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From midwifery to hospice: Andrea’s spirituality of service

Twenty-one years ago, my youngest daughter, Roise, (pronounced “Rose,”) was born at home, at sunrise. My dear friend, a nurse and midwife, Andrea, put her on my stomach. My baby looked up at me with frightened eyes, and said “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

As her dad, who was in our bed holding me, sobbed with joy, I said to my child, “It’s OK! I’m your Mama!” I nursed her for the first time, and my husband, Blaze, gave her her first bath in our kitchen sink, after my sister in law, Shawna, had cut her umbilical cord. All the women in the family were in the bedroom with us when Roise was born; my step mom, my daughter, Maire, who had run in at the right moment, and my mom, holding Maire in her arms. 

 After everything was all cleaned up and Roise Mariah was pronounced robustly healthy, everyone left with a happy glow. Maire and Blaze climbed into bed with Roise and me and we had a long family nap. It was beautiful.

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I’m having coffee with my friend, Andrea, mid-wife and Hospice nurse. She’s talking about work and spirituality. People often ask her how she can do what she does, especially the Hospice work. But she says that, aside from being tired sometimes, and worried about her own problems when she’s on her way to work, there’s nothing negative about what she does. She forgets everything else in the presence of a laboring woman or a dying person. “It’s like a window to Heaven!”

More often than not, dying people she comes into contact with are in a state of peace as they near the end of their earthly lives, and they commonly seem to be seeing and talking to people in the room that nobody else can see, most often, people they love who have died.

My mother looked up in wonder, not having really spoken for months at the end of her illness. “What are you all doing here? Are you going to take me with you?”

The deaths Andrea has been able to be present for were powerful spiritual experiences for her. The houses of the dying are filled with God’s presence, and she prays deeply when she is working with a patient and his or her family.

She is more grounded and profoundly present than at any other time in her life, she reflects, when she is working.

Sometimes, as she goes about her own daily business, she thinks, “Wow, I really did that.”

The morning my second husband, Bob, had died, Andrea had the beautiful idea of inviting our close women friends to come and wash and anoint his body. She thought of it because in the Bible, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial with bathing, oils and spices.

Our friend, Amy, had a set of Biblical essential oils, such as frankinsence, myrrh, myrtle, spikenard, etc.

Andrea, with solemn tenderness, guided us through an improvised ritual; with Bob’s body modestly draped, we washed him reverently, and anointed him with fragrant oils.

We cried and we prayed.

She guided family and friends in prayer and asked each of us if we had anything we wanted to say as we waited for the funeral home, and for our friend, Deacon Ron Fernandes, who led us in prayer and blessing, and even singing.

“When a family is spiritual, it’s really nice for me- especially if they are Catholic. I am always glad to see icons or a crucifix or picture of Mother Mary in a house. Then I know I can openly pray the rosary. The rosary is definitely the prayer I pray the most during my work.”

“During labor or grief, my imagery/prayer is, ‘Please, Mother Mary wrap this mother, this couple, this family, me, in your mantle of grace and mercy.’ I call that image to my mind.” 

Andrea says she often senses the presence of Mary at births, especially.

“I think I identify with her because she labored to birth Jesus, she was human, and she suffered the grief of His death. This comforts and gives me strength.”

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I have always thought it was perfect that Andrea was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12.  The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn, and in that image, she is pregnant.

“People are always so grateful. And I think, I didn’t DO anything, I was just there!”

I know why people are grateful. They are grateful because she was there. Andrea brings a sense of solid, motherly, and professional competence into a frightening situation, she gives the intimate and ultimate mysteries of birth and death back into the hands of the family. Then these events become far more personal, home and family-centered experiences because of her courage and love, her willingness to come to the family, and serve them where they are, in order to allow them to give birth, or to die, at home. This is a gift of peace.

She recognizes, nurtures and draws out the best in people when it is most needed. She makes them feel empowered in trusting the process.

Precious to me is the memory of Andrea holding my hand as I labored in the bath tub. I laughed and said I could not imagine our family doctor doing this, as good as he is. 

“There is just so much love that is there,” she says, tearing up.

She is certainly adept at finding the beauty inherent in these events, and transmitting it just where it is needed.

As we talked about her work, she cried now and then. Don’t worry, she cries easily. She also believes so much in what she is doing, she is very passionate about it. She gets frustrated trying to describe her thoughts and experiences. She thinks she is in-eloquent. But she’s not.

Andrea is very earthy, and as I thought about what she was saying, and what I learned, having watched her work, I see that her spirituality involves being very in tune with the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of the physicality of birth, suffering, and death, of what Veronica’s veil would have really looked like, smeared with the dirt, blood, sweat, snot, and tears of the very real Face of Our Lord.

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The blood and water from the side of Christ make sense to Andrea. She has these all over her all the time. She understands the physical as deeply spiritual. Hers is an Incarnational spirituality, true to the One who came to share our sufferings and give us life; actual life, not just an idea, Life we can touch and hold. That’s how real the Resurrection was. Jesus wasn’t just a spirit. He was and is real. His wounds were touched by His disciples. He ate with his traumatized friends. He comforted them.

