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Bethany Hang Out

Catholic contemplative life and devotion

The power of Lent in these troubled times

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As we prepare for this Lent of 2022, it seems to me the timing is good. With Russia invading Ukraine before the eyes of the world and as we watch and pray, deeply affected, this period of intensifying our prayer comes particularly welcome. Lent is the perfect time to remember our ability to heal the world and touch others with the power and love of God as we draw nearer to him on the path toward Easter that is Lent.  

People Francis has said, 

“I would like to appeal to everyone, believers and non-believers alike. Jesus taught us that the diabolical evil of violence is answered with the weapons of God, with prayer and fasting. 

I invite everyone to make next March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting for peace. I encourage believers in a special way to devote themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on that day. May the Queen of Peace preserve the world from the madness of war.” 

I am reminded that the disciplines we take up for Lent are not just for ourselves and our personal relationship with Jesus or merely for our own improvement and transformation. We aren’t going to the spiritual beauty shop or to the gym of souls for a virtues workout for our own peace of mind about ourselves. No. This is not only about ourselves. 

Not only are we accompanying our beloved Lord into the desert to pray and be with him. No.  When we  accompany him, we accompany his brothers and sisters who suffer as well. 

There is yet another aspect of our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and alms giving, which is that these things we do can change the world. 

As Catholics we know that everything we do affects everyone everywhere because we are all connected. This is why after Confession we don’t simply walk away free but we first do penance for our sins. Usually our penance is to remain in the church a while for prayer and reflection in some way that the priest suggests. Why do we do that? Fr. Greg McLaughlin explained it to me this way: when we have done something to harm someone else, it is best not only to apologize but to make amends as well. Because we are all connected to one another our sins, even our personal ones we think only hurt ourselves, harm everyone else on a spiritual level. So we make spiritual amends to repair the damage we have done. 

When we pray, fast and make personal sacrifices in union with Jesus and his own sacrifice, he shares his salvific power with us. This is one of the ways we already reign with Christ. 

As St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) put it: 

“The world is in flames. Are you impelled to put

them out? Look at the cross. From the open heart

gushes the blood of the Savior. This extinguishes the

flames of hell. Make your heart free by [your commitment to God]; then the flood of divine

love will be poured into your heart until it overflows

and becomes fruitful to all the ends of the earth. Do

you hear the groans of the wounded on the 

battlefields in the west and the east? You are not a

physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the

wounds. You … cannot get

to them. Do you hear the anguish of the dying? You

would like to be a priest and comfort them. Does the

lament of the widows and orphans distress you? You

would like to be an angel of mercy and help them.

Look at the Crucified. If you are…bound to

Him…your being is precious blood. Bound to Him,

you are omnipresent as He is. You cannot help here

and there like the physician, the nurse, the priest.

You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief,

in the power of the cross. Your compassionate

love takes you everywhere, this love from the

Divine Heart. Its Precious Blood is poured

everywhere, soothing, healing, saving. The eyes of

the Crucified look down on you asking, probing.

Will you make your covenant with the Crucified

anew in all seriousness? What will you answer

Him? Lord, where shall we go? You have the words

of eternal life.”

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Whatever you undertake for Lent, whatever prayers,  commitments, holy reading, various forms of fasting and self denial, do it intentionally and dedicate your actions, reflections and prayers for the good of the world, for peace, for all who suffer. When you receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, you can offer your Communion for peace. 

Remember that united to the Heart of God, you can set out in the Spirit across the world with Jesus, with Mary, and touch every face. 

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What being part of the Synod was like

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I thought I wasn’t going to be able to attend the “Listening Session with the Bishop” because I had already missed a day of work that week, and was going to miss another one for a funeral. I was sure I was going to have to work that night and wouldn’t be able to go. I admit to being a little relieved, actually. I am such an introvert. Furthermore, I have social anxiety. I never want to go anywhere. Even things I want to do I start dreading when the day arrives. I knew the Synod was my responsibility though. I knew if the opportunity presented itself I should go and would go.

As it turns out I got off work early so I was not off the hook after all. I had just enough time beforehand to start dreading it.

I admit that another fear of mine was that I would leave feeling disappointed or angry and alienated or all of those things.

I confess that I have felt that way a lot already as a Catholic for a while now. Sometimes it is worse than others. There are a few reasons for this but they are exactly the ones that are a big deal to me.

The abuse crisis and the adversarial treatment of survivors of clergy sexual abuse and tone deaf pronouncements on the crisis by Church leaders were hard to get over. I had started to acclimate myself to this new reality we are living with and find ways to express myself about it which helped a lot.

After the murder of George Floyd, I was largely horrified by the reactions of white Catholics. I know y’all saw the same thing and heard the same running commentary so I won’t elaborate here. I live in a very conservative town but I suppose I was naive about what that would mean when it came to this issue in the age of Trumpian politics. I care deeply about racial justice for a variety of reasons. I am not perfect but am working on being more aware of these things. I have also not learned how best to talk to fellow white people who freak me out on that topic. Presently I have to be aware of my limitations and some people I have learned not to engage.

I was extremely disappointed in the response of local and national Church leaders in the wake of the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death. In fact I was aghast about their absence on the scene. In my town, even at prayer rallies on racial justice sponsored by several local churches, none of the five Catholic Churches in our deanery participated and none of them held their own events either.

Our town is CONSERVATIVE yet people really turned out for George Floyd outside the courthouse and the busiest street in town to show support and demand action There were local church pastors there and even in the lead. There was an area set up for prayer with someone always there to pray with anyone who wanted to. A local Orthodox priest was even there. Not one Catholic priest.

Local churches signed a letter about their commitment to racial justice that was published in our home town paper. There was nothing against Catholic teaching in the letter. Not one of our Catholic parishes was on that list. Some Bishops went out of their way to condemn Black Lives Matter but did nothing of their own to stand with Black People, to stand with Black Catholics. A couple of them did. The Bishop of El Paso even marched with BLM. All in all however, the response was paltry in some cases. and abhorrent in others.

The division in the Church politically has become as ugly if not more ugly than it is everywhere else. Some people hate the Pope. Some Bishops hate the Pope. We can’t stand each other and go on the attack on social media. It’s a mess.

