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Praying the News with Mary

I was a conscientious objector to the world as soon as I was old enough to notice how it was going, and how apathetic everyone else seemed to be about it all. “What’s the matter with you people,” I used to think. Engaging in the news just made me feel overwhelmed by the suffering of those who suffered, and filled me with contempt for everyone else for letting it all happen!thumbimage

During my particularly opinionated and concerned teens, my dad disliked watching the news with me because I would become so outraged.

He used to ask me, “Why do you want to save the world so much when you hate everybody in it?”

This is a problem. How do you “want to save the world,” love everyone in it and not freak out when you attend to the day’s news?

 

 

For a while I cut myself off from the media. Who needs a head full of all that stuff and what good does it do anyone to hear it? Especially once I became serious about my prayer life, I felt the news distracted me and cluttered up my mind.

What I eventually found, as I developed  spiritually over time, is that we can make our intake of news media a form of prayer, and that Mary’s is the perfect example of the praying, listening heart, ready to cooperate with God on behalf of the world, and constantly doing exactly that.

 

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Mary did not and does not sit out on  God’s movement in the world. She was always part of it all her life. If we love, and we want to pray, neither can we sit out.  With that idea in mind,  I try to keep up with the news to a reasonable degree these days. It’s one way of participating in the life of humanity, it’s part of loving, praying, being part of the family.

With a Marian perspective, being informed can become less about taking in information and more about listening to the  world, and interceding for it. We can weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice and this, too, is prayer.

Mary listens to the cries of the world right now and her hearing becomes her prayer in the presence of her Son. We can imitate her listening heart and we can join her in prayer as we tune in to the radio, open the paper, click on a news story on-line. Then we receive the news purposefully aware of God’s presence, actually praying it with the Heart of Mary, rather than just reading or hearing it.

How is this done?

It’s simple and beautiful, and human, just like Mary.

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Have you ever had something from the news cling to you and you couldn’t stop thinking about it and you prayed about it with or without words?

Have you ever had nothing to say to someone’s sorrow except to pray in silence as you sat with him and listened, or you were just present with the sufferer as prayer itself?

Have you ever heard the Scriptures read at mass and you knew God was speaking right to you and you listened and responded to Him from the heart?

Have you ever stopped what you were doing because of something you heard or read or saw, and simply closed your eyes in silent gratitude?

If you have, then you have listened, pondered, and cherished, with the heart of Mary, and God has come through you to comfort the world, to heal and restore it.

You opened a door in your heart, and Heaven came through. It touched everyone.

Isn’t that prayer? Isn’t that what Mary’s life exemplifies?

Her small foot -prints trace a beautiful pattern for us of Christian prayer.

 

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       By her prayerful receptivity, Jesus came to us.
       In our prayer of quiet, we too, are channels of His grace.

       Pregnant with Jesus, she sang the prophetic praises of God in her Magnificat.

       Jesus  lives within us and we too sing the Divine praises.

As a young mother, she pondered the events in the life of her Son, reflecting on them in her heart. We pray and meditate on the Life of the Lord always.

She confronted His seeming abandonment and expressed her hurt dismay to Him at the Temple

She was perceptive of the young couple’s problem at the wedding at Cana, interceding with her Son, eliciting His first miracle, and His disciples believed in Him. We intercede for others and pray that they, too, may be helped in their troubles and opened to God’s self-revelation in their lives.

She walked with Jesus as He carried the Cross. She stood with Him in His suffering. She allowed her heart to be “pierced with the sword” in cooperation with His sacrifice, herself to be given as a mother to the beloved disciple. We accept suffering prayerfully, trusting in God that in Christ He will turn grief into glory, and that through our sorrow He will open us, in compassion, as a gift to others.

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After the Resurrection she stood with the disciples watching Jesus, Who she loved and lived for, ascend into Heaven so that the Holy Spirit could flood the world as He promised. We pray and make sacrifices as well, giving up our own desires as a prayer that others may be comforted and know the love of God.

She was in prayer with the early Church when the Descent of the Holy Spirit changed the world forever and the mission of the Church began. The Church is still in prayer with Mary, and still on mission, full of the Holy Spirit.

What Mary hears and experiences passes through her heart as prayer offered to God. She is the exemplar of the praying, receptive soul who gives the world to Christ, and Christ to the world.

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This is what Mary did with her life, and what she does with her life in Heaven. This is for us to do, too. As St. Ambrose says, “May the soul of Mary be in each one of us to glorify the Lord! “

In Mary’s life with Jesus, the Holy Spirit was most active in her soul, and therefore  in ours as well,  through the prayer of silent, loving receptivity that conceives and gives birth to grace in mysterious ways only He knows. Trusting this brings a deeply spiritual dimension to the everyday experience of keeping up with current events.

