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Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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Open window, living water (Why do we pray? And what happens when we do?)

When we meditate and pray we become channels of God’s love and grace, of his holy will.

The praying soul is like a window opening. Sunshine and a warm, sweet wind flow through that soul to everyone and everything. Its clear openness fills the whole world, and each of its situations with healing light. The rushing wind and light of the hidden spirit of prayer changes hearts, lifts up those who suffer, makes a way for peace to happen. It sets people and all of life free.

We are so little but it is God who draws us to prayer. In his creative power, because of his joy in sharing his divinity with us, because of the Incarnation of the Lord in the marriage of humanity with God, the smallest breath of prayer suffuses the universe with a flow of light and beauty.

In the beginning the Spirit of the Lord breathed upon the waters, there was light, and life sprang from his command. Jesus walked among us, recreating, redeeming and renewing the world by his life, death and resurrection. We are baptized into union with him, infused with his love.

He could have renewed the world by himself. But he shares his mission with the littlest of us because of his love. He has lifted us up to join him in his work.

I think this is what it means to “reign with Christ.”

Living water has come to flow from our hearts.

So pray, Christian soul, however you can, without a doubt in your mind. We don’t always know what God will do. But we know he will do something. Just open the window as best you can, letting God do the rest.

Mary knew this when she told the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” Wink wink. 😉

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Seven ways to Practice the Presence of God

“In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in the Chapel.”~ Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite Lay Brother (d. 1691.) He had an intense realization of “the fact of God” while looking at a dead and leafless tree. He had been a soldier, and after being wounded he became somewhat lame. He then became a footman but, as he said, was “a great clumsy fellow who broke everything.” He no doubt was feeling like a dead, leafless tree himself at that time. But God opened a way for him to find life again. He became a Lay Brother in a Carmelite monastery; cooking, (a job he disliked right away) running errands, sweeping floors and of course, praying and discovering God within at all times and sharing this way he called The Practice of the Presence of God with others.

By making active use of the teachings of The Practice of the Presence of God we can learn to be continually recollected in God, which keeps our souls most open for God’s grace and at his service at all times.

The flow of our lives then becomes a conscious flow of God’s transforming love.

The consequences of this simple practice seep into our personalities and the way we are in the world. We find we even touch inanimate objects with love. We feel affectionate and open towards people. We feel happier, more peaceful, certainly more in tune with God.

1. Morning Offering.

Many Catholics begin the day by dedicating/offering it to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Morning Offering. If you already do this, try to do it more consciously than usual. Pay close attention to what you are saying and to Whom you are speaking. Reflect on what the words mean to you.

If you don’t do this, you could start doing this. Write a Morning Offering on a post-it note and stick it on the coffee maker. You could write your own dedication instead of the traditional one if that would be more meaningful to you.

2. Address your thoughts to God.

This may sound overwhelming to do all the time but even recalling God and restarting your conscious awareness of him whenever you remember to, during the day can have a noticeable effect that will grow.

While you are at it, try turning your grouchy thoughts into prayers of praise. No really. So many things in the course of the day are annoying to us. Figure out how to make prayers of praise or gratitude out of these irritating things. You may be surprised how amusing this can be, and how it becomes second nature after a while.

Turn your thoughts into a continual conversation with God. We all live in a river of thoughts, images, memories, plans, worries, what have you. Turn this river toward the Lord, as often as you can remember to.

I think about my daughters more times a day than I care to enumerate. So, for example, I can try to talk to Jesus about them instead of only thinking to myself or worrying or dreaming for them, as parents will.

Today my daughter is moving, My other daughter and her husband are helping while I watch the grandchildren and hope the three year olds get along and the baby isn’t too distressed by the whole thing. I can talk to the Lord about this. “Calm any fears that arise, Lord. Help us to make this a joyful day.” Or I can express my concerns to him if I want to. As Winnie the Pooh says, “It’s friendlier with two.”

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3.Turn your suffering into prayer

The best way is to hold your pain up to God just like you used to bring your bumps and bruises to your mom for her to kiss. Words are unnecessary here unless you want them. Let God sit with you like a loving quiet friend when you are hurting. You probably know this is harder than it sounds.Try it anyway though.

