There’s Something About Mary

madonna and child

Madonna and Child, Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato,  Rome, 1685, Private Collection.

Monday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Friday was the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Needless to say, I’ve had the Blessed Mother on my brain all week.  My thoughts are often with her, but especially during Advent.

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The Stone Gate in Zagreb, Croatia

  My first adult encounter with the Blessed Mother occurred while backpacking in Central Europe. As I was meandering through the streets of Zagreb, my friends and I encountered the Stone Gate, which leads to the entrance of the city. There I saw a famous painting of the Blessed Mother that was enclosed in a shrine. There was a huge fire in the city that destroyed a big part of it, but the painting of the Virgin Mary remained completely untouched.  My friends and I read bricks surrounding the painting with inscriptions from people all over the world who paid homage. When we started to walk away from the gate, my grandmother’s Miraculous Medal fell from my neck. There it fell at the Virgin’s feet. I don’t see things as mere coincidences. Rather, I see them as signs. I feel as though the Blessed Mother was trying to tell me something. For me, I recognized the call to return to the Church and to my faith. I grabbed the medal and tightened the clasp of my chain and carefully put it back on. Through the years Mary has been “popping” up in various places in my life as a guiding light through novenas, prayers, books, and medals.

As a woman, I connect to the Blessed Mother through her femininity. Even as a young girl, I saw Mary as I would my own mother. In adulthood, she is a woman like many of my friends who have recently had babies. I imagine Mary, after giving birth to Jesus, holding him tightly and staring at him with awe.  Though I am not a mother, I do know what it is like to hold a newborn. You do not want to peel your eyes from them. I often wonder what it would be like to hold my own son or daughter. What was it like for Mary to hold Jesus?

One of my favorite verses of the Bible and why I love and connect to Mary so much says that Mary, at the birth of Jesus, “[…] kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” I am a woman who sits, ponders, marvels, and processes everything.  I hold many things in my heart.  I see myself like Mary fully observing and absorbing everything. She would have been well aware that her boy would only remain a small boy for a brief while and she would have to cherish every coo, babble, breath, and sigh for as long as possible. For just a brief while her son would be an infant.

Her infant son would grow up to be the Messiah changing the fate of the world with his ministry. The old testament prophet Isaiah declared generations prior, “for to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

The Gospel of Luke describes Mary (from the Angel Gabriel) as, “Favored One.”   Favored is she for not just anyone will obediently declare herself a handmaid of God.  Take a moment to ponder the Annunciation for a moment.

You are Mary. You are sitting at home most likely sewing or stitching. Suddenly this gigantic glowing being comes bursting through your room.  How terrifying that must have been. Then you are told that you will conceive a child through the Holy Spirit. If that was not terrifying enough you have to convince your fiancé that you got impregnated by the Holy Spirit?? That takes some serious grace under fire!  Not only that but she would have faced stoning if Joseph did not believe her.

Mary, full of tremendous grace. We all heard the Christmas story over and over, but have we thought about Mary?  She obediently took on the role of the Mother of Jesus, traveled several hundred miles on donkey or maybe a camel (which by the way, are both horrible choices pregnant or not) while nine months pregnant and gave birth in a stable.  She gave birth without any epidurals. No ice chips. No nurse. She did not have a birth plan. There was no plan. Just Joseph and few peeping farm animals. She wore no hospital gown.  She probably did not have a bath or anything afterwards. The birth of Jesus was probably pretty painful and messy. I’m sure Mary did not feel clean or comfortable.

Most likely Mary’s first thought after birth was “he’s so beautiful,” but perhaps she also contemplated the prophecies spelled out by the prophet Isaiah, “but he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  It is no wonder she ponder all of this and held this in her heart. That is a LOT to process!

Mary had to be quite a woman. After all, can you imagine, shouting, “Jeshua, Jeshua, please, come in, it’s time to eat. Can you set the table?” Can you imagine having to tell Jesus to wash up before dinner or help wash the dishes? Further more, can you imagine watching strangers shove a crown of thorns on the brow of your son whose forehead you kissed several times?