We are still going to react emotionally to the news. Praying the news is not a way to escape the piercing of our own hearts. In fact sometimes the news of some atrocity in the world brings more tears to my eyes than ever before. I cannot begin to imagine how Mary feels, how Jesus feels, about these things.

We will still disagree with some things we read or hear sometimes. (I admit I will argue with the radio.) But our own reaction is not our focus anymore. Our focus is to accompany Mary in prayer, and to become “a smooth channel for the outflow of [the] Divine Will into this world.” (Fr. Adrien Van Kaam)

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Luke Interviews Mary: The Annunciation

 

After the breaking of the Bread and the Prayers in the house of John the Apostle, when all the others had left, Mary sat me down, bringing me water and a plate of olives. She walked quickly through the house, putting things away, straightening mats, stirring a stew she was making for John and me for dinner. Finally, after much motherly bustle, she sat down, smiling at me expectantly.

I marveled at the way her gently lined face still looked like the face of a little girl, and wished I could see all that her kind and peaceful eyes had seen.

“So, you understand why I came, and what I am working on?” I asked her.

“Yes, how wonderful!”

I took my writing materials out of my bag.

I was nervous but felt calmed by the comfortable, child like enthusiasm on her face.

She wanted to know everything about my work.

I went over with her the information I had gathered in my process of talking to eye witnesses of the events, my list of parables, details of healings, outlines of teachings, the order I proposed for the narrative, my sources, one of which I hoped would be herself.

She asked good questions, gave thoughtful replies, made helpful suggestions. She was wise, warm and encouraging.

“Luke! You have done so well already!  I am sure God has chosen you for this!”

“Mother, I will need to include some truths about you that will help me show the nature of your Son, and to record events only you can tell about. Especially important is… the way Jesus was conceived, and how it came about. The Church needs that story. We need it from you.”

I could see she was troubled.

She looked out of an open window, to the quiet garden outside, to the sky above.

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A light breeze moved, as if in consoling answer to her inward prayer, rustling a tendril of her hair, stirring the air, stirring my heart. I remembered what I had heard: The presence of the Holy Spirit is felt when one is with the mother of Jesus.

Then, she looked at me and smiled, touching my wrist lightly to reassure me.

“It would be easier for me if we walked. Walk with me?”

I rose, alive with excitement that I was perhaps about to hear things no one else had ever heard.

“You must pray and decide what to leave in and what to leave out,” she said, as she took her wrap and draped it over her shoulders.

Outside she put a small hand on my arm, and I saw that she still wore her wedding ring, a simple band of carved stone. It touched me to think of her love and faithfulness to Joseph. How she must miss him. How she must miss her Son.

“How can I ever do her justice?” I thought.

At times we walked in silence. At times she spoke.  When I had to, I  asked questions. At some of the things she said, I caught my breath and tears came to my eyes.

I had not known, no one had known, just how this conception had come about.

Ah, the Angel Gabriel? Of course, how fitting. The Book of Daniel came to mind, and its implications.

She stopped and turned to me at certain points in her story, as if to make sure I heard what she said,

“He shall be great…. And shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David! And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever!”

She would squeeze my hand, nod at me, and we would walk on while she thoughtfully considered what to tell me next.

The hardest part for her to talk about was the experience of her conception of Jesus. She almost could not do it.

She had been overcome with holy fear, she said. As Abraham was filled with godly dread in the night before his visitation and the sealing of God’s covenant with him, so it was with her when Gabriel appeared to her, and said, “Hail, full of grace!” She had not known what it meant, she had been overwhelmed, overcome completely.

But when the Angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary,” she found that she was not afraid at all. She was allowed, she said, to gaze in wonder.

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In reply to the astonishing request the Angel brought from the Almighty, and the announcement about the coming of the Messiah through her, she had been perplexed. She and Joseph had felt so strongly guided by God to remain virgin. They had made a vow. How was this child to come to her?

After her questions had been answered by the Angel, she had said, in a rush of love, exultation, and understanding, “Yes! The Lord knows everything! He knows that I love Him, that I love His people!”

She stopped walking now and closed her eyes, stretching her arms forth in prayer, remembering, “Then I said, with great joy of heart, ‘Mighty Gabriel, see, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Amen! Let it be done to me as you have said.”

 

She rested her hand on my shoulder, we began to walk again. I thought of  Sarah, and of Hannah, of daughter Zion, as a light breeze rustled the new leaves on the trees around us, rippling the hem of her veil. I enjoyed the light of both the sun and the glow of inner joy on her face.

“Holy Gabriel had said the Lord was with me. I thought, ‘I must have been made for this.’  But… I didn’t quite know what to do when the angel left me. I prayed, what happens now?”

