I wrote this book review for both The Eagle newspaper and for ATX Catholic. I think it is such an important book and such an urgent issue that I wanted to share it everywhere I can.
I was a young widow running through the house kicking toys out of my way, spilling my coffee, responding to a loud crash at the other end of the house. I had been cooking, having invited somebody over for dinner, (what was I thinking,) my toddler was running from the scene of the crime, my five year old was screaming, and my dog ran by with a piece of cornbread in her mouth. “OK,” I said to myself. “OK.”
I stopped. “OK.”
I set my coffee down. I took a breath. I looked outside at the juniper tree by my front porch. I noticed a thin branch trembling from the hesitant hops of a sparrow along it. I closed my eyes, felt the wood of the floor under my feet, breathed a silent prayer.
It was a centering moment.
I let the toddler get away. I hugged the outraged five year old. I attempted to salvage dinner. Life went on; just with a little bit more clarity, renewed meaning, and divine order.
The word Selah appears 71 times in the Psalms, and 3 times in Habakkuk. It often appears between stanzas of the Psalms, as if to tell the reader to pause and reflect. The precise meaning of the word is unknown, though some of the educated guesses are, “Pause,” “Lift up,” “Praise.” It could have been a musical term similar to our “rest” sign. It may have been a direction about how to read the verses, as in where to stop and take a breath.
In my life, “Selah” has become a practice of putting a pause on exterior and interior clamor and connecting to the Real, to lift up my heart, my situation, the world for a moment, to praise God by an act of mindfulness of His holy presence.
Eventually, developing this habit can lead to a greater general awareness of God at all times, and a natural continuous turning toward Him, in His outward expression and presence in the created world, and in His indwelling in the human heart.
Selah, as “stop and listen,” helps me deal with overwhelming emotions, fearful thoughts, angry rants I discover raging in my mind, to stop or at least slow the wheel of worries that can spin on its own mysterious power for disconcerting amounts of wasted time. Sometimes Selah is just a quiet moment of gratitude in the middle of a busy or even not so busy day.
The meaning of Selah as “lift up” may have been a reference to the scales used at the time. An object was weighed by being lifted on a scale against a counter weight. So Selah can also mean to weigh, to evaluate. Selah as “lift up and weigh” helps me place all things in the balance of God, lifting up my mind with all its wild beating of wings against its imaginary cage, when it needs to be set free to fly in Heaven’s peaceful skies, even for a moment. Grace can do that if we let it.
Even a tiny fraction of a second that we open ourselves to God is enough time for Him to do all that is needed.
An instant of conscious contact with the holy changes us, whether we feel it or not. We invite Him Who is all good, into ourselves, and into the world through us. God can do anything. He isn’t limited by time, that’s us. We can use time to drive ourselves crazy, or we can use as much time as we can to help God help us, and to open ourselves to be channels for the outflow of His grace into the world.
Selah as praise helps me accept what is, as where God has me in the moment, whatever is happening, and to step into my inner chapel, to build a little alter, a temple in the day.
During a difficult day, this can even be necessary in order to hold onto the strength that comes from God. I heard a priest at a San Antonio Marian Conference say once that when we adore God, nothing evil can touch us. I never forgot it, because I found it to be true. Adore the Lord in His holy court,says Psalm 29. It’s what’s going on in Heaven all the time. We can join in at any moment, and the grace of praise, which Psalm 8 says foils the enemy, is ours, grace that the Scriptures say God inhabits.
But You are holy, O You that inhabit the praises of Israel. Ps. 22:3
So how do we practice Selah in the ongoing Psalm of our day?
Selah. Pause. This is simple but not easy. We forget. We get busy, or in a hurry. We freak out. We don’t notice ourselves or what is around us because we are worried or sad, or scared, maybe mad, maybe caught up in the constant wild flow of the negative distractions of the world. Maybe our minds are flying down the rapids of our thoughts and experience, without direction or control.
