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Virgin Mary

Annunciation House Day 4

10/21/19
Casa Vides
El Paso

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.

Inside the U,S, Border Patrol Suicide Crisis

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.”

tealight candle on human palms
Photo by Dhivakaran S on Pexels.com

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.

Hope Border Institute

starry sky
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

The song in my head while we talked to Border Patrol

Annunciation House Day 1

Casa Vides, El Paso 10/18/19

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.

bird s eye photography of mountain
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* 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.

Chamizal National Park and Museum

Unity and love: the spirit of Focolare

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.

woman stands on mountain over field under cloudy sky at sunrise
Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

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.

flight pigeon twig
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Visit https://www.focolare.org/ to find out more.

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.

person holding baby s hand
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

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.”

religious image statue
Photo by Niels on Pexels.com

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.

ancient art black and white close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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!”

sky space dark galaxy
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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)

yellow flower bloom blossom
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* this term is from Jean Pierre de Caussade

#Wearblacktomass

Let’s talk about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church again.

I don’t see anything changing.

I don’t see survivors of abuse being put first. I hear innocuous (at best) statements from the hierarchy that sound as if they consulted lawyers before they composed them. I have even heard murmurs that the Church is being persecuted. I am ashamed to say I have even heard this from the pulpit.

I have heard some of the laity blaming the abuse crisis on whatever their pet issue is with the Church.

As a survivor of child rape and various types of sexual abuse from different people throughout my childhood and adolescence, and after years of therapy, I feel I have some authority on this subject though my abuse was not Church related. It is not gay people priest or lay that caused this. It is not celibacy. It is not the lack of female power in the Church. As we are finding out, nuns have also sexually abused children as well, and nuns have been raped and forced into abortion.

The origin of sexual abuse is the sickness of the offender. Not everyone in power becomes a sex offender just like everyone at a party doesn’t become dangerously drunk. There are s lot of things going into this.

I have learned that when there is sexual abuse, similar to someone with an addiction, the problem becomes a family “disease.” A certain configuration happens in the family. There are roles everyone starts playing in order not to speak truth about the problem or to cover it up to protect the whole (or the image of the whole.) Everyone begins to protect the addict or abuser. Anyone who is evidence of the problem or tries to deal with it in an honest way will be silenced in one way or another. The Church is a family. We are sick with this problem.

The Bishops have played their roles and protected the whole (or so they thought) at the expense of the victims and really, in the end, at the expense of the whole.

Some things I think we need to deal with are first figure out how to protect children, seminarians, and nuns in a way that does not just please lawyers or cover for us, but really does something.

Then we need to deal with the enablers of abuse and make sure there is no more of that through education and support perhaps. Maybe we need to bring in other people for them to be accountable to about this rather than just one another. Obviously that is too hard for the bishops to do. They have tried and massively failed again and again. I am not an expert on fixing this problem. I mostly know how not to fix it.

It seems to me we then need to look at the abusers themselves. What’s going on with these people? What makes them do that? What needs to happen to permanently stop their behavior? They need to be stopped. We have to protect others. I also believe the Church is about redemption. What needs to be done for their healing? Once they are removed from access to children and the vulnerable, and they are willing to take responsibility, face just consequences, pursue treatment they should be helped to redeem their lives somehow though they should never be around children again if they have abused a child. If they are not helped in an effective way to heal they will continue to find ways to offend as surely as an alcoholic will find ways to drink.

As a Catholic abuse survivor I feel responsible to speak up. Also people should know it is hard for me (and I can only imagine how hard it is for survivors of clergy sexual abuse) to hear about all this without being triggered into my P.T.S.D.

People say ridiculous things on social media about sexual abuse and they don’t know what they are talking about and how much their attitude hurts survivors to hear.

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I have started not to want to see Bishops and Cardinals in their regalia. Seeing their black robes, red hats and big crosses, or their crosiers and miters makes me feel nauseated now even though there are three Bishops I know personally and love dearly. It’s not them personally- I feel better the ones I know are there actually. The nausea is what has happened and how I don’t see anything changing. “Put it all away,” I think.”Why not wear the simple robes of poor Friars as a sign of repentance?”

