* I know I am writing about Mary a lot lately. My plans for Lent this year are to spend it with her trying to see the Gospel through her eyes and to emphasize Scripture in my daily life. Ave Maria Mater Verbum de.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… (Colossians 3:16a)
Lectio Divina involves reflectively reading a passage of the Bible (Lectio,) pondering the word or phrase that stood out to you until you receive light on what God is saying in your soul through that word or phrase (Meditatio.) Then one responds back to God in prayer, (Oratio) then rests in his love (contemplatio.) One then takes action on the fruits of the prayer(Actio.)
If you think about it, Mary could be seen as Lectio Divina itself. Her life was one beautiful flow of all the steps of this prayer.
She received the Word of God, (Lectio) nurturing him in herself; in her body and in her heart. (Meditatio, Contemplatio.) She sang out her praise in her Magnificat. (Oratio) She then brought forth this Word made flesh into the world, caring for him as mother (Actio.)
She not only did this, she continued to do this through her lived experience with Jesus, reflecting on each event, each word, in her heart. To every sign of God’s will she responded generously.
When a woman shouted out to Jesus from a crowd, “Blessed is the womb that carried you, and the breasts that nursed you!” (Luke 11:27) he answered, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
As I read it, Jesus meant that to see Mary as a holy receptacle, as merely his biological mother, as the woman in the crowd seemed to imply, would be to dismiss the Mother of the Word and what she is here to teach us by her life and being. “I would rather you do what she has done. Hear the word of God and keep it!”
He did tell us that we can and should do all he was doing (Jn. 14:12,) and, in this interaction, also what Mary had done and was doing.
She received every little seed of the Gospel with joy, planting it in the good soil of her heart where it bore a hundred fold (Mtt. 13:8.) She gave all, and so she received all; in good measure, overflowing, shaken down to make room for even more, poured into the hem of [her] garment. (Luke 6:38)
There is a saying that Mary “never keeps anything for herself.” She shares her bounty with you! And she takes you to Jesus to drink even more deeply of his love than you could otherwise, because her soul magnifies the Lord in us.
When we pray with Mary, she guides us in quiet hidden ways, bringing us us into a more vivid prayer infused with her knowledge and love of Jesus.
We don’t only call her blessed. We become what she is.
Today we humbly receive ashes on our foreheads and hear that we are dust, or maybe, “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”
Usually I think of setting out into the desert with Jesus to pray and fast with him.
This year I am thinking about Mary. What was it like for her when Jesus went into the desert for 40 days?
I am sure he let her know he was going. Maybe his apprentices ran the carpentry shop while he was gone so Mary wouldn’t go without.
I am sure she missed him and she understood that their private lives together were over, and that his mission had begun. Like any mother, I am sure she was both sad and excited too. “”Son we have waited so long, so long for you!”
She knew how much people needed him. She knew who and what he was and she was ready to assist him, let him go, face what came next, do or be whatever he required of her.
Just as Mary accepted the purification ceremony after the birth of Jesus even though she was already free from original sin or any other sin, I have no doubt she would have wanted to be baptized too as Jesus had ( though he was sinless and didn’t need baptism.) Maybe she was there that day.
She would have seen the Holy Spirit come down from Heaven in the form of a dove and heard the voice of the Father, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” I can almost see her smile and close her eyes in prayer when that happened.
Jesus went into the desert to pray, to fast and face Satan. Mary went home to an empty house. And she had to get on with her life.
She would have gone about her work in the garden, with her weaving,cooking, hauling water, kneading bread, caring for the animals, talking with friends and family. Yet the sense of him was always with her. Now and then maybe she paused, raising her hands in prayer for her Son, and for the whole world.
In Carmel, one facet of our charism is “to stand before God for all,” as St. Edith Stein put it. This is also Mary’s vocation in her prayer for us all as universal mother.
While Jesus was in the desert, Mary kept her spirit close to his. In the spirit of her baptism, she stood before God for us all, praying for us, in sack cloth and ashes, at least in the depths of her heart on our behalf. I imagine her prayerfully lowering her head to touch the ground, a gesture of solidarity with the earth and with the profound humility she had as a daughter of Eve. She wanted to put her freedom from sin, and her place as Queen Mother toward our good in her petitions to the Father, and to unite herself with the mission of Jesus.
