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The Ascension

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To us who celebrate it every year the Ascension of Jesus  seems to naturally follow the initial celebration of his Resurrection. 

However I imagine it was an earth shattering surprise to his followers that he would be leaving them yet again. 

When I reflect on this event as part of the rosary the virtue I link to the Ascension is detachment as I see him beautifully disappear before the eyes of his followers as “a  cloud removed him from their sight.” 

The family of believers had to let go of their expectations that Jesus as they knew him would permanently remain to walk and talk with them. Again they had to face that Jesus was not about to get rid of the Roman occupiers either. There would be no restoration of the Davidic Kingdom  in the literal way they had thought of it. And the One they loved was going to withdraw from them yet again. They must have felt as if they were back from the defining experience of their lives with nothing to show for it, as if they were just a rag tag group of people standing on a mountainside for no particular reason. They were shocked and bereft. They didn’t understand what Jesus meant about him having to leave that the Holy Spirit could come to them. How could they? 

When the angel said that Jesus would be back they must have shaken their heads. Jesus had said for them to go and baptize, to take his message to the world. This must have seemed like too much for them, an overwhelming task, especially on their own. 

They had to greatly expand their understanding of God even past the miraculous three years they had left everything for and deeply identified with now. 

They had to let go so they could be filled and receive Jesus in a whole new way, by his presence in their hearts, and to come to know the Holy Spirit who was new to them. 

How can we receive the Spirit without detachment, self emptying, without freedom of heart? 

“Love- the way God wants to be loved, and leave off your own way of acting,” said St. John of the Cross. 

Or, as Jesus said to St. Angela of Foligno, “Make of yourself a capacity and I will make myself a torrent.” 

Jesus said that if his friends loved him they would be happy he was going to the Father. (Jon.14:28) Is there something more to that than being happy for him? Yes, because he says, “for the Father is greater than I.” Maybe it also means that we have to let our current perhaps more comfortable understanding go to make room for the immensity he has for us. We can be happy he is going to the Father because then, in letting him go as we thought we had him, he then is truly closer than our breath, more accessible than ever. Detachment is hard. We feel that we are losing our Treasure.   

 St. Faustina said of Mary’s experience of the Ascension that she deeply grieved as any mother would  that her Son was leaving but that, “her heart could not want what God did not want.” 

In seeking a pure heart for God and a Marian detachment; a detachment with great love, a detachment even from the way we thought Jesus would be present to us, we open ourselves to what is even greater, beyond what we could ever have thought of ourselves.  But first we let go. 

“Bend  my heart according to your will, O God.” (Ps. 119:36) 

Then, 

“I shall run in your paths for You will enlarge my heart.” (Psalm 119:32)

In this is peace that comes from open-ness to God and freedom of heart.

These verses are a perfect prayer to cultivate holy detachment as the disciples struggled to do this, standing there on the Mount of Olives, not knowing what to do with themselves. 

Fortunately we don’t have to rely on our own strength in this and neither did they.

Jesus had said to wait in Jerusalem and to pray. They did. They trusted in simplicity. And prayer continually purified theirattachments and intentions as disciples, transforming their dismay into receptivity.   

They still longed for Jesus; his voice, his hug, the sound of his footsteps, “like a deer that longs for running streams in a dry weary land without water,” (Ps. 42:2)  However they soon found that once emptied, their muddled and broken hearts were then open to the new gift of God’s presence; the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, filling them past overflowing, their thirst for God more than quenched.  “Your torrents and all your waves swept over me.”  (Ps. 42: 8)

Come, Holy Spirit, come. 

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St. Joseph Novena Day 9

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St. Joseph Novena Day 9

You Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high. Psalm 3:3

St. Joseph living in glory your work is not done but is different! Now you have tremendous ability to share that glory and love and fullness of joy with us as well. And so we entrust ourselves to you as an understanding father who is also the terror of demons, the tender protector, the universal teacher and master of prayer and the Christian life. We want what you have. We want to live and work and laugh with Jesus and Mary every day. We want to die in their arms. We want to be with you and with them in Heaven. We are so happy it is your Solemnity; the Solemnity of your beautiful life, of you in your heavenly glory and you as amazing intercessor. We bless you St. Joseph and we thank God for you and so does all of Heaven. You have our love as small as our hearts are sometimes. May God make our hearts mighty to love as you did, as you continue to do. Intercede for us with your Son. Remain with us today in a special way. Amen.

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St. Joseph Novena Day 8

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Precious in the eyes of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones. (Psalm 116:15)

St. Joseph, your death was beautiful and tender. Your passing filled the room with love; your love, the love of your family, the love of God.