Sometimes it helps to stop, and notice the sky, to be mindful of the wind, of the sounds around us, of the feeling of the grass or the floor under our feet, the feeling of our own breathing. Getting grounded helps us connect to God. When we stop being carried away by the whirlwind of our worries and busyness, we can dip into an undercurrent of peace. Try stopping and just noticing your environment, tune in to your senses, and then, if you can, go deeper within yourself where it is quiet and God waits for you.
I found myself unconsciously putting up a hand in a one handed prayer pose as a kind of “Selah” in personal sign language. Sometimes coming up with a simple, unobtrusive gesture to myself can really help my state of mind. I still do that hand gesture sometimes without thinking, and it can bring about the inner calm and readjustment of attitude I need without saying anything or particularly thinking any word.
Selah: Lift up. Especially when I am feeling overwhelmed, I try to think, “What is going on?” Sometimes something is really bothering me, but I don’t realize it. Prayerfully accounting for my inner state with God often helps me to step out of my anxiety, to get organized inside, gain perspective. I can lift the whole thing, and myself to God and in this way give over to Him any and everything that is a mess, inviting Him into it to arrange it to His will. Sometimes I have to repeat this step. OK, I almost always have to repeat it several times. When I can let go and let God, he sets me on a high rock, so I can see.
Maybe I just want to hug God, for no particular reason. A little Selah can help me stop and do just that.
Prayer is, for me, an outburst from the heart; it is a simple glance darted upwards to Heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and of love in the midst of trial as in the midst of joy! In a word, it is something exalted, supernatural, which dilates the soul and unites it to God.
~ St. Therese, the Little Flower
Selah: Praise. It seems to me that it is a praise of God to focus on Him, to be grateful for His beauty and presence, to focus our attention on Him, to love and acknowledge Him. We can praise God by a simple glance in His direction. Sometimes I say, “ The lot marked out for me is my delight because it is You Yourself Who are my prize.” Sometimes it is easier to say than others. Sometimes I don’t say anything. I just place myself in His light and do my best to adore.
A good way to do this is to imagine Jesus with you. Really, this isn’t your imagination because it is the truth. You are just tuning into it.
Or remember that the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, fills the universe, and is Love Itself, always drawing us into the life of the Blessed Trinity. You are a part of that vastness that is filled by the Spirit of God, along with the sky and the sun and the stars and planets beyond them, and every bug, butterfly, and blade of grass or drop of rain on the planet. The Scripture says that all of it praises God.
Let yourself join in the praises of Heaven and Earth just by remembering what you are: a child of God, a little brother, a little sister, of Jesus. All these things are good to think about.
Or think of God speaking to you through your senses. Because He is. Let tuning into your senses quiet your body, your heart and mind, and then step further, inside that quiet, to be with God in your soul.
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity said the name she wanted in Heaven was “Praise of His glory.” St. Paul says in Ephesians 1:12 that this is what we are. Stopping and listening puts us in touch with this. It’s about just being for a moment. It gives us a glimpse of divine perspective.
…that we may be unto the praise of his glory.
Pause. Lift up. Praise.
St. John of the Cross said, “With what procrastination do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes. A stop in the path. This very moment.
I wanted Santa to be real to my daughters forever, not only when they were small, but always. I accomplished this by teaching them about the original Santa Klaus, St. Nicholas, Friend of Children and of the Poor, Master of Sneaky Good Deeds.
As a Saint he is forever accessible to us who believe. Very useful in this Santa catechesis was the little movie, Nicholas, the Boy Who Became Santa.* My girls loved it and they watched it over and over and so did the neighborhood kids who were always at our house. The movie shows the boy Nicholas giving away his things to the poor, buying slaves their freedom, sneaking food and gifts to children and the poor in the middle of the night, always remaining anonymous.
St. Nicholas, who had an intense devotion to the Christ Child and a special love for children, became a bishop in what is now Turkey. He was persecuted by the Romans who burned down his church and arrested him. He spent years in prison, even sharing his bread and water with his fellow prisoners who weren’t particularly nice to him. Eventually he was set free and was able to re-join his fellow Christians.
