Saturday, September 12, 2020

A Matter of Focus

My husband and I went out to breakfast this morning. At the restaurant, there was a couple there with their young son. No more than two, this little one was obviously the apple of his parents’ eyes. He was intrigued by the waiter’s bejeweled face mask. He was curious as to the hustle and bustle at the drink station located by his highchair. His exuberance was a joy to behold. The older gentleman sitting near him happily told the young couple about his own newly born grandchild. The wait staff became more animated every time they passed the table. This little one lifted everyone’s spirits.

When we left the restaurant, there was joy in my heart, and it got me thinking.

Without saying a word—that little one captivated everyone he encountered. His awe and curiosity were enlivening. The love his parents showed for him (and each other) was uplifting. There was a palpable joy in everyone who was there. The world was ordered to happiness, in that moment of time and space, in that restaurant today.

It made me realize that what we focus on directly impacts our attitudes, thoughts, and interactions with each other.

We live in a world that is fixated on chaos, negatives, and hopelessness. Turn on the news, run through social media or pick up a newspaper and you will get hit with this reality. From the Pandemic to racial tensions, from politics to natural disasters, we are fed a continuous line of tragedy, upheaval, violence, and turmoil.

As human beings, however, God has wired us to seek beauty, joy, truth, and happiness. When our environment is in direct conflict with how we are wired, we will experience an inner-disconnect that wreaks havoc, both interiorly and exteriorly.

The little boy in the restaurant made me realize that what we focus on is truly what we see. In his world—everything was new and fresh. There was a bounce in his step and a curiosity that was enlivening. He was filled with joy and the world was his.

You may say—but he’s only two. He doesn’t have bills to pay. He isn’t confronted with the realities and hardships of life. And yes, that is true.

But there is another truth at work here. And it has to do with our choices to notice what we notice.

If I choose to focus on the negative, that is exactly what I will find. I will gravitate toward the chaos. I will seek the imperfections—in others and myself. And when I do, I will be swallowed up by the hopelessness that is consuming us individually and as a nation.

If, however, I choose to focus on the good and the beautiful, I will be drawn to it. I will see the little child. I will be lifted in spirit—just as I was by everyone in that restaurant. When I change my focus, I will see the world differently. That focus has the ability to unite—just as it did the people of all ages and races, in that moment in time, in that restaurant.

What we focus on in life is our choice. This does not mean we sweep problems under the rug or ignore issues that need to be addressed. But, if we seek the good in each other, if we seek what is beautiful and true, we will have peace in our hearts. We will be motivated by hope. Love and joy are the fruits of such focus, which builds unity—and isn’t that just what this world needs now?

Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Time for Contemplation and Mercy

In these days of quarantine, we watch the television for the daily updates on the spread of the Corona virus. As we watch the death tolls rise and pray that the curve flattens, fear and anxiety take over. 

We miss seeing our families, the hugs and kisses of grandchildren. We mourn for the anticipated loss of family gathered around the Easter dinner table. We grieve that we will not gather for the grand liturgical celebrations. Relegated to a screen to watch and pray, the trappings of worship may seem flat. We long for the time when we can join together again. 

It seems to be all the more difficult as we enter into Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

But there is another thought that has been emerging in the silence of my prayer as I take notice of my longing for the crowds, the sights and smells of Liturgy, to receive the Eucharist, and the joys of family. It is a small voice, but I do admit it is getting louder, especially as we enter into the Upper Room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the prison, the Praetorium, Calvary Hill and ultimately, the Tomb.

What has come to me in this time of quarantine is this: Do I love all the trappings more or is my desire truly centered and focused on the love of my Savior?

Jesus walked alone. While His Disciples were gathered around the table and He prayed that they all may be one, their hearts were not unified. One betrayed Him. One denied Him. Most ran away and hid. Only the Beloved Disciple, Mary, His Mother, Mary Magdalene and a few other women stood in consolation and unity with Him in His suffering.

But what if this time of quarantine, rather than a time of mourning the loss of what was, was a time to listen to that small voice and ask ourselves, "Who or what is truly the focus of our life and love?"

Do we love the Lord of Life or are we caught up with the feelings and emotions of the crowds? Are we swept away with the liturgical music, decorations and robes, or are we consumed with the love of the One who walked the solitary path of His Passion, Death and Resurrection? Are we swept up in the busyness of life or are we content to sit solely in His Divine Presence?

What if this time of quarantine is a time of God’s Mercy? What if it is an opportunity to sit in the stillness and solitude of Jesus and reflect on what truly moves our hearts and actions? What if it is a chance to consider what we think is critically important in our lives and ask, “Does this lead me ever closer to Jesus or is it an obstacle to that relationship?” What if this is a time for us to take account of who or what we are truly in love with? What if it is a time to let go and be swept ever more deeply by the Holy Spirit into the love that flows between Father and Son?