So I was worried I would just feel even more the way I already did.

Plus the introvert thing.

And the social anxiety.

However I prayed and I went.

Not that many people were there. This may be due to the lack of advertising about it and unclear information about who was invited to what session. I didn’t hear about it once at my own parish though the one I attended was supposed to be regional. My attempts to call around and ask were pretty much fruitless, the information scanty and/or incorrect. I don’t know what’s going on with that. If nobody else did either that is probably why the attendance was not impressive.

There were several tables set up, and some coffee, tea and snacks on the counter. Wandering around and recognizing nobody I picked a table where there was a couple with kindly faces who smiled at me. It took a while before I noticed it was the bilingual table. I’m not bilingual though I took Spanish at school I don’t know that much nowadays. I apologized and offered to move. They said, “Stay!” So I stayed.

Bishop Joe Vasquez arrived and made the rounds visiting various tables. I have never met him before. He has a peaceful and gentle face. I thought he was adorable!

Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin

A bilingual woman from the Diocese named Leslie came to sit with us. People started talking. Some of them knew the Bishop and took pictures with him.

People began arriving late, probably just getting off work.

Another woman from the Diocese who oversees Catholic Schools got up to talk to us about what to expect. She also let us know this was not about airing grievances or debating with others especially about Church teaching. This was about praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance to know how we can do our part in discerning his guidance in the direction of the Church in Communion Participation and Mission. It was about listening as well as speaking.

The questions for consideration were different and much more thought provoking than the ones my daughter told me about when she was completing the online survey.

They showed us a series of power points with sets of questions. Of each set we could personally pick one to answer, one that stood out to us. Then we had a couple minutes to pray and consider. This part of the process reminded me of Lectio Divina; the way we read, take a word or phrase that stands out, ponder and pray what God could be saying to us and then respond to it.

After we had done this, we then took turns at the table discussing what we came up with. I was not only welcome at the bilingual table but Leslie and others translated everything everyone said for me. This was most kind. I was a little worried we wouldn’t have enough time that way for everyone to speak but it worked out fine.

People at my table were friendly and warm. I felt so comfortable I forgot to be anxious.

Highlights for me were were hearing the answers around my table about how the Church can reach out more. Most of the people at the table were from Santa Teresa, a primarily Hispanic parish in the downtown area. One of their ministries involves knocking on doors and talking to people. One man told a story about a house where they were verbally attacked by an angry anti-Catholic family. Their group’s response was to listen instead of reacting. The mother of this family in particular was extremely upset. She felt “attacked” by the Church, she said. The ministry group encouraged her to talk about what happened. I don’t remember what happened but the woman had been very hurt by the Church to the point she felt she had to leave. They listened to everything she had to say and then they apologized to her, “on behalf of the Catholic Church.” She started crying and was very moved by that. She kept thanking them when they left. “What!?” I exclaimed, “I need to learn Spanish so I can come with y’all!” “You are very welcome! Come with us anyway!” Other people around the table said in response to the story, “That’s beautiful!”

One of the questions on the screen was about where we find joy in our life in the Church. I really liked that. Another one in that set was about whether there were any barriers to us participating in Church life and liturgy. When it was my turn I said that my parish is very alive and active and the presence of the Spirit is easily felt there. I love it. However, I don’t participate in many ministries largely because of the requirement to take classes about sexual abuse and how it happens etc. I had not planned on talking about it but I said that as an abuse survivor those classes are very triggering for me. I don’t sleep well and feel all messed up for a week. Even the one- on- one milder version threw me. So I just stopped being a Eucharistic Minister for instance when the classes began to be required for that. Everyone just listened to me kindly.

Some people at my table were much involved in catechesis and I was struck by their devotion to children and the young, by the gentleness in their faces and voices when they spoke of it and of the things they hoped to do for the young in their parish.

I began to have fun. I felt very at home with them and I started to feel like I almost understood when they spoke Spanish. They were good natured about my mistakes when I tried to use any Spanish I knew. They didn’t seem to mind that I am a little awkward in general.

When one of the questions asked who the marginalized in the Church were and how the Church can better reach them and include them, I answered slightly differently than I had thought I might on my drive over. When it was my turn I said I thought there were very few black Catholics in our area. I know in some places there are more, such as in Louisiana and Houston. There are a couple of primarily black parishes in our outlying counties. However at any given mass here in town there are anywhere from no black people at all or just two or three if that. This bothers me. My granddaughter is black. She starts CCD classes next Fall. She will be the only black child in her class without a doubt. I wish things weren’t that way. I thought that we as Church would seem like a welcoming place for African Americans if we stood up for racial justice more publicly, if we lifted up black Saints, and had more black Catholic leaders speak in our parishes more, or asked our black brothers and sisters what they would like to see us do. The others nodded solemnly and supportively.

Some of them mentioned the elderly being marginalized and that we needed more ministries devoted to them and to host more activities for them, visit them more. Others mentioned the poor. I mentioned single moms, having been widowed when my children were very young. I felt loved and supported by the community but single moms and single parent families being mentioned sometimes and our particular problems addressed would be good and make us feel we belonged more.

During another part someone from each table was invited to stand up and either give a summary or say something they wanted to say.

Some of what people said at this stage annoyed me but I felt like a good sport. We need their voices too.

One table thought that the devotees of the Latin Mass were the marginalized.

Another table said the Church needed to focus on the family more. (“What?” I thought. The Church focuses on the family the family the family all the time!)

Someone said we should all stop complaining to the priest about what tree gets cut down and other minor issues and let them care for souls.

One table said that in “olden times” the Church was somewhere people could go when they were in trouble and get help and consolation. The poor could come for assistance. However these days we send these people to other places (I assume they meant St. Vincent de Paul) and don’t deal directly with them. I have discussed that before with others and know it to be a contentious issue for some. However everyone just listened.

Hey I see that the Holy Father is on to something. We all just listened to one another. And the world didn’t blow up.

I had started to see people I knew and even a whole table full of people from my parish, St. Mary’s by the end of it. However I stayed at my table because I loved it over there.