Catholics also have the habit of offering up our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus. We call this being co-redeemers. When something bad happens to me I consider myself a treasure of grace and try to offer my suffering as prayer for everyone who needs it.

4.Purposely invite God into even the smallest things you do each day

This is at the center of Brother Lawrence’s teaching, and a big part of The “Little Way” of St. Therese as well. Instead of rushing through a task or just trying to get a thing done, it helps to slow down and concentrate on it. As Eknath Easwaran says, “Concentration is consecration.”

Offer your task as if it were an act of prayer and then it will be.

St. Therese would offer the difficult things she had to do for missionaries or for priests. Maybe you would like to offer your work for something you care about to help the world or the Church.

Your offerings can be as simple as saying, “Lord here is my little pancake for you” if you are cooking, for instance. Maybe this sounds silly to you but I recommend you try it for a while and see for yourself. Maybe you too will find God “amidst the pots and pans.”

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”~ Brother Lawrence

This habit of being aware of God in your actions takes a lot of practice but even if you only remember to do this a couple times a day God will bless it and you. You will soon notice a difference in how connected you feel to God at all times.

When you are in line somewhere or at a red light (we spend a lot of our day waiting) use some of that time to connect to and talk to God. It’s easy.

5.“Listen” for God with an open heart

No matter where you are, whether you are alone or with others, hanging out with your friends, at work, petting your dog or talking to a small child, try to maintain a sensitivity to God in all situations. You will sense a heightened awareness and connection to other people and all living things when you do this. You will notice beauty you used to miss. You will be more and more able to register signs of God’s will or voice in the events and conversations of your day. It will become a working part of you in time.

6.Presence/mindfulness

We hear a lot about these concepts lately and I think that is good. As Christians, being present in the moment and being mindful in our daily lives is going to mean conscious awareness of God in the present moment, mindfulness of God in all we do and experience.

Fr. Greg McLaughlin said to me once, “You are not on this planet! I don’t think you are even in the solar system! God is in the present moment. God is right here! And right now, right here, he is saying‘ Where are YOU?”

To be absent minded is to be absent to attentiveness to God who is here with us now. This one has been a hard one for me as I am given to day dreaming. I have learned that we don’t have to be perfect at this present mindedness. But every little bit helps.

St. Teresa of Avila’s way of thinking was that “God is within us, and we should not leave him there alone!” She thought we should imagine the Lord beside us at all times until that active mental effort becomes internalized and natural, part of consciousness.

7. Repetition of the Holy Names

Brother Lawrence doesn’t talk about this in his letters or conversations. However this can be a useful key to keep on your key ring that can help you in your quest to cultivate the constant sense of the presence of the Lord in your life during your day. It can open the door for you.

When I am doing a task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, I repeat the names of Jesus and Mary. For me it does the trick, and brings me into conscious awareness and attentiveness to the presence of God. It is also a prayer because I am calling on them in my heart and dedicating whatever I am doing to them.

Doing this in the waiting times of our lives can bring us into focus as well, so we can fill those empty spaces with the Lord.

It is very helpful in times of stress or fear too or any time I need to re-center.

St. Rose of Lima is said to have memorized the Names of God from the Bible during a time of blankness and darkness in her prayer life, and repeated them while she did her embroidery or any task that allowed it. It was her light through that difficult time.

Before going to sleep I like to tell God what I am grateful for about the day and commend all to him, good and bad.

I also try to fall asleep with the holy names of Jesus and Mary, taking them with me into the night.

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
― Brother Lawrence

People who wrote about talking to Brother Lawrence remarked on his deep peacefulness. He was a simple Lay Brother who had had a poor and difficult life, wounded in war and witness to horrific slaughter in his own home town. Through his remarkable relationship with God, and this way he found to live always in his presence, he found deep peace and was able to help others find the same.

This way is available to all of us.

Developing these habits may sound like an arduous process. Remember that we do what we can and God will do the rest. God sees and will bless our efforts. He’s cool like that.

