had breakfast at Cracker Barrel, drove to visit my great aunt in Columbus, and then finished the trip to Indiana.  It was such a wonderful time home– the kids are all at really fun ages, and it was fun to have them all together.  It was a very quick trip home for me — just two days — but with my brother’s family down from Chicago, all of us were together except Sr. Mary Grace, and we managed a lot of fun in just two days.

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(See her blog for plenty of great pictures.)

Then it was back to Franciscan for me, for the Applied Biblical Studies conference.  I was blessed to be able to teach with the St. Paul Center before the conference kicked off.  Two hundred people came for the Journey Through Scripture bible study, and I found myself teaching alongside incredible presenters like Michael Barber, Matt Leonard, and David Currie.  Oh, and this woman named Kimberly Hahn.

It was wonderful to be back with the St. Paul Center, to see their new offices, to hear about the new plans for the DVD series (you have to see this), and just talk with Scott and Kimberly and the gang.

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The conference was incredible, as always.  More time with Jesus in the Portiuncula, more incredible and inspiring talks from the best biblical teachers in the country. But you know what was the best?  There I was, with Dr. Brant Pitre, Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Michael Barber, John Bergsma… and you know where I learned the most?

At the holy hour.  I was sitting behind the Hahns, next to Mike Aquilina and Matt Leonard and all the rest.  And we prayed together.  WE PRAYED TOGETHER.  As I knelt there, the lights dim and the gym floor hard, Father processed around with Jesus in the monstrance, I worshipped the Word of God with giants in the Church.  I was kneeling with these incredible scholars, these beautiful writers, these celebrities…and they were in love, in adoration, in worship.

These men learned a lot from books.  But they learned more on their knees.

And I wept with joy.

Suffering and Hope

Tonight I came into contact with greatness.

Every second Monday of the month we have Theology on Tap at a local bar, and tonight it seemed like we were facing more difficulties than usual.  I was standing in the back of the room, in the doorway that led to the rest of the bar, and for a variety of reasons, I was feeling less than thrilled about the whole evening.

As our speaker was finishing, three women walked in the back door from the parking lot and made their way through our group to get to the other room, where they were presumably going to eat dinner.  Instead of continuing to a table, though, they stopped just behind me and turned to listen. I could tell they were surprised to hear our speaker talking about Jesus in a bar.

I had overheard some loud, critical conversations from other bar patrons earlier in the evening, so I was kind of bracing myself to hear the women laugh or complain.  But they were quiet.  When Emily closed us in prayer, I turned to them to explain who we were.  Instead, they had something far more interesting to tell me– who they were.

Last Thursday morning, a fire broke out in a Kentucky home.  The father, Chad Watson, tried to save his family, going back into the house three times, but only he and his 11 year-old daughter survived.  Chad’s wife Nikki and eight of their children died that morning, from their 15 year-old daughter down to their 4 year-old twin sons.  (Read more here and here and here.)

The women standing in front of me were Chad’s two sisters and Nikki’s sister.  They were staying at the hospital with Chad and Kylie and had come to the bar for dinner.  They mentioned they initially didn’t want to come to a bar, but came in – and heard our speaker talking about our world’s crisis of hope, redemptive suffering, and faith in Jesus.

What a gift.

But they were truly a gift to me.  Emily and I talked to the women for quite some time, listening to their story and marveling at their strength.  Chad is doing better than any of the doctors expected, since four days ago they were cautioned that he was more likely to die than to live.  But what was most inspiring was their joy and courage in the face of this horror.  They couldn’t stop talking about the outpouring of love and generosity they had received — funeral costs paid for, headstones purchased by a well-known country band, food, letters pouring in from all over the world.

They talked about how much the Watsons loved life – desiring a big family, then remaining close-knit even through daily struggles to make ends meet.

There were tears shed, as they remembered the little kids playing in the front yard and the house full of life and love.  But there was strength in that suffering, there was courage in that pain, there was understanding in that adversity.

Chad’s sister told me how a playground was going to be built and dedicated to the Watson kids.  And that, I knew, was a sign of hope.  Life would come from this, I told her.  And she agreed, telling me that she had always called Chad “Job” … and now Job was showing his faith.  When he was told that a company had volunteered to build him a brand new house, he asked for a big house — a house with five bedrooms.  Because God was going to bless him abundantly with life after this tragedy.

Chad has announced that he is preaching back home on March 23, and I know it will be the sermon of a lifetime.

