Loss

I lost my best friend today.  He had cancer, and I held his dear fuzzy face as he died this morning.

About half the people that hear about this will say –or perhaps just think without voicing it: oh, it’s just a dog, get another one.  The other half will be very sympathetic, because they have been there, too.  But still there is a particular loneliness to grieving for a lost pet.

The sad loneliness about this circumstance is that there is nobody to truly share your loss and grief with.  Your pet probably didn’t have friends.  Just you, the family.  Nobody else actually misses your pet but you.  Yet the loss can be profound.  Nobody else truly knew him and loved him, but you.  It puts one in a lonely position of great sorrow.

I certainly don’t mean to diminish the grief of losing a family member or friend.  Yes, that is terrible and awful.  Today, as my husband and I work through our own grief, I want to cry out, but it is hard to find someone to SHARE the real sense of loss and sadness.

I was once given a book by an old friend of mine:  Father Jack Wintz.  Several years ago he wrote a book called Will I See My Dog in Heaven.  It is a great comfort to me.

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Christ the Bridegroom Icon

I have received a great gift.  A friend from Romania sent me a beautiful icon which he painted especially for me.  I am so blessed with this image and his generous friendship.  I love this icon.  It is so beautiful.

It arrived a short while ago.

I was able to find relatively little about the prototype of this image in my reference materials.  I learned that it is used in the Orthodox Church during the first service on Palm Sunday.  It portrays the unselfish, all-giving love of Christ for His bride, the Church.

 The Scriptural base of this image– Matthew 27: 27-31“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him.  They stripped off His clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about Him.  Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on His head, and a reed in His right hand.  And kneeling before Him, they mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They spat upon Him and took the reed and kept striking Him on the head.  And when they had mocked Him, they stripped Him of the cloak, dressed Him in His own clothes, and led Him off to crucify Him.

You might notice that in this image, compared to Western paintings of the passion of Christ, Jesus is depicted without blood or overt suffering.  The Orthodox tradition does not emphasize the suffering of Christ so much as it does His glory, dignity, and triumph over death.  The teaching is the same, east or west, but the emphasis is different.  As in all icons, the image is quiet and powerful, expressing no emotion but simply being present to the viewer.

Some of my own thoughts:

As I look at this icon, I see Christ humbly enduring mockery and ridicule.  Here in this country, we Christians are not likely to be subjected to physical torture and death, but we are very likely to experience mockery, ridicule, marginalization and rejection.  We face humiliation and exclusion, being the butt of jokes.  These are the forms that martyrdom takes in our culture.  I pray for the grace, courage and strength to remain strong in faith and trust in God.

The Lord’s hands are bound–in the position/gesture that symbolizes humility in icons. He is silent and gives Himself over because of my sins.  His fingers are extended in a gesture of blessing despite what is being done to Him.  His bound hands speak of imprisonment, as well as submission and humility.

It is a sorrowful icon, and my reflections here are gloomy, but it also reminds me to focus on the hopes realized 3 days after Christ’s Passion.   And in that sense, the icon is not a sad image but one filled with hope and a love that cannot be conquered by evil.

The blessing of the icon

The blessing of the icon

 

 

My icon has been blessed by my pastor, and occupies a place of honor in my home.  I promised the iconographer that I would pray for him daily, and each day I do indeed lift him up in prayer to the Lord for all of his intentions and needs.

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Communion Story

My husband volunteers as a Eucharistic Minister in our local hospital.  He visits each person who has identified him/herself as Catholic, offering the Body of Christ to any who would like to receive it.  He told me a story about one patient this past week:  he stopped in to visit her.  He introduced himself.  She was recovering from surgery and they chatted briefly.  He offered her Communion.  She said no, no, explaining that she had been attending an evangelical church for the past several years and had not been to Mass.  Besides, she said, she just eaten breakfast.  They talked some more, about the fasting requirement, about related subjects.

“Did you give her Communion?” I asked, and  to my surprise he said “yes”.  Thoughts of the rules and needing to be properly prepared to receive Our Lord ran through my head.  Scripture passages.  Homilies.  Years of training and study.

He went on to tell me that they first prayed together.  He prayed over her and for her.  They said the Our Father together.  As they prayed, she began to tear up.  She asked for the Eucharist,  and gratefully received the Host.  Then she began to cry in earnest.  My husband felt this to be a beautiful, powerful moment and a profound experience of faith.

I thought about it, knowing the canon law and the importance of being in a state of grace and properly prepared to receive the Eucharist . . . but also  knowing how the necessity of the moment seemed to call for this bending of the rules.