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The flight into Egypt

The bond I had with Yeshi was, I felt, even more deep that one of blood. A blood father is chosen by God to be the parent of a child. As my wife said to me so often, I was chosen for Yeshi by God. The Lord gave me such a powerful attachment to this son of mine I was wild with terror at the angels’ news. I sat up, jumped to my feet, immediately on full alert. My wife was asleep next to him. I tried to wake her gently. I watched as her face hardened when she understood. Quickly she strapped the protesting baby to her back and helped me load the donkey. We had become a good team and she was nearly as strong as a man. In only a few minutes we were on the road.

We were frightened about passing the watchman. But we were both ready for anything, ready to give our lives if we had to. As we drew near I tried to walk calmly and confidently,though I was so taught with fear I ached to break into a run. I knew Mary was frightened too. I heard her trying to slow her breathing. I was conscious of the knife at my belt, praying to God I would not have to use it.

I needn’t have worried. The guy only greeted us and remarked on the fact that we were leaving in the wee hours. I managed to laugh and say that with a newborn we couldn’t sleep anyway so we thought we may as well be our way. We passed without incident.

Fortunately I had been curious about the beautiful maps the wise men had poured over before they left. For some reason I remembered a side rout to Egypt. We needed to avoid the Northern Way most people took. There had been a lot of talk about the Child around Bethlehem, certainly about our fantastical visitors on camels who had followed a star to our son, saying he was a long expected king. We knew if they got a lead Herod’s soldiers could pursue us into Egypt, also part of the Roman Empire.

I walked as fast as I could, leading the donkey with Mary and the baby on its back. We kept our voices low. I tried to squeeze Mary’s foot now and then to reassure her. She was grave and resolute whenever I looked at her. If anything she seemed angry rather than afraid most of the time.

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We traveled in this way until we were sure we were well away. Hours after sunrise we hid as best we could behind a large rock and took turns sleeping and keeping watch.

Again we left in the night.

The way was treacherous. I tripped several times on rocks and brush. Finally one trip sent me flying. The pain in my ankles was bad enough I could not walk at all no matter how I tried.

Mary got down from the donkey, running to me. We still had plenty of frankincense and she spread the fragrant oil over my fast swelling ankles. My wounded leg she cleaned with water and then healing myrrh. The oil and ointment helped but not enough for me to walk, even with her help. What to do?

“We have to get you on the donkey and let me walk,” she said. I was opposed.

“Joey,” she insisted, “there is no other way!

After several painful tries, together we pushed, pulled and lifted me onto the little donkey. I felt ashamed that she had to do this. Also, “I’m a big hairy man on a donkey!” I complained. “I look ridiculous!”

She laughed. “You DO look ridiculous.”

“I’m worried about you,” I said. I was. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.

“Take this,” I said, handing her the knife which she solemnly took. “Remember how to use it if you have to, the way I showed you before?” I asked her. She nodded.

“OK now make yourself useful,” she said, handing me the baby. I could see his eyes shining in the dark. I pressed him to me.

We went ahead bravely.

She insisted on stopping now and then to put more oil and ointment on my injuries. She tried to joke with me to make me feel better. I told her she was my warrior queen.

We were scared but we trusted God. There was nothing else to do. We tried to encourage one another. We had a saying together: “God is it.” Our lives were for God. “Everything will be OK,” we said to one another, “and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK.”

We belonged to God.

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We had to stop to nurse and change the baby every few hours. Soon we would need supplies. We had gold from the wise men. We knew that a poor young couple trying to buy food with foreign gold was going to cause a stir but it couldn’t be helped.

We continued to travel by night, exhausted and afraid. Our minds started to fill with every possible thought. We talked about King Herod. How could any grown man, a king no less, be so insecure about his power, so angry, hateful and afraid, he would seek to harm a child? Why would anyone obey such a man?

The wise men had told us they were warned in a dream that Herod had become hostile about their mission, and that they must leave by another way themselves. How could anyone fear the signs of God and fight God himself instead of being joyful that God was coming to his people? What kind of person dares to fight God?

“Satan, “ Mary whispered with certainty. “He is possessed by Satan.”