When we make our Lenten sacrifices, maybe we could say with Mary, “Oh Jesus, it is for love of you, and in union with Mary.”
So when we receive our ashes for penance and dedication for our journey of Lent, we could receive them in union with Mary for the whole world as well as the way we always do, which is to say, for ourselves. And as we go about our lives during these forty days, maybe we could do so with Mary, doing our work, living our lives, always aware of Jesus, pausing and praying deeply whenever we can for the whole world, and for Jesus’ continued mission of salvation on earth.
Mary can be kind of sneaky though. I had been raised without religion and had been a firm atheist. But when I was nineteen, out of necessity in a time of crisis I began exploring spirituality. Though I had no intention of having anything to do with any church, I began to be drawn to Mary. Jesus freaked me out. But I was not afraid of Mary.
One day, not knowing why, I walked into St. Mary’s Catholic Church, relieved no one was there so I could look around.
I had an experience there I can only describe as being inundated by Mary’s love. As I was to explain to my mom later, “I could never have made up that kind of love!”
Eventually I realized that if Mary was real, Jesus must be real. I started trying to find ways to relate to him. Pretty soon I found myself at mass every day though I still didn’t understand why.
I was baptized at a Tuesday evening mass at St. Anthony’s, hugged enthusiastically by all the old Italian ladies in the front row. And so began the great romance with the Love of my life: Jesus.
When we meditate and pray we become channels of God’s love and grace, of his holy will.
The praying soul is like a window opening. Sunshine and a warm, sweet wind flow through that soul to everyone and everything. Its clear openness fills the whole world, and each of its situations with healing light. The rushing wind and light of the hidden spirit of prayer changes hearts, lifts up those who suffer, makes a way for peace to happen. It sets people and all of life free.
We are so little but it is God who draws us to prayer. In his creative power, because of his joy in sharing his divinity with us, because of the Incarnation of the Lord in the marriage of humanity with God, the smallest breath of prayer suffuses the universe with a flow of light and beauty.
In the beginning the Spirit of the Lord breathed upon the waters, there was light, and life sprang from his command. Jesus walked among us, recreating, redeeming and renewing the world by his life, death and resurrection. We are baptized into union with him, infused with his love.
He could have renewed the world by himself. But he shares his mission with the littlest of us because of his love. He has lifted us up to join him in his work.
I think this is what it means to “reign with Christ.”
Living water has come to flow from our hearts.
So pray, Christian soul, however you can, without a doubt in your mind. We don’t always know what God will do. But we know he will do something. Just open the window as best you can, letting God do the rest.
Mary knew this when she told the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” Wink wink. 😉
The bond I had with Yeshi was, I felt, even more deep that one of blood. A blood father is chosen by God to be the parent of a child. As my wife said to me so often, I was chosen for Yeshi by God. The Lord gave me such a powerful attachment to this son of mine I was wild with terror at the angels’ news. I sat up, jumped to my feet, immediately on full alert. My wife was asleep next to him. I tried to wake her gently. I watched as her face hardened when she understood. Quickly she strapped the protesting baby to her back and helped me load the donkey. We had become a good team and she was nearly as strong as a man. In only a few minutes we were on the road.
We were frightened about passing the watchman. But we were both ready for anything, ready to give our lives if we had to. As we drew near I tried to walk calmly and confidently,though I was so taught with fear I ached to break into a run. I knew Mary was frightened too. I heard her trying to slow her breathing. I was conscious of the knife at my belt, praying to God I would not have to use it.
I needn’t have worried. The guy only greeted us and remarked on the fact that we were leaving in the wee hours. I managed to laugh and say that with a newborn we couldn’t sleep anyway so we thought we may as well be our way. We passed without incident.