Let us give thanks for this time of quarantine as a time of quiet reflection, stripped of the distractions that often cause us to lose focus. Jesus walked the path to Calvary alone, confident in the love of His Father. Let us walk with Him. Let us give Him our anxieties and fears, knowing that despite what looks like a hopeless end—the Cross and tomb and yes, even this time of quarantine—are doorways to New Life.

Let us look at this time of isolation as an opportunity to create a new normal, rich in mercy and love, forgiveness and peace as we grow ever closer to Jesus.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

What’s in a Name?

My husband and I have season tickets to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Every time we attend a concert, a man is standing out near the parking deck playing his trumpet. Far from a professional, he plays a couple lines from a variety of songs as people pass on the way to Orchestra Hall. Rain or shine. Snow or sweltering heat. He is there. Every concert.

Except the last one.

As we walked past “his spot” I noticed his silent absence. Throughout the concert I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to him. Was he ill? What if he died? What if…

It was amid the questions that I realized I didn’t even know his name.

Sure, we had dropped money in his tattered trumpet case and smiled as we walked past, but I knew nothing about him. I never told him his presence brought a bit of joy to every concert. It made me sad to think that after all these years, I had never taken the time to know his name or thank him.
The concert ended and as we walked outside, I could hear the broken notes of his trumpet. I felt a sense gratitude for this second chance. I went up to him and asked his name.

“Frank” he replied. I told him how much I had appreciated seeing him. A smile spread across his face and he said, “Well thank you and may God bless you.”

It got me thinking. How many others in my day do I just pass by? How many go unnoticed? How often do I let people know how much I appreciate them?

Scriptures assure us that God knows us intimately. Even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7; Matthew 10:30). He calls us each by name (Isaiah 43:1). God assures us we are precious in His eyes and honored, and He loves us (Isaiah 43:4). Our God is a God of relationships. Created in the image and likeness of God, we are called to be in relationship not only with God—but with each other. To call each other by name.

What would happen if we kept our eyes open to those around us? To the mother struggling to push her shopping cart while holding a sleeping infant? To the elderly man trying to open a door while hanging on to his walker? To the homeless person we would rather avoid? To the tattooed young adult asking for directions at the gas station? To our spouse? To our parents? To our children?

I was met by a man outside the St. Therese Chapel who was asking for money to pay his phone bill. I was on my way to a meeting and really wanted to keep walking, but I thought of Frank. I turned. Facing him, he repeated his plea. I asked him his name. “David” he replied. “Not the king, just David.” He laughed. I joked that we are all sons and daughters of the king. We both laughed. I gave him a couple of dollars but also asked if he wanted prayers. He eagerly accepted. We both promised to pray for each other.

Jesus calls us His friend. David and Frank are the most recent reminders to me that we are called to take notice. To be aware of the people around us and to reach out as Jesus did in friendship. The beauty of all of this is that when we do, we will be blessed by the encounter in ways far greater than we can ever anticipate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Evangelizing Jesus

Today was my first day taking part in a popular evangelization series being run in churches all over the world.

As I walked into the room, I was greeted with enthusiasm by at least three people of whom I see regularly at Mass. The lady at the check-in table was extremely happy to see me, marking off my name and joyfully telling me my table assignment.

I recognized many of the people in the room. Most I have worshipped with for decades. There were a few new faces. Everyone was very eager for the session to begin.

The smiling hostess told a joke and made us feel welcome. The lunch was delicious.

We watched a short video that began with the question, "Who is Jesus?" The rest of the video, slickly done with beautiful videography and stunning scenes from the Holy Land, went on to "prove" that Jesus existed. The video’s presenter was a former lawyer-turned minister. He smiled broadly as he finished the clip, assured that he had given us what we needed to know that Jesus was "real."

In the time that has passed since I left the class, I have been thinking a lot about the experience. I realized a few things about myself and the assumption that we all come to know Jesus through the same process.

I was a young child, about five, when I had a profound experience of Jesus. There is no doubt in my mind that I had a very personal and life-changing encounter with Divine Love. I can honestly say that from that moment on, I knew Jesus was real and loved me very much.

My path to Jesus did not begin with an intellectual study of books and Scripture. That all came after that first, very personal encounter with radiating, unconditional love that I somehow, at that young age, knew was Jesus. 

I wonder in these days of trying to figure out how to bring people into a conversion experience if we aren't going about it the wrong way. It’s as if we are assaulting them with Jesus. Proofs and facts, arguments and debates. We are intellectualizing what should be intimately personal.