At one point we were trudging along on a seemingly endless night and I began to worry about my sanity.

“Mary?” I whispered tentatively. “I see them too,” she said.

All around us we saw fellow travelers, people of all colors in various costume as if they were from far away or from another age. They carried children, belongings, what food and water they could. They too were fleeing something, trying to protect their children; frightened, determined, doing their best to trust in God. Some of them died or fell to robbers along the way. Others pressed on because they had no choice.

“Mary,” I said after an awed silence between us, “I think God is trying to tell us something.”

She nodded in understanding.

Even after the vision ended we talked about it for a long time.

We concluded that God was showing us peoples of the ages who would be refugees like ourselves.

We resolved together that in time to come, we would always be with these people in whatever way God allowed us to be. We would walk with them, ease their suffering, protect them, pray for them, be their advocates before the throne of God. We would see their children as our own.

There would always be mad kings, we knew, until the age of the Lord would come fully.

Eventually my ankles were in good enough shape I was able to relieve Mary, and take that knife back.

The night we were sure we were in Egypt their was a beautiful full moon. Mary was happy. She jumped off the donkey and danced, holding Yeshi high, singing,

“Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.

Who is this king of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in war.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
rise up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.

Who is this king of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory!”

I laughed.

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The Octave of Christmas

I know you might feel a little wilted, Reader, after all the Christmas presents and family and food (and sugar, etc.) I do too. I like this kind of tired though. It is a good tired. And the Octave of Christmas is a peaceful time.

I deeply enjoyed Christmas day with my daughters and their young families. This is the first time since the string of tragic deaths my family has gone through, that I felt I really could connect to Christmas and like it. A lot of healing has happened, time has gone by, and though I still miss everyone so much, I have begun to see daylight again and so have the kids. A big part of the happiness this year is that my eldest daughter, who has been living in Oregon for some years,has moved back home to Texas with her husband, their three year old and her eight month old. Basically with them gone our family was down to my youngest daughter, her three year old, and myself. With Maire and Jon back we feel like a family again. We feel complete.

Our gathering went well, and we were glad to be together. It was a fun and chaotic in all the right ways. We had a patchwork meal composed of everyone’s favorite dishes (rajmah, masala potatoes, potato cheese soup and spice muffins.) We had a family prayer service, sang happy birthday to Jesus (with candles and chocolate fudge cake) and opened presents, of course. Which was predictably wild.

There was a lot of laughter and relaxed joy,the two small children running around, the baby crawling through wrapping paper.

And now my little place is quiet. That is a good metaphor to me for this part of the season: the quiet house.

We scurried to get ready for the big day. Then we had the big day, the beautiful day, of the Nativity. We enjoyed family and friends. We went to mass to celebrate. And now, during the Octave of Christmas, we have a special opportunity to slow down, to be still, and appreciate the gift of the Lord in simplicity of heart.

It is pleasantly quiet, and Jesus is home for the holidays.

At this writing, it is cloudy and warm Texas day. I have some nice frankincense incense burning.

I have enjoyed some quiet prayer time today, gazing at my little Christmas tree and it’s multi colored lights, coffee cup in hand, Christmas peace in my heart.

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St. Teresa of Avila imagined the soul as a beautiful crystalline castle with Jesus in its center, enthroned in the heart.

He is indeed home for the holidays and His home is right here, right now, in us. This is something He accomplished by His birth. He not only came among us and lived among us, but now and for eternity, He lives within us.

The Church season of Christmas is a time to return to the heart, to enjoy His company there, and let Him enjoy ours.

“The Father spoke one Word which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” ~ St. John of the Cross

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* The Octave of Christmas is celebrated until January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

What do nuns do for Christmas?

This Advent, I have asked the Friars, Priests and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries.

I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.

I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.

Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.

Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.

I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.

Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.

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Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.

Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.

On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.

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This response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:

“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.

Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.

In the afternoon we have some rest time. The evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.

~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.

My friend, Fr. John, S.J., said most of the other Jesuits go home to their families of origin for the holidays during the break at the University where he teaches, though those that remain behind have a special mass and dinner. He thought I should write about something else. My life sounds more entertaining to him.

