I Stretch Out My Arms All the Day Long

I Stretch Out My Arms © SalveMaterDei.com, 2012

God has a way of highlighting the relevance of His Word. This morning, as I opened the Divine Office and began the reading for the Fifth Saturday in Lent, I was immediately struck by its relevance to the current political ruckus and our cultural rebellion against everything that is sacred.

“I said: Here I am! Here I am!

To a nation that did not call upon my name.

I have stretched out my hands all the day

to a rebellious people.

Who walk in evil paths and follow their own thoughts.

People who provoke me continually to my face (Isaiah 65:1b-3a).”

Our Lord continues to call “Here I AM! Here I AM!” today. Through His Divine Word we sense His nearness and the urgency of His message. He is the great “I AM” and moment by moment that reality is present to all who answer His eternal call and seek His Divine Presence. Christ perpetually nourishes us with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, ever present under the veil of the Eucharist. He is ready to feed us, to heal us, to care for our every need – if only we “Turn to Him and be saved.”

In Him We Live.... © SalveMaterDei.com, 2012 EA photographer

Yet, this generation is not unlike those in ancient times. We too are a “stiff-necked people.” We continue to be a “nation that did not call upon my name.” Our nation is currently embroiled in a debate regarding religious freedom and politics. At the core of this debate is who we are as a people – are we a nation committed to life, or to death? The current fray over the HHS Mandate is just the most recent example of our nation’s willingness to turn its back on God. The path leading to the subtle erosion of codified religious freedom has been well trod.

As a nation, we have consented to the slaughter of 50 million children since Roe-v-Wade made abortion the law of the land in 1973. Approximately 1.3 million babies die annually because, collectively, we as a nation have chosen to ignore His voice, and to embrace a culture of death. The culture of death distorts promiscuity as freedom, perversion as acceptable, and sickness as health. The bonds of marriage and family life are being redefined, as efforts advance to annihilate this most sacred bedrock of society. Pregnancy is categorized as a preventable disease; the innocence of childhood is destroyed within the hallowed halls of educational institutions. The preciousness of life has been so cheapened that death becomes brokered by professionals whose Hippocratic oath has become nothing more than a mere symbol of an abandoned set of iconic ethical principles. Each of these realities has found legal expression and government oversight. As tax payers we are put in the untenable situation of funding those malignant social agendas we loathe and paying for those causes that splinter the rubric of a functional society.

Love Eternal, Love Divine © SalveMaterDei.com, 2012 EA photographer

For this nation, and others like ours, our Christ “stretched out His hands all the day long.” We are the rebellious ones for whom His Precious Blood was shed. It is for us that the lance was thrust deep into His side, and the blood and water gushed forth to purify us. His Sacred Heart beat for us from the cross, and it was for us that He cried, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).”

We are the people “who walk in evil paths and follow their own thoughts.” We are a people who choose to accept language which minimizes the reality of the sin to which we acquiesce. We have exchanged a love of wisdom for a lust of all that is sensual; and true piety for open ridicule of religious truths.

How long will we choose to “provoke Him continually to His face?” As Holy Week approaches, let us endeavor to change our hearts. For as we begin to change ourselves, so too will our nation begin to change. He is still calling: “Here I AM! Here I AM!” It is for us to turn and answer Him.

Have a blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week,

Ad Jesum per Mariam,

M.A., J.M.J.

Serenity Amid Chaos: Practicing the Presence of God with Brother Lawrence

“He longs to be in you; He wants His breath to be your breath, His heart in your heart, His soul in your soul.” – St. John Eudes

The Wheels on the Bus. . . © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012.

Throughout the year I find myself yearning for sacred silence. This is never more true than during the season of Lent. The Daily Mass readings, as well as those Matins and Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours, speak to my heart, compelling me to greater union with God. I long to spend hours conversing with Christ; adoring Him in the Blessed Sacrament, while contemplating the mysteries of our redemption. However, the whirlwind of daily duty takes precedence. The reality of potty-training the littlest one while coaxing the eldest to finish his Algebra, scrubbing floors, refereeing squabbling siblings (not to mention the 3 dogs) and sorting a bazillion socks relegates that much sought after sacred silence to an unrequited desire. In His Wisdom, God placed my contemplative soul in the body of a homeschooling Mom of eight. Our busy home is the hallowed ground upon which I seek my own sanctification, as well as that of my family. Thus, while my soul craves sacred solitude, the necessity of surrender to daily duty is an ever-present reality. As the incomparable St. Therese once stated, “Love consumes us only in the measure of our self-surrender.” I am a work in progress.

I know God must love me a lot. Not only did He bless me with a terrific husband, and eight lovely children, He continues to provide the daily challenges essential for sanctification. If Our Lord is sculpting a masterpiece from the marble of my soul, then the hammer, chisel, and sandpaper of daily life are as necessary in His vast eternal plan as the caress of His loving gaze. Like most seekers, there are days I feel that sandpaper and chisel more acutely than others.

Thus, the need to balance an active family life – in the flux of the world – with a contemplative prayer life – within the shelter of my soul – is a perpetual challenge. I find it a daily struggle to juggle the demands and desires of both aspects of my being.

Abide in Me © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012.

The trepidation that accompanies driving 8 kids to morning Mass at Holy Hill, amid snow and ice, via the bucket of bolts (my 96 Suburban) we affectionately termed “Mom’s Bus” is probably not what St. Paul had in mind when he penned the directive: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).” However, this admonition is one I take seriously. Without Holy Mass, daily Eucharist, and frequent Confession, the prospect of maintaining a placid, prayerful relationship with Christ, while living in the world would be an insurmountable task. Those moments of serenity are golden- the midnight rosary, a brief Adoration before Holy Mass, the joy of Holy Communion and a prolonged thanksgiving – all replenish my soul with supernatural grace. Armed with this treasure I am able to accomplish the tasks Our Lord has planned for me.