In this dark world, there is light.  In this vale of suffering, there is hope.

These women could have shaken their fists at God.  They could have cursed and turned away from Him.  But there we were, sitting in a bar, talking about how good God is, how hopeful the future was, and what a gift life is.

In my city, it’s not uncommon to come into contact with fame when you’re running errands or out to eat.  Tonight I came in contact with greatness.  It wasn’t in fame or fortune.  It was in the hope of three women who were willing to share their story, share their hope, and remind me that life is a gift.

Pray for the Watsons, for their extended family, for their community.

Head & Heart

There are moments of prayer when you feel nothing.  It’s not just dry, it’s chapped.  Painful and seemingly futile, you try to press on.

And then there are moments of prayer that are exactly the opposite.  An overwhelming response of love and being loved.  Oodles of spiritual consolation.  Tonight was one of those nights.

A dark church, Jesus in the monstrance, and Franciscan Friars of the Renewal leading praise.

There was a time in my life, not so long ago, when I was turned off by praise and worship.  I saw the dangers of a relationship with God based only on emotions and feeling.  My experiences of praise and worship had been the “touchy-feelie-happy-clappie” music that tried to be relevant, often hand-in-hand with liturgical abuses, and inevitably resulted in emotional highs that ended in nothing but wilted wheat.  (See Matthew 13:20-21 and the seed that has no root.)

Then I met a group of girls who opened my eyes to what I had been missing.  They probably didn’t even they were doing it; they were simply praying with me, praying for me, and showing me how “praise and worship” could be a genuine companion to my liturgically correct, intellectually-grounded relationship with God.

Your relationship doesn’t have to be pure emotion.  It also doesn’t have to be purely intellectual.  In fact, it should be both.

If our prayer life depends on emotional highs, it’s not going to last long.  But there’s also nothing wrong with praising God through song … and maybe even with our hands. (don’t tell anyone I said that.)

I still don’t pray that way often – partly because it’s not my go-to manner of prayer, and partly because I’m pretty picky and it has to be done right for me to be able to pray with it.  If it’s too showy, if it’s not liturgically correct, if it’s trying too hard, if it’s too loud, if it’s just bad… well, give me some silence and a rosary instead, thanks.

But tonight was a sublime night of prayer.  My parish had been hosting a “Catholic Underground” once a month (a night of prayer, adoration, and music and fellowship) and had taken a break.  Tonight was the first one since the summer, and three Franciscan Friars of the Renewal flew down to join us.  They led the holy hour and they emceed the music afterwards.

The Holy Hour was incredible.  Several musicians accompanied Brother’s beautiful voice as he led both Evening Prayer and praise and worship in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament.  Three priests were hearing confession.  The hour flew by.

This was a reoccurring song during praise…  It has to be one of the best songs for praise and worship during Adoration, and not just because hearing it brings back beautifully moving WYD images.

After Adoration, we all headed downstairs for the concert.  In true Nashville form, it featured singer-songwriters- all of them local. Maggie Padgett (formerly of Judd & Maggie), Roman Candle, Mike Lahey, and Audrey Assad all graced the stage.  I’m sure Matt Maher would have joined in if he would have been home.

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Audrey Assad with Fr. Agustino

And then the Friars took the stage, too!

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We ended with Compline, the Night Prayer of the Church.

And if you think the night couldn’t be better… oh, it was.  Shortly after the concert started, I headed back up the church to see if Father was still hearing confessions. He was heading downstairs as I was heading up, but he gladly returned to the confessional, assuring me, “I like killing sins.”  So now I am shriven, too.

I’m pretty sure we need the Franciscan Friars to come every month.  I could get used to this praise and worship stuff.

Active Participation

Last night I went to a vigil Mass after a long day of working. Our office had hosted my friend Matt Leonard from the St Paul Center for Biblical Theology to do a Bible study Presenter Training for their awesome parish-based Bible study program, Journey Through Scripture.  I had the honor of presenting with Matt, too, which was a great experience.  It was fun to be quasi-working for the St Paul Center again, while also working for Aquinas College at the same time.

It was a full day — I was expecting 60 people to register for the training, and we had an even 100.  A pretty fantastic problem to have.  I think it was a great day for everyone – evaluations will tell the whole story – but it was a full day. By the end of it, I was feeling the effects of essentially trying to be two people – a host for the event and a presenter for the event.  I could never have done it without the incredible help of my friends Laura, Alan, Rafael, Ana, and my boss, Sr Mary Rose.