Mary closed her eyes, her hand on her heart, our steps slowing on the path.

“I felt the great and tender Spirit of the Lord, asking me to welcome Him. I said in my heart, ‘I don’t know how. Show me. Command me to receive You, and it will happen.”

She said that suddenly her senses and inner faculties were suspended, all was still, and she knew only Love, only God, only tenderness, as if light flooded her soul, even her body; light so bright, she was inwardly blinded.

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For the first time she was aware that God was One God in Three Persons, as He revealed His very nature to her- like three suns rising in her heart as one.

He never left her.

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She cried trying to tell me this, and she said she knew she had not gotten it right, not expressed it as it should be told, but she trusted that I would know what to say in the Spirit.

Yes, I knew. I thought of the Scriptures about the Arc of the Covenant and the cloud of the Lord’s presence, the shekinah glory that would settle over the mercy seat in the holy of holies in the Temple. I knew what I would say. It would be simple.

I would protect the secret of her soul, except what I must write in Jesus’ Name, of what the Angel himself had said, that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. 

 

In the days to come the holy mother would tell me many more stories of the Lord. She trusted me for the sake of the Gospel.

I believe I came to know her heart in those hours spent with her in the garden behind the house of John. Some of what she said was to remain with me, some of it was a gift for the Gospel. I let the Holy Spirit decide which was which.

I am often asked about my time with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Christian soul, child of Mary, you may ask her in the Spirit anything you like. I have said what is mine to say.

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Garden of Mercy: Hospitality of Heart

Happy Divine Mercy Sunday!

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“Jesus” By Bob Chapman

In  Misericordiae Vultus, (“The Face of Mercy,”) the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy from Pope Francis, he has given us new seeds, a bright and verdant diagram, a vision of joy, a plan of hope for the renewal of the “oasis of mercy” that is the Church, and of the the living sanctuaries of mercy each of us can become in Christ.

Reading The Face of Mercy, I am reminded of St. Therese discovering that her vocation was love; to be love in the Heart of the Church. St. Therese taught us that this is the underlying vocation of all the various callings in the Lord.

The Holy Father is calling us, now, to be mercy at the heart of the Church.

One of the things that stands out for me in Misericordiae Vultus, is that Pope Francis talks about mercy in a way that shows that one of its primary aspects is deep acceptance and gratuitous love. This accepting love is so powerful that encountering this simple grace of mercy that God plants in us will inspire others to bloom before our eyes, just as we open like flowers before the Lord’s complete and total love.

“Wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.” ~ Pope Francis

How do we each become an oasis of mercy?

Pope Francis says we should draw our ability to “adopt mercy as our lifestyle” from contemplating the Word of God in silence. What does that do?

I think it does the same thing that sun and rain do in a garden.

“This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land,and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. (Mark 4:26-27)

How God works in the soul through prayer is a mystery, but it is very simple. We make time to open our hearts to God in stillness every day, and to ponder His Word. In this way we prepare the soil.

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St. Faustina says God’s will “is love and mercy itself.” He will sow in us seeds of mercy and love that will grow under His care.

If we are willing to work at His side, we can also expect Him to take out any choking weeds that inhibit us in mercy, to set in order all that needs order, and to allow that which should be left lovely and wild, free to blossom as it should. We can trust the Lord of the garden to shine on whatever is cold and dead, to heal what is damaged, to bring to our attention any work we ourselves have neglected.

When our souls are well nourished by prayer, we can be a quiet place for people to sit, a shade tree of peace surrounded by bright flowers of acceptance and tenderness. Our souls can be cool and and quiet fountains of the gentle healing that comes from God.

The healing nature of my garden can heal the most broken of hearts.” ~ Santa Montefiore

Years ago my brother-in-law, Frank, went to Assisi with his family. This story is about a quiet moment on a busy day, a simple conversation in a shady place. But it has always enchanted me.

As we went down this crooked street, we walked past the church of San Stefano. It was tiny, more of a chapel than a church. There was a small garden next to the church that was surrounded by a fence. There was a gate with a sign on it. The sign said in several languages: “Come in, if you think it will do you good.”
 Inside the garden was a picnic table and some benches. There were two gnarled, old, olive trees serving as shade. A nun and a lay woman greeted us. They offered us a place to sit, and gave each of us a glass of ice water. The two women asked us where we were from. They were genuinely interested in who we were and why we had come to Assisi. We rested a while. Then we thanked the ladies and made our way back up the hill to our hotel.
The hospitality was simple and open-hearted. I won’t ever forget it. ~ Frank Pauc
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Mercy can manifest itself in quiet and unassuming ways; by a simple, accepting presence. Mercy doesn’t push itself on anyone, it invites and makes itself available. It respectfully speaks the language the other can understand, in a conversation with no agenda but that of connection and service, giving the other room to decide for himself. “Come in, if you think it will do you good.”