One person stood up and talked about the importance of being people of prayer. He was basically talking about The Practice of the Presence of God and praying without ceasing. I found out later I had known him in High School and that he likes my column in the paper.

By the end the mood was festive. In fact I think it was festive the whole time. (Joy and a sense of Community: true signs of the Holy Spirit at work!)

We ended in thanks and prayer. The adorable Bishop Vasquez began to pose in pictures with various groups of people. My fellow table mates all thanked one another and I said I had to go to Santa Teresa more often. Everyone said they would keep an eye out for my book.

It was good. I reflected on the way home that the Holy Spirit was certainly at work in that process, on the move among us.

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It may sound dramatic but I felt that the load of anger and alienation had been lifted for me. I still have the same values as before. But I felt part of the Universal Church much more than I have in a good while.

At my table we had all agreed that this Synod was a very significant step toward healing and renewal for the Church.

Turns out it was for me too.

Preparing for the “Synod on Synodality”

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The Pope wishes to “consult with the people of God” through the process of a “Synod on Synodality.” 

He says, “a teaching Church must be a listening Church.” Therefore for this new Synod not only will Pope Francis and the Bishops discuss, pray and discern about Communion, Participation, and Mission in the direction of our Church, but lay people are invited to join in the discernment and discussion as well. 

This may sound strange. Perhaps it is even disconcerting to Catholic ears to have the laity involved in a Synod. However, remember that we too are the Church, not just the hierarchy alone. We should be part of this!  

In order that our leaders may hear what the Spirit may have to say through the people, it is important that we all participate. All of our baptized are called. If you have left the Church, if you no longer practice the Faith, I hope you will also let your voice be heard. We need to hear from you, too. 

Each of us has our agendas, things about the Church that we are upset about or hope will change. Let’s endeavor, however, to be receptive as well as expressive. I think we should take this invitation very seriously in a spirit of prayer and discernment, seeking the will of God in what we are to say.  

How is this process going to work? 

The first phase of this “Synod on Synodality” began with the Bishops and the Holy Father in Rome in October 2021. The second phase, the “listening phase,”  is already underway in our Austin Diocese. Locally, one parish here is hosting open listening sessions.

There will be small groups formed at the session to discuss the questions for consideration, dialogue and prayer together.

The student parish here is holding discussions with its parish council only which I think is disappointing.

Our other three local parishes have not begun the process as yet but they will according to how this should work.   

Should you be uncomfortable discussing these things in public or you can’t make a listening session, there is a survey available on the Diocesan website you can fill out at austindiocese.org/synod to participate. Check with your own Diocese for what is being done for the Synod and how you can participate.

 What happens after all of this listening? What everyone has said will be taken into another listening session with the Bishop who will then take it with him to the next phase of the Synod in Rome in 2023  with his brother Bishops and the Holy Father. Do the Popes and the Bishops have to do as we say? No, they are still the Pope and the Bishops. Their authority is still their authority.  However they do want to hear from us and they do care what we have to say.  They will be discussing how to incorporate this listening process more in the future. 

The prospect of the invitation to be a part of this Synod has stirred new hope in me; the most hope I have felt for the healing and renewal of the Church since 2002 when the abuse crisis broke.  The first step in healing and for the renewal of our communion, participation and mission is this listening and being heard. This will build trust between the laity and the hierarchy and has the potential to renew and restore.  

We live in difficult times for the Church. However, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed…struck down, but not destroyed. (See 2 Corinthians 4:8)   Our Church is sturdy enough to guide us through two millennia of Christianity, and also dynamic enough for the same and into the future. We are still the Church that the gates of hell will not overcome. (Matt. 16:18b.) So let’s take courage and take part, trusting this process and in the Holy Spirit active within it to bring good fruit and new hope.  

Another part of taking this seriously is to pray steadfastly and persistantly for the whole process. As a Carmelite, an important part of living our charism is to pray for the Church.

When I set myself to pray in a dedicated way for something or someone the first thing I do is go to Confession. I have noticed that that sacrament tends to grant me clarity of heart and I think I am better able to discern how to pray the way the Holy Spirit wants me to then. At the suggestion of my friend Julia, I have set an alarm on my phone to pray for the Synod daily at noon. I already pray the Angelus at noon so that is easy. I dedicate the Angelus for Synod and I pray for participation and the movement of the Spirit in the Church through this, for the Bishops and the Holy Father and for all of us to discern the voice of God in what we receive and say, for healing and renewal in the Church.

We can offer any suffering we experience during the day for the Synod, and after the example of St. Therese, offer our small sacrifices through the day, the work we do, remembering this intention at mass when we receive communion.

If the timing works out, we could pray a novena to the Holy Spirit. We can offer a rosary, or our time in silent interior prayer, or your time in adoration. In whatever way we pray and remember God, we can ask for open-ness of heart and the inspiration of the Spirit.

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Here is the prayer suggested by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for this Synod. It is a simplified version of the one used at Vatican II and also during the Synods of the past. 

“We stand before You, Holy Spirit, as we gather together in Your name.

With You alone to guide us, make Yourself at home in our hearts;

Teach us the way we must go and how we are to pursue it.

We are weak and sinful; do not let us promote disorder.

Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path nor partiality influence our actions.

Let us find in You our unity so that we may journey together to eternal life and not stray from the way of truth and what is right.

All this we ask of You, who are at work in every place and time, in the communion of the Father and the Son, forever and ever.

Amen.”

I also like this prayer and I say it often.

“Come, Holy Spirit,

come by means

of the powerful intercession

of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,

Mother of the Church.”

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Family Christmas letter 2021

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I can’t remember the last time I wrote a Christmas letter. It was probably when my daughters were little and maybe I wrote about all the new things they had been doing as they grew. They are twenty-four (Roise) and twenty-eight (Maire) now and still changing and growing. I still love them to pieces. I am still very much a part of their daily lives. I am happy about that.