Mary is full of grace. humility, and utmost obedience.  Her life reflects how we should live out our own. We can approach Mary much like our own Mother. In times of need, failure, and fear we can ask Mary, please Mother, intercede on our behalf. In times of joy, she will be there to relish in our victories.

Hail Mary,

Full of Grace,

The Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit

of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary,

Mother of God,

pray for us sinners now,

and at the hour of death.

Amen.

Mary, like any good mother, guides her children with patience and love. She guides us to her son. Just like with my friends with babies, she looks on to her son with great pride wants everyone to see His face. This Advent sit and chat with Mother Mary. Remember, she is a woman who holds everything in her heart. A woman who ponders deeply will have plenty to say. Take the time to listen.

Waiting in Anticipation

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When I was little Christmas felt so magical. I remember the anticipation for Christmas felt almost unbearable at times. One of my most cherished gifts as a child was a book of Christmas hymns. My mother probably doesn’t remember giving it to me, but I will never forget it. I learned so many songs and their origins from this book. One of my favorite things about the advent season is the music. Even now I wait in anticipation for the end of the liturgical year for the Christmas hymns.

One of my favorite songs is “Veni veni, Emmanuel” or “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “Veni, veni Emmanuel” was written as part of (or a paraphrase of)  O Antiphons to be used as Vespers during the final days of Advent.  It is now used as hymn for the first week of Advent. Its lyrics are most profound.

The hymn opens with:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent is a season filled with great expectancy.  The book of Titus writes,  in chapter two,”[…} we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of God and our savior Jesus Christ.” Whenever I hear the words, “O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here,” I can’t help but imagine the political turmoil of world.  I sing this hymn and see the Syrian refugees that have fled to Turkey for asylum. I see the people rioting in Ferguson, MO. I see the parents of children mourning the loss of their children murdered in school shootings. I see soldiers at war.  I see the homeless being ignored. I see the LGBT community being tormented.  I see the kidnapped Nigerian girls.  I see terrorist acts of ISIS. I see infants perishing at the hands of their own parents.  I see victims of rape and domestic violence living in fear. I see young girls being sold into sex slavery. I see a world being torn apart by greed, by selfishness,  by hatred, by wrath- by sin.

Out of the depths we cry out to you,  O Lord. Lord hear our voices! O Lord, hear our prayers.

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Even in mourning, the Jews in ancient Israel had faith that asylum would come to them.  They rejoiced amidst great trauma. They rejoiced because they lived in hope. Just as the Jews of the ancient age waited for redemption, we wait and live in the blessed hope of Christ.  Advent is a reminder that we can rejoice for we have hope. Pope Francis said during his General Audience last Advent, “The time of Advent that we begin again today returns us to the horizon of hope, a hope that does not disappoint because it is founded on the Word of God. A hope that does not disappoint, simply because the Lord never disappoints! He is faithful!”Even in the darkest of days, we have hope.

Let us spend this advent remembering those captive refugees who mourns in lonely exile. We (as Christians) should live in the fullness of Christ’s love by giving hope to those who have none. Feed the poor. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless.  Be an ally to the marginalized. Speak out against injustice. Stand in solidarity with the persecuted. Hold and hug the mourning.

What I learned About Suffering from St. Ignatius of Loyola

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St. Ignatius of Loyola

St. Ignatius once said: “If God causes you to suffer much, it is a sign that He has great designs for you, and that He certainly intends to make you a saint. And if you wish to become a great saint, entreat Him yourself to give you much opportunity for suffering; for there is no wood better to kindle the fire of holy love than the wood of the cross, which Christ used for His own great sacrifice of boundless charity.”