Did I mention that I had also chosen that day to not drink coffee?  Partly because Matt is an expert at protecting vocal chords and had warned me to stay away from caffeine, and I know these days my vocal chords are my best asset. (Oh, and stay away from alcohol, too.  I told him he was basically telling me, “And no more happiness!”) It was also partly because I never had time to stop and drink a cup in the morning.  So at the end of the day, I had a pounding headache that was quickly moving into my eyes.  Lovely.

Due to a mixup about Matt’s plane being delayed, we bolted out of the training at the end of the day to make a vigil Mass at the Cathedral.  So we slid into one of the back pews as the opening song was being sung and watched our time the whole way through Mass.

It was then I realized I can never judge someone else’s participation at Mass. The “active participation” that the Council called for did include a more vocal participation in the liturgy, but at its root it was about understanding the rites and entering into them more deeply — not just by saying prayers out loud, but by entering into the mystery by prayer, offering sacrifice with the priest with a full and conscious mind and heart.

So there Matt and I were in the back of the church at a Saturday vigil Mass.  We slid in as the opening song was being sung and we slipped out as the closing song started.  Matt had no voice left, I had a raging headache, and so our singing and vocal participation was at a minimum.  We probably kept looking at our watches to make sure we weren’t going to miss his plane.  It probably seemed to everyone around us that we were punching our time cards and that our minds were a million miles away.

And yet we were actively participating.  We were both engaged in the rites.  I was offering my headache up, trying to imagine what Mary would have done if she had a raging headache when she was cooking Jesus’ dinner, or trying to meditate on the crowning of thorns.  While I can’t speak for Matt, I’d imagine he was participating in a similar way.  I specifically prayed that our time crunch and the long day didn’t impact the way I was entering into the liturgy.

So appearances can be deceiving.  Was it the most mystical liturgy I’ve ever entered into?  No.  I’m not going to say that Matt and I were about to levitate or anything, and you can hold our canonization processes for the time being.  But it was a good reminder to me that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Two schmucks in the back row, probably looking like they were run over by a bus. But we were trying.

Saving Civilization

I hope this is a new tradition in my sister’s household.

I’m not sure when George got the idea – and whether it was his or his dad’s – but on Friday he decided he wanted to make the Stations of the Cross on their trail.  Patrick has cleared out an awesome trail through the woods around their house — it starts in the front of the house and weaves around to the back, where it makes a nice big loop.  It’s wide enough for walks and flat enough for bike rides.

And it was the perfect setting for the Stations of the Cross.

At school, George colored the 12th Station of the Cross.  On Friday at home, he colored the other 13. (well, 12.  I colored the 8th Station.) Patrick spent the afternoon constructing wooden crosses and affixing them to the trees along the trail, and rigged them up so that he could put George’s pictures in plastic sheets and slide them into the crosses. He even scratched the Roman numerals into the little wooden crosses.  It was quite a little project for the day.

By dinner time, they were ready for us.  George put on his school blazer and a crucifix was handed to Andrew, our impromptu server, and we had two books of St. Alphonus Ligouri’s Way of the Cross.

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It was such a perfect way to finish up Good Friday as family.  Jill and I (and John Paul) had gone to the Good Friday service in their parish, but this was something that we could do as a family.  I hope it becomes a tradition for them.

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Andrew was a great crucifier, leading us to each Station while as we sang the Stabat Mater.  It wasn’t long until Sammy stole it away from him, though, as two year-olds are wont to do.  In the spirit of the day, Andrew let Sammy take over as server — and as soon as Sammy did, he began marching ahead of us, humming a little tune — mimicking our chant of the Stabat Mater.  Talk about a heart-melting moment.

He soon abandoned the group – come on, he is two, after all –  but he returned every once and awhile.

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George and Patrick took turns leading the Stations, and I was really impressed with George’s reading ability.  I could also tell that he had prayed the Stations frequently with his school during Lent.

All of these things are part of our identity as Catholics. Sadly, few people take our customs seriously anymore.  Fridays in Lent should seem empty without Stations of the Cross.  But I was shocked after entering the real world that it’s not even on the radar for many Catholics.

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We can’t lose our Catholic culture.  It’s our key to survival.  John Paul II knew it during World War II, and he knew it during the Communism rule of his homeland.

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It’s time to save civilization, folks.  See that above?  That’s what it looks like.