For Maire this has definitely been a year of growth and change. She has been more reflective and introspective lately than I have ever seen her. She has made some courageous decisions this year that cost her dearly but I know she will come out shining as she always has. She still lives in her school bus (converted into a tiny house. I’m told these are called “Schoolies”) She has carried on my mom’s ardent gardening and has done some amazing things out on the land. It looks great out there. It’s such a joy to have her back home in Texas these last couple of years instead of on a mountain top in Oregon. Now she is only forty-five minutes away! She is still working as a secretary, still raising her two little boys, Blaze and Brazos who are having an amazing, imaginative childhood steeped in lore and nature.

Maire

Blaze is the most tender and sweet boy you could ever meet. He is a dreamy little five year old with lovely eyes. He is a great little story teller of the fantastical. He is the loudest kid on any playground since his speaking voice is all shouting. Notably he saw someone whose truck wouldn’t start and asked the guy if he had jumper cables because it sounded like the battery. He volunteered his dad’s jumper cables. Once the truck was jump-started the man tried to give Blaze a dollar. Blaze said, “No that’s OK. I love helping people!”

Blaze

Brazos is the most expressive kid I have ever seen. His facial expressions are eloquent for a two year old, his eyes intense. His face is always changing too, his emotions fluttering by like ripples in a lake. He’s speaking better and better every day. I am continually surprised how he can put sentences together more and even talk in paragraphs like a pro. He is as tough and spunky as his brother and the two roll around and wrestle like a pile of puppies.

Brazos

My youngest daughter, Roise and her five year old daughter Arelani had to move in with me when our apartment complex couldn’t get the rodents out of her building. This has been rough because my apartment is a one bedroom. I had just signed a new lease but I am relieved I can transfer us to a two bedroom where there will be places for everyone and their things. The kitchen is a little bigger too, thank goodness. My mom would have said this one I have now is a “one butt kitchen.” The new one looks like almost a two butt kitchen.

Roise is still hilarious, still a guitarist and wonderful singer-song-writer, still working on becoming a Special Ed teacher. She transfers to Sam Houston this Spring semester. She has kept her grades up in spite of the stress of being a young single mom and going to school full time and being invaded by unstoppable rodents!

Roise

Arelani started Kindergarten this year and is doing very well. She is so smart she drives us crazy with all of her questions and interests. Her vocabulary is astonishing. She has been going through a bit of an existential crisis lately, reminiscent of her mother at this age. The other day, the boys and I came outside and said “Hello world!” Lani said, “The world is nothing and everybody is dust -they can’t answer you.” I tried to explain. She said stubbornly, “ NO ONE will respond!”

Arelani Marie

For me this is the year I finished my book, which will be called Come to Mary’s House: Spending Time with the Blessed Mother. (I wrote more about my book here.) Writing it has been such a spiritual journey. Also I can’t believe there was this much agony over a little 30,000 word book but there was. It is my first book so I was worried that I would turn it in and Our Sunday Visitor would say, “Nope we don’t like it. Kindly pay back your advance and leave us alone.” But they didn’t say that! Thank goodness! What’s happening now is I am working with a “developmental editor.” I was so so scared about what she would change about my book but she didn’t make any, as she called them, “substantive edits.” She loved the book and all she did was a little touch here and there. I would call her work elegant. She made me sound a bit smoother and more grown up and professional than before.

Otherwise I have been working with Zane as his care giver. He is turning eighteen this month which I can hardly believe. He is such a cool kid and I have loved spending time with him. I love his family too. They are all easy to love. Zane is nonverbal but he knows everything! We have a great connection and I feel very close to him. I read aloud to him a lot and like any teen he loves listening to music. I am always looking for new music for him or a book he might like. We spend most of our time outside. He loves being outdoors. Sometimes he walks around outside touching the plants and inspecting everything. Mostly he just likes to hang out. So that is what we do.

Zane and me

At this writing Roise is out of town so it’s just me and Arelani. She is engaged in building a fort. My apartment is in absolute chaos so she may as well drag the furniture and the bedclothes around anyway.

The most horrible thing that happened this year was the police shooting of a young black man in front of my apartment. I wrote about it here.

The saddest news I have from this year is that we lost my wonderful mama-in-law on August 1 to cancer. She was my favorite atheist, an activist and social justice warrior. She was intelligent, warm, and loving. She was the most Jesus like atheist you could ever meet with a great heart for service and dedication to the greater good. She never made a big deal out of her good deeds. Being altruistic and caring for others was just who she was. She and I became as close as we were when we were my husband, Bob’s support team as he fought Brain Cancer. We supported one another through that tough time too, as well as afterwards. When Arelani learned to read I wanted to call her. I’m always wanting to call her.

Ann Chapman, wonderful mama- in- law

Our Christmas plans involve migrating across the land of parking lot in hopes of a better life in the other apartment. There I plan to set up the Christmas tree and have all the kids over to make cookies and decorate. I already have the cookie cutters. We will do a family prayer service and bless the tree and the Nativity scene as always. Our family tradition also includes singing, “I want to walk as a child of the Light” when I put the star on, last of all.

Our traditional family music for Christmas is Dead Can Dance’s album Aion. We also like the old classics like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and all those guys. We are sure to gleefully listen to Aye Aye Aye it’s Christmas too, by Ricky Martin. A neighbor gave us the CD years ago and we still listen to it every year. Traditionally, like a lot of people around here, we have Tex-Mex for Christmas dinner. I’m vegan so I make my stuff separately otherwise the meal is vegetarian, involving lots of cheese, beans and rice, chips and salsa and iced tea.

We will blow out the candles on Jesus’ birthday cake and I will make everyone sing him the Happy Birthday Song (and many mooooooooore!)

I haven’t shopped for Christmas yet so I had better get with it. The important thing is that though we have lost so many people in our family, the girls and I still have each other and we have these amazing kids with us as well.

God bless you all this Christmas! May you have a moment in the midst of all the activity and family time to immerse yourself in the clear light of Christmas and encounter the tender Savior deep in your hearts.

Arelani, Brazos and Blaze

How to pray the “Prayer of Recollection” of St. Teresa of Avila

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“Give me the grace to recollect myself in the little heaven of my soul where You have established Your dwelling. There You let me find You, there I feel that You are closer to me than anywhere else, and there You prepare my soul quickly to enter into intimacy with You … Help me O Lord, to withdraw my senses from exterior things, make them docile to the commands of my will, so that when I want to converse with You, they will retire at once, like bees shutting themselves up in the hive in order to make honey.”