“[Jesus’] person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously.” ~ Pope Francis

As people who follow Jesus, this is the shape we want our gardens to take: to become oases of gratuitous, accepting love. We want to make room for fragrant, herbaceous borders, for winding paths of compassion and peace, along which we can walk with anyone who comes for refuge.

God will plant in this garden the flowers He likes best to see in it, and we will know the fruit of hospitality of heart.

He’s drawing up His plans, and showing us His ideas, giving us seeds to dream over; about gardens, flowers, fruit, and Spring.

Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” ~ Pope Francis

And the seeds of the Kingdom will be sown, everywhere we go.

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“All the broken are mending/The mournful rejoicing/Seeing through tears/Of peace overflowing/And You walk with me/You never leave/You’re making my heart a garden” Matt Maher

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*You can read Misericordiae Vultus, (The Face of Mercy) here. 

photos and garden by Shawna Manning Marcontel

Among the Lilies: A Resurrection Encounter

All night … I looked 

 for the one my soul loves; 

I looked for him but did not find him. 

I will go through the streets of the city, 

I will search for him my soul loves. 

The watchmen found me as they made their rounds in the city.

I asked them, 

Have you seen my love?”  

The angels pitied me.

They said to me,

“Search among the lilies…

He is not here!

He lies not in darkness

Nor in the folds of the cloth.”

But I could not breathe, so sick was I with love,

So I asked the gardener,

“Where have you taken him? Tell me!”

“Woman,” he asked,” why do you weep,

Your beloved is yours and you are his.

He feeds his flock among lilies.

…Miriam… Mary!”

“Rabonni!”

I rose, a rose unfolding, lilies opened at my feet

My love was so complete, my love was so complete

Grave flowers sprang up living, blossoming at our feet

Our love was so complete, our love was so complete.

In that love, I found him, I held him, and I would not let him go.

“Oh! Come to me, Miriam!…but cling not

Don’t grieve for the world past and gone..receive my Heart

Receive the Lily!”

Oh woman who brings the great tiding to Zion

Get thee to the high mountain…

Lift up your voice with strength

Be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah,

“Behold your God!  Behold your God! Behold your God!”

That Miriam found among the lilies.

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* See: Song of Songs 3: 1-4a, John 20:11-18 ,Song of Songs 2:16, Isaiah 40:9

 

Note:

The relationship expressed in this poem is in the Catholic tradition of Bride Mysticism, explained here http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09703a.htm

In no way do I intend to present any other idea about the life of St. Mary Magdalene, but that which the Catholic Church believes and teaches about her through Scripture and Tradition. (See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09761a.htm  for a history of the Church’s thought on St. M.M., “Apostolora Apostolorum” Apostle to the Apostles)

Stabat Mater: the strength to be still

She remained still, even inside herself. She was still because she was listening for God, and she was occupied with His will, and, because of her love, being completely present as the unthinkable happened to her Son.

The Scripture says only that she was there. There was no way her instincts as a mother were not the strongest that could be. However, she did not attempt to stop anyone, scream at anyone, blame anyone, say anything, do anything, but stand as she watched her Son be tortured and murdered before her. Any parent would find this hard to imagine. Since we know she was an incomparable mother, we know this stillness was not wrong of her. It was right.

 

She chose to be still because she trusted Jesus, and she took her lead from Him. She remained focused on Him, and she let nothing get in her way. She would never let anyone steal her treasure: her union of heart and will with Jesus, no matter what was done to her heart and soul by what was done to Him.

She faced everything, even this unbearable violence, as it happened, not knowing the future. Nothing could stop her from loving and doing what was asked of her in the moment, even if it was to stand and be desolated. And that is strength, if that is what is right. And it was totally right.

In this stillness she kept, she was able to sense her call to ally herself completely with the offering of her Son and join Him.

Her silent strength and her courageous proximity to her condemned Son must have been a rare wonder to those standing by. She needed to remain completely present to Him, loving Him. She wanted to be totally open to God’s plan as it unfolded in her life, no matter how horrific it seemed. She had to pay attention and keep watch with her Son, listening for the Holy Spirit, trusting the Father. She understood this, and nothing could stop her, not the hatred and mockery of the angry people around her, not the cold efficiency of the soldiers of Rome, not even her mother’s heart crying out within her in the face of what she had to see and experience.

In the midst of all this, she was still. Such was her fierce focus and priority.

She was neither passive nor weak. She was unbelievable.