Fortunately I had been curious about the beautiful maps the wise men had poured over before they left. For some reason I remembered a side rout to Egypt. We needed to avoid the Northern Way most people took. There had been a lot of talk about the Child around Bethlehem, certainly about our fantastical visitors on camels who had followed a star to our son, saying he was a long expected king. We knew if they got a lead Herod’s soldiers could pursue us into Egypt, also part of the Roman Empire.
I walked as fast as I could, leading the donkey with Mary and the baby on its back. We kept our voices low. I tried to squeeze Mary’s foot now and then to reassure her. She was grave and resolute whenever I looked at her. If anything she seemed angry rather than afraid most of the time.
We traveled in this way until we were sure we were well away. Hours after sunrise we hid as best we could behind a large rock and took turns sleeping and keeping watch.
Again we left in the night.
The way was treacherous. I tripped several times on rocks and brush. Finally one trip sent me flying. The pain in my ankles was bad enough I could not walk at all no matter how I tried.
Mary got down from the donkey, running to me. We still had plenty of frankincense and she spread the fragrant oil over my fast swelling ankles. My wounded leg she cleaned with water and then healing myrrh. The oil and ointment helped but not enough for me to walk, even with her help. What to do?
“We have to get you on the donkey and let me walk,” she said. I was opposed.
“Joey,” she insisted, “there is no other way!
After several painful tries, together we pushed, pulled and lifted me onto the little donkey. I felt ashamed that she had to do this. Also, “I’m a big hairy man on a donkey!” I complained. “I look ridiculous!”
She laughed. “You DO look ridiculous.”
“I’m worried about you,” I said. I was. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.
“Take this,” I said, handing her the knife which she solemnly took. “Remember how to use it if you have to, the way I showed you before?” I asked her. She nodded.
“OK now make yourself useful,” she said, handing me the baby. I could see his eyes shining in the dark. I pressed him to me.
We went ahead bravely.
She insisted on stopping now and then to put more oil and ointment on my injuries. She tried to joke with me to make me feel better. I told her she was my warrior queen.
We were scared but we trusted God. There was nothing else to do. We tried to encourage one another. We had a saying together: “God is it.” Our lives were for God. “Everything will be OK,” we said to one another, “and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK.”
We belonged to God.
We had to stop to nurse and change the baby every few hours. Soon we would need supplies. We had gold from the wise men. We knew that a poor young couple trying to buy food with foreign gold was going to cause a stir but it couldn’t be helped.
We continued to travel by night, exhausted and afraid. Our minds started to fill with every possible thought. We talked about King Herod. How could any grown man, a king no less, be so insecure about his power, so angry, hateful and afraid, he would seek to harm a child? Why would anyone obey such a man?
The wise men had told us they were warned in a dream that Herod had become hostile about their mission, and that they must leave by another way themselves. How could anyone fear the signs of God and fight God himself instead of being joyful that God was coming to his people? What kind of person dares to fight God?
“Satan, “ Mary whispered with certainty. “He is possessed by Satan.”
At one point we were trudging along on a seemingly endless night and I began to worry about my sanity.
“Mary?” I whispered tentatively. “I see them too,” she said.
All around us we saw fellow travelers, people of all colors in various costume as if they were from far away or from another age. They carried children, belongings, what food and water they could. They too were fleeing something, trying to protect their children; frightened, determined, doing their best to trust in God. Some of them died or fell to robbers along the way. Others pressed on because they had no choice.
“Mary,” I said after an awed silence between us, “I think God is trying to tell us something.”
She nodded in understanding.
Even after the vision ended we talked about it for a long time.
We concluded that God was showing us peoples of the ages who would be refugees like ourselves.
We resolved together that in time to come, we would always be with these people in whatever way God allowed us to be. We would walk with them, ease their suffering, protect them, pray for them, be their advocates before the throne of God. We would see their children as our own.
There would always be mad kings, we knew, until the age of the Lord would come fully.
Eventually my ankles were in good enough shape I was able to relieve Mary, and take that knife back.
The night we were sure we were in Egypt their was a beautiful full moon. Mary was happy. She jumped off the donkey and danced, holding Yeshi high, singing,
“Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in war.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
rise up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory!”