St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila)

The Prayer of Recollection is an extremely simple method of prayer described by St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila) in Chapter 26 of The Way of Perfection. She says it was a method the Lord Himself taught her, and that she never knew what it was to pray with satisfaction until she learned it.

Over time, the method was embroidered with all kinds of steps and complications I can’t follow. I much prefer the simplicity of her original teaching.

To begin with, make time to be alone with God in silence. Relax in whatever way works for you. Close your eyes and be conscious of His presence. Make the Sign of the Cross.

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Make an examination of conscience and silently pray an Act of Contrition, either the set prayer or your own words. I sometimes think of this as the Lord tenderly washing my face as a mother does her child’s.

Now, knowing Jesus is with you, pray with Him, slowly and attentively the prayer He taught us. As you do this, pay attention to what you are saying. Be aware the whole time, of Who it is you are speaking to. Pray “Our Father…”

Now, as St. Teresa says, “look at Him.”

How do we “look” at Jesus? Where is He? We know Jesus is present within us, living and accessible. So we bring our awareness to this truth and we stay there, attentive to Him. It may help you to imagine Him looking at you, being with you, because it is true. Imagination can help us stay anchored with Him. So can silently praying His Name, or mentally hearing Him speak His words from the Gospel directly to you. Eventually Imagination, words, intellect fall away and are not needed anymore in prayer. That will be God’s doing. Always be receptive to that. But when imagination, His Name, or words of Scripture can help you keep the eyes of your soul on Him, they are good tools.

I am not asking you now to think of Him, or to form numerous conceptions of Him, or to make long and subtle meditations with your understanding. I am asking you only to look at Him. For who can prevent you from turning the eyes of your soul (just for a moment, if you can do no more) upon this Lord? 

St. Teresa of Jesus

Your mind is going to go everywhere. This is normal. The important thing is to bring it back gently every time and continue to be attentive to Him with you.

Now, fully aware of Him and present to Him is there anything you would like to say to Jesus? Do you have anything to ask Him? Do you feel He is saying anything to you? Let yourself talk with Him, and try to be receptive to His presence and love, to anything He may be communicating to you.

Stay with Him.

I like to close with a set prayer such as the Glory Be.

Now make the Sign of the Cross.

Make this prayer a part of your daily life, and make spending time with the Friend who you know loves you, a consistent priority, so that your friendship with Jesus will grow better, richer, deeper and more solid than ever before. Start with a few minutes and as you can add time, do so. The standard amount of time is half an hour with this prayer. However, any amount of time you can give to this God can work with!

Once again I assure you that, if you are careful to form habits of the kind I have mentioned, you will derive such great profit from them that I could not describe it even if I wished. Keep at the side of this good Master, then, and be most firmly resolved to learn what He teaches you; His Majesty will then ensure your not failing to be good disciples, and He will never leave you unless you leave Him. Consider the words uttered by those Divine lips: the very first of them will show you at once what love He has for you, and it is no small blessing and joy for the pupil to see that his Master loves him.

St. Teresa of Jesus

Truly prayer is about love. So sit with Jesus and let yourself be loved. Doing this you also become a spiritual channel for the outflow of His love and grace to the whole world.

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Advent tea with St. Therese

“The Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty. You shall see his glory within you.” — Liturgy of the Hours

We are sitting in my living room, reflecting silently together in the glow of the blinking lights of the Christmas tree. It looks particularly lovely in the dark. Its light turns the smooth, gentle face of my companion from pink to yellow to blue and back again. She seems content with her tea in a flowery cup from our kitchen.

“St. Therese, what is Christmas?” I ask.

She likes this question. I have been trying and trying to write about her, but she wanted me to interview her about Christmas. So we’re talking about Christmas.

“It is the time that the children of God remember and celebrate the birth of the infant Jesus.”

She smiles with a faraway look, “It is also a time that once again the doors of heaven swing open, great graces and torrents of spiritual light are poured into the world. The child Jesus will come to each person in a special way, to be reborn in each soul, all the world receives a blessing from heaven.”

“So many people have a hard time with Christmas, St. Therese. Some people have trouble with their families, don’t have money for gifts, or are agitated and stressed at Christmas, or they get their feelings hurt at their family celebration, or things don’t go the way they want them to, or they feel lonely or they are grieving. Can you address situations like that?”

She looks at me tenderly, knowing my mixed feelings at this time of the year, and that, as I said, they are shared by far too many others. She herself suffered grief, sorrow, loneliness, depression, severe illness and disappointment.

“I want God’s children to know that Jesus truly comes to them in all humility and with love. Just as he left his beautiful heaven to be with us on earth, so he comes to be in your soul, a heaven infinitely more dear to him because of his love, his personal love for you. When you are tired, look inside and find the little beggar of love. Cradle him, cherish him; look at him. Find a moment of peace there in the Christmas stable of your heart and he will give you his grace.”

“What should we do if we are disappointed or get our feelings hurt with our families at Christmas?”

“One Christmas when I was 13, my family got back from midnight Mass, and my father was very tired and grumpy. I overheard him say he hoped this was the last year for presents for me because I was getting a little old for this. I was crushed! I had been a very sensitive child ever since the death of my mother when I was little. My family doted on me, but they knew a torrent of tears was coming and they dreaded it. I ran upstairs to cry. Somehow something happened before I reached the top stair. Everything changed for me. A new strength, a new tenderness touched my soul. I encountered in the depths of my heart the light and tenderness of the Holy Child and in an instant I just … changed my mind. My tears dried, I turned around, came back down the stairs and surprised my family very much with my joyful opening of presents and sharing with them all the happiness of the occasion. It was a Christmas miracle!”

“How do we get in touch with the grace you describe in that transforming moment of your life?”

“If I reflect on it, I see that I had been preparing myself for that moment by making small sacrifices wherever I could. I saw this as adorning my heart with freshly gathered flowers for Jesus. Some of these were violets and roses, others were cornflowers or daisies or forget-me-nots. I wanted all the flowers I could gather to cradle the baby Jesus in my heart. “

She is leaning forward now, and I see how her face lights up talking about this.