Andrea experiences this truth of the Incarnation as an every day reality, and to her, it just is.

Well, not really, because she cries when you try to get her to talk about it.

“What are you looking at, Daddy?”

“The glory of God.”

“What does it look like?”

“You wouldn’t believe it!”

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Sacred journey (a childhood memory)

The trip to Corpus Christi where my parents both were from was usually taken in the evening. At that time (the early 1970’s) traveling the 250 miles from College Station where my parents attended Texas A & M, to Corpus in our VW Bug (we had a couple of VW vans over the years too) took about six hours.

We made this journey often. This was where both sets of grandparents and lots of extended family lived. We went for holidays, sometimes for the weekend, sometimes because my mom was homesick, or because we were out of money and needed help.

At those times, one or both grandmothers offered to pay our gas, feed us for a couple of days and send us home with groceries.

Sometimes my parents needed more time for school and work and sanity so they had us stay there for extended time in summer. They were quite young and they needed a lot of support back then.

A night drive was preferable in part because our car didn’t have air conditioning and it is almost always hot in Texas.

Often there was little radio reception so my family made requests for me to sing. I had our Linda Ronstadt albums memorized in particular and I was a good singer.

Like a lot of siblings on trips we tended to fight in the back seat. I am sure this is another reason for the evening departures. We would sleep more and bug them less.

I liked listening to mom and dad talking after my brother fell asleep. I liked looking at the moon and wondering why we never passed it up. I liked looking at the patches of earth we drove by in an instant but that were the whole world to the bugs that lived in the grass there, or to the person who woke up and saw that patch of earth every day. My brother and I talked about these things when he was awake. He liked to think about that stuff too, gazing at our feet on the car window, considering the scattered stars beyond, the shapes of buttery clouds, wondering what other people thought about.

Or maybe he would fall asleep on me and not get off and I would have to push him into the floorboard and then various forms of chaos would ensue. You know how it is.

Whether we slapped each other or not, we regarded this trip as a sacred journey. The excitement was intense. A lot of the happiness was about seeing my maternal grandmother, “Granny,” whose house was our unquestioned home base in Corpus Christi. We loved her passionately. We loved Grandaddy and all the assorted animals that lived in or around the little house on Dewitt Street.

We loved rolling cigarettes for them with their cigarette roller (and being paid a nickel apiece!) We loved playing Dominoes and “Go Fish” with Grandaddy and hearing his stories. Granny was colorful and funny and a little bit crazy and she loved us like we were her everything.

We could recite the names of the towns along the way from College Station to Corpus Christi and that is how we understood how far along we were on the way.

It was our sacred duty to wake one another as we approached certain markers of the journey’s progress.

The Shamrock station in La Grange was one of these places. It had a covered vending machine area and everyone was allowed to get something. This was a very big deal because my mom did not let us have soda or junk food as a rule.

My brother loved the hilly winding road outside La Grange with the stone walls on either side. I had to wake him up for that so he wouldn’t miss it.

Here is Giddings where our van engine blew up that year and Sally had to come pick us up.

The halfway point outside of Victoria had to be noted and celebrated by all.

The turn off near Refugio.

Sinton.
Taft.
Portland… The first sight of the water.

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We were always so excited at the sight of the Harbor Bridge (usually just called “The High Bridge”) that crossed to Corpus Christi I am surprised we didn’t throw up.

Both of us could hardly contain shrieks of joy as we began the ascent. For a while, all you can see is steep climbing road ahead lit by headlights, and the vast expanses of dark water to either side. Then at the highest point of the bridge suddenly the sparkling city opens out before the traveler like a fairy kingdom. It was a moment of awe I was to duplicate for my own children.

Neither of us would ever let the other sleep through that.

We would always try to pick out which one of those lights might be Granny’s house.

The excitement at this point was almost too much for us.

Her house was out in Flour Bluff so it took some extra time to get there. We always went down Shoreline and Ocean Drive along the bay with its sea wall, palm trees and tall houses, past the hospital where I was born, past that ugly church with all the bells that my mom said was an eye sore. I always watched for that great big pink mansion with the back yard sloping into the sea, wondering what it would be like to walk out your back door and be standing at the edge of the sea like that. There was the house that looked like a castle, too.

We were sure we could smell the salt air, that we could feel the ocean’s greeting.

By the time we turned from South Padre Island Drive onto Talmadge and then to Dewitt Street, pulling into the little driveway with its over arching Oleander trees, we were usually screaming with happiness.

The screen door would fly open and slam against the house. Granny would be standing on the threshold, her arms open wide, yelling, “MY BABIES!” as we shot out of the car like rockets to be scooped up and squeezed tight. Cats ran every which way, dogs barked, people laughed and exclaimed and hugged. My grandfather would hang back shyly, pointlessly telling the dogs to quiet down, until we jumped all over him like maniacs too.

