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Lesson from Elijah: a prayer story

When I answer the door, a wild- looking old hippie guy standing on my porch asks me for some water and a sandwich. I don’t actually have much food in the house right now, as it’s a few days until Pay Day. I’m trying to think what to give him, remembering I am down to the last scrapes of peanut butter, when, seeming to read my mind, he says that I won’t run out of either bread or peanut butter until the next time I get paid. “Just make me a sandwich,” he says in response to my incredulous stare.

In my kitchen, I open a cabinet and find my jar of peanut butter unexpectedly full. I also find a loaf of bread. So I make him a sandwich.

“Should I know you?” I finally ask. “Yes. I’m the prophet Elijah.”

I ask him, “Aren’t you supposed to appear in the end times?” * He looks at me sharply with an expression of terrible ferocity, sadness, tenderness, radiance, and when our eyes meet, I feel exposed to the vastness of space, and I know even that vastness to be flying by, nothing at all. I know myself to be dust, less than dust. Both the prophet and I are dust in the wind together.

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Photo by Jakub Novacek on Pexels.com

I find myself on a mountainside next to him. I don’t look at his face, but I watch his feet in their dusty sandals as I follow him up. The path is rough, steep, and though well worn, it is still difficult. We climb on and on in silence. This must be Mt. Carmel. Suddenly I take a thoughtless step, sliding and falling backwards down the narrow path, and then over an edge I didn’t notice before.

He catches my wrist, and as soon as his hand closes tightly to catch me and stop my fall, I see what fills the pit I almost fell into- the charred remains of little children, so many, too many to count. The full horror of this scene chokes me. As I hang over this terrible place in Elijah’s grip, I hear the Scripture, “it is not against flesh and blood that we are at war, but with the powers and principalities of darkness,” and the words of Jesus, “Satan is a murderer and he was a murderer from the beginning. “

Suddenly I am back on the mountain path with Elijah, trying to recover my calm. I look at him, his face covered with angry tears, and I remember the priests of Baal he was up against, and I feel I understand the extreme zealous intensity of Elijah. It wasn’t only the worship of an idol, offensive as that was, it was all that this led to, and ultimately, it was the Evil One beneath it all, and who is still our real enemy.

The little children sacrificed to Baal* don’t suffer anymore. It is God who feels it forever, God who is horrifically wronged, the order of the world distorted by every scream, because He is Love and Truth itself, and we are made in His image, to love and to be loved. There is only one way evil can have any effect on God; through the harm or the betrayal of those He loves.

Unfaithfulness to Him inevitably leads the human heart to ruin and darkness and worse. “All who worship them will become like them.”

That pit. I shudder. That place was strangely familiar. I know it signifies much. I will be sorting out its’ implications for a long time.

Elijah seems tired as we continue our climb. “Thank you,” I breathe, feeling that he can hear me, and that he knows I am thanking him, too, for his life of powerful witness to God, of jealous love for Him.

“Zelo zelatus sum,” I think to myself, as we duck into Elijah’s cave. “With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts;” Elijah’s words, and the motto of all Carmelites.* This is why we live, this is why we pray: “As the Lord lives, in whose presence I stand,” that He come through us into this world, that we might arise and burn like a torch in the spirit and power of Elijah against the spiritual forces of darkness, the idols and injustices of our time, with “a double portion of [his] spirit.”

We sit watching the ravens bringing us food from afar. I want to explore the cave, but the prophet’s eyes are closed, and I know we are supposed to pray now, as the sun sets. Just before I close my eyes, I see in the distance, over the sea, a small rain cloud coming up over the water. I understand what this means. “He shall descend like rain on the meadows.”  Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.

I am aware of the profound, incomprehensible tenderness of God in the “still small voice” within Elijah and myself. We cover our faces, and we say His name, the Name of God.