We met with Border Patrol this morning. People in my group asked good questions that the four Border Patrol officers seemed to appreciate.
What a bizarre situation everyone along the border is in. In a way it is an imaginary line and all involved are playing a game. The problem is this game causes incredible suffering and death, at least the way it plays out. The line is imaginary but if you think about it that wall is violent in so many ways. Toward the end of the conversation, which was good, personal and amicable, Sister Anne Catherine had been watching a group of birds who circled several times over the wall, sometimes fluttering to the ground on either side, as if they were showing us something. She nudged me and I watched too. “If only I had the wings of a bird I could fly away to safety,” as the Psalmist says. I can’t help but wonder what this wall looks like to God or if he sees it at all. However he sees it does he agree with so many of us that this wall is more important than human life and dignity? It’s always a sad, surreal feeling to see the border wall and know it’s consequences to human beings and to our own humanity. Such a cost. Such a strange and haunting place.
They talked about the infrared cameras, the anti climb, the sensors under the ground. We asked about human trafficking: they had only seen one case of that. Apparently drugs come in through the ports of entry almost entirely. They talked about how they sometimes had to save lives since people often die in the desert. Someone asked how often they saved lives they said not that often in this area but that it does happen and that helps them feel good about what they do.
There is a heavy emotional toll of doing this work and it’s hard for them to let it go when they get home. Asked what the hardest part of their job was, all four of them said it was seeing the kids. In the van again someone mentioned the suicide rate among Border Patrol being high. But I don’t remember. I was feeling depressed.
Again I had been praying at a fence. For love to win in the end.
It was hot outside and the sunlight was golden and slanting in beams when we got out of the van at the Wal-Mart Memorial.
I was not prepared.
The memorial stretched into probably about three city blocks. There was an army of religious candles going on and on and on. There were stuffed animals, pictures of the dead, messages to the dead, poems, letters, prayers. There were flags from other countries, a big poster of a fused Mexican and American flag that said, “Together against all odds.” There was a letter to the president pleading for understanding and change. It was in Spanish so I asked Maria to translate for me.
I big red poster near the middle that said,
“PAIN…. but I will not let it turn to hate.”
There was a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, statues and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, banners with Bible verses, a message of solidarity from the city of San Antonio, more messages, more prayers, toys of the little child who was killed. A massive number of flowers and rosaries. A child’s toy train.
A young white supremacist drove 11 hours from Dallas to El Paso to “kill Mexicans.” I can only guess he chose El Paso because of the spirit of friendship and community between the sister cities. Maybe he hated what El Paso represents. Maybe he wanted to do this at the border where people from both sides shop together. I don’t know. His manifesto had talked about “an invasion” referring to migrants and refugees and Hispanics in general I suppose. I had not read it. No need. I had been seeing its’ results.
Actually I wasn’t thinking about any of these things at the time. I was overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the place. We all were. It was riveting. It was devastating.
Eventually I sat down by a bank of flowers and religious statues to pray.
A woman I thought seemed like a family member thanked us for coming. I recognized the deep pain in her eyes and that aura of grief around her shoulders like a heavy black shawl that weighed her down.
When we got back into the van some people were crying. Nobody wanted to talk.
Chris said he knew we were feeling upset but we were running a little late for our last meeting of the day at Hope Border Institute so we just had a few minutes while we drove to get ourselves regathered. So we tried.
I think seeing this place would have hurt deeply no matter what. But after what we had been learning and the migrants we had met, it hit particularly hard. As we pulled away I thought, “This is the logical outcome of such madness.”
Next we went to a meeting with Hope Border Institute. The people who filled us in on their work and research taught us more about the history of the border and its militarization and the criminalization of migration.
They gave us a flowchart on how the asylum system works. It appears to be designed so that no one can do it.
They told us more about how NAFTA affected their region on both sides of the border, the closure of factories which relocated on the other side and the failure of the government to keep its promises of retraining workers, of family and communal lands being lost to farmers who suddenly were displaced and unable to feed their children, the way the consumption of drugs in the U.S. has corrupted institutions in countries in Central America, how migrants made to remain in Mexico, especially the Central Americans, are targeted by gangs to be kidnapped and how the corrupt police in Juarez sometimes help with the kidnapping.