There was always coffee on and a pot of beans on the stove.

Eventually we fell asleep on pallets on the floor near the big air conditioner in the living room window as the grown-ups talked and smoked late into the night.

It was heaven.

milk way
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Coffee and cigarettes (my brother part 1)

My brother and I were standing on the loading dock at the Eagle Newspaper where we both worked, looking out at the woods across the street, the sky, the parking lot. People were working around us unloading trucks, driving the forklift, walking in and out of “the roll room” where the giant rolls of newsprint were stacked waiting to be loaded onto the press as needed. Sometimes he lifted his chin curtly at someone going by. He was the Production Director so there was hardly any such thing as a break for him. There were texts, phone calls and people stopping by to ask questions.

“Yes… that ad, yes. I called already, yes. You. Pain is the ass. Yes.”

The Eagle had a family atmosphere and Mark was like everyone’s Uncle and to most people he was also their friend.

I was trying to talk to him about his smoking, hopeless though I knew it was. “I read that non smokers live an average of ten years longer than smokers,” I was telling him as he listened patiently, drawing on his cigarette as I spoke. “So what?” he asked charactaristcally. I said, “Since I am a vegetarian and we live eight years longer than meat eaters, that means I will have to live eighteen years without you! I don’t want to live all those years without you!!!!”

He looked at me then, holding his latest lungful.

“Better start smokin’!” he said in chokey voice.

That is one of my funny Mark stories. There are so many.

He was funny, quick, tough, talented, cocky and competent, sometimes arrogant and “full of piss, wind and vinegar,” as my granny used to say.

He was short so he had to learn to be like that. It worked for him, and I am so proud of all that he accomplished. I was his sister. I knew he could do anything and he pretty much could.

He wrote in an e-mail to me once, “You are among my chief comforts.” Did I say eloquent? Because he was eloquent, too. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Reflective.

He was a person of depth. He was a master of banter but he disliked meaningless conversations.

He always knew the right thing to say to me.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter and freaked out about the overwhelming prospect of motherhood, he had said, “Shawn think of it this way, there will be a new sweet little baby in the world! And that baby will grow up to be a gentle human being. We need gentle human beings. I know that’s what I value most about myself.”

Some people would be surprised that he valued his gentleness most. They wouldn’t know he had that quality. He could definitely play the games of the world- something I have never been able to do. He really did see the corporate world, the business world, the get things done world as a game. It was fun to him though I saw that he regretted it deeply when someone was personally hurt by him winning. He was a good guy even though he enjoyed being a little deviant at times. I mean coloring outside the lines in ways he thought benefited the people who worked for him over whom he felt very protective. (When people around him were mad at him they thought he was patronizing. He could be patronizing.)

Some of the things he did were big heroic risks that saved people’s jobs at the risk of his career had he lost his bet with luck. Other times I thought he was just showing off a little bit or seeing what he could get away with. “Ha haaaaa! Gotcha!”

I think he felt justified if the people he fooled were mean or threatening to his “people.”

Also almost anything was justified if it was funny. That is an unspoken rule in my family. You better be smart and if you mess up it had better be funny. Or at least being funny or making the whole thing hilarious will get you points. Always.

My brother had the gift of presence. The people closest to him knew that sitting with Mark in silence or telling him something important was different than being with or talking to anyone else. He was all there with you, with all of himself. Somehow he understood everything, or seemed to, the way the person in front of him was feeling it. As our friends since childhood, Mike and Kenny said about him, “Listening to music with Mark was different than listening to music with anyone else.” Part of this may have been that the four of us were in a band together for 16 years. But I think it has more to do with the quality of Mark’s presence and friendship than that.

He was loyal, and he invoked that loyalty in others. People who loved him would do anything for him and did.

There were little everyday things he did that showed his mind was on the people around him. He always kept a cache of nickels (his favorite coin since childhood) in his desk drawer at work in case anybody needed change for the vending machines.

His co-workers did little things for him too.

Cindy, his right hand person, parked in his parking spot just to make sure it stayed open for him one time. He laughed. He appreciated that kind of thing.

The people around him had faith in his abilities. When I worried about him, his friends at work would say, “He didn’t get where he is by being stupid. He’ll be fine.”

He liked to bring people together to enjoy each other. He loved watching people he loved talk and have fun together.

That is one of the reason he had a pool put in at the old house we grew up in. He loved having people over to the pool and waiting on them hand and foot.

When my first husband lay in his coffin after the Vigil (wake) my brother put his hand on his chest and promised him he would take care of me and the kids.

He kept that promise almost until the end of his life. He was part of my kids’ daily lives. He was over almost every day. When I was at my wit’s end he would come pick up the girls and take them to The Kettle (a diner kind like Denny’s in our town where we used to hang out.)

They would clamor all over him until he said, “Shut it, Rat!”