As I strive to achieve an appropriate balance between the demands of daily duty, and the desire for contemplative union with God, I seek the counsel of those who have successfully achieved this goal. Among my favorite spiritual writers is a little known French Carmelite Friar- a lay brother, who died on February 12, 1691. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection spent most of his religious life working in the kitchen of a busy Discalced Carmelite Monastery on the Rue de Vaugirard, in Paris. In this setting, he learned to balance the rigors of daily duty with an intense prayer life, and was rewarded with a profound union with God. His writings continue to guide spiritual seekers 300+ years after his death.

Live in My Love © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012.

Brother Lawrence developed an ability to live each moment in the Presence of God. Early in his monastic life, Brother Lawrence was assailed with spiritual darkness, and intense suffering. Like other spiritual greats (St. John of the Cross, Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Therese, St. Padre Pio to name a few), this Carmelite lay brother was acutely aware of his sins, feared damnation, and perceived himself as radically unworthy of the tremendous graces Our Lord chose to lavish upon him. This “dark night of the soul” was a tremendous trial for Brother Lawrence- but one he eventually conquered by surrendering it all to God’s Grace. This dedicated Carmelite endured intense anguish for a decade, at which time he vowed to endure this suffering for not only the remainder of his earthly life, but for all eternity if that were pleasing to Almighty God. Instantly, his spiritual chains were loosened, and he resolved to forever remain in the presence of God.

From that moment on, Brother Lawrence strove to live each and every moment cognizant of Our Lord’s intimate Presence. While this task was difficult early on, with humility and dedication, he found it possible to enjoy God’s presence in every moment of the day.

He states:

“I possess God as tranquility in the bustle of my kitchen – where sometimes several people are asking me for different things at one time – as if I were on my knees before the Blessed Sacrament (Walking With the Father, Wisdom From Brother Lawrence, Patricia Mitchell Gen. Editor, 1999, p. 10).”

With ardent desire, and faithful endeavor, Brother Lawrence found the secret of intense union with God, while fulfilling the necessities of daily life. He called this way of life “practicing the presence of God.” He passed each hour in heart-to-heart conversation with God, merely glancing in His direction when that was all duty allowed.

In his Spiritual Maxims, Brother Lawrence states:

“Next, the soul’s eyes must be kept on God, particularly when something is being done in the outside world. Since time and effort are needed to perfect this practice, one should not be discouraged by failure. Although the habit is difficult to form, it is the source of divine pleasure once it is learned (The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, Whitaker House ed. 1944).”

My Soul in Stillness Waits © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012. EA photographer

Brother Lawrence lived each day in humility, enjoying a continuing conversation with a loving God. Other great Saints have also written about the sublime beauty of this path to intimacy with our Creator. In both her Interior Castle and Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila details a straightforward path to sanctity, via an intimate relationship with God. The simplicity and success of this time-tested approach to spiritual union cannot be argued. Yet, as these great contemplatives note, persistence and humility are required for spiritual success.

From the Spiritual Maxims gleaned from Brother Lawrence’s letters and conversations, comes the following insight:

“You must continually try to make all of your actions, without distinction, a sort of little conversation with God – not in a rehearsed way but just as they happen, with purity and simplicity of heart pleasure (Walking With the Father, Wisdom From Brother Lawrence, Patricia Mitchell Gen. Editor, 1999, p. 127).”

Over the years I have stumbled upon many translations of Brother Lawrence’s work (Cosimo Classics and Whitaker Press are among my favorites) – in each the clear beauty of his message is conveyed. While out of humility Brother Lawrence attempted to destroy all of the letters and recollections written during his lifetime, his Abbot, Abbe de Beaufort, recognized their spiritual worth, and compiled what he could rescue into Practicing the Presence of God. Perhaps you may find Brother Lawrence’s simple wisdom as beneficial to your spiritual life as have I.

As we continue to journey through the desert with Christ, may we always walk in the Presence of God.

Blessings,

Ad Jesum per Mariam,

M.A. JMJ

A Clean Heart Create for Me O God

Repent and Believe in the Gospel © SalveMaterDei.com 2012 EA photographer

“A clean heart create for me O God, and a steadfast Spirit renew within me (Psalm 51:12).” This simple sentiment from Ash Wednesday’s Responsorial Psalm encapsulates the entire purpose of Lent. We are powerless to restore our own hearts to their primitive purity – our spirits to the fortitude that comes with their Baptismal Grace. Alone we can do nothing. The best we can do is to answer God’s call to “Turn to me and be saved;” admitting our human weakness, and casting our cares upon His sacred shoulders.

It sounds so simple. Our souls long to be purified; like the leper (recall the Gospel of the sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time). Like him, our inmost being cries out: “If You wish, You can make me clean (Mk: 1:40).” We hope and pray that Our Lord will respond with same tenderness and pity that He offered the leper. We desire that He will touch us too, and utter the words: “I do will it. Be made clean!”

During this season of Lent we are confronted by our need to be healed, inside and out. We see sin in all its filth; coming face to face with our own guilt, and the need to be made clean. The readings this week both in Daily Mass and the Divine Office Liturgy of the Hours rouse our consciences from the slumber of complacency to an acute awareness of the need to repent.

Thursday’s Vespers reading sets a serious task before us:

“Submit to God; resist the devil and he will take flight. Draw close to God, and He will draw close to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners; purify your hearts, you backsliders. Be humbled at the sight of the Lord and He will raise you on high (James 4: 7-8, 10).”

Cleanse Our Hands and Our Hearts O Lord, © SalveMaterDei.com 2012

Ouch! Those words sting! Speaking as a premier backslider, I know this isn’t going to be easy. In this reading it is as if Our Lord’s gaze meets ours – His is full of love, yet compelling us to change. Are we willing to meet His gaze? It is decision time. Find the courage, resolve, and trust – it is time to transform. We must move from invitation to action and live the call to repentance.

In today’s midmorning reading from the Divine Office, Our Lord explains that His discipline is itself a sign of His Love, and an invitation to healing.