The clothes they now wear are signs of status and power that just seem so inappropriate right now. I used to like the outfits because they were historic. I don’t like them anymore.

As I have said before all this behavior of secrecy and self/institutional protection even when it comes to how they have at times treated victims of abuse like enemies is very typical also of a family or any group in which the sickness of sexual abuse has or is occurring. This is what humans do when there is sexual abuse. They protect themselves even at the expense of the abused. They protect the group. They protect the perpetrators. It happened to me and it’s happening to the survivors of clerical abuse too.

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I have read about and spoken to clergy abuse survivors who met with their Bishops and came away really upset, feeling unheard and uncared for and that nothing has or will change. “Come forward,” they say, seeming to have no idea how hard that is for people like us. Most of us have had more than enough of people who don’t listen and don’t help. Sometimes I think that part of my experience has been worse than the abuse itself. It’s re-traumatizing.

The hierarchy does not seem to understand how angry the laity is, either. We want to see Jesus purifying the Temple with a whip cord and overturning some tables. Now. Now.

We don’t see that. Don’t they understand? People are losing their faith. People are leaving the Church they love.

I am deeply Catholic. I am an obedient daughter of the Church (though obviously not perfect) and I am having thoughts like, “How dare you? Why should we listen to y’all anymore? How can you tell US what to do? How can you ask us for money?”

I have to drag myself to mass sometimes. I don’t want to leave Jesus because of Judas. I believe the Church is true. So do so many of us. What are we supposed to do? This is our home, and the Eucharist is at the center of our Catholic life. I refuse to leave. I never will.

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I don’t know what to do with all this. I don’t want to read this stuff in the news anymore. It literally makes me sick.

I resent how I had to stop being a Eucharistic Minister because I can’t handle the classes they make us take about sexual abuse in order to serve. This rule is well meaning I know. But….why do WE have to take those classes? YOU take them!

I don’t, as a survivor, think classes would have had any effect on my abusers or their enablers.

After years of inner struggle about those classes I made a call about it. It was hard for me to explain my problem but I got the Diocese to let me take an alternative one- on- one class with a kindly gentle person. She didn’t even hardly mention abuse to me, just the ethics guidelines. But I broke out in hives immediately afterward and felt terrible emotionally for days.

I don’t think those classes help. I worry about other survivors taking them, especially those who don’t realize yet the reality of what happened to them and aren’t ready to deal with it. Those in charge should have trained psychologists available in case someone has a breakdown.

Something like this happened to me before in a different way early in my process when I was young. I was not ready at all. I went home suicidal and feeling like cutting myself. What business do they have risking traumatizing abuse survivors anyway? It is cruel and irresponsible.

I have seen nothing from our leaders that gives me any hope of any meaningful change. I want to see them in sackcloth and ashes. I don’t see that.

My socioeconomic status is fairly low. I do not wield worldly power.

I have been praying, though. Praying and starting to avoid news about the crisis for now.

Here’s what I have prayerfully come up with, and I hope some of you will join me. Starting on the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15, I am going to start wearing black to mass, every mass I attend. I will wear black next to Our Lady whose children have been crucified and continue to be crucified.

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I am an obedient and loving daughter of the Church and I mean no disrespect. But I am in mourning with Our Lady. I want Judas to see and repent. I want to never forget and for no one to forget the victims. I want children and nuns protected. I want actual change. I want to see humility and repentance not the protection of power.

#Wearblacktomass in honor of Our Lady’s tears. When they see us they will see her and all her wounded children.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.

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The Hail Mary, The Visitation: a Reflection

Mary… the name of that beautiful flower

which I always invoke

morning and evening.” ~ Dante

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I remember learning the Hail Mary when I was 20. I was dating the Catholic boy who I would one day marry. I was curious about the Hail Mary, never having heard more than the first line of it in a movie.

I asked him to teach it to me. After a few tries, I still wasn’t picking it up well. He was frustrated. I asked, “How fast did you pick it up when you learned it?” He said he didn’t remember ever not knowing it. I was impressed.