Joseph the dreamer, the worker, the father, the husband, the prophet, the protector, the meaning of your life settled with intense clarity on those who kept watch at your side and on everyone who ever knew you, flooding the hearts of them all. Help us when our time comes to leave this world, to have fulfilled our purpose, to have loved God and every human being he sent our way, to have lived with Jesus and Mary daily that we may also die in their arms and ultimately reach heaven in the company of the angels and saints, to be forever in the Heart of the Father, inhabiting his House filled with wonder. St. Joseph, Patron of a holy death, pray for us as we honor you. Pray for us always.

St. Joseph Novena Day 3

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The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
(Psalm 19)

St. Joseph your level of trust is astonishing. Your humility and simplicity of heart kept you always open to God’s voice in your life. You were continually seeking it no matter the strange and frightening turns life took for you at times, and even when God’s law appeared to be taking you from the person you loved most. You stayed open and you prayed and discerned and paid attention, maybe asking for clarification. Once you understood the plans of God you did not seem to hesitate further but acted with confidence no matter what anyone else may have thought about your decision to change course and take Mary as your wife. Your one aim was God.
Let us say with you, “God is it.”

And May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to him who makes our way clear before us.

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St. Joseph Novena Day One

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1 Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers. (From Psalm 1)

St. Joseph you would have heard and read and studied this Scripture. How beautifully you embodied it as you went about your daily work, took part in your community, served and loved Mary and Jesus. And to this day you are a beautiful tree planted by streams of water, shading and protecting us, giving us the fruit of your meditations and your labors and your love.
Do us the honor of walking with us during this novena, giving us your blessing, teaching us your way.
Pray with us the prayer you prayed daily all of your life.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Dt. 6)
Amen

Book Review: Our Lady of Hot Messes by Leticia Ochoa Adams

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I’ve been following Leticia Ochoa Adams, one of my favorite Catholic writers, for years on social media and I’ve loved reading her blog posts. She has always said what I wished someone would say even though I didn’t know I wished that until she made me laugh out loud or feel totally seen by a Catholic writer in a way I had not felt before. I admire her fearless and thorough self assessments, her frank story telling. There is a freedom that inspires in the way she manages to be rigorously honest about herself without sounding self absorbed or over dramatic. Reading her writing feels like sitting at The Kettle late at night with a comfortable friend who still surprises  with her stories and insights. 

So when I saw she had a book coming out I couldn’t wait to read it. It’s called Our Lady of Hot Messes from Ave Maria Press. It is the author’s spiritual memoir; the story of her life, a record of her conversion, an experience of her spirituality, the lessons she has learned, her observations about the world, her commentary on the times we are living through. 

Leticia Ochoa Adams is not shy. Thank goodness because the world needs her voice, the voice of a Tejano daughter of a single mother who has endured more than her share of trauma and tragedy. Most recently she has survived the suicide of her son, Anthony. She is able to talk about this and the abuse she experienced as a child without being either lurid or glib. She makes it easy to learn from what she has been through and in sharing these things she lights the way for others. 

She writes about the ways she, and we, numb ourselves, attaching ourselves to activities and material things that keep us from being with God as fully as we could be like “doom scrolling,” on social media and even more innocent things we become inordinately attached to. She examines the mixed motivations she and we often have with a disarming simplicity and clarity.  

She reminds us we should just be ourselves. The most important thing to her is being real. I think she has accomplished that with a strength and self possession that might make you raise your eyebrows a little as you read.

One of her chapters is called “Cussing is Normal” in which she challenges us to consider if it’s really enough to use words like “dumb bunny” instead of cuss words when we have the same amount of malice in our hearts when we say them to someone. 

I enjoyed her passages about finding God among people.  She saw how Christ-like bar flies can be when they care for one another having witnessed the lives and friendships of the men who hung out in the dive bar where she was once a bartender. She learned the Ten Commandments and honorable conduct as part of a community from the “G Code” at the majority black high school she attended long before she learned these things in church. God had been teaching her all along through the events and people in her life. Jesus had been there.

Jesus is real and immediate to her. He’s watching TV with her on the couch. He’s funny, he makes her laugh sometimes and he loves her. She tells him everything. I appreciate the way she shares how that relationship has grown throughout her life, through grief and love and her search for  truth. 

 She wants us to know she doesn’t have it all together, that we are at home in the Church whether we feel we have the perfect Catholic life or not. 