“The fire from the Lord consumed the sacrifice… and the people fell on their faces saying, ‘The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!”icon_elijah_02_in_a_caveNotes:

  • Elijah’s life is in 1Kings chapters 17- 21,  and 2Kings 1- 2:18
  •  *Elijah and the end times http://www.dailycatholic.org/issue/10Mar/030407sm.htm
  • *Baal worship involved child sacrifice.
  • *Carmelites see Elijah and the Virgin Mary as the exemplars of our Christian contemplative life.
  •  The direct Scriptures quotes italicized and in order of appearance, areEph. 6:12, Jon. 8:44, Ps. 115:8, 1Kings 19:10, 1Kings 17:1, 2 Kings 2:9, Ps. 72:6, Rev. 22:20, 1Kings 19:12, 1Kings 18:38

Living the sacredness of Ordinary Time

My daughter, Maire, got in trouble at her Catholic middle school for wearing green nail polish, which was against the rules. (Only clear or light pink nail polish allowed, if I remember right.) When asked about her indiscretion, she said, “It’s for Ordinary Time!”

I laughed hearing about that. At least she remembered what season we were in as Church, and it meant something to her.

We have just begun Ordinary Time, that big section of green, the liturgical color of the current Church  season, that fills most of the wheel illustrating the Liturgical Year.

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We have special things we do at other seasons in the Church year. What about Ordinary Time?

Ordinary Time has it’s own feel. I associate its’ post Pentecost beginning with that first breath of cool air from the church door as I step into the intimate hush of daily Mass on a hot Summer day. This season is a contrast of calm and peace after the penance of Lent and the holy fire of Easter and Pentecost. It’s a return to the simple holiness of daily life. 15039609_10211644917782949_4725375496342074872_o

 

One of our family albums is titled, “Ordinary Time.” It is a scrapbook of our family life during a few months of Summer and Fall. Into it I recorded our daily “rule of life;” (or sometimes not-so-rule,) song lyrics to music we were listening to at the time, the every day prayers we prayed, the silly things we did on the spur of the moment like a spontaneous family dance in the middle of dinner, as well as our little celebrations of the feasts of Ordinary Time, such as the Nativity of Mary (September 8.)

We always made Mother Mary a birthday cake. “Chocolate. What other kind of cake would she eat, right?” the caption  says in green ink.

We remembered this part of the Church year by keeping green candles on our family alter. We prayed a “kid version” (when the kids were younger,) of the Liturgy of the Hours I put together for family prayer, which always reflected the current season.

Ordinary Time in Dubina
Ordinary Time at Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Dubina

At Mass, the vestments and alter cloths will be green or have green trim. My mom, always the gardener, used to say this was because “green is the color of life.” In Ordinary Time, the focus shifts from the culminating moments in the life of Christ and His Church; the birth of Jesus, His death and resurrection, and then Pentecost, to the space in between where most of life is lived.

 

“Ordinary” comes from the word, “Order.” So we enter into the daily order of the Church at this time of year, and the emphasis of the Gospel readings is on the ministry of Jesus; His preaching and healing, His daily encounters with people, His conversations, his journeys.

Ordinary time can be a time we pay special attention to our own encounters, conversations, and the events of our own lives, and how God speaks to us in these. How does the life of Jesus unfold in your own?

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What do you do every day? I know I spend a lot of time coping, and sometimes I need to cultivate more conscious awareness of life so it doesn’t just happen to me and I miss it.

I am not by nature a very rule or schedule oriented person. But I do know paying attention to my loosely interpreted cadenza of a life, makes it more of a little holy rule instead of a stream of consciousness in which I might forget to practice the presence of God. * When I can lightly observe the rhythm of the day with holy intention, I feel peaceful and connected.

Ordinary Time is a great time to learn to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, to read the daily mass readings, (or maybe just the Gospel each day, as my youngest adult daughter and I do.) It’s a good time to get in the habit of sanctifying time by stopping, or at least pausing, in our day, to pray, even for a moment. It’s a good time to remember to look around and notice how beautiful God is, and how He is everywhere represented and speaking to us.

Now is a great time to carry Jesus into the work we do, and to consciously do all we do as it truly is; through Him, with Him and in Him. We can try doing every task with gentleness and love. Whether we sit, or lie down, or are talking to our children, whether we are in our house, driving our car, doing the shopping or at work, when we are sitting with friends, or going for a walk, we can try always to be remembering the nearness of God, even in our breathing.

“God is alive. I am standing in His presence.” ~Antiphon from The Carmelite Proper for the feast of Elijah the Prophet (July 20)

We can each day seek to understand how it is that His yoke is easy, His burden light, His Heart meek and humble. We can slowly begin to incorporate that lightness, that easiness, that meekness and humility of heart into our lives as we become more aware of the sweet companionship of His spirit every day.