He loved them like they were his own children. He fretted about them, picked them up from school, lectured them, talked about them to his friends, came with me to teacher meetings if he could. I can’t imagine a better Uncle.

He could also be ridiculous like when he would try to reason with a wildly weeping teen-aged girl in a restaurant parking lot with me saying, “Mark! You are just making it worse!”

He liked to take me to lunch. He liked to talk to me about his problems over coffee and cigarettes and listen to mine.

If we hadn’t seen one another or had time to hang out for a while he would sometimes say, “Hey, we both do better when we make time to be together enough.” It was true.

His spiritual beliefs could be described as fairly minimal, although he believed in Something. He just thought that Something was unknowable. His argument was that God is so big you can’t know him like you know a person. “We’re all just fleas. What do we know?” I knew he respected my spirituality so I said, “What about me?” He said, “You’re just a really smart flea.” I loved it.

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It’s funny how he claimed basic agnosticism or only the vaguest spiritual beliefs but he understood my most intimate of secrets in my experiences with God as someone very serious about the life of prayer would. He got it. “I just translate it into my own language,” he used to say. I was fine with that. I always felt understood by him and he felt understood by me.

One time he found a little baby bird and he looked up how to care for it. He took care of it for several days and was heart broken when it died. “Yesterday he wasn’t feeling very good,” he said with the sadness you would normally see in someone talking about about a sick relative. When the little bird died he could hardly talk about it.

He worried he had fed it the wrong thing. He kept trying to figure out what made the little bird sick like that.

Sitting with him on the porch was like total inner peace to me. Even when he wanted to take me on a wild ride on his motorcycle or his latest car I was never scared. I laughed or I closed my eyes happily but I was never scared. He was a skilled driver and I simply trusted him completely.

He felt taken aback that none of that scared me. Not going over a hundred miles and hour on his bike, not a jump in a go-cart. He thought my fearlessness was a little creepy. I think I was fearless because of trust.

We had a few fights and disagreements. We had terrible crises we weathered together. But that trust in our essential unity gave me total confidence that we would get back on track every time.

We had observed that since we were kids we felt like he and I were the family. We had these parents and they did this and that but we were what we called “the core.” We reminded one another of that in the many losses and tragedies in our lives. No matter what we always had each other.

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We told each other everything. We even shared gum. (Mostly to gross out other people at work but if I said, “Hey you have gum where is MY gum? He would half his piece and give it to me even if he was already chewing it.)

I think of blue eyes and cigarette smoke, a cup of coffee and the setting sun, a new song he wanted me to hear. Laughter.

I can’t really tell you all about my brother. Like you, he was an entire universe. Like all deep relationships, ours was also a living thing, a world we comfortably inhabited together and sometimes let other people hang out in, too.

How can you share a universe with someone who never traveled there? I don’t know. But I know there are people you love very much; maybe as much as I loved my brother, maybe as much as he loved me (which my dad said was more than anyone on the planet loved anyone but I think he was exaggerating.)

This month is suicide awareness month. I have decided to follow Leticia Adams’ lead and write about my experience with suicide. This is what I wrote today, I will write more.

It’s been four years. It was four years in August. The pain changes but it hasn’t stopped. There are tears in my eyes as I write this.

It hurts like hell.

P.S. He wouldn’t have liked this song. Just so you know. However, right now it is on target with how I feel. So he can just deal with that.

Mindfulness, presence, indwelling and love

It’s been a stressful day. But we are here together at Hensel Park. I played here when I was little. My daughters played here growing up. Now Arelani does, too. She considers it “her” park. I brought her even though it is the hottest part of the day in the hottest part of a Texas summer.

I am anxious and worried about many things. So it takes a special effort to make consistent eye contact with her, to respond to what she says, to play with her attentively, given the stresses of the day.

I have learned from the practice of inner prayer how to bring myself back again and again gently each time I am distracted by a wayward thought about this or that.

After a while this practice with Lani becomes easy. I realize I feel peaceful in a similar way I do when I am grounded in prayer.

Time seems to flow back into itself like the tide drawing away, leaving its treasures on the beach.

The cicadas chant in the trees around us. A hot wind lifts her curly black hair, a curtain pulled away from her face – a face unbelievably pretty- sweeter than any Disney princess. The conversation is simple (she’s three,) and tender, her black eyes wide, soft and steady. We smile at each other in a timeless moment. She reaches over and clears my tousled hair from my face. Peering at me closely,she seems lovingly amused.

She crosses a little bridge, turning to beckon to me, “Come on, Granny, this way.”

It strikes me that she is the Christ Child or maybe the little Child Mary leading the way for me; to love, to hope, to the Kingdom where the littlest are the brightest of all.

The idea we can love Jesus in others, or learn to love others by seeing Christ in them may sound impersonal at first. But Arelani never seemed more herself to me than when I saw her as having the Little One inside her. I was seeing the truth of her, her “Arelani-ness” itself. Are we not each part of the Body of Christ? When someone sees the Lord in us, is that not only the simple truth? It does not make us less personally loved, but more so when the Lord of Love who is truly within us is experienced by another person.