It’s funny that she asked such hostile questions at the first RCIA  (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) class she went to, she got kicked out. She only went to get her boyfriend to marry her, she says. She had been taught at a different church growing up that Catholics were idol worshipers and that the rosary was witchcraft. She was ready to be hostile again on her second try at the class but she was so blown away by the explanation of John chapter 6 she forgot to be mad when they got to the Virgin Mary and the rosary because she was still thinking about the Eucharist.  

The thing I love most about being Catholic is that I have found a place that hasn’t gotten tired of my questions. I can ask them without fear of being kicked out. Having a relationship with God and his mother does not mean that I know everything. It does not mean that I do not question why things are the way they are. But it does mean that I get to show up as me, even if that means I fall asleep when I try to pray my rosary at bed time.” 

Her chapter on the rosary is my favorite one. “Praying the Rosary Like a Loser.”   

“I also consider that Hail Marys are what make up the Rosary and each one is a rose laid at her feet. So when I don’t have time to pray the Rosary I just try to lay spiritual roses at her feet like not cussing out a coworker or not flipping off someone in traffic or paying for someone’s lunch. Those are all just as valid as roses to her. And that, my friends, is how to pray the Rosary like a loser when you do not have your life together. You just try not to be a jerk to others, and you think about those moments as roses laid at the feet of Our Lady. And you know that you are loved.” 

Guided Prayer of Recollection (9 minutes)

This is a brief guided version of the Prayer of Recollection of St. Teresa of Jesus with some additional preparation to help you relax and get centered at the beginning. There is a lot of room in this prayer for us to “look” at the Lord in the way that works best for us. It is supremely simple in structure, leaving room for conversation with God, imaginative prayer, or interior silent communion with Christ, whatever way helps you keep the eyes of your soul on the Lord and attentive to him. I used the simple structure St. Teresa outlined in The Way of Perfection, Chapter 26. As an anchor to keep us focussed on God’s presence I suggest mentally praying the Name of Jesus to gently bring our minds back when they wander.

I hope it makes a nice prayer break in your day.

https://fb.watch/gKtOEw5gd1/

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All Soul’s Day 2022

Today is All Soul’s Day, the day we remember and pray for our beloved dead on their journey. It is a day to light candles for them, wash their head stones in the cemetery, to bring flowers. There will be masses and rosaries prayed for them in Catholic cemeteries all over the world today and every country has its own additional customs as well. Around here in some churches people bring pictures of their dead to leave there during the month of November. There will be a Book of the Dead placed near the door at church today so we can write their names in it and we will all pray for them during November at every mass.

Everyone is alive in God and we are still in communion with those who have gone before. I remember my husbands, my grandparents, my mother and my step father, my brother, and my friends who have died every day and I know they are with me. Love is stronger than death. And God is the God of both the living and the dead. All things are alive to him and therefor to me as one who loves him, and to you.

“… the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God. 1 Corinthians 3:22b-23

And Christ is all in all.

God bless you today and all of your loved ones who have died. May the tears you have cried for them be blessed. God holds every one of them close to his heart.

“You have stored my tears in your bottle and counted each of them. ” Psalm 56:8b

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*The reason it says God keeps your tears in a bottle is because of the custom at that time to wear a small bottle around your neck when you were in mourning in which you stored your tears.

Lessons in Prayer of the Heart

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 I went to see Fr. Cassian Sibley to discuss  Prayer of the Heart in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The sign on the house read, Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring Russian Orthodox Church. That has to be the coolest church name I have ever heard in my life.  I told Fr. Cassian so when he opened the door. He is a cheerful man with a kind face and a big bushy beard. He offered me coffee and showed me an assortment of beautiful prayer ropes, or “chotki” used for the meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer,” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) which is at the core of Prayer of the Heart. Some of the chotkis were made with beads, some with knots in the shape of crosses. Some were quite long, and some were tiny, designed to fit on a baby’s wrist. 

He explains that the simple repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the most common use for lay people, in order to pray without ceasing as they go about their busy lives. I am familiar with this because of one of my favorite spiritual books, The Way of the Pilgrim/The Pilgrim Continues His Way. The pilgrim wanders across Russia praying the Jesus Prayer until his heart prays it continually without effort. The book charts his travel, conversations and spiritual growth in the prayer. 

Fr. Cassian points out that by replacing the “me” in the prayer with the name of someone else, one can use the prayer as an intercessory prayer – while warning that one does not use the phrase “a sinner” while doing so, since a Christian has no authority or right to judge another.