I incorporated devotion to St. Nicholas into our family celebration of Advent and Christmas, having the girls write him a letter on his feast day, Dec. 6 ( a letter in return for which, he always left some simple treats, some change,and possibly some glitter.) They would write to St. Nicholas about what they wanted him to pray for them about in their lives. I always had them include three virtues they wanted him to obtain from God for them. (This is where The Family Virtues Guide came in handy.)** Some of these letters the girls wrote were very beautiful and of course some were hilarious!
During the course of Advent and the Christmas season, we would attempt to imitate St. Nicholas by doing sneaky good deeds as much as we could. One year I remember we put a bunch of Christmas roses in our red wagon and stayed up late, going out to leave roses and glitter or some toys for the kids at each house on our street. As people did in honor of St. Nicholas after his death, we sometimes left a note that said, “St. Nicholas.” As you can imagine, this was great fun.
Of particularly fond memory is a Christmas we drove around to houses
where people struggled with poverty. I remember how we silently giggled as we sprinkled glitter all over porches, leaving presents and food and red rose petals. We laughed about it on the way home in the car.
The girls understood that in this way we were being helpers of St. Nicholas just like anybody is when they give sneaky gifts in honor of Jesus’ birthday the way St. Nicholas did. So my kids transitioned slowly to understanding that the adults in their family did this same thing for them each Christmas… as helpers of St. Nicholas who loved the Christ child, loved children and the poor. So that’s how it all worked! However he stayed real to them as a Saint and a friend. The legend could grow up with the kids.
This was a very good way to learn what Christmas gifts are about, and who Santa really is. Sometimes there were challenges, however.
One Christmas morning, my wide eyed little girls ran in the back door yelling, “MAMA! St. Nicolas SMOKES! And he DRINKS, TOO!”
My dad and brother had been over in the middle of the night, helping St. Nicholas with a trampoline in the back yard for the girls. Apparently they had left cigarette butts and a few beer bottles around as well.
Looking at my daughters, I tried not to laugh. No laughing. I had to think.
I thought of several possible answers in the midst of their shocked clamor.
It was the helpers? Should I bring elves into this? It’s Christmas, give Santa a break? It was Uncle Mark and Grandaddy? (No, not that, not yet.)
I looked down at their horrified little faces and shrugged.
“Well! Now we know what to leave St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve from now on instead of the hot coco and cookies. Next time we will leave him cigarettes and a beer!”
Advent Activity: Go out and do a sneaky good deed in honor of St. Nicholas and of the Christ Child. Cigarettes and beer are entirely optional.
Here is how my daughters and I celebrated the feast of St. Therese, (October 1) when they were growing up, and we still do!
After dinner on the evening of St. Therese day, we read the book God’s Little Flower, the story of St. Therese. Even after the girls were “too old” for this book, we still read it. I still have it, and whoever is home, we read it after dinner. It’s a very good book, and is a good introduction to the life and spiritual discoveries of St. Therese for adults as well. In fact, we have used it for that purpose to good effect in the past.
After that, having bought earlier in the day, as many roses as we could possibly afford, my girls and I, and whoever else wants to participate (friends, boyfriends, whoever) go out and randomly hand out roses to people.
We feel that no explanation is necessary with people when you give them a rose.
We don’t preach or give anybody anything to read. The roses are just free, like the love of God!
If people ask, and sometimes they do, why we are handing out roses, we tell them about St.Therese and that we honor her promise to “let fall a shower of roses from Heaven,” and to “spend [her] Heaven doing good on earth.” But otherwise we just hand them to people, or ask them, “Would you like a rose?”
You should try this! People who get roses always will feel great and you, the giver, will too. It is truly amazing how uplifting and fun a project “random roses from St. Therese,” can be.
I promise if you do this, especially if you do it again and again over many years, you will have some great stories you will tell again and again. We sure do!