Jesus is the very definition of mercy and forgiveness, and He alone knows what was in a person’s heart.  I suppose that if it came down to this sort of on-the-spot decision,  even if it turned out to be in error, I’d rather err on the side of mercy and compassion than in being strictly correct.

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Divine Mercy Icon

I have been working on an icon of the Divine Mercy, and recently completed it.  Before beginning work on it, I prayed about it for more than a year.

For those who don’t know the background story of this image, here is my paraphrased, shortened version–from memory:

Sister Faustina Kowalski (now St. Faustina) was a young nun in Poland, who began to have multiple visions of Jesus beginning in the 1930s.  She kept a diary of these conversations and visions.  In them, the Lord reassured her of His great love and mercy for all souls.  He taught her a prayer–the Divine Mercy Chaplet–to be recited on ordinary rosary beads.  Jesus promised great graces to all who said it, with special mercy granted to those who prayed it on their deathbed.

original Divine Mercy painting

He asked her to have a painting made of Him, just the way He appeared to her.  St. Faustina, who was not an artist, was a bit flabbergasted at this request.  Commissioning a painter was a bit problematic for a young nun in a convent, with her vows of poverty and obedience, but eventually she was able to carry out her task with the help of her confessor.  The artist painted the image to her specifications. She was not pleased with the result–after all, who could paint the Lord to look as beautiful as He appeared to her.  Eventually, however, she accepted the image as good enough.

Jesus told her that He wanted this image displayed in every Church. He promised grace and blessings would be granted to each church as well as each person who prayed before the image.  In addition, Jesus asked that a feastday be established throughout the world, to be called Divine Mercy Sunday. It was to be celebrated the Sunday after Easter.   Getting the word out about this, too, presented some practical difficulties for the young nun.

Decades later, with the support of St. Pope John Paul II, this feastday was established.  St. Faustina was canonized. Copies of the painting are found all over the world.

Divine Mercy is a Roman Catholic devotion, so my decision to repaint the image as an icon raised some issues for me.  This is my version, containing all of the elements requested by Jesus, consisting of:

Our Lord is dressed in a simple white garment. One hand is raised in blessing.  The other is pulling aside the robe over His heart.  Two rays emanate from His heart.  Jesus explained the symbolism of each “the red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls” (Diary of St. Faustina).  The pale ray “stands for the water which makes souls righteous” (Diary of St. Faustina).   On every version of the painting, these words must be written:  “Jesus I Trust in You”.  The words “Jesus I Trust in You” are written in the original Polish, as well as in English and Spanish.

The above are the essential elements for the image.  (Read more about it here.)

I added several specific icon elements as well:  Jesus is standing before a mandorla, shaped like an almond–a symbol of life in ancient Semitic cultures. The mandorla stands for the glory of God. It is painted in 3 rings of dark color, representing the mystery of  the Triune God, for in His essence He is unseeable and unknowable.

Christ’s halo is a symbol of the Holy Light and radiance of God.  It is inscribed with Greek letters that say I AM WHO AM.  The IC XC above are also Greek:  they read “Jesus Christ”.  Every icon has the name of the person depicted written on it so that there is no doubt who it is.  (An icon does not attempt to be a physical likeness, but a spiritual portrait.)

The color is not so great in this photograph, but the background is actually a golden color. Yellow and gold are used to indicate that the Light of God being present all around the figure, and are a typical icon background color.  The border is a darker shade of gold.

The figure casts no shadows, as the light comes from within.  He moves towards the viewer from Heaven, not bound to any physical place or time.

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Before and After Vatican II

I was just a kid when Vatican II happened.  By the time I was finished with 3rd Grade, many changes had occurred.  I remember the pre-Vatican II days and the changes that followed.

I often read and hear criticisms of those changes.  I hear blame for the ills and the declining “retention” numbers in our Church put on the Vatican II Council.  I have thought long and hard about that, and here are my own humble observations on that situation, based on my memories and experiences.  I doubt that I am alone.

(First of all, let me state that in my years of steady Mass attendance, I have not seen any of the truly outrageous things that are described in other articles and posts.  My experience has been of very traditional, very respectful, very beautiful liturgies, in each of the 7 Western U.S. parish communities that I have been part of since the 1960s.  None of them have been filled with weirdness. All of them have been reverent and sincere in following the Lord.)

Yet, I am sure there were many people who experienced confusion and lack of focus.

I saw that statues and art were eliminated in many places, or left out entirely of new church buildings.  Old hymns were ignored in favor of Protestant, rock, or folk-style songs–songs about us, not so much about God.  I miss those things.  Not everything was an improvement.