I had brought a rose for Mother Mary which he put in the chapel.  Then I followed him into a pleasant sitting room filled with morning light, and comfortable furniture, lined with books. A parrotlet sang from a nearby cage. I got out my notebook but the conversation was so interesting and lively that I hardly took any notes. I couldn’t have been more content. I was sitting in a cozy chair conversing with an extremely intelligent and deeply spiritual person in a relaxed and friendly way, neither of us hurried. Priests are busy people so I was aware of what a gift his time was.   

Fr. Cassian grew up Southern Baptist but was, as an early teen drawn to the Anglican Church and was preparing to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. As he studied theology though, he became more and more sympathetic to the Orthodox Church, and as a teen, he had read the J.D. Salinger novella, Franny and Zooey, and been introduced to the Jesus Prayer and The Way of the Pilgrim. Eventually he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and ultimately was ordained as an Orthodox priest. 

I told him my story of being tricked by Mother Mary into falling for Jesus and the Catholic Church after having grown up without religion. He chuckled knowingly and we talked about Mary in both our traditions. I really like the Orthodox title for her, “The Theotokos,” meaning “God-bearer.” 

Our discussion turned to the life of prayer as experienced and expressed in each of our faiths’ contemplative traditions. We have so much in common. There are some interesting differences in our mystical theology, and in our ideas about the experience of Heaven. The Orthodox regard heaven as a continuous free growth of divinization -as an “ever moving rest” – which the Orthodox feel is in contradiction to the experience of what the Western Church calls the Beatific Vision. I said that St. Therese is busy “spending [her] Heaven doing good on earth,”  so maybe we’re not so different there after all. 

We discussed Confession, local events and world news, Church history, the degrees of union with God, the differences between praying with the chotki and the rosary, (for instance we use imaginative prayer and the Orthodox strongly caution against it). 

We talked about the importance of being willing to know Jesus as he is, being ready to shed our own ideas and misconceptions and our lamentable tendency to only accept the aspects of the Lord that we are comfortable with. 

I learned some Greek words and heard a few Russian ones I would be unable to reproduce. 

Eventually we came to the point of my visit, the practice of Hesychasm (the path of deep prayer and living the life of prayer in the Orthodox tradition) and the practice of Prayer of the Heart.  

Before Fr. Cassian gives me practical instructions, he cautions that if one desires to enter into this practice, a spiritual guide, teacher or spiritual director is extremely helpful – which is why the more mystical and non-verbal use of the Jesus prayer is more common, in Orthodoxy, amongst monastics and those with a monastic spiritual father or mother. 

He goes on to say that today in Western Society we think of ourselves as centered in the brain, the mind, and that we tend to pray from there. Biblically, however, the heart is seen as the center of the person where both thoughts and spiritual movements occur. In Orthodox prayer, the pray-er seeks to redirect his or her awareness from the head down into the heart. Fr. Cassian touches his heart often as he speaks, seemingly unconsciously, closing his eyes when he does so. It seems to me that when he does this, a switch is flipped somewhere, a “peace switch” that visibly changes his entire demeanor. Maybe it is a breaker switch because I feel it too! 

Practical Instructions for Prayer of the Heart

Stand or sit comfortably with your back relatively straight, in silence, solitude and stillness. 

Breathe in, and allow one’s conscious awareness to follow that breath as one prays, silently, “Lord Jesus Christ”

Exhale slowly, maintaining, if possible, one’s conscious awareness in the heart, as one prays silently, “Son of God,” 

Inhale, as before, while silently praying “have mercy on me”

Breathe out slowly and prayerfully acknowledge that one is “a sinner.” 

Slowly repeat this cycle again and again. 

Continually bring your awareness into your heart, bringing Jesus’ Name, his presence into it. Eventually it will be the heart that keeps time, so to speak, and the heart that speaks. After that, everything is up to God, and God alone.

The true Prayer of the Heart as he describes it sounds like what a Carmelite would call the grace of infused contemplation, where it is God who acts within us, and we are drawn into union with him. 

We talk about the traditional understanding  of the progress of the soul through the Purgative Way (purification), the Illuminative Way (the growing knowledge of God and his ways) and finally the Unitive Way (one-ness with God).  

Before I leave, Fr. gives me a copy of his wife’s new book of poetry, Zoom and the Neanderthal Girl by Olympia Sibley, (I highly recommend it!) and I give him a copy of my book, Come to Mary’s House; Spending Time with Our Blessed Mother. (Release date September 26)

He invites me to come again, perhaps for dinner with his wife and him. I say that would be great. 

I had set out today to write about the Prayer of the Heart but I can’t help but feel that perhaps Fr. Cassian and I have begun to do our part in healing the Great Schism one conversation, one prayer, one friendship at a time. 

*My thanks to Fr. Cassian Sibley for his assistance with this piece.

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