In the midst of suffering, that is often the time when God’s presence is strongly felt. It has been in my darkest of moments that I have felt the presence of God in my life more than any other time. Often we praise God during times of happiness, but in sorrow we ask, “Where is God?”  I admit, sometimes I have had those moments.

I don’t think there is a human being on this planet who has not been face to face with suffering. For me, suffering has been in the form of depression. I was never formally diagnosed with depression for in order to receive a clinical diagnosis, the symptoms must be chronic. My depression comes in bouts and therefore, appears to be just “the blues.” However, I am predisposed to melancholia. There have been times in my life when the sadness hurt so badly, I felt it in my bones.

When I was confirmed, I chose St. Dymphna  as a confirmation name because she is the patroness of psychologists (my future profession) and depression and anxiety.  I did not know until recently that St. Ignatius of Loyola suffered for years with depression and even suicidal thoughts.  I find it a bit ironic that out of all the churches in the city, the one I manage to wander into would be a Jesuit parish.

What is known as Ignatian spirituality mirrors that of a contemporary therapeutic practice often used for patients with depressive disorders or anxiety called cognitive behavioral therapy. Ignatian spirituality is the practice of deliberate mindfulness redirecting one’s thoughts to the Father.  Ignatian spirituality encourages daily meditative behavior. Fr. James Martin, S.J. explains in his book,  A Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, :

“It means that nothing is considered outside the purview of the spiritual life. Ignatian spirituality is not confined within the walls of a church. It’s not a spirituality that considers only ‘spiritual’ topics, like prayer and sacred texts, as part of a person’s spiritual life.”

Everything in this life is spiritual. Yes, even suffering.   As St. Ignatius has taught us, this means in all circumstances we are to find God in all things. God is always present even in our darkest hours- especially in our darkest hours.  For without suffering, without sin, without darkness, there would be no need for Jesus.

When I feel sadness, I seek God, “Out of the depths, I call to you, Lord; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy,” as David, the psalmist, writes Psalm 130:1-2. The face of God  peers through the light of the sun, in the majesty of crashing waves, in the sorrow of the poor, in a slumbering baby in the pew next to me, in the sorrowful eyes of the sick, in the embrace of two lovers- in all things. In the quiet, I can find God in all things even in suffering. In his gentleness, I can pull my face to the shining sun.

Suscipe (St. Ignatius of Loyola)

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding

and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

 

You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

 

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace.

That is enough for me.

Lord, I am not Worthy

Penitant Mag Titan

The Penitent Magdalene ,Titian, 1533, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Prior to the most recent liturgical changes, I used to sit in mass during Ecce Agnus Dei, when the priest holds up the consecrated host before communion and announce, “Behold the Lamb of God …” and ponder the proceeding the response, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, only say the word and I shall be healed.” Prior to receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, I used to hear that prayer and see the woman, who the Gospel of Matthew writes, was hemorrhaging for years. The woman caught a glimpse of Jesus in the streets and thought, “if I could just touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed.” Jesus told her,” your faith has healed you.”

I carried that imagine with me mass after mass  as I saw myself as a broken woman desperate to grab onto the hem of Jesus’ garments in order for him to heal all the pieces of my heart that were shattered.

Years later, the liturgical changes transformed the words, to “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” These words are those of the humble Centurion in Matthew 8:8.

Since receiving the Eucharist for the first time, I now see myself like the Centurion. I cry almost every time we reach this part of the mass because I am not worthy. It is His grace that pulls us out of the muck and mire. When I come forward to receive the Eucharist, I feel humbled, for I am not worthy to receive the body and blood, and yet, it is a gift freely bestowed to me.

One of the women of the Bible I most identify with is Mary Magdalene.  Her sins made her notorious among the people. She was marked, “untouchable,” but Jesus saw only her humility. Mary was with sin and yet, there was Jesus right there to pull her out. He called her by name. Mary remained as close to Jesus as the twelve and even at the foot of the cross, there she remained. At the tomb, there she was still. Jesus revealed his resurrected body to her first before anyone else. How privileged she must have felt!