We slide down the slide, we swing. We sing in the pavilion that echoes, run in circles for fun, watch ants. I take a picture of her running through a field of yellow flowers; a little kid in overalls and tee shirt, wild hair flying. She’s excited and she looks back to yell, “I yuv you, Granny!”

“I love you too, Pooh,” I say as I clump along behind her.

Later she picks a few flowers for her mama. She gets lost in the lovely details of one of these, touching each petal in awe. She sits down with it. Nothing else exists to her.

Time is a gift we can open and make holy by attentiveness. This is the “sacrament of the present moment.” * This is God with us. This is the first commandment and the second also.

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

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* this term is from Jean Pierre de Caussade

A bed time story

Once upon a time, a time called “forever now,” there were some beautiful old roses that could talk in hidden ways through a special root system they had underground. They looked as if they were planted far apart but really under the soil their roots were intertwined and they heard everything each of the others said in that silent language that roses have.

So when you see the white rose nodding… quietly in the wind you will know she is getting a message… and she says, “Yes, I have felt that way myself many times,” only she doesn’t really say anything. The others just know in their roots. And that is how it is with roses. They just know. It’s that simple. In the dark they go on whispering in their sleep as they wait for sunrise at dew fall, all together knowing when the first ray touches the first petal.

And roses never worry about anything else. All they know is now. All they know is love.

And they are always speaking about it. ♥

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Book Review of Abuse of Trust: Healing from Clerical Sexual Abuse

I wrote this book review for both The Eagle newspaper and for ATX Catholic. I think it is such an important book and such an urgent issue that I wanted to share it everywhere I can.

http://atxcatholic.com/index.php/2019/07/book-review-of-abuse-of-trust-healing-the-church/#.XUC05uhKjIV

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Holy Naps

When I go to sleep, I take time, after I get comfortable, to let myself be loved and to feel that God surrounds and fills me with His loving, protective presence. Early in my young widowhood, I used to make it a habit to say, as I sank into my bed, “Into Your hands, I commit my spirit.” I would think to myself, “my spirit….. and everything else.”

I love sleeping, and I love naps. Naps are a kind of any time Sabbath, a rare and splendid solitude. Naps are prayer. Naps are a letting go into God, right in the middle of the day. They are a form of contemplation, really. A nap can even be a dreamy Lectio Divina. I love falling asleep to a quiet recording of one of the Gospels.

I loved it when I found out that St, Therese of Lisieux, Carmelite Nun, and Doctor of the Church, used to fall asleep sometimes during the set hours of solitary prayer in her cell. She wasn’t really supposed to do that. It was an accident. She didn’t feel bad about it, though. She saw it as falling asleep in her Father’s arms. What could be better than that?

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Catherine Doherty, in her wonderful book, Poustinia, says,

“Sometimes we are so exhausted mentally, morally, and physically, we can’t do much of anything… we just flop down! Well, to sleep in the arms of Christ is a pretty good idea. You don’t have to do anything. It’s being simple in your relationship with God.”

Holy Naps can also be shared, of course. When my kids were younger, and their dad was still alive, we had a tradition of the Sunday Family Nap. We all cuddled and fell asleep listening to music or a story, and by the time the recording stopped, everyone was asleep. It was a holy Sabbath rest, and I continued to honor it with the kids for years to come.

My second husband and I found that naps were indispensable in dealing with the stress of fighting cancer. We would pretend cancer couldn’t follow us into our bed, and we liked to put on one of those relaxation recordings, wrap the rosary around each other’s hands as a joined prayer, and sleep that way.

Jesus said He would give us rest. But we are to come to Him for it.

“Come to me, all you are are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

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I like to think about how he said to St. Faustina,

Know, My daughter, that the ardor of your heart is pleasing to Me. And just as you desire ardently to become united with Me in Holy Communion, so too do I desire to give Myself wholly to you; and as a reward for your zeal, rest on My Heart (Diary, 826).

This is what I like to do, lay my head on Jesus’ Heart, like St. John did at the Last Supper. I let myself be loved and comforted and healed by sleeping there like a tired little bird in the crook of His arm.

So have a nap. Make it a nap of restoration and silent love.

Expect great things from a holy nap.

“He pours gifts on His beloved while they sleep.” Psalm 127

Don’t feel guilty about relishing a good nap, if you can get one; the kind where you know you’re sleeping, and you’re happy about it. Be happy about it. You need it!

As my daughter, Maire’s, friend, April, says, “We need naps after our naps!”

Sweet dreams. And may the love of God enfold you in all your naps!

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Gloria and her angels: a family

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My youngest daughter begged me to help a friend of hers whose family had no place to live. It was an emergency situation. They had tried everything. Her friend had come to her in tears- a friend who I had only ever seen smile and laugh- a kid I remembered by his radiant smile.