“It seems to me you are talking about how you trained yourself not to let an opportunity to do a kindness, or make a small sacrifice slip by. Is that what you mean?

“I found that life would bring me plenty of opportunities. So if one of you should find yourself naturally irritated with someone this Christmas, decide for peace and serve that person nicely. It will set you free.

“If your Christmas isn’t going the way you planned, give up your expectations as a sacrifice to Jesus, and you will feel your burden lightened.

“If someone wants to argue, let her win; just this one time.

“You will be surprised how you can walk away happy, or even find that you regard that irritating person with genuine affection. Find opportunities this Christmas, to be kind, to serve, to take the lowest place. I will be there winking at you!”

I laugh, imagining this. “That’s perfect!” I say. “I will be looking for you.”

I lift my tea cup for a toast and we clink our cups together, smiling.

She tells me a story about life in the convent when now and then one of the novices would lose her temper with St. Therese and tell her angrily exactly what she thought of her. “I decided to savor these incidents like good vinegar on a fresh salad.” She chuckles. “You could use that at Christmas, to counteract all those holiday sweets! I will be there to give you a high five to celebrate your glorious victory over yourself, and Jesus will grant you immense strength, you will see.”

“This is hard stuff, though,” I say.

She knows it is hard.

“I had such a longing to be one of God’s great heroes. I had such overwhelming desires to do great things. I came to understand that doing these small things with great love offers plenty of challenge. Yes, these are almost the hardest things of all, these little things to do! But before you know it, you will find such joy. You will realize the presence of the Little Beggar of Love in your soul. And you will be glad you gave him what he wanted for Christmas most of all. The milk of your love at every opportunity you had.

“Ask the good God to show you an opening to do a small bit of good around you, to lighten someone’s burden quietly.”

I am smiling now because I know she is right. This is a way to be good soil for the seeds of the Gospel Jesus came to bring. If we give ourselves over to little Jesus in this way, he will find our souls full of flowers for him to be cradled in, and he will make his sweet presence there known.

We will find ourselves not only doing small things with great love, but with great joy.

And if you burn the cookies, or you say something you shouldn’t have, be patient with yourself, she says.

“Little children fall often but don’t have far to fall, so they don’t hurt themselves very much.” So strive to be little, even to yourself.

Practice this “Little Way,” for his Christmas presents, fill your heart with these flowers, and the little Jesus will come to you with his grace to be cherished within you.

That is the Christmas spirit, I believe, according St. Therese of the child Jesus.

“Love him,” she says, draining her teacup.

“Love him in everything. It’s that simple.”

“In this brilliant night which illuminates the joy of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, the gentle little child of the hour, will change the darkness of my soul into torrents of light.” — St. Therese of Lisieux

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How a St. Francis statue changed my life

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I was 19, and living back home with my family for a while, when, coming in one evening, I found everyone very bemused with me.

“We got a call from the Christian book store that the book you ordered is in…….?” My mom queried.

“OK.”

“We thought it might be a wrong number……?”

“No, that’s the book I ordered about St. Francis.”

They all looked at each other.

As I headed down the hall to my room, I heard my brother ask, “What? Did you hear that?”

My step dad said, “Well… you never know what Shawn is going to do.”

At that time I was getting ready to go to Corpus Christi to spend some time with my Granny.

I planned to re-paint the St. Francis statue she had in her back yard while I was there.

Someone had given it to her in the distant past, to set at the grave of a beloved family dog who had died long ago. The worn, concrete statue was of a serene faced man in a tattered habit, a hood drawn over his head. He is holding a small, trusting bird against his chest, his eyes closed in prayer, or perhaps gazing down tenderly.

This statue had stood under the cottonwood tree year after year. It was a marvel of Granny’s household, having survived three major hurricanes without tipping over, even though it was a knee high concrete statue anyone could lift.

One night, however, the St. Francis’ face had been vandalized; spray painted an ugly red and black. I planned to fix that.

None of us knew much about St. Francis the person.

How a st. francis statue changed my life

We had heard he had been known to communicate with animals.

Granny was in the habit of adopting injured, stray and abandoned animals to the point her house was filled with them. (It’s a good thing she cleaned all the time!) Most of her grocery bill was for pet food, and the veterinarian down the road heard from her often.

Generally Granny had a rough, colorful personality. However, she would break down sobbing over the suffering or death of an animal.

She had a special love for birds, and daily fed the ones who frequented her back yard. Crowds of them weighed down the branches of the giant oleanders, and sang in the orange and mulberry trees around her garage each evening. A few sea gulls usually circled above. She would hear their “racket,” and go out to her waiting admirers.

She would raise an old metal trash can lid, turned up and filled with birdseed high above her head, and a whirl wind of wings would surround her. Some of the birds settled on her shoulders, or even in the palm of her hand. It looked like magic.

She had the quaint habit of talking to animals seriously, as if they were people, and they seemed to listen to her.

A saint who could commune with animals would naturally interest her. I had only recently begun to believe in God, and to learn to pray and meditate a little. I was not open to religion.

I thought it would be nice, however, to learn about St. Francis while I worked on his statue.

So we would put on a pot of coffee now and then each day, and as she worked her trade of re-weaving,*  I sat on the floor by her work table. As I had done since I was a little girl, I read aloud to her.

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I don’t know what I expected, but The Way of St. Francis by Fr. Murray Bodo, was a very reflective book. Reflective Christianity was a new experience for me.

I was impressed with the author’s depth, warmth, humility, and spirituality.

St. Francis surprised me, too. His Christian faith made him more authentic rather than less so. His unabashed love for Jesus led him to embrace people and ideas he had always been afraid of, and to renounce social acceptability when it got in the way of going where God, where love, was leading him.

Because he wanted to be a faithful Christian, he practiced radical inclusiveness, and unconditional love.

Because He loved God, He loved the created world for His sake.

He did delightfully crazy things.

He was charming and challenging.

He was adventurous and full of joy, love, and humility, ready for anything.