One of them talked about a reason people are refugees is also climate change, particularly from Guatemala where climate change is happening in real time. Coffee farmers in Guatemala are having to move up 1000 feet every year as the sea rises.
They gave us some literature to go over about the work they do applying Catholic Social teaching to these issues.
One man on staff named Dylan gave us an extemporaneous discourse on what Our Lady of Guadalupe means to migrants. I remember him saying that she is neither Spanish nor totally Indigenous. She appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic convert. She said she came to comfort her children and hear their cries. Her knee is out to show she is dancing. She is pregnant. She is praying.
After this meeting we went outside for a much needed decompression to look at the other Diocesan buildings and statuary and little gardens to walk around and to talk.
My heart hurt. I think we could all say that.
At home(Casa Vides) we got word that the woman who asked us to pray for her son was beside herself because she had been notified that her son was in solitary confinement. “Why don’t they take me instead?” she had cried. She had fled her country because another son had disappeared. When she had finally been allowed to look at his body she saw three gun shots. Then she saw he had been tortured.
She had then fled with her two other sons. On the way she had tripped on a rock and been injured so badly her toe nail had gone up int her toe. They had to keep going but by the time they made it to the border she had such a bad infection all through her body she now had a port in her arm for antibiotics. We were all so sorry she was having to go through this. I thought of our prayers and messages on the fence outside his detention center. I prayed with Our Lady of Sorrows for her son, that she could hold him again and that the Holy Spirit would strengthen him and give him hope.
Before reflection Brinkly wanted to talk to us. She was very careful about what she said but something had been bothering her. The group had gone back into Juarez earlier that day. (I had stayed home.) They went to a lunch meeting with a Mexican official. She had been shocked about how much he sugar coated the situation in Juarez. She just wanted everyone to know that. The people around me laughed. Don’t worry, they said. It had been obvious to them after their day in Juarez anyway, that the guy was full of prunes.
He had said there were planty of jobs and that migrants could easily make a life there. This is untrue. Also Juarez has ten shootings per day. They have a problem with poverty that is obvious. Nobody had thought he was telling the truth.
Our reflection that night was much needed. Fr. Jose gently led us in an unraveling of what we had seen and heard that day. Then he played us a song about the God of silence and of night. It was soothing and reminded us that we could hide our faces in Jesus’ chest and sleep in love and prayer.
I didn’t know how I was going to sleep after all that. But I did. I was exhausted.
The first thing I saw when I came in the door of Casa Vides was a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a close up of her face, and the tips of the fingers of her praying hands. I thought to myself, “This is Mary’s House.”
There are several murals here in the dining and living room area. The largest is of the faces of several El Salvadorans who stayed here who died on their journey, except the two who were activists there and were assassinated as also was one of their sons. This house is named for them. In the middle is a green map of Central America. A banner across it bears a quote from St. Oscar Romero that says in Spanish, “If thy kill me I will be resurrected in my people.”
Throughout are flora and fauna of El Salvador and a landscape with a mountain in the back ground. In either side are two traditional figures facing the portraits.
Around the room here in a banner like swirl of peach paint that stretches all over the building and into the basement are written the names of all who have died on the journey or who were killed by agents of enforcement. If they have not yet been identified there is the word in Spanish, “Unknown.”
There is a large cross also, painted in Central American style. The rooms are named after Oscar Romero, and the activist couple who were assassinated, and their son, and, I suppose others like them. Every room has a name on or over the door.
Our group has been staying here in this shelter. We have five women in a small dorm room, three bunk beds.
The migrant guests stay in another part of the house so they have privacy and proper boundaries from our group. We see them at meals and in the common areas of the house. I don’t speak Spanish really but I can express compassion, ask if a person needs anything. Those of us who do speak Spanish can tell me the stories the guests have shared.
When we first got in we were a little early. Sister Caroline was handling a stressful phone call about one of their guests who had just left to meet family in another state but who was not allowed on the plane be cause of her two broken ankles. The three of us who drove sat down on the battered couch to wait for those of us who flew in from Milwaukee.