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Sometimes it’s time to say, “Son why have you done this to us,” and sometimes it is time to be silent, to be present, to be still. She knew how to respond or not respond, because she listened and she watched, and because, “her heart could not want what God did not want,”* even when she lost everything, “even God her own Son.” **

Her response of stillness on Golgatha models for us the Gospel meaning of turning the other cheek:            “I will not be turned back from love.” Her eyes were on God.

Incomparable Mother, incomparable disciple.

Allow me to praise you, O Sacred Virgin.

Give me the strength to be still,

and to remain

close to the Cross. 

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*St. Faustina: “Her soul yearned for Jesus with the whole force of Her love. But she was… so united to the will of God that her heart could not want what God did not want.”

*Chiara Lubich  ” … she knew how to lose everything, even God her own Son.”

To learn about the hymn: Stabat Mater (The Mother Standing): 

 

 

Italian Texans celebrate St. Joseph

In the late 1800’s groups of Italians, mostly from the towns of Corleone and Poggioreriale in Sicily, migrated to the Brazos Valley and settled in and around Bryan. By 1905 there were about 3000 Italians living in Bryan. They founded St. Anthony’s Catholic Church  and a little mission church in the country side, San Salvador.

Many of the names that fill the historic Catholic cemetery, Mt. Calvary, in Bryan, are some of the same family names you will hear around town now; Scarmardo, Ruffino,  Patranella, Palasota, Fazzino, and Lampo, are just a few of them. These Italian names are still names of some of the businesses, and streets of Bryan. They are woven into our history, part of our life, as so many of the descendants of those families are still with us here.

Some families still make traditional Italian St. Joseph altars, often in thanksgiving, if they have promised one to St. Joseph in response to prayers answered. When his feast day is coming up, people will get to hear there is an altar and thousands, (yes, I’m serious,) will come from all around. The family and friends hosting the St. Joseph altar will cook for days in preparation. All are welcome. Some years there are no St. Joseph altars. Some years there are several, and one can make a tour of the different houses where the celebrations are being held. These occasions are also considered a chance to share with the less fortunate. The tradition of these St. Joseph altars originated in Sicily, of which St. Joseph is the patron saint, and have several interesting customs associated with them that are still practiced here today.

I visited  Lillian Scarmardo Hughes and her husband, Tom, to learn more about St. Joseph altars, as they prepared to celebrate their own “small” St. Joseph altar celebration at their own home. They are expecting about 60 people.

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Msr. John McCaffrey, Tom and Lillian Hughes in front of the St. Joseph altar

 

There is a lot of variation in St.Joseph altars according to the people who make them. However, there are certain things that are traditional and defining. The altar is set up in a household or common building such as a parish hall or school. It is made up of three tiers to symbolize the Blessed Trinity, and also the Holy Family.

The top tier will hold an image of St. Joseph or of the Holy Family, surrounded by greenery, fruit, and flowers.

Next there will be at least three breads made for the occasion, each in a shape of a symbol of St.Joseph, of Jesus, of Mary. Lillian and Tom have chosen to represent the Holy family with a rosary for Mary, a cross for Jesus, and a hammer shaped bread for St. Joseph. These breads are called panne grosso, “big breads.” Lilly tells me that over the years on some altars around town, the tradition has grown to include other saints as well, and you will seesquartucciata made in the shape of the symbols of other saints as well. People who have a devotion to one of these other saints will bring breads over to represent them for the altar as well.

On Tom and Lillian’s home alter you can also see some lovely porcelain templates from Poggioreriale  for the beautiful intricate pastries made for the altars; fig cookies called cuccidatti.

Lillian and Tom raveled to Italy twice. Lilly was able to be in her grandfather’s home town (he and his brother had left for America in 1880) of Poggioreiale during the preparation of the St. Joseph altars there. She was even able to meet a blood cousin!

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She was welcomed enthusiastically to help make the squartucciati, the ornate fig cookies. and other foods. The women there were amazed that Lillian knew all about St. Joseph altars and how to make the various pastries. They were very moved that the tradition had been handed down and carried on in Texas by their people who immigrated there. It sounded like a magical moment. I could see the glow in Lillian’s eyes while she told me this story and showed me her pictures of it.

She plans to return to Sicily at least one more time in her life.

The cooking begins very early. It is usually a meatless spaghetti dinner and plenty is made so the poor can also be served. An egg is added to the sauce for each guest, to represent new life.

For nine days before the altar is actually presented, a novena to St. Joseph is prayed, along with a rosary sung in Italian.

At some point a priest will come and bless the altar.

Some common objects on the alar will be fava beans, which the Sicilians usually fed their cattle but were reduced to eating during a terrible drought and famine. They prayed to the patron of Sicily, St. Joseph and their prayers were answered. This is how St. Joseph altars began; in gratitude to St.Joseph.