I had never heard of living simply, in solidarity with the poor, out of love for “the poor Christ,” or of voluntary poverty as a spiritual discipline.

It was healing for me that he did not seem to trample on other people’s feelings or their sense of self. Instead, they were won over by his kindness and love, his respect, his happiness, and by the fact that he really did visibly live what he believed in, even down to his love and obedience toward Church authority.

He knew suffering, but he found inner joy from knowing God, and from loving with abandon.

I felt very impressed with the beautiful, joyful life of love St. Francis lived.

As I sanded the statue, and carefully painted it in calming shades of blue and gray, I found myself thinking about him and smiling.

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I had not known it was possible to listen for the voice of God in one’s heart, and to actually be inspired be that.

Striving for a certain type of life was also a new idea for me.

I loved learning about Francis’ soul friend, St. Clare. I had never heard of contemplative Christianity before. What a deep, poetic, courageous woman. She was the first of many women mystics I would read from or about in the years ahead, opening my heart, a little more at a time, to God and prayer.

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Granny and I both loved the stories about St. Francis. Of course she really liked hearing that he had preached to the birds, and tamed the wolf of Gubio. My favorite was the surprising story of Francis and the Damietta prostitute. 

I was inspired to memorize the St. Francis prayer, and to use it as a point of meditation for years to come. Later, Granny sent me a prayer card of it that I still have.

Over the next several years, I would sand down and re-paint the statue on my lone visits to Granny. It became a kind of ritual for me.

Granny started to talk to St. Francis over her morning coffee on the back porch before she got to her work, and at other times during the day, and to pray more often.

I earnestly tried to begin to live a spiritual life and to learn to love, little by little.

I don’t know if all of my attempts were directly inspired by St. Francis, but I think he and his example had a lot to do with it.

I tried several things that changed the way I lived and saw the world.

I began to try to reach out and connect with people even though that was hard for me, and to try to see the good in everyone.

I got over my embarrassment and started to talk to homeless people whenever I saw them, to give them what I could, to hug them if it was OK with them.

I attempted to smile from the heart at every human being I saw. I still try to do that.

I became more interested in prayer.

I made conscious efforts to live more simply, as a spiritual practice, and so that I could share more with others.

I recognized joy, love, and humility, as virtues to respect, to look for and see in others, to hope for, for myself.

I rediscovered my childhood connection to nature and to animals. I saw beauty more and more, and learned how to drink it in and enjoy it.

I started to notice my hardness of heart and to try to become more open and loving.

I was not about to become a Christian, (so I thought.) But getting to know St. Francis began to give me new ideas about life and about God.

Many things happened over time that drew me slowly into the Catholic Church, and inspired me to live the faith as fully as possible. Maybe my friend, St. Francis was helping me along.

Eventually, my granny was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic. She chose the name Francis at her Confirmation.

When she was asked, “Ruth, what do you ask of God’s Church?” She unconsciously went “off script” and answered from the heart, “I want to love and to be loved.” Everyone smiled.

That St. Francis statue stands faithfully at my grandmother’s grave today. It is even more worn by the weather now, into a wonderful blend of shades and textures from years of being outside, and from my different loving restorations of it. Since I set it there beside her head stone, I have chosen not to repaint it anymore. It is beautiful just as it is.

How a St. Francis statue changed my life

*Re-weaving was the trade of re-weaving cloth that had holes, flaws or tears in it, making it look new. My grandmother was the last re-weaver in Texas.

Soul and Service

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 Pope Francis has said, “Do not be afraid to go out to encounter the marginalized. You will find you are going out to meet Jesus.” Dr. Esther Miranda is always up to something in this regard and she is practically bursting with ideas, projects and collaborations, with stories of soul and service.   

Esther moved to Bryan-College Station thirty years ago, having grown up in India in the presence of Mother Teresa where the Missionaries of Charity used to meet in her grandfather’s house.  “Poverty is much more visible there. Every day there were people at our gate.” Early in life she learned how much getting to know the poor could open her eyes, and she was inspired to do more. 

When she came to College Station for the first time, she thought, “OH what a beautiful town!” It seemed so clean and prosperous. She didn’t even see any poor people around. She assumed this was because there were none. She volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization that works with people in need (where she is now Vice President,) and was quickly disabused of this notion. “There were people living with no windows, no bed, no electricity! There might be eight people sleeping on the floor, getting up and working all the time but there was no food in the kitchen!”  

“It’s about opening eyes, Shawn, opening eyes.” 

She goes on to say passionately, “We are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in this messy world! Sometimes we have to reveal the mess to do any good!” 

Her favorite representation of Jesus is of him as the Good Shepherd knocking on the door for us. “He is there waiting! In quiet, just ask him to tell you about himself.”  

She doesn’t think that is all we should do though. 

“So many people want to talk talk talk talk about knowing Jesus.” She thinks the proof is in what we do. As St. Teresa of Avila said, our prayer must lead us to good works. 

Esther says, “You want to know Jesus, get in my car! I’ll show you!” 

If you’re nervous about meeting those in poverty or crisis, remember, “You don’t have to have all the answers for them. More than anything, listen. They need that! It’s good for us too. We shouldn’t assume they have nothing to teach us.” 

Pope Francis says, “The poor always evangelize us  because they show us the true Face of the Father.” 

After the martyrdom of Pope Sixtus in Rome (259AD,) St. Lawrence was ordered to turn the treasures of the Church over to the Roman government in accordance with the law that an executed Christian should have his property confiscated. 

First, Lawrence distributed every bit of it to the poor. 

 Then he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to deliver, he presented the indigent, the crippled, the blind, the sick and the poor. “These are the true treasures of the Church!” 

“OOOOOOH! I LOVE THAT STORY!” cries Dr. Miranda. Of course she does. It’s her story; holding dear and caring for the true treasures of the Church.  

Some have objected, “The job of the Church is evangelization.” Esther doesn’t see the conflict. She is evangelizing!

“ Have you ever seen anyone come to church from preaching? I haven’t! If people’s physical and emotional needs aren’t met, none of that stuff makes any sense to them! They can feel Jesus in a warm meal, in someone who cares. They aren’t waiting for a Bible verse, they need someone to care about them and to show it!”     