This friend’s mom was an invalid. I didn’t know the details. She wouldn’t be any trouble, my daughter said hastily, between sobs, she wouldn’t be in the way at all, “She just hangs out.” The friend had a brother, too, an older brother. The brother had a job at Taco Bell and could pay us rent. All they needed was a room.

“Please, Mom, please!

“This friend came over later, a fifteen year old guy friend of my daughter’s. We had a guest room since my oldest daughter had moved out not long before.

The boy cried in my daughter’s arms in the front yard, thanking her. He looked at that little room like it was heaven. They only would accept this one room. They had only ever lived together in one room and they would be fine, he said.

No, I could not afford this. No, I am not an extravert who likes people around all the time. No, I didn’t want to do it. I felt absolutely panicked, actually. Neither would this be the first time throughout this family’s long stay with us ( about a year, I think,)  that I had anxiety.

However, how could I ever look at Jesus again if I refused?

It turned out the mother of this family was in agonizing pain all the time. She had not walked in over a year. She was in too much pain even to sit in her battered wheelchair. She spent her days lying in bed looking at the ceiling, waiting for her sons to come home from school or work and help her with her physical needs. She could barely raise her arms without terrible pain. Her sons had to do everything for her, even feed her.

The older son worked hard at Taco Bell and went to school. The younger one went to school and mostly took care of his mother.

The mother and younger son joked around a lot. I could hear them laughing often as he cared for her. The older son was very protective of his mom, and also cared for her, doing the cooking and carrying her when needed, though he was of slight build. He was obviously proud to do it. Both boys honored their mom completely, and obeyed her in everything. Their devotion to her was evident.

Sometimes I felt bad for them for the things they had to do as teen-aged boys. They never did understand my alarm at their situation, even though they were often frightened themselves. I can only account for this by the fact that to them, this was just life as they knew it.

The first thing I saw in the mornings when I got up, was the younger son coming down the hall toward the bathroom with his mother’s bed pan. He would always smile and tell me, “Good morning!”

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Of course I tried to help out. I asked people, I posted on Face Book (in a way that protected their identities,) I got out of my comfort zone and went out looking for help. Even though I am daunted by authority figures and the world of officialdom, and by having to go places and ask questions, I did all of this. What else could I do? I often thought this family could have done a lot better in the person they ended up with to help them. I did not have much success.

Individuals were often reluctant to get involved, though some offered me some money to help out, or a gave me a gift card for them.  My friends brought food by for us. Because sometimes we ran out.One reason we ran out of food was that the boys got their food stamps cut at one point, to $11 a month. Yes, this is the truth. How do you feed two teen-aged boys on $11 a month? You can’t.How can a family of three survive on minimum wage, especially from a job that varies in hours of work offered? They can’t.

A lot of people said, “Oh go to St. So and So, they do that.” I did. They were out of money. In my experience they could not help us. “Go to Such and Such Charities.” I went. All they could offer us was a one time gift of a $50 Wal-mart card. It did help. But then what?

For housing help for them, I encountered a waiting list three years long, and income requirements that put it out of their reach.

Parish Social Justice ministry? Out of money, too.

The food pantry in our neighborhood could not help this family with food because they lived with me, and the rules indicated that my income must be counted as part of theirs, and, in that case, we were disqualified. We hardly ever had enough food during this time. Nothing was working out.

“Lord, I am trying to do what you want me to do, can you make the path more clear!?” …….. and maybe a little easier?

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Everywhere I went to get help for this family, there really was not much. I am not putting these wonderful organizations down. Obviously, we should be helping the charities around us more than we do!

When we think of the poor, I think we tend to believe the charities have it covered, but how could they? They can’t do everything, and they don’t. We have to do stuff, too.

I went to the free clinic to try to get medical help for the mother. They could not help us or even see her at all, because they did not have the specialist on board to correspond with her disease, and those were the rules.

The community hospice could not help us with palliative care because her disease was not on their list of terminal illnesses. It was not on the list because, it is a treatable disease, though hers has been untreated so long she will likely die from it, eventually. She will die a slow, agonizing death because of her poverty and because of her status as a non-citizen.

Her sons are citizens, but she is not. They are in constant fear of being separated, of their mother being taken from them, or the brothers being separated somehow if anything happens to their mother while the youngest is a minor. They have been afraid to seek help because of these things. As it turns out, help is hard to find, anyway.

Her pain is what made me really angry. Trying to get help for her frustrated me the most. Sometimes I felt crazy.

My massage therapist friends came and worked on her, bringing essential oils that helped with pain. But that can only go so far on a body twisted and deformed by advanced, unchecked degenerative disease.

The Catholic hospital took her once when the pain was especially bad, and stabilized her. A doctor there gave her a prescription for pain. The other patients and nurses on the floor put together some money between them to pay for her medicine for a while. It was truly touching to us all. But that medicine is long gone, though she usually refused to take it, fearing she would need it more later.