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The flowers, vegetables and fruit represent the harvest and gratitude to God for His gifts and providence.

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There will also be wine to represent the wedding at Cana.

IMG_2045There are other symbols, as well, of St. Joseph, such as bread crumbs which represent saw dust.

There may be Squartucciatis made to look like sandals, carpentry tools, monstrances, crosses, doves, and other Christian symbols.

There are usually lilies at the altar, traditionally St. Joseph’s flower.

There is often a basket on the altar for people to put in their written petitions to St. Joseph.

On the day of St.Joseph’s feast, or the closest day the family can accommodate family and friends, the celebration is held.

There will be the Ceremony of Saints, during which people representing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, knock three times and ask for shelter. This is called the “Tupa tupa” part of the ceremony. They Holy Family is refused twice, but the third time are welcomed in, along with people representing a variety of other saints.

The person representing Jesus, most often a child, blesses the altar with holy water and a sprig of mint.

The Holy Family is served first in three small courses. Sometimes the host will wash their feet and hands. In some families the feet of children are kissed.

Everyone is served a small glass of wine as a token of unity and friendship.

Then the altar is “broken” and all are served. Everyone is welcome, plus there is plenty left over to go out and serve the poor of the community.

Lillian loves these celebrations and grew up with them. Her mother, Rosalie Scarmardo, is remembered for having been particularly talented in helping people with their altars

After the representatives of the Holy Family are served, a spaghetti dinner and general celebration takes  place. Everyone is sent home with a goodie bag of the ring cookies, fig cookies, a fava bean, and some holy cards of St. Joseph.

Be blessed, St. Joseph, be welcome among us, pray for us. 

Thank you so much to Lillian and Tom Hughes, and to Becky Scamardo for their help and generosity.

For more, please see my upcoming column in The Eagle on March 24, or read my post at ATX Catholic.  

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Meditating on the Word: a lesson from the Desert Fathers and Mothers

The Eucharist is the Word of God made flesh that we take into our bodies and souls with greatest reverence. As Jeff Cavins says, The Bible is “… the Word of God made text,” that we take into our eyes, ears and minds.  We are to let it dwell in us richly, living and active in us, abiding in us, hidden in our hearts.

One way to allow Scripture to truly live and work within us, is to memorize passages, and not only come to know the words, but cherish them in our hearts in prayer and meditation.

 

The Desert Fathers and Mothers * lived lives of radical simplicity in order to be more attentive to God. They spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture so they would  have it within them.

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Internalizing Scripture is itself a form of prayer. This is different than reading it analytically or studying it.

God’s Word is alive. (Hebrews 4:12a)

“Meditatio Scripturarum” is simple, based on faith in the power and life of God’s Word. In this prayer we take a passage of Scripture we have memorized and hold it in our hearts, turning it over and over. We leave what it does up to God, whose Word never returns to Him void, but always does what He sends it to do. We silently “hear” it, and cherish it intentionally in our hearts as a communion with God.

“Ponder [the Word] without analyzing it. Give it space to speak.” (Christine Paintner) We allow the Sower to sow the seed, prayerfully tending the soil to encourage deep roots.

Desert Father, Abba Poemen  said, “The nature of water is soft; that of stone is hard. But if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. ” When we continually ponder the Word of God, it will surely soften and open our hearts to its mystery.

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Choosing a Passage: To begin with, choose a passage you especially love, or feel drawn to, or one that seems to speak to your current life situation. Make it the average length of a Psalm or Canticle: not too short, not too long. If you are in crisis or in discernment about something, you may want to humbly ask someone else to prayerfully choose a passage for you:  a spiritual director, a priest or a friend, trusting in the Holy Spirit to work through that person. You may want to follow the Lectionary and let the Holy Spirit lead you in the daily Mass readings of the Liturgical Year. We should make sure we don’t habitually pick passages that suit our self will, but remain receptive so we can be good soul soil.

Memorizing: I like writing a passage out and keeping it in my pocket all day to read and go over again and again. You can take turns with a friend at work giving each other a passage now and then, quizzing each other when you have a chance, until it is memorized. Read it right before going to sleep and repeat it to yourself as you head into that twilight just before you slip into the unconscious. Sometimes the passage will go with you into sleep. Work on it when you’re filling the car with gas, standing in line at the grocery store, or at a boring meeting.

Meditating: Set aside time to be alone with the passage once it is memorized well. Sit in a quiet, private place, in a position in which you can be both alert and relaxed. Once you are recollected, begin to go mentally over the passage very slowly- not too slowly but don’t rush through it, either. You will find your perfect pace and phrasing. “…He…humbled… himself…. taking the form… of a slave…. being born… in the likeness… of men… “

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Let the phrases be like a string of rosary beads slipping slowly through your fingers. When you get to the end of your verse, phrase or passage, begin again.