“Whoever is dear to me I reprove and chastise. Be earnest about it, therefore. Repent! Here I stand, knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him, and he with Me (Revelation 3:19-20).”

What a beautiful call to purification in anticipation of the Great Feast! Our daily purification prepares us for the Eucharist; and subsequently readies us for the Eternal Banquet of the Lord. Just as we respond at Holy Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof; but only say the Word and I shall be healed.” Here too we are called to conversion, to accept penance, change our hearts, and open the veiled depths of our very selves to His abiding Love.

Our Loving Savior makes it clear that this call to conversion in not a static event. Merely calling His name and acknowledging His Divinity is not sufficient; for even the demons know Jesus name, and acknowledge His authority. We are called to go beyond mere recognition to take up our crosses and truly follow Him. We are called to enter into the mystery of our redemption; walking through desert now, and later grasping the wood of cross on the way to Calvary. Each step is to be in sync with Jesus Christ. Yes, conversion must begin today, but it must also continue as long as we draw breath and our hearts beat within the core of our flesh.

We are invited into the desert to pray and to fast with the Lord © SalveMaterDei.com 2012 EA photographer

As Lent begins, we are invited into the desert, to pray and fast with Our Lord. Here, “among the wild beasts” we too will be tempted by Satan (Mk: 1:12-13). Armed with prayer, fasting and alms-giving, we will draw close to Our Lord. We will cooperate with His grace and conquer the personal demons that seek to distract us from the ultimate Good with which our souls long to be satisfied. With confidence, we are called to embark upon this journey, together with He by Whom we are known to be Loved. The call to repent is urgent, and our immediate response is sought. As Our Lord states in the Gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel (Mk 13-15).”

Now is the acceptable time!

As we journey from Ashes to Easter, together may we pray:

“Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of Your Son’s death and resurrection and teach us to reflect it in our lives. Grant this through our Lord, Jesus Christ Your Son Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever, Amen. (Divine Office, Sunday Evening, Week 1, Lent).”

Blessings,

Ad Jesus per Mariam

M.A. J.M.J.

Seek the Lord While He May Be Found….

Basilica of Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012 photo by KJU

…You shall seek the Lord your God and indeed you shall find Him when you search after Him with your whole heart and your whole soul (Deut. 4:29).

Our hearts are indeed restless until they rest in the Lord. Last night as my family was leaving Mass at Holy Hill Basilica, our Lord chose to give me powerful visual reminder of my need to remain close to Him. As usual we were among the last few folks out of the church. As is our routine, we had stayed to spend a few minutes in prayer, then chit-chatted with our dear friend Annie – the choir director – and her parents, asked Fr. Jude to bless us, and waited for the boys to leisurely put away their cassocks and amble out of the sacristy. Turning the corner to elevator we came upon two small, frightened children. They had been separated from their parents, and were deeply distraught. We joined a handful of adults in attempting to calm the youngsters and reunite them with their missing parents. Their sobs and tear-stained faces gripped this mother’s heart.

That overwhelmingly helpless feeling- LOST! We’ve all been there, and it is a heart- wrenching distress.

Feed My Lambs! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

Several years ago, my husband and I were at the local zoo with our then seven kids and their grandparents. Paranoid as I am about losing a child, my kids were all dressed in brightly colored matching tie- dyed shirts. I often dressed them alike on such outings to make it easier to keep track of my brood. As our little group of eleven wound its way through the crowd, I lost sight of my daughter. When I had last seen her, she had a firm grasp on Poppie’s hand. Thus, I was certain she was safe with him, but when we all settled at the concession stand, my little girl wasn’t among our number. Panic, absolute panic! I can image how Mary and Joseph felt upon discovering that the Child Jesus was not among their caravan of relatives (Luke 3: 41-52). With “great anxiety” we too began to look for our child.

I sprinted across the zoo, frantically calling her name. When I finally found her, in front of the polar bears and seals, there were a few concerned adults comforting my distraught little girl. We had been separated for no more than 15 minutes, however time must truly be relative, because I know that I aged at least a decade in those moments. I was so grateful to those caring strangers who comforted her in my absence, a gratitude that was seconded only to that which I felt to God for her safe return. I hugged her close, and mumbled a quick “thank you” to Our Lord, her guardian angels and the Good Samaritans nearby.

LOST! What an awful feeling! The distress and danger are real, and every fiber of our being cries out to be reunited with those by whom we are known to be loved. The loved ones of the lost child endure an agony as great as that of the missing individual. Indeed, the Blessed Mother and Joseph were not spared this torment; thus, there must be profound lessons and grace that can be gleaned from it. This physical state of being is a living nightmare. However, as frightening as it is to be physically lost, it is even more dangerous to be spiritually lost.

Shelter of the Lost, Please Pray for us! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012 EA photographer

Clinging close to Christ is our best defense. The closer we are to Jesus, the less likely we are to suffer the spiritual anguish of being missing. Yet, like my trip to the zoo, and the loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple, there are times that despite our best efforts, we succumb to spiritual dangers and lose sight of God – even if only for a little while. In those moments, we need to stay put, and cry out for Him. Like the Good Shepherd, he will seek us out. Nevertheless, like the children we helped last evening, there are times that the most expeditious way to find our way to Our Beloved is through the parental kindness of another. Just as my maternal instincts kicked into high gear at the sight of these youngsters’ tears, so too Our Heavenly Mother Mary’s maternal protection is secured when we cry out to her in need. She too is acutely familiar with the distress of losing her beloved young Son. Mary’s Immaculate, Motherly Heart will not be unmoved by our pleas – either for ourselves or our lost loved ones. She and St. Joseph will surely help us to be united with our loved ones in Christ Jesus – though God’s timetable and ours may differ.

As the elevator opened and the children were reunited with their equally distraught parents, fear melted into joy. How much joy must there be in Heaven when we repent, seek Sacramental Confession, are spiritually reconciled with our Lord? When Mary and Joseph finally encountered Our Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem:

They found him sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. All who heard Him were astounded at His understanding and His answers. And His Mother said to Him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s House?”