Often, I will make a St. Therese Rose Petal Pound Cake. Here’s the recipe.
You will need:
1 lb sweet butter, softened
3 cups sugar
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons rose water (yes, it’s edible and at your grocery store)
1 tablespoon baking powder
4 cups flour
a little powdered sugar for dusting
Baker’s sweet chocolate (about half a 4 oz. box)
organic rose petals (Please don’t use store bought roses for this as they might be sprayed with insecticides… another choice would be to use them but take them off before you eat!)
Preheat oven to 350.
Cream together butter and sugar
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.
Sift together dry ingredients.
Mix together milk and rose water
Add dry and wet to butter mixture alternately.
Mix gently by hand after each.
Pour into buttered and floured tube or bundt pan (or two loaf pans). Bake 1 hour, or till toothpick or fork into center comes out dry.
After the cake cools ten minutes, turn out onto a plate.
Drizzle with melted chocolate
Dust with powdered sugar
Sprinkle with rose petals
We usually had a brief family prayer service in honor of St. Therese, based on Evening Prayer for her feast day, but adjusted for the age of the audience. 🙂 For the Littles this might be a few short prayers and a song. Older kids can pray the Liturgy of the Hours with parents… especially with cake at the end.
We enjoy showering one another with rose petals, and also throwing them to the crucifix.
Enjoy, and spread the love!
Be blessed, St. Therese, and pray for us!
Once upon a time in Rome, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (in the third century), a young girl gave her life in witness to Christ under harrowing circumstances hard to imagine. She did this in spite of frightened parents, repeated and successively more cruel tortures, threats and even persuasive words and temptations from those around her. She also spent some time chained, bleeding, and broken in the Emperor’s dungeon. There Mary is said to have appeared to her and healed her, strengthening her resolve with the promise of victory and the hope of Heaven. Some of her tormenters were converted to Christ by this child’s astonishing courage, faith and perseverance through punishment after punishment.
Quite a long time later, in the year 2002, in a little chapel in San Antonio, a profoundly wounded young widow (that would be me) knelt to pray for healing for herself and her family as she faced another traumatic trial in life. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it sometimes. I had come on a day trip pilgrimage to the Lourdes grotto of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate with my sister-in-law, Jamie, to ask the intercession of Mary and for her motherly protection and wisdom for myself and my family.
On a small table at the end of my pew in the Eucharistic chapel there was a statue of an intense looking young saint that interested me. Her little pedestal said, “St. Philomena, Patroness of the Children of Mary.” Well then, she was the patroness of me.
Later at home I found a holy card of St. Philomena under our family Bible. I had no idea where it had come from. Did this girl saint have something to say to me in my painful struggle? I felt compelled to try to find out more about her.
I started to research her life and the devotion to her. Frankly some of the material about her was a little weird, even for me. She sounded like a fairy tale. But I eventually found the official web site of her shrine in Mugnano, Italy where her body is venerated. This site had a lot of solid information and beautiful art. It was Church sanctioned. The resting place of St. Philomena had even been visited by an impressive list of Popes.
St. Philomena’s body was found in 1802 in the catacomb of St. Pricilla in Rome. Her epitaph said, “Peace be with you, Philomena,” and showed the martyr’s palm, a drawing of arrows and an anchor; the instruments of the torture she had undergone for her faithfulness to Christ. Inside were the bones of a 13-15 year old girl. Present also was the phial of blood often collected by the early Christians when one of them was martyred. Miracles and signs surrounded the opening of her tomb, and even of the opening of the phial of blood that day in May, 1802, wonders which were witnessed by many.
It seemed God was saying to the world, “Get to know this young woman. She is very close to Me, and I have given her great works to do in My Name.”
It was hard to know anything more about her. The only accounts we have are private revelation that is approved but not as certain as written testimony from her contemporaries would be of course. According to this private revelation and the hints from the drawings on her tomb, she had been through and survived one martyrdom after another. She sounded like my kind of girl.