She repeats several times her favorite maxim, “REACH BEFORE YOU TEACH!” 

“When someone is hungry and has no place to sleep or take a shower, you give them these things, and you listen to their stories. This is what they need, and to know somebody cares. The next morning, maybe they are feeling a little bit better. You get them some coffee and maybe after breakfast you can say, ‘Would you like to pray with me?’ They may say, ‘yes I would love that,’ or maybe not, or maybe they will do it because you have been kind to them.” We should never judge them or require them to do anything in order to be helped. Always respect their dignity. Then maybe you can find out what to do next to help them along their way. 

She says maybe you have planted a seed just giving them a good example of a Christian who is kind and compassionate. “Today this is not the impression a lot of people have of us and it’s very sad. If we can help them see the heart of Jesus in us we will have done something important.”

Dr. Miranda has some tips for being a better listener with people who are in trouble.  “If you are talking, ask yourself, ‘Why am I talking?’  Remember to slow down, to pause, to listen. Own what you are about and remember that listening doesn’t threaten that. Welcome what they have to say.” 

Esther started a furniture ministry five years ago that has grown from two volunteers to thirty- two and has helped two hundred and fifty local families in need so far.  

St. Vincent de Paul and the furniture ministry are not all she wants to do. Esther decided to spend “the year of Covid,” calling every organization that does anything for the poor, getting to know the work they do. She asked each one, “Tell me what doesn’t happen, what frustrates you, what you wish somebody would do.” She found out there was so much she didn’t know about what others were doing. 

She realized, “Our beautiful town needs a community center that does not seek to duplicate the work anyone else is already doing. We need a place where anyone, regardless of who they are, can come, where they can easily get answers! When people are in the depths of despair, they don’t need yet another brochure or list of numbers to call, that may end up being a wild goose chase or a series of dead ends. They don’t need to be told to fill out a form online when they don’t have a computer!” 

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Dr. Miranda envisions a place where a single mom can come in and use the computers for her children’s homework, even ask someone to hold the baby for her. 

“If people have one problem, there are a whole slew of problems, complex problems,” she says. We can have the information right there and call for them, help them fill out the forms they need to fill out right there!” 

She wants people to be able to come in and be given a cup of coffee or something to eat, have someone listen to them as long as is needed, and walk them through their next steps.  

She wants there to be not only a focus on service and collaboration but on education and leadership. There can be skills classes people need to better their lives, classes for people who want to serve, programs to train young people to be community leaders. “Government and churches cannot fix these problems alone. It takes small groups of committed, like- minded people.” 

Dr. Miranda is “so grateful, so grateful” for all of the people who have joined her on this journey. “So many wonderful people!” She welcomes everyone to join her in this new echumenical collaboration. 

She has dreamed of this but she felt that Jesus said to her not long ago, “Esther! What are you waiting for?” 

“So I have to go forward in faith! And Jesus has never once let me down! Everything comes to me when I have that attitude! If one organization or one person won’t help, I try not to let it anger me too much or discourage me! I move on! I move on to the next one, and the next one, and the next! And it’s working! It’s coming together! God is making it happen!” 

As for us who are among the more materially fortunate, she says, “We all need places where we can go to get closer to Jesus.” This center will be one. 

  • This piece originally appeared in The Bryan-College Station Eagle newspaper in my monthly column. This is the extended uncut interview with Dr. Miranda

I hear you.

Our Lady of Sorrows 2021

May 23 2021, a young black man was shot to death by police in front of my apartment. During the commotion that preceded the shooting I had rushed onto my balcony. I saw the whole thing. I called out to him while he lay in the parking lot as the police shouted at him to put his hands up. He couldn’t seem to do it so I was saying, “You can do it please do as they say! I’m praying for you!” I didn’t want them to shoot him again. Finally he was able to raise one shaking hand. He couldn’t seem to bring up the other arm.

He had come out of his apartment (next to mine) waving a gun earlier. When I saw that I knew they were going to shoot him. I decided that I was not going to turn away from what was about to happen. I felt I had no right to. I should remain.

As soon as he had finally put one hand up, a couple of officers turned him over on his face. It was raining. The parking lot has a lot of cracks and dips in it, repairs in the shape of square patches. He was in a bit of a puddle, still alive. His pants had fallen down when he was turned, exposing his naked butt and nobody pulled his pants up for him. The blood from his chest began seeping into the water around him.

That’s the scene that runs through my mind at least once a day.

He had looked so shocked when they shot him. He swayed and looked around at all the faces in front of him; each human face in the arc of police who had fanned out and then closed in. He looked at everyone before he collapsed.

Another neighbor had been caught between two cars and was hunched down crying. I went downstairs to hug her even though she was talking to her son on her cell phone. I heard the young man’s girlfriend screaming and the police shouting at her to stay back. I ran over there, worried she would get herself shot too, or arrested. I put my arms around her and reminded her that he needed her now, and she wanted to be able to be there for him so she should comply. She called to him that she loved him and she was there and she wasn’t going anywhere. She stayed back.

However when she saw her mother across the parking lot she ran to her with police shouting at her the whole way so I went with her and said over and over that she was just going to her mother. As we went past the stretcher, my arm brushed the young man accidentally and his head lolled to the side.

Everything happened so fast that day. I don’t know how objective I could ever be about something like this. I’m not trying to be.

I’m also not writing down everything that happened. These are the parts that have stayed with me the most, that tend to replay for me.

Soon after, maybe the next day, I saw a woman downstairs obviously overcome with traumatic grief. I went out on my balcony not knowing what to do but wanting to do something for her. She looked up at me so I called down to her and asked if she would like a hug. She said she would and I went down and held her close. She needed to sit down so we halfway got in her car and I held onto her.

“I can’t believe they shot my baby! How could they do that?”

There was nothing to say except “I don’t know.” Because that is the truth about these things. We can never understand them no matter what anyone says. At the bottom there is just no real answer.

This is what I am thinking about on this memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. We can say all of these exalted things about Mary’s sorrow and I know they are all true. But maybe we love her best when we remember that no answer satisfies a mother’s shattered heart.

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