Those words cut across the millennia, and are as relevant for us today as they were when directed to Mary and Joseph two-thousand years ago. When we or our loved ones are lost, we need to cry out for help, humbly grasp Mary’s hand and seek the Lord in His Father’s House. For if we do so, He will rescue us, never letting one of His trusting little lambs be forsaken. We can have confidence in His words: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost (Luke 19:10).”

May the Lord bless you and give you His peace.

Ad Jesum per Mariam

M.A. JMJ

Suffering is the Thread. . . .

St. Mary's in snow © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012.

This is one of those stories that is a bit too personal to share, however, for the potential hope it may offer, I’m willing to swallow my trepidation and post it. Yesterday we were at the funeral of one of my husband’s patients. This lovely lady died on Monday, which happened to be the eleventh anniversary of my Dad’s death; and now her funeral coincided exactly with the anniversary of his burial. Earlier in the day the kids and I had stopped out at the cemetery to pray and reflect.

My eldest son reminded me of the stark contrast in weather. Yesterday was sunny and warm, and it was relatively easy to navigate our path to the grave to pray. Our favorite little white church stood silhouetted against the blue sky, and offered a peaceful vista. Eleven years ago, the winter had supplied a record 100+ inches of snow. The wind howled as we cautiously trudged through the snow and ice. The VFW members who provided the twenty-one- gun salute and taps had a treacherous descent down the steep hill to the grave. The memory of their kindness and devotion still brings a lump to my throat. Yesterday the kids and I prayed and reminisced, sharing stories, snowballs and joy. With delight I watched them bound through small drifts and patches of grass to stand outside St. Mary’s and offer a prayer. I smiled as my ten-year-old daughter chased her little brother back to the car, her long-braids bouncing in the sunlight. I knew her Grandpa George would find the moment as picturesque as I, and was probably smiling an approval from up above.

Later that afternoon, we paid our respects to one of my husband’s 77 year-old patients. My daughters had visited her in the hospital, and now watching her family struggle between faith and grief brought back a flood of emotions. I shared part of the following story with her daughters and as they seemed to derive hope from it, I have decided to share it here.

Weeks before my Dad had been diagnosed with a devastating immunoblastic cancer, I had suffered a miscarriage. The loss was devastating. My soul and body ached. As I struggled to cope with the loss of my child, I also began to prepare myself for the loss of my father. The renowned French Henri de Lubac once wrote, “Suffering is the thread from which the stuff of joy is woven.” Those words perfectly reflect the path my soul was on.

Joined Forever in Love © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012.

Each day that autumn I would bundle three small kids in the car, and head off to the hospital for radiation or chemo for Dad. We’d stop at St. Hubert’s Chapel on the way home, to utter a quick prayer before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and an “Ave” before Our Lady’s statue. If Dad was up to it, we’d stop at the Alzheimer’s unit of the nearby nursing home to visit my Mom. While my parents held hands in the corner like a pair of teen-agers, the kids crawled around , caused mischief, and utterly entertained the residents. Through the profound sadness, there was deep and raw love. Dad would smile and tell me that when he looked into Mom’s eyes she appeared to him as lovely as she had forty-seven years ago. True beauty existed here amid walkers, wheelchairs, and canes. Those vivid memories are a treasure.

On the Epiphany, our dear friends Fr. Bernie and Msgr. Roger stopped by to anoint my Dad, and officially receive him into the Church. Roof-rakes had proved useless that year. Now a January thaw had begun, and as the pack ice that enveloped the roof had begun to melt, water was seeping into the house. The light-fixture in the foyer looked like a fish bowl with a couple of petrified lady-bugs floating on top. God has a sense of humor. Never would I have imagined this to be an occasion of grace, but it was. Monsignor Roger was visiting from Ghana. Bundled like a polar-bear, he joked about how delightful it was to experience our North American winter. He gingerly stepped over the towels, and buckets, and ignored the dripping ice-water to embrace my Dad with Fr. Bernie. I was mortified at the state of the house. However, my dear priests were completely nonplussed. With joy my Dad received his Sacraments, and entered the Catholic Church on his death-bed.

Later, as Dad and I reflected in the joy of the moment, I knelt at his feet, and took his hands in mine. Looking up, I simply asked: “Dad, if you get to Heaven before I do, would you take care of my little Francis, and would you ask God for another child for us?” With fatherly love, Dad smiled that great smile of his, nodded his assurance, with an “of course.”

God's Gift of Pure Joy! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012.

Dad died two weeks later. Exactly nine months to the day of his funeral ( and to the hour of his Mass of Christian burial), I held a newborn baby girl in my arms. Yes indeed, “Suffering is the thread from which the stuff of joy is woven.” Each time I smile at the face of my now 10 year-old daughter, I am reminded of God’s eternal love. In her I see the answer to my deepest prayer. I know God’s plan exits beyond the limits of our horizon; The Communion of Saints is as real as the depth of His love. He answers each of our prayers, and makes sense out of the tumult and apparent chaos of our daily lives – though often we cannot see it at the time. Even suffering itself is a gift; a precious one, not to be wasted; for in it the fabric of joy is contained.

Benjamin Malachi Franklin’s beloved poem expresses this so well:

The Weaver

My Life is but a weaving
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who leave the choice with Him.

Benjamin Malachi Franklin (1882-1965)
U.S. Library Of Congress, Washington DC, Card # 20060727210211

Through Our Lord’s skillful hand, may all your sorrows be turned to joy.

Blessings,

Ad Jesum per Mariam

MA JMJ

Dark as Night

Safe and warm © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

Standing outside in the pitch-darkness, listening to the coyotes howl at the 4:30 in the morning is an enlightening experience. The new pup isn’t quite potty-trained, thus Moriah and I have been spending some early mornings crunching through the snow in the yard, bracing ourselves as a bitter wind whips through the trees. I warm her little paws on the way back to the house, and utter a silent prayer for the homeless. These frigid mornings force me to count my blessings – a cozy house,  solid shoes, and a warm winter coat, just to name a few. So many others have so little, and these cold and dark moments force me to consider their plight in light of my abundant blessings.