Jesus is a human being with whom we are invited to be in relationship. He is God, fully Divine, with whom we are to enter into the mystery. Jesus envelopes us and fills us. He transforms our very being. Jesus wells up from within us, overtakes us and fills us.

 I think coming to know Jesus is so much more than a lawyer laying down the facts or a scientist proving hypotheses.

I have concluded there is no one-size-fits-all path to Jesus. As unique as each of us is, our path to Jesus is equally distinctive. I am convinced the key to evangelization is building relationships with those around us. Seeing each other as people to be loved. Desiring to share what we have with others and longing for their happiness. Being with them in their woundedness so that through prayer they are consoled and made whole through the healing power of God. Loving ourselves and each other as the vulnerable people we are and allowing Jesus to transform our every cell and fiber with His Love.

When we do, we will know Jesus in profound ways. Our thirst for Him will compel us forward, to learn about Him, be with Him, and joyfully share Him with others.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

My Parents' Greatest Gift

"Like Jesus, we too are meant to give our lives away in generosity and selflessness, but we are also meant to give our deaths away, not just at the moment of our deaths, but in a whole process of leaving this planet in such a way that our diminishment and death is our final, and perhaps greatest, gift to the world. Needless to say, this is not easy. Walking in discipleship behind the master will require that we too sweat blood and feel 'a stone's throw' from everybody. This struggle, to give our deaths away, constitutes Radical Discipleship."
— Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for A Deeper Human and Christian Maturity
I came across this quote by Ronald Rolheiser as I was doing research for a retreat. I was struck by his words and began reflecting on my own experience of being with another in their final hours of life.
My Mother died twenty years ago. It is difficult to image that much time has passed, but I remember my last conversation with her as if it was yesterday.

My Mom
Suffering from cancer and weakened by her struggle, she could barely hold a conversation in her final days. Late one night after I had left the hospital, the phone rang. I was afraid to answer, fearing it would be my Dad, telling me that Mom had died. Instead it was her faint voice I heard. She was so weak I have no clue how she dialed the phone, let alone held it to her head to speak, yet she called.

“Judith” she said, “I just want to tell you, I love you. I have always loved you and I always will.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I told her I loved her too. Those last words are so dear to me, because they speak of eternal love—and the hope of being reunited.

My Father died just this past year.

My last photo with Dad
Sitting next to his bed after having been put on a ventilator to give his heart and lungs a rest, the medical staff called the family together to tell us there was nothing more they could do for him. My Dad, who I had always looked to as my source of strength would not pull through this last battle. I would never hear his voice again and I said a silent prayer to God that I might, just one more time, get to see his dancing blue eyes that were always full of life.

Before they pulled the ventilator, the family said their final good-byes, not knowing how long he may survive without medical assistance. I was one of the last to leave the room before the medical team entered the room. Laying my head down on his pillow next to his head, I whispered into his ear how much I loved him. I looked at my sweet Father and thought of my prayer. With that his eyes opened, and he looked at me with a gaze filled with incredible love. A tear rolled down his cheek and we were held, suspended, in a sacred moment between father and daughter that was graced with eternal love.

My Mother and Father’s parting gave me incredible gifts: a depth of love that goes beyond the grave and the hope of reunion with God for all eternity. They were people of faith who through their dying moments shared the opening of new life, not lost life; eternal love, love that is not confined to this world.

Every time I receive the Eucharist at Mass, I am united in that love. I am surrounded by all those Radical Disciples who through their death gave me a glimpse of eternity. We are gathered together in the Celebration of Unity and Love. Christ has claimed the victory; death cannot destroy love.
This was my parents’ greatest gift and I thank Fr. Rolheiser for reminding me of this.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Reflecting on History and Invitation

I love history and am especially intrigued by the people and events of the Second World War. The era showcased man and society at its very worst and yet, there was always a ray of hope.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in Poland. The horrors of the concentration camp were magnified by the realization that engineers, businessmen, bankers, and many others actually made money off the slave labor of the camps. Hair from shaved heads was sold as upholstery stuffing. Shoes, clothes, and personal belongings were sold to finance war efforts. Genetic testing on innocent children was done to determine best ways to control population. Chemists and engineers worked on the most efficient ways to exterminate people who were deemed “unnecessary”. 

How could this happen? Why didn’t people stand up against it?

Later in the day as we walked through the streets of Krak√≥w, I realized God in His infinite Mercy had never abandoned His people. Prior to the ramping up of World War II a young nun by the name of Sr. Faustina Kowalska began receiving messages from Jesus. The encounters not only taught her of His mercy, but encouraged her to tell the world. With little formal education this simple nun proclaimed the message of Jesus' Divine Mercy through her diary. The message reminded us of God’s incredible love for each of us, despite our sinfulness. His merciful arms are open and waiting and for us.