Pre-Vatican II:  I remember taking a missal to church.  I amused myself by looking at the pictures and reading Gospel stories while the priest droned on in Latin, a long mumbling dialogue between him and the altar boy.  His back was to us and I could not see what was happening.  Younger children ate Cheez-its and Cheerios,  we older ones looked at picture books or read.  Adults nodded off, said their own prayers, perused the parish bulletin or read the local Catholic Tidings.  Older women said the rosary to pass the time.  Sometimes bells rang, and we all looked up then. I suppose many of the adults knew what was going on, but I didn’t.

There was an attitude of passivity and detachment.  Let the priest do it, seemed to be the consensus.  There were no demands on anyone else, except monetary support, attendance, monetary support, obeying the rules, monetary support, and being quiet during the liturgy. It was very authoritarian time, with good Catholic families doing whatever Father said to do.

The music then was beautiful.  Sometimes there was incense, sometimes there were processions.

People dressed better for services then, but of course that simply gave many the opportunity to gossip and give critical up-and-down once-overs to everyone who entered, and furthered the keeping up with the Joneses mentality.  It might have looked like dressing with respect for the Lord, but it was often more about impressing others. Showing off one’s Easter bonnet, one’s Christmas dress.  Getting us 4 kids ready for Mass definitely made my mother nervous because of this.  We had to look good–because we were being judged.

I made my First Communion before Vatican II.  We knelt at the altar rails, and the priest put the Host on our tongues.  An altar boy, who was, of course, was always someone I knew from school, held the paten under our chins.  Later on at school, the boys snickered and made rude comments about the various parishioners and how stupid they looked, especially us girls.  I became too embarrassed to go to Communion, fearing being the butt of jokes and made excuses not to participate.

Aside from the homily, there was no adult catechesis.  The expectation was that Father would advise and expound upon the rules, and we would follow his direction without question or understanding.

Then . . . after Vatican II.  The priest turned around and faced us over the altar.  People seemed so much more attentive. I began to enjoy Mass, following closely what was happening and feeling part of the banquet.  It was in English, too. I could understand the words! There was much more participation, and more active enthusiasm among the congregation.  I really liked this, and still do.  The Mass is so simple, so elegant, so very beautiful, clean and clear.  The love and reverence fills me with awe for our God.

I also liked receiving the Eucharist in my hand.  It felt so positive to take Our Lord actively into ourselves, rather than a passive receiving.  It was a deliberate reaching out and choosing Him, and it made my faith stronger.

Sure, we could dress better for the liturgy, but it is a relief not to know that we are welcome just the way we are, without being anxious that we are not good enough to show up.  It was good for me as a child to see girls serving at the altar, knowing that the Church was something that I could participate in, too.

There is still no adult catechesis that I am aware of at any parish in town, no serious faith formation aside from an occasional parish revival or speaker.  (In the last few years, this seems to be changing.)  As adults, anything that we need or want to know, we must search out the answers for ourselves.   There are a LOT of resources available now, though.  But after Vatican II,  having been raised on passive reception of faith,  most people just don’t do this.  Most did not take ownership of their faith but simply drifted away.

* * * * * * *

While all of these changes were going on in the Church, our society and culture were undergoing a tremendous transformation.  The sexual revolution, protests against war, the pill, questioning authority, and the rise of hedonism and relativity.  These things were in the very air. Parishioners could not help but notice and to some extent absorb them.  They were actively and aggressively promoted on TV, through media, in the arts, and in schools at every level, particularly college.

I think that the widespread social changes that came about since the time of the Council have far more to do with the decline in attendance and the shortage of vocations than Vatican II ever did. Coming from such a non-engaged, detached version of parish life, many people were tempted away by materialism and easy comfortable lives.  There was not a widespread solid foundation for faith.

I submit that without Vatican II, there would have been an even greater hemorrhage of the faithful, especially the young, than there has been. Led by the Holy Spirit, the Council actually saved the Catholic Church and  now stands poised to revitalize it as the wisdom contained in the documents becomes more fully understood.

I’d love to see Catholics everywhere stop blaming, stop the infighting.  Take stock of where we are now–both good and bad, and begin anew to rebuild our Church.  Each one of us, walking unafraid in the steps of the early Church:  apostles, saints, and martyrs, bringing the love of God to all people.

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Anxiety and Worry

I learn so much while walking the dogs.  Everywhere I look, there is something beautiful to see, something worthy to ponder.  The other day, ambling along the river on the bike path, I passed a fence painted with these words, and it set me to thinking.