Eventually everyone else filtered in.
All of us were very tired. It was about 1 in the afternoon. We had lunch: spaghetti, guacamole and chips, black beans. Tea to drink. We each were invited to say what brought us here.
Everyone but me was from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees, a group just forming in Milwaukee. I said I had felt called to do something and to come to the border for a while now. As a writer I planned to write about this since it is something I know I have to give. I wanted to be able to speak confidently about what is happening at the border, to understand the issues, and to find out of there is anything I can do to help the people affected. I wasn’t sure what else God might have for me in this. I had been invited along by my brother in law, Frank and I was glad to be here. I told about my friend, Gloria who was undocumented and who died recently of completely treatable and preventable illness because she was undocumented. I wanted to dedicate this trip to her memory.
Our director, a young volunteer who has been here for almost two years, a very centered and gentle spirited guy named Chris. took us in a van to a local museum and memorial that celebrates an historic agreement about some territory, the Chamizal, that had been disputed between the U.S. and Mexico for many years. It is near one of the six border crossings in the city of El Paso and Jaurez. We could see people crossing back and forth from school or work back home, school kids with their backpacks, walking in chatty groups toward the bridge. There was a huge line of trucks standing still waiting to cross. I hear it sometimes takes hours but you never know.
The museum was educational about the cultures of the borderland, and its’ history.
We returned for dinner. Chicken and rice and salad and beans.
After we helped clean up, we went downstairs to the basement for reflection time. The priest who is with us, Father Jose, led us in a simple reflection format. Someone read from the Gospel. The priest asked us a couple of questions: What do you live for? And, “What is God calling you to do?”
We had talked at dinner about why each of us was here and that flowed into this discussion. Most of us don’t know exactly what God is calling us to do. But we know he lead us here to this place, and we all trust that his purpose for us will unfold. To all of us, our faith, expressed in various ways, is what we live for. The way I remember saying this was that what I live for is my relationship with God.
We closed the day with an Our Father, A Hail Mary, and a Glory be. The priest blessed us, and we all went up to bed. I was so cold during the night and I had not known there were extra blankets in the room. So I woke up often. I thought a lot about what this is like for the people who come here for help. So much must be going through their minds at night in the dark.
* The house we are staying in is Casa Vides. Annunciation House was the original shelter with volunteers who live there in community with the guests they care for. Over time they began to form a network of houses. But they are all under the auspices of Annunciation House.
In a bomb shelter in the Italian town of Trent in 1943, a group of young girls talked about how their hopes dreams were being crushed by World War II. Their town was relentlessly bombed. Families who could were leaving as the town literally fell apart. Those left behind were suddenly living in poverty and ruin. It seemed so hopeless.
Is there anything that no bomb can destroy? An ideal that transcends all? Something to truly live for? The answer that came was, “God.”
During the time in the bomb shelter, they opened the Gospel and read. The words of Jesus came alive for them like never before. They seemed immediate. They began to take a verse or phrase each day and try to live it concretely.
They began to care for and love those around them regardless of race, religion, politics or anything at all; to love them in a personal way and take care of them as Mary had cared for Jesus. They discovered more and more a spirituality of unity and love. Such was their light and joy that more and more people joined them. Eventually they became a new spiritual family in the Church: The Focolare Movement, an International Association of the Faithful of Pontifical Right, blessed and encouraged by St. John Paul II who was very excited about them and their promotion of the ideals of unity, love, and universal brotherhood.
The official name is actually “The Work of Mary.” They are to bring Jesus to everyone, as Mary did.
Focolare means, “Hearth,” in Italian and that makes sense because they have become true peace makers through their work, their spirit and their inclusiveness. They are a spiritual hearth, nourishing and welcoming the whole world.
Focolare operates in 180 countries now with 140,440 members. When I see what Focolare is, it gives me so much hope for the Church. “This is where we’re going now,” I think. And that makes me smile.