If you are distracted just bring yourself gently back to the words. A small distraction merits gentle redirection. But if the mind has completely left the passage and is doing its own thing, patiently let it know that when it does this, you will be starting again at the beginning of the passage, and then do. The mind doesn’t like that but it won’t rebel too much. You will find it runs off much less often as you practice, once it learns you mean business.

This is time you spend in intimacy with God, attentive to His Word, quietly and tenderly abiding in Him and allowing Him to rest also in you.

How much time you decide to  spend on this prayer is up to you. Thirty minutes is customary but even five can do. The most important part is to do it and to practice it every day you can, for however long. Then His language will be your language and His thoughts will become your thoughts. When you call He will answer- often with the perfect verse.

When you are ready, move on to another passage. And another.

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Blessed are those who hear the word of God

 –and cherish it in their hearts.

(Responsory from the Liturgy of the Hours)

*Desert Fathers, and Mothers: early Christian hermits and communities of semi-hermits, whose practice of simplicity, work, prayer, counsel to spiritual seekers, and hospitality in the Egyptian desert, beginning in the 3rd century, formed the basis of Christian monasticism.

A reflective guide to Confession

When I first came into the Church, the Sacrament that stumped me the most was Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It wasn’t the idea of it. It wasn’t the theology of it. It wasn’t even claustrophobia. It was learning how to contain myself into this little ritual. This was difficult for me because of my lack of experience and also because I couldn’t seem to narrow down what it was right to confess. My confession should not be a wild arrow that misses the Heart of Jesus or a list that makes Him sleepy. I want to hit the bull’s eye and sink the arrow deep. I had a hard time with my archery for a long time and I think for Jesus, my attempts to participate in this sacrament made me a crazy moving target hard for Him to hit.

I had some memorable reactions from priests to my confessions that puzzled me: everything from, “That’s not really a sin.” to “You sound like a monophysite,” to simply bursting out laughing.
I needed to find a way to contain myself in the narrow field of what I was supposed to actually do with Confession in order to let it be the conscious encounter with Jesus that it should be. I realized going to Confession was not just about me and my feelings. It was something I did for Jesus and for the good of the Church as well. I really needed to find a way to hit the mark and hit it in a way that was more transformative and open to grace.

The power of God is not limited to our personal perceptions of course. But the Sacrament isn’t “magic” either. It’s a real encounter with Jesus and His merciful love. I need to participate as fully as I can.

“Art…consists of drawing the line somewhere.” (G.K. Chesterton) I needed a way draw some lines, within the ones given to us by the Church, and still have my confession come from the heart.

Over the years I developed a way of ordering my examination of conscience and my confession into a more meaningful and sensible form that fits into the confessional “box” better than the disorganized, emotionally based way I had been doing it before.

 

How I prepare for Confession

First I ask Jesus what He wants me to Confess. It doesn’t have to be about everything in the world down to spilling my milk (not a sin by the way.) It could be about one particular situation God wants to work with me in. I try to be receptive as I think about my life. I pray to be guided and trust that I will be.

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I write down the basic issues that come up. Then I look in the Scriptures and/or the Catechism to see what the Word and the Magisterium have to say about these things. I reflect on what I have read- especially a word or phrase that really stands out to me. A lot of the time I can see more deeply into a situation and where I am at fault, what graces and virtues I need to pray and work for, and where I need to make amends in my relationships, when I do this. I make a brief outline of what I have found out. Then I make a prayer about each sin I need to confess. After all, the priest is in persona Christi and this is a holy sacrament so why not make my whole confession a prayer? It helps me a lot to do it this way. I think I am more guided and I am more likely to find meaning and grace when I take my time to do this in a reflective way, making use of the Bible and the Catechism along with receptive prayer. Also this way I don’t lose track of what I am doing when I am there (as I often used to do.)

Let’s take an example of a sin I have often committed as a parent, though I’m sure none of you ever do; freaking out and yelling at my kids. The prayer I write out for that may look like this:

“My God, in Your Word, You have said “Do not be harsh with your children but admonish them in the Lord.” For all the times I have lost my temper with my children lately, I am sorry. Please forgive me and help me to be as gentle with them as You are with me. “

Or this: “Lord, You have taught through Your Church that parents are the primary educators of their children. For the times I have failed to teach my daughters patience and gentleness by modeling these things for them, the times I gave them a bad example instead by losing my temper and being harsh, I am sorry. Please forgive me. Grant to me the grace of patience and help me to do better.”