Staring at the starry night sky seems to magnify my insignificance before God. Night after night, as I stand out there holding a 15 pound pup on a leash, I can’t help but contemplate the transcendent majesty of God. The house is quiet and dark. Here I am, alone with my thoughts, and yet God is there. I wonder at His goodness in creating the beauty that is reflected by the snow, even under the cover of darkness. The snow shimmers like glitter as the moon beans dance across it. Even in this bitter chill, I can feel that God is present. As I stand there alone and cold, I feel God’s Almighty gaze upon the very shadow of my presence.

St. John of the Cross once said: “Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God…for the only language He hears is the language of love.” Here in the frigid blackness my soul seeks His Light. Ordinary meets extraordinary. Were I sleeping, (like any normal person) I would miss this opportunity for voiceless reflection. Other than the call of the coyotes, silence and meditation are pretty plentiful out here at 4:30 a.m. As I begin to count the blessings in my life, my thoughts and prayers turn to those whose lives are in need of HIs Grace. I feel His Love most abundantly when I ask for it on behalf of others.

The coyotes again howl, and Moriah seeks shelter between my feet. As I scoop up the pup and warm her tiny paws with my hands, I realize that God treats us likewise. When we are spiritually cold and in need of shelter, He lovingly reaches down, lifts us high, holds us close, and warms away the chill.

The Psalmist says it best:

O Lord, You search me and you know me,

You know my resting and my rising,

You discern my purpose from afar.

You mark when I walk or lie down,

All my ways lie open to you.

 

Before ever a word is on my tongue

You know it, O Lord, through and through.

Behind and before you besiege me,

Your hand ever laid upon me.

Too wonderful for me this knowledge,

Too high beyond my reach.

 

O where can  I go from Your Spirit,

Or where can I flee from Your face?

If I climb to the Heavens, you are there.

If I lie down in the grave, you are there.

 

If  I take the wings of the dawn

And dwell at the sea’s furthest end,

Even there Your hand would lead me.

Your right hand would hold me fast.

 

If I say: “Let the darkness hide me

And the light around me be night,”

Even darkness is not dark for You

And the night is as clear as day (Psalm 139: 1-18, 23-24).

May God grant you His warmth and His Light,

Ad Jesum per Mariam

M.A. JMJ

Liebster Surprise!

As members of the Body of Christ, we are all in this together. Thus, “if one part is honored, all parts share its joy (1 Corinthians 12: 26).” Last week I had the privilege of receiving recognition as one of the recent recipients of the newly circulating Liebster Blog Award. This award is bestowed upon small blogs; those with 200 or less registered followers (trust me, I qualify on that point). To merit this award, recipient blogs are to reflect a certain  je ne sais pas: a unique, endearing and beloved (Liebster) quality.

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I am always checking for new posts on my dear friend Anne Bender’s blog, Imprisoned in My Bones. I was flabbergasted (and delighted) to read that she had bestowed Liebster Award on Salve Sancta Mater Dei, mentioning also my son Kenny’s blog: God Alone Sufficeth. Anne and I share the unique privilege of mothering sons who aspire to the priesthood. The joys and challenges involved in preparing them to discern and answer God’s call (whether it ultimately be to the priesthood, or to married or single life) are many. Our friendship has blossomed as we rejoice (and commiserate) over the many facets of our God-given vocation.

Anne is rock solid Catholic; a formidable woman of heart. She is Mom to five terrific children, and an aspirant to the Oblates of the Precious Blood. Anne brings Christ’s love to so many, not only through her blog, but also through her work as a certified nutritionist/WIC counselor, and through her work initiating the Roses for Our Lady organization. Imprisoned in My Bones has been an inspiration to me! Anne’s sincere, well-written and witty style is itself endearing. Without her encouragement, I would not have had the gumption to initiate Salve Mater Dei. Thus, I am grateful both for her mentoring and the Liebster Award.

Let me give you a hand. © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

The purpose of the Liebster Award is to recognize noteworthy small blogs, and augment the process of having good readers stumble upon them, identify the nuggets they contain and thereby increase the visibility of these budding sites. The requirement of the Liebster Award is that the recipient is to pass the award on to five blogs they love (including links), in hopes that others will likewise recognize their inspirational value. As this award was bestowed in essence on both Kenny and I, we have collaborated in identifying five terrific blogs we wish to honor.

The first blog we unanimously picked is: Writings of a Boy Discerning God’s Call. This blog is run by Anne Bender’s son, John. This was the first blog either Kenny or I stumbled upon, and the impetus for his (and our) venture into this form of evangelization. Nearly two years ago, when Kenny returned home from the St. Francis de Sales Seminary, “Is it I Lord?” Summer Camp with the enthusiastic request to initiate a vocations blog, I met him with an equally resounding “NO!” No adolescent of mine was going to have a presence on the Web. Not happening. No way. No negotiation. Ne dit jamais jamais. . . .

Boy Discerning God's Call. © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

I must admit my technological ignorance, for at that point I didn’t even know what a blog was. It sounded like some take on Christmas dessert – you know, a yummy Yule cake-roll type of confection. Kenny was undaunted. He patiently showed me John’s outstanding blog, and demonstrated how John’s passion for Christ was subtly supporting his own priestly aspirations. Like Kenny, I became a frequent flyer on John’s blog. I enjoyed his depth, honesty and humor. Through his posts, I found Anne’s Imprisoned in My Bones. One good thing led to another. Over the months, I found myself softening my position with regard to Kenny’s request – especially when he’d announce that he hoped his blog would provide the seeds of his future homilies (words that melt a mom’s heart). It was John’s outstanding blog that propelled our efforts. Now, as John prepares to enter St. Francis de Sales Seminary, and encounters the challenges of rigorous psychological and academic testing we continue to watch in admiration and prayer. John Bender and his Writings of a Boy Discerning God’s Call continue to be an inspiration to us.