It put me in mind of many a prayer, and of many a verse of Scripture.  Prayers like the one said at Mass, at the end of the Our Father:  “grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may always be free from sin and safe from all distress”.  An older version of this prayer reads “protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope”.  A still older one–preVatican II– asks God to keep us free “from all disturbance”.

St. Pope John Paul II said in his inauguration address in 1978 “Do not be afraid”.

So many times in the Gospels one read the words of Jesus, or of angels:  “Be not afraid”.

Jesus is with us, always.   Trust in Him will dispel fears and worries.

I was glad to see this reminder painted so strongly on someone’s fence, however secular the painter’s thoughts might have been.  Put your trust in God. Do not waste your time in worrying, in imagining catastrophe, but abide peacefully in the knowledge that God wants the best for us, and whatever happens, He will be with us every step of the way and bring goodness out of all.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them.  How much more important are you than birds!  Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”  Luke 12:22-26

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The Holy Spirit and Evangelization

It’s Pentecost today, and I want to tell a story–a totally true story– of a college student in my parish, who was received into the Catholic Church just 40 days ago at our Easter Vigil.  I read a post by a fellow blogger just now on a similar theme, and after reading it was further inspired to tell everyone of the actions of this young woman.

I live in a very secular, very pagan, unchurched, liberal town, which grew up around a very large public university.  The hostility to Catholicism, indeed, all of Christianity, is palpable, both on and off campus. Two young men have been regularly preaching out on the campus lawn this school year–preaching hellfire and damnation.  They condemn and judge and tell passing students that they are going to hell.  On one particular day last week, a group of students stopped to listen, argue with, and even heckle the two preachers.  One of the students listening was the newly baptized Catholic woman from my parish.  She listened, was disturbed at what she was hearing, and then felt strongly moved to do something. . .  strange.

She was moved to leave and go to her dorm room and get a bucket of water.  She told herself that that was ridiculous, but the urge persisted.  She fought it further, telling herself that she can’t do that, but still she had the urge.  And so she obeyed.  She went to her dorm room and got a bucket of water, and lugged it back to the preachers.

Feeling rather foolish and afraid for a moment, she gathered up her courage and stepped forward.  She went up to the preaching men and set her bucket of water down in front of them.

She asked them if she could wash their feet.

No, they said. That’s stupid.  Our feet are clean.  We don’t need our feet washed.

The crowd hushed and watched intently.

The young woman spoke up, telling them that they have it all wrong. She told them that Jesus didn’t come to judge and condemn, but to show mercy.  He came to love and to serve. That Christianity was about humility, love and service, not about sending people to hell.  And she asked again to wash their feet, to serve them this way.

I don’t know exactly what the pair of preachers said to this, but I do know that the watching students came forward to talk to the brave young woman with her container of water, and hear what she had to say about her faith and the teachings of the Church.

The Holy Spirit moved powerfully through her that day, and she did not turn away from the challenge.

I pray that I might have the courage to seize such opportunities, and that you might as well.

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Mother’s Day Reflection

A dear friend of mine was asked to do a reflection at church on Mother’s Day, and this is what she came up with. I thought it was beautiful, and pertinent even after the holiday has ended for this year:

All this week I have been reflecting and praying about writing this reflection on motherhood and then I received this letter from a dear friend who wrote me to express her remembrances of my mother, Helen Rose Picado, who died this past December, and to embrace me in her heart and prayers. It began with this poem by Dawna Markova:

I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance;

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

 

Bear much fruit. I was amazed. I am always amazed when God speaks to me so clearly through others. It was as if I was hearing an echo from the words of scripture in this past week leading up to Mother’s Day:

I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,

LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

No one has greater love than this,

to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.

LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Go and bear much fruit.

Remain in my Love.

Do these profound words not remind you of your mother and all those who mother you? They certainly remind me of my mother. As I wrote this, her picture was next to me and I know she was with me, as always, giving me guidance and wise counsel and helping me bear fruit.

How many times and in how many countless ways has your mother told you that she loves you? I know my mother told me that I was a miracle. She, like Sarah, was told that she would not be able to have children but she prayed to God and Our Lady to have a child… and I came along, her only child.

But whether you were an only child or not, I bet your mother called you a miracle too. Because you are—each and every one of you—molded and shaped in the image of God, a unique and beautiful creation. And, I know as a mother, I consider both of my sons, precious miracles, gifts from God, from His hands to mine. Who knows this better than a mother, who bore you into this world and whose heart rejoiced and danced and sang God’s praises when you arrived.