In the Confessional

Confessional at San Salvador Mission, Bryan

When I am in the confessional, I tell the priest before I begin that I have written out my confession this way. I have never had any one of them mind about that. Otherwise, of course, The Sacrament of Reconciliation proceeds as usual.

I do think a personal, devotional act adds to the experience, (as long as it doesn’t detract from it.) It can bring us closer to love, and give us a sense of the fact that we are entering into something sacred. My friend, Shawna, takes her shoes off and kneels when she begins Confession. I think that is beautiful. Things like that remind us of our devotion, give us the sense of the fact that we are entering into the sacred, and help us to be humble in God’s presence.

Like my friend, Shawna, I like to kneel too- not during my confession but during absolution. Why I don’t take my shoes off the way she does I will leave to your imagination.

There is a saying, “The narrower the field the deeper the dig.” That has been true for me in Confession. I don’t need to dig all over the place; just enough in the right spot, in the right way, to find that Pearl of Great Price that I am willing to sell everything else to possess.

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Stations of the Cross, with love from Mary

 

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After Christ’s Ascension, Mary, the mother of Jesus, would go out and walk the way of the Cross again, the way of our salvation and hers. She could be seen sometimes in the early morning, walking slowly, pausing.”He fell here. And again here. He spoke to the women here.”

Her prayers of Good Friday returned to mind, “My Son, my Son, my Lord, how far will this go? How much of this will You allow? If it be Your will, let me  suffer all with You, die with you! My Son, God’s Son. I will go with you as far as I can.”

She remembered, “This is where our eyes met. This is when I knew. Here is the place where Simon of Cyrene took up the Cross. Here is where Jesus was crucified and- unthinkably, died. Oh what those people said to Him, what they did to Him! Father, forgive them! May His mercy capture their hearts forever! Let me lead our children, Father. Allow me to lead them by heart and prayer, to our Son.”

And then she would walk back to her home with John, grinding grain and making cakes for his breakfast, kneading bread for the visitors who would come, spending her day in prayer and service, humbly telling the story of her Son to all who wanted to be set free.

So much of the Gospel depended on her witness. And her sons, the Apostles, needed her prayer and presence. She would stay as long as she was needed, until God took her home to her Son. As Spouse of the Holy Spirit, she prayed for, companioned, and mothered the early Church, living also as a daughter of the Church as long as God willed her to stay on earth.

People started to follow her when she walked the way of the cross. At first a small group of the women disciples walked with her. Soon many people went out early and walked with her in the quiet morning, recounting and reflecting on the Lord’s Passion and death, reflecting on what had been done for them, and that His spirit within them was so real it would raise their bodies, too, from the dead. In awe of the living proof and witness of His divinity and humanity that she was, they, too, paused in silence, and in that silence the Scriptures were opened for them, and their hearts burned within them as the Spirit, too, accompanied them and taught them all they needed to know as they walked with His Bride, the little and simple, humble and human Mary, mother of Jesus.

As persecution grew, barricades were set up by the authorities to keep the Christians from walking the Via Dolorosa, and the Apostle John took Mary with him to Ephesus for her protection.

There, she carried stones she had brought from Jerusalem to the back of the house and set them along a path she marked out in and around the garden. She would pause at each one of the markers she had made, pause and remember: Here He fell, and again here. He spoke to the women here. Our eyes met here. Simon took up the cross here.

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In the end there were fourteen stations where she could stop to pray. The Ephesians from John’s church would visit her and walk this way of the Cross with her, and with her remember and reflect on all that had happened.

The Gospel had not yet been written. But it was recorded and treasured in the heart and in the footsteps of this mother who, lowly and barefoot, walked and pondered, in remembrance of her Son’s suffering and death. This walking reflection of hers became the Stations of the Cross represented in every Catholic Church, on which we meditate each Friday of Lent to this day, and especially on Good Friday, the day of our Redemption.

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This is only a legend about the evolution of the Stations of the Cross, filled out by my prayerful imagination, but it makes deep sense to me. In a way it is true whether it’s factual or not. Mary is the one who treasured the truth about Our Lord for us in her heart. She was the one person who truly knew where He came from. There are parts of the Gospel that could have only come from her, including some of her inmost thoughts… and the fact that she treasured and reflected on all these things in her heart. Even if she never walked the Stations of the Cross in such ritual fashion while on earth, though it is easy to imagine she did, we know she carried it in her heart. We remember her, and she remembers us when we pray it now, and she joins us, her Son’s Church, in prayer, as she always did.

I attended the Stations of the Cross the evening of this writing. This time I walked it in my soul with Mary, from the original events of Good Friday to after the Ascension, to her last days in Ephesus, joining her on the Way of the Cross, consciously drawing on her memories.

Learning from Mary is so easy. She is full of grace. It’s what she has to share.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you–because by your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.

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