Carmelite Community of Holy Hill Basilica © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

The second blog we chose to receive the Liebster Award is The Discalced Carmel – Called to the Royal Road of Prayer, run by Fr. Michael Berry, OCD. Fr. Michael Berry is the Vocations Director for the Discalced Carmelites of the Immaculate Heart Province. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of hearing one of Fr. Michael Berry’s homilies at Holy Hill Basilica, National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians, knows the depth of his intellect and the fervor of his devotion. This dynamic, young Carmelite has an uncanny ability to distill the insights of Carmel, and make them accessible to the rest of us. I love his posts on St. Teresa of Avila, as well as his Easter homily. It has been a little while since Fr. Michael posted – like good strong coffee, I’m sure greatness must be brewing. Thus, he is the second recipient of the Liebster award.

It is interesting that three of the five recipients that Kenny and I chose have a role in vocations: one vocations director, and two young men discerning the priesthood. The third Liebster blog is: On With The Motley, by the Licensed Fool. Like the next two recipients, neither Kenny nor I have ever met this young man (who resides in England) however, we both enjoy following his road to Christ. LF began this blog as a journal to collect his personal thoughts as he discerned whether or not God was indeed calling him to the holy Priesthood. After several years of discerning, LF believes he is being called to the life of a Franciscan Friar. This blog reflects the many of same endearing qualities of the other recipients: faith, honesty, humor to name a few. Both Kenny and I thoroughly enjoy following On With the Motley, and hope you will as well.

The Sword of Peter is our fourth choice for recipient of the Liebster Award. This blog, by Jeff B. Harris is unlike any other, and we enjoy it! With the nature of his site, I presume Mr. Harris will have to waive the requirement to pass this award on to five other blogs. Surprisingly, this site does not contain a single cleverly written essay. Rather, every two weeks, Mr. Harris posts an outstanding Catholic cartoon. This is Catholic cultural satire at its finest! Mr. Harris is quite talented, and unabashedly bold about his pro-Catholic position. These cartoons are bound to offend some. They are neither for the faint-of-heart nor the RCINO’s (Roman Catholics in Name Only). Mr. Harris’s cartoons are equally humorous and hard-hitting; not to mention refreshingly politically incorrect. I wish this site were better known – hence the Liebster Award.

He is the Alpha and the Omega  © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

He is the Alpha and the Omega © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

The final recipient of the Liebster Award is a site that I recently began to follow: Flos Domini. This site is run by a faith-filled young woman who is attending a state liberal arts college in Virginia. She is passionately faithful to the Magisterium, and candid about the challenges involved in living her faith in a secular, often pagan, college atmosphere. This well written blog is sincere and insightful. The author of Flos Domini deserves kudos and encouragement as she strives to live each day for Christ, and bring the Hope of His Light to her peers. This blog deserves the Liebster Award and the increased visibility that accompanies it.

We are all striving to give the greatest honor and glory God, the Alpha and the Omega. He is the source of every inspiration, the foundation of each effort, and the ultimate goal of all action.

Reflecting on the Reason for every breath we take, together may we pray:

Father,

may everything we do begin with Your inspiration

and continue with your saving help.

Let our work always find its origin in You,

And through You reach completion.

We ask this through Jesus Christ Our Lord,

Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,

One God , forever and ever. Amen. (Morning Prayer, The Divine Office)

Thanks again, Anne!

Blessings in Christ,

Ad Jesum per Mariam

M.A. JMJ

What Are You Looking For?

Seek the Lord While He May Be Found. © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

“What are you looking for?” In yesterday’s Gospel St. John the Baptist acknowledges Christ with the words: “Behold the Lamb of God.” St. John and St. Andrew catch up with Jesus, and begin following along with Him. Our Lord, then poses the question: “What are you looking for?”

He addresses the same query to each of us. We are all seekers. Just like the Magi, we seek Our God, our Creator, our Savior, our Alpha and Omega. There is a longing in each and every human heart. Our inmost being is directed to discover He Who IS. We are commanded: “Seek Me that you may live (Amos 5:4)!”

God implants the desire to know, love, and serve Him deep within the very fiber of our being, and our eternity depends upon the degree to which we respond to His call. Yet the world is full of distractions that can mute our perception of God’s invitation. Like children, we run after our own pursuits – often ignoring the security of responding to God’s request to seek Him with a sincere heart. We are like young chicks, each seeking its own interests.

How I long to gather your children under my wings. . . © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

Every year our yard is full of baby turkeys. Early in spring the kids and I are entertained by  the daily courtship ritual that unfolds in our back yard. A handful of Tom’s poof-out their feathers and strut around, while a parade of nonchalant lady-birds trot to and fro frequenting feeders in our garden. By early Summer we delight in watching these same hens waddle through the yard with their newly hatched broods. As they grow and develop over the summer we notice their individual personalities. For the most part, they are fearless, strutting past the kids on the swing, the adults on the patio, and the two Labrador Retrievers in the yard, to get to their bird feeders. Its is a constant parade of fowl.

One day last summer, as this daily ritual was unfolding, about thirty turkeys trotted through the yard. There were a few hens with many fledglings in tow. One confident little guy wandered off from the brood, finding the snacks left under the picnic table to be superior to the corn in the feeder. Something must have spooked the other birds because they quickly scattered to our nearby woods. This exodus escaped the notice of the little cowboy under the table. When he looked up and realized he had been left behind, he began to squawk a high-pitched panicky cry, which was returned from the woods by an equally alarmed vocalization. The kids and I watched as the fledgling scurried around the perimeter of the yard, crying and calling for the security that now eluded him. We have often seen coyotes in the yard about this time of day, thus his panic was well justified. The series of shrill calls from chick to hen and back again continued for nearly a half an hour. Finally success: Mom and baby were reunited.