When the enormous hospital bill came, it could not be paid. Also, getting her to the hospital had been so terribly painful, I think now that her illness has progressed more, that it would take an ambulance to get her there. Since it is such a temporary solution, it hardly seems like a good one now.

Oddly, a protective government service showed up to my house to check on her. Seeing it as an opportunity, I tried to ply the visitor for help and information. Getting her help was out of their scope. The social worker was very nice and did offer me a number to an organization that would help pay the hospital bill she already had. It would only be a drop in the bucket, a lot of trouble to get it, and have no effect on her present situation. This did not seem very helpful to me. Sorry, but it didn’t.

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Though sometimes the stress of having another family in our house was intense, my daughter and I became very close to this family. The mom could not speak English but somehow we managed to have conversations, sometimes for hours. Sometimes she would let me help her with things, but she usually wouldn’t. She was embarrassed. That’s OK.

All three of them were very quirky, smart, and funny. I have a lot of good memories from that time. I hope they do, too.

The boys had their faults like anyone, so did we, and sometimes we all drove each other crazy. Don’t think we didn’t. Because it was truly difficult sometimes.

My daughter and her friend had their friendship strained to the limit at times.I am happy to say, she and that boy are close friends still.

The family insisted on giving me some rent, and I let them, because I knew it was an issue of dignity, and also I knew that the older son was proud of the way he took care of his family. I was proud of him, too.

When the younger son turned sixteen, he started working too. He would often be very tired, staying up late at night, sitting on the edge of their bed, doing homework in his McDonald’s uniform as his mother looked on or slept.

Both sons made good grades and took advanced classes. Their mother is very strong on education. She wants them to have a better life.

A young couple from one organization became interested in the younger son, and they were the ones who helped him with interview skills and to find a job.They were very kind to him.

One of my sisters-in-law brought audio books in Spanish to help pass the mother’s time, and my friends who spoke Spanish, would come by and talk to her sometimes. That was so kind.

People sometimes gave them helpful things, like a much needed hospital bed.One of my brothers helped the older son get a full time job, and he is doing well at that job, and taking a class or two at the local community college when he can. He doesn’t make much money, but they are able to have their own little low- rent place now, and even get around in their own vehicle, such as it is.

The younger son says it’s hard for him because he feels like he works twenty-four hours a day. He goes to school all day, cares for his mom, goes to work, cares for his mom again, and never has enough time to do all of his homework because he is so exhausted, and he worries about his grades. Sometimes he wants to run away, but he can’t. One time he started to, but he started crying and had to come back and tell his mom all about it.

They are barely, barely making it, but at least they are kind of making it.However, the problem of their mother’s agony remains.

What to do? The pain gets worse and worse all the time. The boys get scared sometimes, and I call my nurse friend. She goes and checks on them, giving them advice, but she can’t do anything about pain medicine. I have asked doctor friends. Nothing has worked out so far.There is “no room at the inn” for her. 

“How is your mom today?” “She can hardly move at all. She cries. I cry. It’s really hard.”

She suffers terrible agony with no relief. She is poor. She has no insurance. She has no rights. What is left? What do we do? Dear Reader, what would you do?

God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is His beloved servant never far. ~ St. John of the Cross

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* Note: the mother of this family died this Easter. Of a totally treatable disease.

Seven favorite Marian books

In honor of the month of May being Mary’s special month, here is a list and description of seven of my favorite Marian books. I would love to hear about your own favorites.

I have put these in alphabetical order by author.

1. Gifts of the Visitation by Denise Bossert
In this book we are given a glimpse into Mary’s world; the central place of the Shema in her prayer life, the eighty mile trip Mary (and the author) took across the rugged terrain between Nazareth and Ein Karem, and a greater understanding of why Mary went, and what the visit meant.

The book is organized around the nine gifts of the Visitation. The author not only outlines these, but tells us how to activate them in our own lives. As I read, a vision opened of Our Lady of the Gospel.

In the midst of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church and the profound divisions I meet with every day in the Church and in the world, re-reading this book recently helped me to remember the beauty of our Catholic faith, to have confidence in that beauty, and to remember that Jesus is unstoppable. We have a great and wonderful gift to share in our holy and joyful faith. And we should go in haste as Mary did, with the shining star of the Gospel, which is alive and still unfolding among us as we live it out!

2. The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Catholic Book Publishing Company

This is a prayer book based on the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. It has been through several reforms to help it conform more closely to it, and there are various versions of The Little Office. This one is my favorite because of the modern language and the close relationship it has with the Liturgy of the Hours I pray with every day. You can also find this version online.

The Little Office, still used by some religious orders, runs on a one week cycle rather than th four weeks of the Liturgy of the Hours. Each day has a different Marian theme, such as Immaculate Conception, Mother of the Church, etc.

Along with the usual Psalms, canticles Scripture readings and prayers, a special Marian reading is included for each hour such as a passage from a Church Father, an ancient homily, or a Church document. Though it is usually brief, it is a rich addition.