Jesus calls us all by name. Though we are not worthy, it is through Him that we become worthy. We are all holy vessels. And what more, we do not have to be perfect, we just have to be willing to answer Him when he calls us.

My Journey Home

My journey back to Catholic Church is a complicated one.

           I was baptized Catholic and during my early childhood I remember attending mass at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard, CA. We left the Church while I was still small. My mother was seeking to have her children grow up in a faith-filled community where we could connect with people our own age and I suppose, at the time, that was something that was lacking in Catholic parishes in the 1980s. I truly think we took a pit stop to the Protestant Church to pick up my brother in-law on the way. It was in a Protestant church that my sister met her husband along with a group of friends,who one by one converted to the Catholic faith.

When I was 18 years old my sister declared that she was returning to the Catholic Church and bringing her husband and her children with her. I was dumfounded. I asked her why and eventually questions began to spill out. I asked her to show me where in the Bible pieces of the Catholic faith came into place such as the Hail Mary. She was patient with me and showed me in the Gospel of Luke chapter one verses 26-38 which speaks of the Annunciation of Mary when the angel Gabriel visits Mary declaring that she is blessed among women. I ruminated over this very familiar passage, one that I read every Christmas, and began to contemplate the piece of my faith that had shaped my entire life.

Over the course of thirteen years I would wrestle with my faith and my identity in it. My sister told me that sacraments were not to be taken flippantly, but deliberately. Once I received all of the sacraments, it would be my responsibility to live them out daily. I was not prepared for that responsibility. What transpired would be a long spiritual tug of war.

Even though I spent a chunk of my life in Protestant churches, my family was still rooted in Catholic traditions. Every meal began with my dad leading the blessing with the sign of the cross and proceeding with, “Bless us, O Lord and these Thy gifts..” I never knew a family meal without this prayer. I knew the seven sacraments because it was part of our Christmas Eve meal (the Feast of Seven Fish). My father was once in seminary and decided not to become a priest as he learned marriage was the vocation he actually was after. My father, having been taught by the Holy Ghost Fathers, was very good at making sure his children knew the Catholic faith even in the most subtle of ways. It must also be noted that when I am visiting my parents and attending mass with them, I still catch my dad whispering to himself all of the components of the mass even those the priest recites.

Even with my father’s little lessons, Catholicism was an enigma to me as child. I’ll never forget the time I was looking through his Bible as small child coming to him, “Daddy, there’s something wrong with your Bible. There are extra books in there. You better check it out!” and he said, “oh no, no extra books. All the right ones are in there.” he laughed jokingly. I learned my first lesson in church history that day, but my understanding on doctrine and dogma was muddled. Forget about transubstantiation, that would take me a few more decades to grasp.

           When my grandmother died, I was given her Miraculous Medal and wore it without knowing what it represented. What I knew was that I wanted to carry my grandmother with me for the rest of my life. Eight years after my grandmother passed, my grandfather passed and I was given his crucifix and family rosary, belonging to my great uncle, that was blessed by Pope Pius XII (who also had a private audience with him). It was coincidentally the same period of time when my sister declared her return to the Church. I sat in my grandfather’s funeral mass and instead of sadness, I felt peace. I was sad to see him go, but I felt peace in the prayers. I felt comfort in knowing that my grandfather would be reunited with his wife and received by God.

       Burying my grandfather, my mother showed me the stain glass window at St. Bernard’s Church in Indiana, PA that was dedicated to Fred and Virginia (my grandparents) and at the cemetery, I saw the grotto, built by my great uncle that enclosed a statue of Blessed Mother. At that moment, I thought about how my family line was filled generations after generations of faithful Catholics. Their faith had been such an integral part of their life even to the tying it to their occupation as my great uncle, a mason, had done with the grotto in the cemetery.