Lost? © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011-2012

As we recalled this event during tonight’s dinner discussion, I realized just how much of an impact it made on the children and I. As much as we wanted to intervene, we were helpless to aid the little guy.  There were a few quick prayers to St. Francis, but otherwise we felt  powerless.

This event seems to parallel our relationship with God. Our eternal safety depends upon the ability to freely answer His call. We are free to wander off and seek satisfaction for the longings we experience. We have the liberty, the free will to fill the emptiness of our hearts with flimsy substitutes – lesser goods in place of the Supreme Good.  However, those freedoms can lead us either toward or away from the object of our desire. Sometimes the pursuit of apparent goods can interfere with the realization of our ultimate Good. Even when we wander off, God continues to call – to pursue us. He seeks us, even when we ignore our need to seek Him. Like that baby turkey, the danger of separating ourselves by losing sight of our decisive Good, is real.

We are called to seek Him with our whole heart. In so doing, all the other joys we desire will be given as gifts. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides (Matthew 5:33).” Often our ability to seek and find Him depends upon the methods we choose.

Tonight after dinner, I plopped The Catholic Bible Concordance into the lap of my fourth-grader. This heavy, red, (2,183 page) book is a bit daunting. Gemma’s eyes looked like Oreo-cookies when I assigned her the task of counting how many times the word “seek” appears in the Bible. She flipped through the reference text and stared at me blankly with that  you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-look. Relief came almost immediately as her older sister chimed in from the family room, “Well, why don’t you just Google it?” For the record, the word seek appears 303 times in Sacred Scripture. We are perpetually instructed to seek and find our God.

From the merchant who buys the pearl of great value, to the homemaker looking for a lost coin (Luke 15:8), we are directed to seek that which is of supreme value. Whether we are kings, wise men, or servants, or shepherds, we are each called to “Devote your hearts and souls to seeking the Lord your God (1 Chronicles 11:19).” Perhaps, we may just stumble upon that which we seek. However, bumbling and stumbling along solo, are uncertain methods, and their success is unlikely.  Rather, like the Magi, we are called to actively seek His Holy Face. We can expect to struggle as we travel through the dark nights following only the star of His Light. Yet, like the Magi, His Radiance is sufficient to guide us to the object of deepest longing: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we approach the Epiphany, together seeking the joy of His Presence, may His Light envelope and guide us. Therefore, together let us prepare to answer wholeheartedly His query: “What are you looking for?”

Christmas Blessings,

Ad Jesum per Mariam

M.A. JMJ

Fear Not!

Uncorrupted Ark of His Dwelling Place- Please pray for us! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2012 EA photographer

The flash of the fireworks is gone from the sky. That gaudy-glitzy ball has dropped.  Noise-makers are silent, and punchbowls are empty. 2012 is officially underway. Thankfully, this is not the end of a mere night-long celebration, but the beginning of a time of grace. As we begin our new year, we celebrate the Feast of the Solemnity of The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Today, we focus our admiration on the Blessed Mother and our gratitude on God, for His gift of Divine Maternity to the Blessed Virgin. We celebrate Mary as the Theotokos – the Mother of Son of God.

Antiphon 3 from the Vespers for today’s feast reads:

Your blessed and fruitful virginity is like the bush flaming, yet unburned, which Moses saw on Sinai. Pray for us Mother of God.

Christ was fully human and fully Divine. He did not just take up residence in the belly of the Blessed Virgin, or merely temporarily occupy available space. Rather, in His humility and wisdom, Jesus Christ willed that His very flesh and blood would be drawn from the Spotless Virgin. Mary was the Immaculate Tabernacle that He chose to house and form the substance of His humanity. Today, we celebrate this mystery which is beyond human comprehension. Tonight’s Vespers Antiphons express it so beautifully:

O marvelous exchange! Man’s creator has become man, born of a virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

By your miraculous birth of the Virgin You have fulfilled the Scriptures: like a gentle rain falling upon the Earth You have come down to save Your people. O God, we praise You!

This is a moment of joy, of intense gratitude, and celebration. Together we rejoice the singular honor and privilege given to Our Lady, while we simultaneously celebrate our own share in Christ’s gift of grace.

What a fitting start to the new year! Today we recall the words of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, as he heralded her high calling. St. Gabriel greets Mary with: “Hail Full of Grace (Luke 1: 28).”  Recall, the Greek word, kechatitomene (Kεχαριτωμένη) is scripturally used only here, and the connotation is that Mary is the one who is so replete with grace that not even the slightest shadow of darkness is present. Before St. Gabriel announces God’s salvific plan, which elicits Mary’s fiat, he first directs her to: “Fear not Mary, for you have found favor with God (Luke 1:30).”

Mother of Our Redeermer, Please pray for us! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2012 EA photographer

Today as we embark on a new year, this message is profound. St. Gabriel is the messenger of God’s grace, and He well understands how overwhelming this pure Gift will be. “Perfect Love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).” It is only with this Love that Mary (and the rest of us) can complete the mission assigned by God. It is only by accepting the Gift of Pure Love, that – like Mary –  we can say “yes” to God. The Angel Gabriel tells Mary that that the Divine Child, the Emmanuel Whom she is to bear, is to be named “Jesus.” This Child’s very name reflects His essence and means “God is with us!”

As 2012 dawns, we do well to remember that God is indeed with us. Just like Mary, we are told to “Be Not Afraid!” In fact, the admonition to “Be Not Afraid!” appears 365 times in the Bible! In nearly every book of the Bible we find those words. This new year is pregnant with possibilities. We have been given a great gift. 2012 will be full of joys and challenges. Yet, through it all God is indeed with us. In accepting His perfect Love, fear melts.

With Mary, let us rejoice in this new day, this new year.With hearts full of gratitude, let us turn to Our Creator, and through Mary, may we ask His Blessing upon this year.  From the Divine Office together let us pray:

God Our Father, may we always profit by the prayers of the Virgin Mother Mary, for You bring us life and salvation through Jesus Christ her Son who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

A Blessed 2012 to you and yours!