While Focolare is a Catholic organization, it welcomes people of other Christian traditions, people of other religions, people of no particular religion and atheists. As local Focolare member, Julia Mendonca Motekaitis says, “Anyone who wants to be one with the mission of love is welcome!”
Julia says being part of Focolare has given her a “deep sense of the universality of the faith.” She says, “This is one aspect of the Church I can really see that it is moving forward.”
What does it mean to live as a member of the Focolare? Julia says it has given her the tools to interact in society as a Christian, not to be timid, and also not to judge or move away from people who are difficult.
She talks about the ideal of unity in daily life. “You can be one with anyone at any moment. In any interaction with another person we can make Jesus real so they can see him!”
It’s not always easy. She has had to work through judgmentalism and prejudice she didn’t realize she had in order to love and encounter Jesus in others. “We have to see people with new vision, new eyes.”
Focolare was brought to Bryan-College Station by a Focolare priest (now a Bishop) Michael Mulvey, and is still going strong. At monthly meetings, a portion of the Gospel is read. Members talk about their failures and successes in trying to live it out. They support and encourage one another. Julia says the real goal is what happens between meetings, which is to love God by loving others, to be one with others “in all things but sin.” She says the spirituality and ideals of Focolare have given her the courage and resolve to live the Gospel.
Rose Schmitz, who has been part of Focolare for 24 years, described her faith life before Focolare as very satisfactory. She was very happy to be active and involved in the life of the Church. It was as if she was working for “The best boss in the whole world and I loved Him with my whole heart. I knew I was in the right building. But I felt like I was on the bottom floor and this boss was mostly on the top floor. I didn’t get to see him very much. It was as if I only saw the boss in passing on the elevator or something. In Focolare I realized he was in the other person all along. I thought, ‘Oh! That’s you!” Now she feels like she has coffee with the boss every day and he is always with her. She feels freed and more able to love as she has grown in Focolare spirituality.
I asked Rose how she thought we could heal the divisions of our time. She said that when there is a division, to remember that we are dealing with a human person. “People come first before things. People come first before ideas. Peace is more important than being right. ” Once you have prioritized seeing the other person as a human being first, “You can then enter into the division seeking to understand more than to be understood. The goal is not to change the other person, only to understand.” You will come away perhaps not as a winner, “but you will come away enlightened.”
In this way, I reflected, one would also feel more whole and so would the other person. Maybe that is what unity can be.
The Focolare ideal, I am told, is to love until love is returned. In that process of learning to love one another, each person begins to empty themselves. When that happens, the presence of Jesus becomes more clear. “He will begin to speak,” Rose says. “He will begin to solve problems, to bring about the unity he prayed for.”
Matt and Jari Whitacre, also long time Focolarine, talked to me about the annual “Mariopolis” most members try to attend regularly. People bring their whole families. The retreats are usually held on college campuses, and attendants stay in dorms. Their are different events for children of all ages, as well as discussions and talks for adults. There are shared meals and a games night for everyone. The only rule of the retreat is to love one another. Priests, Bishops, the consecrated, lay single and married people attend. Relationships are humble and egalitarian. Adoration is available as well as Reconciliation and daily mass. Jari notes that non-Catholics usually attend daily mass with everyone else even though this is not asked of them. There are times also that all can pray together as one.
All the Focolare family I spoke to talked about how loved and cared for they felt at the Mariopolis. Jari told a story about having a child come down sick and having to take her back to their room. People kept bringing Jari books to read, checking on her, bringing food, offering to help with the other children. There was an attendee who was a doctor who come by and asked if there was anything he could do.
Around the world there are permanent Focolare towns to show that people of all cultures, races and religions can live together in unity and love.
Over the years I have been to several Catholic conferences where there were tables around manned by people from various movements and ministries. I will say, “Oh there are the Focolare people,” pointing them out. And I am always right. There is something about them that is recognizable.
The founder, Chiara Lubich, asked why she didn’t wear a habit, replied, “I have no habit. My habit is my smile.”
Maybe that’s it; it’s that special Focolare smile, joyful and authentic. I consider it a sure sign of the Holy Spirit.
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.
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.”
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.
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.