The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.

On Christmas Eve morning we pray Lauds and then chant (Gregorian) the hour of Prime, in which the Martyrology is also formally chanted by one of the Sisters. On Christmas Eve we are announcing and proclaiming the Birth of our Savior, so the chant is very solemn and beautiful. We have copied it here below for you to read what is sung in Latin. When the Sister pronounces the words that speak of God becoming Incarnate for us, we all kneel and then prostrate with our faces to the floor in adoration. It is a moving and inspiring moment…

In the 1599th year from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. The 2957th year after the flood. The 2015th year from the birth of Abraham. The 1510th year from Moses and the going forth from Egypt of the people of Israel. In the 1032nd year from the anointing of King David. The 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the 194th Olympiad. The 752nd year from the foundation of the City of Rome. In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavius Augustus, all the world being at peace, Jesus Christ the Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah made man of the Virgin Mary. – Sisters of Carmel

My friend, Fr. Gregory, OCD, said his community is very busy at Christmas with the parish and the staff. Though they spend a lot of time in prayer, it sounded to me that their obligations are almost as heavy as those of lay people at that time of year. They did have a lovely Christmas together this year, though, even with the stress of their current building project.

“In this house all must be friends, all must be loved,
all must be held dear,
all must be helped.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

It sounded as if religious communities are just a different type of family, with similar joys and difficulties. Sometimes Christmas makes things that are going wrong stand out more to us, and the longing for a better unity is drawn out in every heart as we ache for Jesus to come among us, to be born in our midst again. Our families feel that deeply at times, and so do theirs. I wonder if our lay families can find more ways to support those in consecrated life, especially since they give so very much to us?

After hearing some of the difficulties they had, a friend of mine paid for a dinner so a small community of Friars could have a special meal together Christmas Eve. I sent a book of poetry by Hafiz to another religious priest I care about. Who can be lonely with great poetry?

Let’s remember and bless these human beings who have given themselves to God for the good of the Church and the world. We can pray for them, thank them, be grateful for them, but we could also learn more about them, deepen our appreciation of their contributions, get to know some of them, let them inspire our own family lives, and find out how we can support them as they support us.

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Special thanks to the priests and religious who let me hear about their family Christmases.

Here are some links of interest to learn more about our friends in Consecrated Life

Imagine Sisters Movement

The different forms of consecrated life

Carmelite Friars

El Paso del Norte (Annunciation House Day 5.2)

Casa Vides
El Paso
10/23/19

After some packing and chores people were milling around downstairs. Most of our group was flying back to Milwaukee. My brother-in-law, Frank and Sister Ann Catherine and I were driving.

Chris had never gotten to his plan of taking us to a scenic overlook he wanted us to see. I really wanted to go and several of us did, piling into the van one last time.

What a lovely place; situated on a mountainside with a view of Juarez and El Paso stretching out before us.

The border wall was invisible.

I thought that this must be how God sees this place.

El Paso del Norte, once one city, now divided like East and West Germany were by the Berlin wall. Frank had been stationed in Germany while he was in the Army and this situation we had experienced in El Paso reminded him very much of the Berlin wall. Only in Berlin people were heroes for making it across to freedom. In America it is quite the opposite. We treat such people as criminals. There is no welcome. Our one policy is deterrence – seemingly by any means.

There were historical markers and memorials to read and take note of.

Apparently the scenic overview is a place for lovers as well as historical markers. Padlocks covered the hand rails. Chris said sometimes they had to be cut off.

I can see why the spot is inspirational to people in love. Love is transcendent, eternally bonding, an experience of unity that verges on the mystical. Mountains give the human spirit that feeling too. All is one from up high.

Back at Casa Vides Alex and Father Jose were laughing with the kids that came in last night. We showed the kids and one another pictures of our families.

Tim had bought some cat food for the stray cats. We chuckled as he gave it to the sisters.

Eventually it was time to go. We hugged one another and wished each other well. The sisters came and hugged me. Sister Bea had said she saw my goodness and that it shone out from me. That must have made an impression on me because I still remember it. She had taken notice of qualities she saw in each of us. She gave these as gifts to each one of us in parting.