Ad Jesum per Mariam

M.A. JMJ

Let Heaven and Earth Rejoice!

The Lord is close at hand, come let us worship. . . .© SalveMaterDei.com, 2011. EA Photographer

The Lord is close at hand, come let us worship. . . © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011. EA Photographer

As Advent draws to a close and Christmas is but a breath away, I marvel at how each day has unfolded in preparation for Christ’s birth. In the past few weeks I have written about the beauty of the readings in the the Liturgy of the Hours and those for Holy Mass during this sacred season. Each day has built as a sort of crescendo in the symphony of the season. Even the secular celebration of the season – the music, lights, cookies, cards, wrappings and trappings of Christmas all flow together into an overwhelming sense of anticipation and joy. Our senses are alive; and our souls rejoice.  Advent and Christmas are steeped in emotion and tradition.

Each family has a set of traditions that enhance the spiritual significance of religious celebrations. Christmas traditions are especially treasured. My Mom’s nativity set sits in our foyer. I delight in watching my young children kiss baby Jesus each night before bed, as I did as a child (and still do as an adult).  The yearly recitation of the St. Andrew’s Novena  helps to focus our hearts on the essence of Christmas. Our Christ-child’s crib is stuffed with colorful strips of paper- each representing sacrifices lovingly offered to warm His infant Heart. The glow of the tree, the scent of the cooking, the rhythm of these chilly days are all replete with meaning – cherished memories are being forged as Christmas is lived.

There are three things that last, Faith, Hope and Love....  SalveMaterDei.com, 2011. EA Photographer

There are three things that last, Faith, Hope and Love.... SalveMaterDei.com, 2011. EA Photographer

Perhaps no tradition is more cherished in our family than that of taking a lighted Christmas tree to the cemetery and celebrating Christ’s birth with my parents- the children’s grandma and grandpa. Tomorrow night will be the tenth year we have engaged in this bitter-sweet celebration.

My Dad had been diagnosed with immunoblastic multiple myeloma only four short months before Christmas 2000. This aggressive bone cancer had quickly serpentined its way through my dad’s body, leaving holes in his skull, and hip, and zygoma. The radiation to his hip and eye-socket had greatly reduced the pain, though left his vision a blurry fog. Chemo had taken its toll, and this once stocky man was now a frail shadow of himself. This Advent,  Dad was waiting for a bone-marrow transplant, and living with my young family.

Though cancer had ravaged his body, Dad’s spirit was as effervescent as ever. He LOVED Christmas. My childhood memories are replete with his and my mom’s self-sacrifice, and efforts to make Christmas joyous and beautiful. Christmas was always focused on Christ, and their love for Him spilled forth into our family celebrations. As Dad became Grandpa George, he continued to share that same spirit with my children. Singing Christmas carols, telling stories, and just beaming as the little people approached Christmas with wonder and joy. He’d let the little ones curl up in his lap, and snug close as they shared Christmas stories and secrets- even when he was most ill.

Well, here we were on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 2000, I was sitting upstairs on my Dad’s bed, reading the morning paper to him out-loud. I came to a story about a family from West Bend, just a few miles from my parents’ home. They had lost a lovely lady to cancer six years ago. She had been a wife, mother, and daughter. Each year since her death, her family would gather by her grave with a generator and a Christmas tree, and pray and sing. As I read this story out-loud, my Dad sat up in bed, his eyes twinkled and he said– “Wow – that is faithfulness and love!”

Merry Christmas Grandpa & Grandma! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011.

Merry Christmas Grandpa & Grandma! © SalveMaterDei.com, 2011.

With tears in my eyes, I said, “Dad, if you begin eternity before the rest of us, we’ll still celebrate Christmas together every year. I promise, I’ll bring a lighted Christmas tree to you, and we’ll pray and sing, and celebrate Christ’s birth together.” Little did I know, that he had lest than a month left. Eleven months after his death, Ken and I, and four little ones kept our promise, and began this special tradition.

Over the years our group has grown. My Mom joined my Dad on the other side of eternity within a few years of his passing. Pregnancies and adoptions have enlarged our family, and now ten of us pray and sing on Christmas Eve. We bring the tree on the way to the 4:30 Vigil Mass- leaving it lit all night, and return after Christmas morning Mass to pray and sing, and bring it home. Some years snow covers our little tree, shorting out the battery operated lights by morning – other years bitter cold renders our prayers short and sweet. This year I don’t think we will have to worry about climbing over icy snow-banks to reach their resting place. Year by year, the rhythm of life continues- and joy has replaced sorrow. The Communion of Saints is such a consoling doctrine, and I love being able to unite Heaven and Earth in one joyous celebration of Christ’s saving love.

This tradition is cherished. As we head off to Holy Hill Basilica to celebrate the vigil of Christ’s birth, we bring a quiet sense of joy. Again there is a crescendo in the sense of anticipation as the Holy Sacrifice of the  Mass is celebrated. Receiving our Infant Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, resting with Him in our souls while pondering the miracle of His birth is the pinnacle of Christmas joy!  After Mass we usually drive by the cemetery to view the glow of the brightly colored lights on our little tree. Christmas morning is filled with the sights and sounds of Christmas, as we ready eight excited children for Holy Mass. Their exuberance is contagious! Again we celebrate the miracle of Holy Mass and rest from the whirlwind of activity to again welcome the newborn Christ into our souls, Christmas becomes real and alive. Christ’s joy becomes our joy.

These moments of grace flood my soul with profound gratitude. Our Savior- loves us so much that He shivered in a straw-filled stable on His first night on Earth. He blesses us with family and friends – offering us the opportunity to share His faithfulness and love with them. My heart overflows with awe as I contemplate the joys of past Christmases and  hopes of those yet to come. May our Lord’s birth fill you and yours with every grace and joy.

Advent Blessings,

Ad Jesum per Mariam

M.A. JMJ