St. Philomena is the only saint ever to be canonized solely on the basis of her numerous miracles, some of them spectacular and public. She came to be called “The Wonder Worker,” and it was commonly said, “to St. Philomena, nothing is refused.” Among the countless people healed by her intercession is Ven. Pauline Jaricot who arrived at the shrine on the verge of death. She was dramatically healed amid shouts and rapping on the saint’s tomb from the crowd that was there. Philomena was St. John Vianney’s favorite saint. He talked to her every day, and had a small chapel built for the relic of her he was given. He encouraged devotion to her. Endearingly, he attributed all his miracles to her intercession.
I decided she definitely had something to teach me, and I began to cultivate a relationship with this mysterious little saint; thinking of her and speaking to her often, doing small things to honor her. I felt like she was with me and understood my darkness, fear, grief and trauma, very well. It seemed she was compassionate to me and laid a prayerful hand on me when I really felt I couldn’t take the suffering anymore. I think she helped me remember that in Christ I can do anything.
My daughter, Maire, took to St. Philomena so much after we read the book
I Ask St. Philomena by Rick Medina, that she made her her patroness when she was 13. Maire’s eventual Confirmation name was Philomena. She always wore Philomena’s cord wound around her ankle or wrist as a kid. She still does. (It’s supposed to go around the waist but Maire never does anything the normal way.) Last year she had an anchor tattooed to her shoulder in her saints’ honor. “Look, Mom! It’s for St. Philomena!”
St. Philomena has been a good friend to us and accompanied our family through many crises and hardships. Her intercession even brought back two people who left the family. One of them, a young run-away, was found staying only a few miles from a church that had a bone chip of St. Philomena’s. It was like a wink from her. During family prayer of a novena to her we even heard a sudden knocking sound we couldn’t find the origin of. We wondered about it. Then we read that this happened all over the world to other friends of St. Philomena, too, and that it was a sign of her intercession. Another wink.
Other times she seems to have worked the even greater miracle of obtaining for us the grace and strength to accept whatever Christ asked of us, no matter how hard it was, no matter how many times He asked it, and to do it with love, faithfulness and trust in Him, as she did.
A tiny 2nd class relic of hers went with us to every radiation and chemotherapy treatment, scary doctor’s appointment and MRI my husband, Bob, had during his fight with the aggressive brain cancer, GBM. I anointed him with her holy oil before every procedure and prayed her chaplet during each one.
Bob made it two and a half years, which is an unusually long time for GBM, from his diagnosis to his death in 2012. As he often said, those years were the happiest of his life. He had an excellent quality of life almost to the end of it. He kept working. He kept helping people. He bloomed beautifully as a human being, started painting (very well, too), learned more about love than ever before, and inspired many people with his outrageous courage, sense of humor, undying hope and growth in charity during his struggles. He also fulfilled his heart’s desire of becoming a Catholic during that time. He died a beautiful, holy, love filled death.
St. Philomena has taught our family through her life and spiritual friendship over the years, that no matter what, it will be OK, and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK. Our lives are God’s. And we are going to Him. What else is there? As Bob said, “We love we, walk on”. And no matter what, “God is it.”
One way we honor St. Philomena in our family (besides having named Bob’s cat after her) is for all of us, and whoever wants to come along, to dress in red and/or white and go out for Italian food every year on her feast day, August11. Red and white are her colors. Red is for her martyrdom, the white for her purity. People sometimes ask what team we are from when they see us. ☺Here is St. Philomena Day in 2010.
In thanksgiving, we also try to let people know about her. No matter what your troubles are, and if you are suffering very much, St. Philomena will intercede for you in a special way and companion you on your journey. She never gave up. She will help you never give up either and follow Christ to the end. She may bring a miracle that is more than you asked for, or she might help you accept the martyrs’ crown, even with love and joy. She knows better than most that our tears become jewels on our garments in God’s Kingdom and that every one of our trials suffered with Christ helps us grow in the knowledge and love of Him.