Most of all, I love the gorgeous Marian antiphons throughout.

The robe you wear is white as spotless snow. Your face is radiant like the sun.

I used to pray the Little Office with my first husband after we consecrated ourselves to Mary. It was a great introduction to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, very beautiful and easy to use. I still pray it often, especially on Marian feast days and in the months of May and October, or any time I think of it.

3. Queen of Angels by Janice Connell

Oh what is it about this book? The writing seems a little syrupy when I read it aloud to others. However, like the tender words of one’s own mother, reading it privately is balm to my soul.

Especially during difficult times, I tend to carry it around with me in my backpack. It is the kind of book one can pick up, open randomly, read any section, and hear just what one needs at the time. My copy is very dog eared and beat up. Since I tend to give it away and get another copy for myself, it is not even that old.

It is formatted as dialogues between a soul and Mary. The soul asks a question, and Mary answers. There is an ending prayer for each section and a journal entry.

There are Scripture verses and quotes from saints, as well as practical prayer suggestions for developing your relationship with Mary.

Its simple, perhaps at times sugary language mysteriously hits the bullseye for me every time.

I don’t read it aloud to my friends but it surely speaks to my heart.

4. Bogorititza: She who gave birth to God by Servant of God, Catherine Doherty

It would be hard to exaggerate the beauty of Catherine Doherty’s writing; simple, quietly radiant. Catherine was originally from Russia. The “Doherty” is her married name.

The first pages introduce us to her childhood devotion to Mary in her Russian family, how Mary’s icon was a special place in their household, and how Mary’s presence accompanied her everywhere. “Mama Maria” was an important part of her family’s daily life.

Then we learn about Catherine’s suffering during the Russian Revolution and what Mary’s companionship taught her through that experience.

Later she escapes to America as a refugee and began a life of “living the Gospel without compromise.”

Founder of “The Madonna House Apostolate, we see in these glowing pages the meaning of Mary in Catherine’s amazing life of contemplation, service, and community life; the place of Mary’s patronage in the Apostolate, the meaning of Mary to the Church and to the world.

This is a fairly quick but wonderful read full of wisdom and of Mary’s presence in our lives which is like a candle always burning before her icon in our hearts.

5. Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor by Ivone Gebara and Clara Bigemer

This book, written by two Latin American theologians, is scholarly but friendly. It is a look at Mary through the lens of Latin American Liberation Theology. If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, you may enjoy this book as I did.

Though the Church has become much more friendly to Liberation Theology under Pope Francis, I am not going to claim that this book is Orthodox. However, it is a good book, and, I think, presents ideas worth a listen. For some people it could be a very helpful book.

The authors cover Mary’s humanity and ours, Mary in Scripture, Mary in her Church dogmas, in devotion to her in Latin American countrie. We are given a view of Mary from a social justice perspective.

I first read it as a twenty-year-old attracted to the Catholic faith but struggling with what I thought was a clash of values with the Church. This book opened up the world of Catholicism for me and helped me see there might be room for me in the Church after all.

I have included it in this list because of the turning point it represents for me, and because I still think it has a place in the discussion though it may not be the sort of thing you are used to. I would probably not agree with some of it now, but I still love it and think some people could benefit from reading it.

Be ready to think.

6. Hail, Holy Queen by Scott Hahn

This book is so accessible I read it aloud to my kids, who were a teen and a tween at the time. However, they were spiritually precocious enough to be in awe, as I was, at its depths.

Hail, Holy Queen falls into the category of Catholic Apologetics. Even if you are really into apologetics, you will learn new and fascinating things about Mary in the plan of God all through Scripture in ways that will make your jaw drop at the beauty and perfection of our faith.

We were inspired with wonder and awe of God, with the wonderful and varied ways He speaks to us through the Bible, and the unparalleled glory of our Catholic faith.

St. Teresa of Avila said that consultation of the holy and learned is indispensable in the life of prayer. Learning from Scott Hahn is not to be missed.

7. Mary, the Transparency of God by Servant of God Chiara Lubich

This is the kind of book I have to read a little, put it down, think and pray about it, and then take it up again because it is irresistable. I have read this book again and again. Each time it seems deeper to me.

I had never thought of Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement (aka: The Work of Mary) as a mystic. This book taught me more about her (and Mary’s) spiritual outlook.

Chiara begins the book by saying that she thinks it is time to take a fresh look at Mary. She draws a very grounded, very real picture of Mary’s person, her purpose, her soul, her journey, and how each of us reflects Mary’s life in our own. This book is lush, poetic, and beautiful.

There are several new perspectives of Mary in this book, beautifully described. My favorite part might be when Chiara takes a look at St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and sees in the phases of the spiritual life the events of Mary’s life. Then she shows us what she calls “The Way of Mary.” I thought it was brilliant.

Perhaps we can crown Mary in the month of May by deepening our understanding and love for her, and by renewing our relationship with the “Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.”

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