I told Sister Caroline I had a feeling I would be back. I was surprised that she had such a big response to that. “Praise God!” she said, her blue eyes wide.

I have little idea of what I can ever do to help out, not speaking Spanish and not being that good at much. However it is true. I can’t imagine not going back.

Chris told me to keep in touch and everyone said to send them a copy of my book. (I am working on one though what happens with it I don’t yet know- but it is great that they believe in me.)

The guests came and hugged me, smiling.

Then we hopped in Franks’ car with our suit cases.

Once we were out of town I turned on the stereo. I had put on a mix CD that was labeled “Indigo Girls.”

As the first song played I remarked that it was the perfect song to end this experience at Annunciation House with. And it was. It seemed to sum up how we felt, what we had received and what we longed to give.

I come to you with strange fire
I make an offering of love
The incense of my soul is burned
By the fire in my blood
I come with a softer answer
To the questions that lie in your path
I want to harbor you from the anger
Find a refuge from the wrath
This is a message, a message of love
Love that moves from the inside out
Love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire, fire…

Listen: Strange Fire

Read about The Border Awareness Experience

Annunciation House Day 5

Casa Vides
El Paso
October 22, 2019

I woke up tired but looking forward to the day with everyone and to learning more.

Today was the day we were supposed to dress up because we were going to Federal Immigration Court. I stuck to the dress code. My friend Jocie had taken me out and bought me an outfit. She kept asking if I was sure about the shoes. Hey all they said was that the shoes had to be close toed.

Downstairs my brother-in-law, Frank was sitting alone with a cup of coffee. Seeing me he said without expression, “You’re looking very… legal. Except for the shoes.” I laughed. The shoes weren’t outrageous. Just some black vans with socks and tights with my more formal skirt and button up shirt. “Just a little touch of funky,” I had said
“Of course. Always the rebel.”
“Yeah, I guess.”

I didn’t feel like eating but I grabbed an apple since we had a full schedule again today.

People smiled at one another as we slowly assembled in he dining area. The migrant guests looked at us with mild interest. I wondered what they thought about all this.

We met a woman named Cata in front of the court house. She told us what to expect and a little about what the immigration lawyer she worked with did. I don’t remember much abut it except that it was kind of cold and that El Paso judges have a 97% denial rate on asylum cases.

What we were about to see was a plea hearing for two migrants (they didn’t know one another) who were from Brazil. There might be a bit of a wait that had something to do with an interpreter being found. (Both migrants spoke only Portuguese.)

Inside an official wanted to speak to one of us who was a Wisconsin State Senator. His name was Tim, and he functioned as our comic relief and feeder of the stray cats outside Casa Vides. After a while he came back and sat with us.

The defendants were led in in handcuffs, and bound in chains hand and foot. This surprised me. It seemed like over kill. However I hear that it is the usual thing.

One of them was as young as my youngest daughter, in her early twenties. She was very slight and small in stature with tiny features and long brown hair.

The other inmate was a middle aged man with big black eyes. Both wore prison garb.

The young woman was charged with defrauding the U.S, government because when she was caught she lied about her relationship to the young man who had been with her, and about his age. She had said he was her 17 year old step son and that was not true apparently.

The man was charged with illegal re-entry, his second.

The magistrate explained who he was, who he worked for, and what his job was. He made sure both people understood their choices, and what they were being charged with.

He said this was independent of any asylum claims. They said yes they understood everything. Both plead guilty after hearing the maximum sentence (2 years in prison for her and a big fine, 5 years in prison for him and another big fine.)

It seemed mostly to be a formality, as if everyone involved were reading a script they had studied beforehand. Maybe it was like that.

Outside we thanked Cata and talked among ourselves about what we had seen. Cata had been talking to us but she had been way at the end of our bench and I hadn’t heard much. It was sad anyway.