At the same time in history, another young woman answered God's call. Born into a Jewish family, Edith Stein spent her life in search of Truth, which took her on a journey through atheism to Catholicism. As a young college student and nurse she witnessed firsthand the horrors of World War I. As Nazism escalated Edith witnessed the systematic destruction of the Jewish culture and people. She spoke out, proclaiming, "The nation...doesn't simply need what we have, it needs what we are." Edith’s convictions led her to the Carmelite order, where she took the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Because of her Jewish heritage, Sr. Teresa was taken from her cloister in Holland and martyred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. To one who lived mercy, none was given.

At our visit to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary just outside of Krakow, the incredible witness of God presence and mercy hit home. Below the main Sanctuary were several chapels connected by a glass wall to a main chapel dedicated to Sr. Faustina Kowalska. Following her death her diary been published, giving the message of Divine Mercy to the world.

One of the chapels was donated by Germany. The sacred space was unlike the others in its starkness. Walls painted white, a barbed wire stencil ran at chair height around the room. The altar was a stone block. Sitting on it was a small black iron crucifix made of nails. Hanging on the glass wall behind the altar, which looked out into the St. Faustina chapel, was a huge cross encircled by a crown of thorns. Made of steel and barbed wire, the harshness echoed the evil of the crucifixion of not only Jesus, but all the innocents who suffer at the hands of evil. Across from the chapel’s entrance was a life-sized sculpture of Sr. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), whose arms held the crucified body of Christ as it she had lifted Him from the Cross..

I froze as I entered into the chapel. Looking at the statue, it was as if Edith Stein was now offering Jesus’ broken Body to me. Stunned, I turned my head and through the cross and crown of thorns, could see the image of St. Faustina looking back at me. "Take Him," they seemed to be saying. "Take those who are suffering under the weight of sin, and be mercy."

Auschwitz is a reminder of the horrors of man's sinfulness. Despite of such incredible darkness, God was and is present. His Holy Spirit gives voice to those who, like Faustina, Edith Stein, and so many others who bravely stood against the face of evil, to speak out. Their courage reminds us to not succumb to hatred, sin, and evil, but to stand up and be a voice for love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness in the world.

The Church canonized St. Faustina and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross/Edith Stein (and many others from the WWII era). We must remember God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to be His instruments of His Love, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Mercy, and today. When we do, we incarnate Jesus in a world so desperately in need of His Love.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

Taken from the Acts of the Apostles 1:11, this line uttered by the angels following the Ascension of Our Lord is one of my favorite. It shows our humanity in oh so many ways.  It also makes clear the invitation to stop gazing up and “get going.”

The walk of a disciple is the constant invitation to live boldly our love for Christ. There is also a bit of trepidation as we strive to discover just how God invites us to share the Gospel with others. Mathew’s Gospel even notes this as those assembled “worshipped Him but doubted” (Mt 28:16-18).

I once read that fear and doubt are the exact opposite of faith—they cannot co-exist.

While those gathered saw the resurrected Jesus in their midst, they still doubted. What was the source of their questioning and anxiety? The reality of the resurrection? The promise of Jesus’ words? Their ability to carry out the great commission? The fear of where the invitation might lead? What will others think? All are reasonable thoughts and at their very core, very human.

When I think of those gathered with Jesus that day, I think there is a little bit of them in us today.

How often have we struggled to figure out how to find Jesus in the midst of daily living? How often have we wondered just what it is that God is inviting us to “do”? How often have we wondered how to live our faith in the midst of turmoil? How often have we questioned whether Jesus is truly with us—that He hasn’t abandoned us? How often have we been afraid to admit we need God?

St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians (Eph 1:17-23) reassure us that we have been given the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge. We also have planted within us the seeds of great hope. The challenge is to discover and unleash the Spirit within.

We receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. We consume the Divine Presence in the Eucharist. Through reception of the Sacraments we are constantly filled with the One who will never abandon us and the hope that one day we will be united forever with the One who loves us. This is Good News!

St. Paul reminds us that “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us” (Phil 4:13).

The Ascension is a time of letting go of our old ways, doubts, and fears and celebrating the new life we received at Easter. As we let go of the practices, habits, and sins that are obstacles in our relationship with God as we embrace new life in Christ. We reflect with gratitude on the experiences of life that led us to this point and gratefully break the chains of what impedes our path.

Let us reflect on how much God truly loves us as we enter into the silence of our own “Upper Room” to pray and discern where the Holy Spirit is inviting us as part of the invitation to go forth to make disciples of all nations.