We recommend to you her friendship in Christ, and we pray you find comfort in your sufferings and trials, that you receive more grace than you ever thought you could by the intercession and example of our good friend St. Philomena.
Blessed be God, wonderful in His Saints.
She remembers walking barefoot on pilgrimage up the road to San Salvador Mission as a child, praying the rosary together with her family and friends, each August, lead by her grandmother, Ouida, to commemorate a healing, a vision, and a community coming together in response to a message from Heaven to build a church.
She remembers her grandmother’s reluctance to talk much about the three apparitions she received at twelve years old from “a lady in black.” She only ever heard the story from her Italian American grandmother in broken English.
It’s a Scarmardo family story, a story of a community; and though it happened over 100 years ago, it is cherished and guarded by the family as a very special and somewhat private gift. To the local Catholic community it is the quiet, lovely legend behind a beloved little mission church out past the river, whose parent parish is St. Anthony’s in Bryan.
In 1894 getting to mass was very difficult for a small rural Texas community of Italian immigrants, as there was not a reliable bridge to cross the Brazos river and go to Bryan, where the nearest Catholic Church was. They mostly depended on a priest to come to them when he could, celebrating mass on someone’s porch.
One of these times, in the middle of mass, there was a sudden strong gust of wind and the crucifix fell onto the altar. The crash on the altar was so sudden and forceful, the people were uncomfortable and wondered what it meant.
The next day, in her family’s cotton field, in the wake of a gentle breeze, a young girl named Ouida (pronounced “Weeda”) suddenly saw a lady in black who asked why there was no church in this place. “There needs to be a church here.””
The girl told her parents about it, but they didn’t take it seriously at the time.
Then there was another appearance of the lady, possibly in a dream this time, during which she gave the girl more details about the church she wanted to be built there, even including a list of the men who were to build it.
The girl’s parents wondered but were still not taking this too seriously until there was a yet another apparition, and this time the lady asked why the church had not been built yet.
Ouida’s concerned parents decided to take her to talk to the priest in Bryan, Fr. Antonio Simone. It seems the priest soothed their worries about their child because what happened next was that the community discerned that they should and they could do as the Lady from Heaven, understood to have been Mother Mary, had asked.
Each family gave their first crops, another family donated land, and the church was built in six weeks.
It was named for the patronal feast of Cefalu, Sicily, the native village of these Italian immigrants, a feast they call San Salvador, “Holy Savior,” which is August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
First mass was said at its altar in October 1908.
Ouida had breast cancer at the age of 40 and vowed that she would make a barefoot pilgrimage to the church every year on the feast of San Salvador, the Transfiguration, if she was cured. She was cured. And the pilgrimage was made for many years, even revived by a third generation and walked for several more.
San Salvador Mission celebrated its centenary in 2008 with Bishop Gregory Aymond.
Today there are good bridges into Bryan, and not so many people still live near San Salvador Mission, which still stands in the midst of an expanse of farm land near a country road. But it is cherished nonetheless and mass is attended there still by those who love it.
The first time I went out to take pictures of it, I was surprised to find it locked. A red truck pulled up, and a kindly woman, who told me she grew up right next to the church and still lived nearby, let me in. In the course of our conversation, she let me know that she had come to check on the sanctuary light. When she is at home she gets a feeling when it is out and she goes and changes it to honor the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. When I remarked on how touching I thought that was, she said,
“When you get the grace to pay attention, it’s just an amazing life we live. “
San Salvador stands as a testament to a community that paid attention, and still does.
*Many thanks to Ouida’s granddaughter, Mary Jo (Scarmardo) Lindsay, and to her cousin, Judy (Scarmardo) Comeaux, two lovely women, for sharing their memories with me.
**Mass at San Salvador is celebrated the First Saturday of the month, at 7PM. You’ll find it at County Road 222 – 1/4 Mile off Farm Road 50 (County Road 286), Bryan, TX 77836
*** No approval for this Marian apparition was ever sought. It is a private revelation given to Ouida that was responded to by her community of faith.