Most likely each of the accused would go to prison for a while and then be deported. That is all we learned about their stories. I wonder why they came? I wonder why the man tried twice to get in?

woman in maroon shirt with black chain on her body
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Next we went to a place called La Mujer Obrera. At first it looked like a museum but it was more of a community center. The woman who talked to us was obviously very strong and passionate about the work she and others here did. She talked about the beginnings of her organization which began to help women in the garment industry, and the work of building community and what community organizing was. She said they didn’t need some progressive hipsters coming in and telling them what social justice was. They didn’t want conservative politicians coming in and telling them about “progress” either, or those who assumed they needed education to “get out of this neighborhood.” What about lifting up the neighborhood? How about relying on our community’s own fund of knowledge? How about studying together and creating jobs for themselves, starting their own enterprises, asking people in the community what they wanted?

She said Pope Francis’ Laudato Si was like a handbook for them, especially the parts about building community. She said it inspired them in all they did.

I was amazed at her. I never heard of any of this stuff she was saying before.

One of their community enterprises was Cafe Mayapan which was a restaurant serving indigenous foods. She said they had had to study to learn how to run a restaurant, and learn their ancestor’s recipes.

We had lunch there. I loved my grilled cactus stuffed with mushrooms and chipotle.

Ruben Garcia, the founder and director of Annunciation House met us for lunch. They already had his guacamole salad ready.

He was gentle in manner but very solid, I thought, inside. He reminded me of Pope Francis around the eyes and the way he greeted and spoke to everyone. He seemed like a gentle and humble man but authoritative- and there was something powerful about him. This was about to become more evident. He humbly said he never really prepared for these talks. I asked if he just went with the Holy Spirit. “You could call it that,” he said. He was quiet, looking down at his guacamole salad.

Then he boomed,”YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”

We sat in stunned silence.

He went on to make the point that we weren’t needed here. “We don’t need your charity! We don’t need you to do something nice to help migrants! I want you to go back home AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS!”

He said the last two years had been “BAD” and that we had let all this happen.

I was upset but then I caught his drift and thought that if he was talking about the current administration he was as much at fault as anyone else. Then I felt better. I relaxed. What a tractor beam the guy was.

I said I come from a very conservative small town and how was I supposed to talk about all that I had learned without people at home tuning me out? “People are very pro life but also pro wall,” I said.
“When I try to talk about immigration issues or the suffering of migrant children, the response is often, “but the babies!”

He nodded thoughtfully. I don’t remember that he had any answers for me. I guess I have to rely on the Holy Spirit too.

Some of my group asked if telling the personal stores of migrants would help. Mr. Garcia said that people already know those stories. They are on the news. “At some point justice has to stand on it’s own,” he said.

I am still thinking about what that means.

He related a story about why he had been late today. A few things had happened at once. He had been driving a man today who had been perfectly happy in his home country. He had his own business. His wife had a good job. They had a home and two cars. They never wanted to come to the U.S. Then the gangs started to come after his 14 year old son. They had come for him one night after a lot of harassment and demanded the father turn over his son to them. Somehow he convinced them to let him talk to him and they could come take him in the morning. That night they fled for the U.S., the only place they knew they would be safe. They were immediately detained. They didn’t know anyone, no one who could sponsor them. While they were in detention their teen-aged daughter turned 18. She was immediately separated from her family. They were released but she was not. Apparently this happens all the time. She was sent back to Juarez. Her family had been frantically calling Mr. Garcia trying to get someone to help their daughter, young and all alone in Juarez where migrants are targeted, kidnapped raped or murdered every day. Mr. Garcia had sent someone to find the girl and take her to a shelter there. That was bad too, but better than wandering the streets for a young girl.

He was angry. “Our government is killing people! Go home and do your homework! End this!”

He left early. He never ate his guacamole salad. I didn’t know what to think.

My group began to ask Chris and Brinkly if it would help for the group to sponsor someone.

I was thinking. I got a fresh cup of coffee and got up to mill around with some of the others.

“Damn,” I said to Frank. He seemed annoyed by the whole thing, but resigned all the same. He said that when you have a hole in the boat charity is bailing the water out. Social justice is fixing the leak.