And, as I, like Jesus, grew, and my mother, like Mary, marveled at this wondrous being, this child of hers, my mother fed me, comforted me, nurtured me, guided me through life’s many challenges, watched out for me as I confronted danger, scolded and chided me when I went astray, believed in me when I floundered, taught me so many things from tying my shoes and brushing my teeth and reading to doing my best and bearing much fruit and loving God and one another.

When you think about it, wasn’t it all about Love? Wasn’t your and my mother’s life a pouring out of Love, a laying down of her life for ours??  Her joy was in us so that our joy might be complete. And Jesus tells us, there is no greater love than this.

I share with you now an excerpt from the reflection I shared about my mother at her memorial service:

What mattered most in all the world to my mother was love of family and she poured her life into us and in so doing bequeathed to us the greatest of gifts, the gift of Love, love of God, love of family, love of friends. And, in the end, love defies all odds; it is an everyday miracle, this perfect gift from Above, for even now that my mother is gone from us in this earthly realm, love prevails. Love, quite miraculously, does bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.

So, this mother’s day and whenever you have lost your way, remember and replay often the following conversation with GOD and your MOTHER and all those who manifest PERFECT LOVE in little and not-so-little ways.

ME: TELL ME THE WAY, LORD.

GOD: I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,

ME: BUT, HOW DO WE DO THIS?

GOD: LOVE ONE ANOTHER, AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

No one has greater love than this,

to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

ME: BUT, WHY DO WE DO THIS?

GOD: So that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.

ME: HOW DO WE DO THIS AGAIN?

GOD: Don’t worry, my child, the Holy Spirit
will teach you everything
and remind you to…
LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

ME: WHAT MUST I DO AGAIN?

GOD: LOVE ONE ANOTHER, AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

Go, my child, and bear much fruit.

Remain in my Love always.

 

My dear friends, this Mother’s Day, keep your mothers and this conversation close to your hearts.  Bless you, your mothers, and go and Love One Another, Bear Much Fruit, and Remain in Love always. Amen.

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Did you know. . .

. . . that those in the Dominican order always wear a rosary on their left side, just as the medieval knights wore their swords.  And just as a knight used his sword to defend himself, a Dominican uses his rosary in spiritual battle.   (from the Dominican Western Province newsletter, Spring 2015)

. . . that the persecutions of Christians in 2nd century  Lyons, Gallia (France) were some of the most vicious and brutal since those of the Emperor Nero in Rome.  Despite this, or possibly as a result of this witness, Roman Gaul and the Celtic people were nearly 100% Catholic within 150 years.  (from the chapter on St. Irenaeus in Four Witnesses: The Early church in Her Own Words).  

. . . that the 8th-century Benedictine Abbey at Le Mont San Michel, has a museum with dozens, if not hundreds of large unique individual statues of St. Michael the Archangel.  An enormous collection. Each angel was sculpted to perch on top of the spire soaring above the church.  After about 50 years of weathering on the stone, the statue needed to be replaced.  The statues in the museum are the old ones, saved for posterity.   (from a travel slide presentation by a visiting artist priest).

(And the question then had to be asked:  how did the monks get the big, heavy, new stone statues up there?  The answer:  they built wooden scaffolding all the way to the top, then hauled the heavy stonework up with ropes, positioned it and attached it firmly.)

. . .  that in the mid 1990s, the city of Pittsburg, in an effort to not “offend” non-Christians, but still encourage rampant spending, changed the official name of “Christmas” to the “Sparkle Season”.   People were encouraged to wish others a Happy Sparkle Season or to reference the solstice or wintertime.  This ridiculous state of affairs actually lasted for 8 years before being rescinded. (from The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina, and also verified online on multiple sites).

. . . that the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiori) in Rome is also called Our Lady of the Snows.  This name comes from an ancient legend, probably only a story but beautiful nonetheless.  According to the legend, a wealthy couple living in 4th Century Rome wanted to build a church to honor the Virgin Mary.  As they prayed, they somehow were led to know that snow would fall in the hottest month of the year, and that the snow would mark the outside boundaries of the new church.  The snow did fall, in August, and mapped out the area for the huge church, which stands today.  (from The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, and multiple sources online).

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Grace in Abundance

In reflecting on the recent Gospel reading of the story of the loaves and fishes, I found myself thinking about God’s abundant grace.  More than what was needed to do the job.  Extravagant in its generosity. Plenty left over. Overflowing love.

We are showered with it every day.   All we need to do is accept it and receive it.

I thought of it again when visiting a tulip farm:  abundant beauty.  More than was expected, almost excessive.

Extravagant in its beauty, both up close and en masse.

And what is beauty but another glimpse of the Face of God, His loving generosity and care, and His overflowing love.

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