As for me, I received it as something precious and exotic. Once I finally learned it, I could hardly stop praying it. I went on to learn from him how to pray the rosary.  I didn’t know what to make of many of the stories to be pondered during its recitation, but I prayed it anyway, making the best of it. I interpreted the mysteries of the rosary in my own way that made sense to me, until, gently, the stories started to change me. The Gospel became for me, not just an old story I was learning about, but something that was happening still, even in my life as I lived it.

At the center of the Hail Mary is JESUS. I didn’t know what to make of Him, either. But I held Mary’s hand like a child until she led me into the great romance of my life; Jesus: Jesus in His Catholic Church, Jesus in the Word of God, Jesus as experienced personally and within, Jesus shining through human love, Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus in the mercy of the confessional, Jesus in Mary, Jesus in the lives of the Saints, Jesus, inseparable from life and being itself.

All that stuff used to freak me out. But now it’s everything to me.

The Hail Mary is half Scripture. The second half is a product of the Church’s prayer response and reflection, over time, on the first half already given to us. Elizabeth repeats Gabriel’s greeting as she recognizes Mary as Queen Mother, confirming her in her mission by her own humble words of wonder, joy, and encouragement, filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary responded with her song of the Gospel that we call the Magnificat. (See Lk. 1-39-56)

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What must have passed between these earliest Church Mothers, these prophetesses, and friends, during Mary’s three month stay at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house? I imagine that three months was a lovely weaving, as in the lives and friendships of many women, of daily work, love and prayer; maybe for them it was dishes and divine secrets, cooking and singing Psalms, sewing baby clothes, drawing water, feeding the animals, tending the fire, breath-catching prophesy, washing and folding, praying and cleaning, laughing and crying.

Maybe Elizabeth gave Mary tips on morning sickness before the household recited the Sh’ma. (Dt. 6:4) Perhaps there were harmless jokes on the speechless Zechariah. What did they think when they went to the Temple on the Sabbath knowing what only they knew?

I imagine they pondered the Scriptures, pulled weeds, planted seeds.

They must have encouraged one another.

What was it like in their quiet moments?

Did they star gaze at night in humble awe, overcome once again with the mercy, greatness, and faithfulness of God, at the the ancient promise He was fulfilling in their persons?  How amazing it must have felt that it was them in the midst of it, at the epicenter of this secret new beginning for humanity.

How they must have grown in faith, in love, and determination, in the presence of the Holy Spirit in their relationship, this first Christ centered friendship, this prototype of the Church.

What did they talk about as they swept the floor, watched the sunset, walked with the silent Zechariah after dinner?

Mary was most likely present at the birth of John the Baptist along with the woman neighbors who would have come to help. It seems she would have stayed for the circumcision and naming ceremony (Lk. 1: 57-80) as well. Did she stand in awe beside Elizabeth and witness the return of Zechariah’s speech with his own beautiful, prophetic song? I bet she did.

When Elizabeth watched Mary go, I wonder if she prayed that start of the Hail Mary again, to accompany the younger woman on her way, and to lift her up in prayer as she went home to face all that she had to face, and to do all that she must do?

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I think of my friends, my soul sisters, who love, confirm, walk with, and encourage one another every day in our own Christ centered relationships. Through them I have often known the Holy Spirit’s presence and confirmation, love and strength. I have often thought, over the years, that there was nothing more beautiful to me than their faces at prayer, than being in the midst of their love, their work, as they transform the world around them. I would not be myself without their friendship. I would have been someone else.

I think of my friendship with Mary and how it has changed my life beyond recognition.

And I have to say a Hail Mary.

Because I love my life!

On this last day of May, of this month of Mary, this feast of the Visitation, let us say a Hail Mary together with gratitude. Pray another in thanksgiving for your friends, and another for all the intentions of Mary and St. Elizabeth as they continue their work together in Heaven for the Kingdom of God.

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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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Easter Maria

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This year I crave a quiet Easter-

Pitch black peace

In which to bloom

In secret knowing.

This was Mary’s Easter-

Before ever a word was said.

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