I said that it seemed that we lived in a duplex, with the only way out for our neighbors being the door to our house. We had let a dangerous animal into our neighbor’s house, slammed the door and locked it. If anyone got out, we tied him up and threw him into our bathroom. “And took his children,” someone said. “Yeah.that too.”

La Mujer Obrera of El Paso

Frank remembered that the priest at the church in Juarez had said that the first thing to do was do our interior work, and secondly, to build community.

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Back at Casa Vides I asked Chris, who was so impossibly centered, compassionate and patient, how he kept from being outraged all the time with all he sees. He just looked at me.

I told him that when I hear heartless stuff about immigration, or when people try to justify the child separations to me, I just want to rip their heads off and sometime I verbally do. “How can I be patient with people who seem heartless to me? How can I not freak out?”

He thought about this.

He told me that at one point he had to leave Annunciation House and go stay with his parents for a while to regather himself. The child separation policy was intense for them there at Casa Vides. He was seeing what happened to people, the traumatized and desperate parents, for instance.

He seemed to have secondary trauma from seeing what he was seeing. One day he felt that God helped him remember the depth of the migrants’ faith. “They were the ones actually experiencing the trauma. They had such faith. It was like I was being asked, “Where is your faith?” So he had come back to Casa Vides and continued the work. He was able to do it then.

“I like it!” I said. We went downstairs for reflection.

First we had a talk from one of the volunteers we had not met before. One of the things I remember her talking about was the messaging people in these other countries are getting. She had been in this village where there were fliers everywhere for various coyotes (human smugglers) advertising false promises. People were pouring all they had into this trip to the U.S. where they were told they would be welcomed. At one point there was a rumor that there was a date in September that if you showed up at a port of entry that day, everyone who came would be let in.

She had worked with Border Patrol, Immigration and other related posts with different presidents. She said something Obama did that she thought helped a lot was to try to get the right message out to people that no, this stuff was not true, don’t come.

She also talked about the subjects others had: the effects of NAFTA, the drug trade, and the root causes of mass migration. My group talked more about what they could do back in Milwaukee.

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We did a special reflection lead by Chris. He said this was the traditional reflection for the last night of the Border Awareness Experience.

We were to sit back and close our eyes. We did so and he talked quietly about our days there; our arrival, and what we had done each day. When he got to the end, he showed us that he had set out a bowl of water, a bowl of rose petals and a bowl of pebbles.

We were to go up one by one and take a pebble, throw it into the water, and say what we wanted to leave behind here. The we were to take a petal, drop it into the water and say what we wanted to take with us.

I remember watching the others do this and being moved by it. Several of us said something like wanting to leave the anger behind and wanting to take up the courage to do what they were supposed to do. Chris did this also and he said he wanted to leave behind any bitterness and take with him love.

I said (I remember because I wrote it down) “I want to leave behind any timidity or reluctance to speak confidently about what migrants and refugees go through, and I want to take with me the courage the people of Annunciation House and others who do this work have – to be bold as love.”

To our surprise, Chris brought a birthday cake out for one of our group, a kind lady named Suzanne who I had talked to a lot, and we all sang her happy birthday. “What?! I asked her, “You chose to be here on your birthday?! That’s love!” She smiled.

All these people here are all about love.

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Before we went to bed Ruben Garcia brought in five children who had been living under a bridge in Juarez. They were American citizens but their parents were stuck in Juarez. The family had been here in the U.S. but gone into Mexico for some reason and were not allowed back in. I remember the tents we saw along the railroad and other places, and being told by a minister who goes to help the kids under the bridge every day to see what she can do, that there are over 3000 people under the bridge because of the practice of metering. These five kids seemed very happy to be at Casa Vides. They were able to call their parents before bed. Mr. Garcia told Sister Bea she would be “Mama Bea” for now. The sisters were very happy to be able to help these kids. Each child got a shower and something to eat and a warm bed. I could hear the sisters laughing with them in the Romero room. The other guests smiled on them. So did we all. But it hurt at the same time.

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Watch: An American House: a short documentary about Annunciation House

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.”

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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

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The song in my head while we talked to Border Patrol

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.

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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.

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