The call to return to the Church had continued on through several more years. I would feel a tug to go to RCIA to get the rest of the sacraments and then would immediately pull away. With every turn, there was the Church. In 2007, I felt called to the Czech Republic. During the Cold War, the Czech Republic was forced to strip religion down to rites. Under Soviet control, religion could no longer be practiced publicly which would transform the nation to a predominately Catholic one to a predominately Atheist one. When I came to the Czech Republic, I remember attending an English service in a Protestant church and thinking, “this is great, but this just isn’t for me.” I asked my new friends where a Catholic Church was in town, to which they replied, “you wouldn’t understand it, it’s not in English.” But catholic means ‘universal.’ Eventually, I was connected with a Czech woman who introduced me to her church, a small Catholic parish downtown. This little, cold church would be my home for the next two years.

One day I was nodding off in mass (because parts of it I just could not understand), when I heard English. There were two American lay missionaries who served in the Czech Republic and they were visiting my parish. I couldn’t believe it. After mass I went to them and spoke to them about their ministry. Tom and his wife mentioned a healing mass that would take place later that day and expressed how he wanted to pray for me and my roommate. I brought my roommate at the time for mass and afterwards, they prayed for us. I felt true spiritual healing.

A few years later, I found myself in Philadelphia. I prayed that God would send me to New York, but Philadelphia would be the place to which I was supposed to move. I worked for a Christian school for brief time and would learn that working as a teacher was not my true vocation. For about a year (while working at the school) I would pass a non-profit , serving the homeless, called Bethesda Project and felt drawn to this building. The word “apply” would enter my head every time I passed that building on my way home from work. One day, I found myself in need of a new job and the words “apply” entered my head. Little did I know that I would be applying for a position in a Catholic organization. I stayed in Philadelphia for two years until I felt another call to San Francisco. Just as with Bethesda, I would heard, “San Francisco” in my head. I eventually moved to San Francisco for a job working with the developmentally disabled.

I church hopped again and felt the pull to RCIA again. Eventually I would move into the Haight and from my apartment  balcony I could see two large spires poking up through the sky. I hit Google and looked up “Catholic Churches in the Haight.” The first that came up in the search was St. Agnes , a Jesuit parish in Haight-Ashbury, just two blocks from my place. I could have easily gone to St. Agnes, but I was curious about the church with the spires. I hit Google image. There it was, St. Ignatius, a Jesuit parish on Fulton connected to the University of San Francisco, about a half mile from my house. The next day, after my Google search,  I walked to St. Ignatius thinking mass started at 10:30. I got to mass early enough to conveniently read the bulletin and learned that there was a RCIA class starting. “OK God. You have my attention,” I whispered to myself. I signed up for RCIA the next day.

I spent most of RCIA slightly comatose  and drifting in and out of consciousness from my grad school workload, but it wasn’t until my first experience with confession that I felt like I “got it.” The sacrament of reconciliation felt like a homecoming. I felt like the prodigal son who just wasted his inheritance only to come home with pig excrement smeared on my face and yet received by a gracious father ready to welcome me home. During my first ever confession, my priest told me to read Psalm 139 noting that God has always been there. He knew exactly what I was going to do before I did it. Even when I ran away, there He was. I didn’t matter if I was in the Czech Republic or San Francisco- God was always there.

I was confirmed not at 12, but at age 30 on April 19, 2014. The moment that Chrism oil hit my head, I knew my life would change forever. I would never be the same again. I didn’t want to be the same. I made a conscious decision to eliminate everything in my life that did not gel with my spirit. My sister was right. The sacraments are not to be taken lightly, but deliberately. I knew at the moment when I took the Eucharist for the first time, that I would be striving to live out the sacraments daily. My journey back to the Catholic Church was a long one, but I know now that nothing is accidental. Even when we do not immediately respond to God’s calling, he still leads us to where we need to go with tremendous grace and compassion. God is very respectful of our free will. His whispers are quiet ones. When we are quiet and open to listen, we will find our way. I am so grateful to be back home.