This is how we enjoy life as people who consciously live in God; by bringing the remembrance of Him into the sacred Ordinariness of our time.

from my out door reading grove :)

“See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally.

~ Revelations of Divine Love by St. Julian of Nowich

* The Practice of the Presence of God is a term coined by the Carmelite mystic, Brother Lawrence, and is the title of a collection of his writings.

on our family land outside of College Station
Green, the color of life

 

 

 

A magical day with Mom

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“Remember” by Red Moore

When mom and I got out of the car, at the Antique Rose Emporium* it was as if she shed her dementia and I forgot all about it. We wandered into a timeless, and for us, almost mythical place.

Roses are healing.

She walked, smiling, down the lovely rose-lined paths with her now faltering steps, and I followed her, no less affected than she seemed to be.

It was as if we both felt a sense of peace, restoration, familiarity and relief; those bright, curving walkways leading us to the past, expanding the present, making the future irrelevant for now- while the roses looked on, their sweet, serene faces gently swaying in the breeze, glowing in the mild, fall sunshine. They seemed to welcome us.

We walked, reading their names, these names as familiar as a litany of cousins, brothers or household saints; part of my mother’s every day language.

Duchesse Brabant, Old Blush, Abraham Darby, laMarque, Baily Red, Ducher, Cecile Brunner, Red Cascade, Mermaid, the Fairy, Graham Thomas, Dame de Cour …

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found rose

We meet here in dreams- meet each other, or friends, sometimes even family members long gone. Here where past and present merge, and moments are easily savored,  it is a perfect place for the kind of dream that imprints itself on the soul forever.

We meet here often in reality too: picnics, Mother’s Days, birthdays, tea parties with mom and her best friend, Ellen, or to pick out roses for planting time.

On some visits Mom and I were so engrossed in roses, we didn’t notice the kids under our feet, or that they were running down the path, disappearing with the wagon.

Pictures of us all in this place dot our family albums, as well as mom’s massive volume of photos, labels and histories of her own roses.

I was tired and did not want to take any pictures that day. Mom had left her camera in the car, too. Pictures can only snatch at time. They never really catch anything.

We wandered happily in the temple of our many meetings.

Mom and I exclaimed over scents, over loveliness both new and familiar. We passed the big old house with its wrap-around porch, walked down brick paths and gravel, around fountains and enclosures, past the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, where we had often stopped to pray with the kids. We stood in the center of the gazebo where my brother and his wife were married on another fall day years ago. Silent and still, we held hands, smiled and remembered.

“Roses are healing,” I said aloud, and the roses seemed to nod and smile.

“Yes,” she said, “they are.”

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She chose four rose bushes, becoming more and more distracted, wandering off now and then, so that the process of buying them took a long time.

The spell, like all spells, must wear off.

I loaded up the roses, and we drove back to reality- or a different one, anyway. But I think we were both conscious of a special blessing.

Roses are healing. Roses are holy. And some places are made timeless by love.

 

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My mom, Delphia, on her front porch with her dog, Devon, 2011.

 

*  https://www.antiqueroseemporium.com/

Holiness of House Work :)

As soon as my friends and family stop laughing that I am writing anything about this subject, we can begin in earnest, Gentle Reader…

Well, never mind then. We will just go on anyway. I deserve it, I know. If cleanliness is next to godliness then I had better meditate on Philippians 2:12,b EVERY DAY! My step dad, Tom’s reaction to my writing this was, “OK, you got guts!”

Actually I enjoy housework. It’s just that with my ADD (I believe I mentioned it to you before a time or two) it is very hard for me to stay on task and to be consistent or  plan my work very well. This is called a lack of executive function, I believe. Also I have trouble practicing habits that make it so I don’t have to play bulldozer when I do clean (that’s called being a bit of a slob I believe.) I am quite likely, as my witnesses know, to pick up a book to put it away and suddenly  realize I’ve been sitting on the floor reading it a good while, or to start a grand project and then find myself staring out of the window thinking of my next “hum” in Pooh-Bear fashion.

I’m not lazy. I like hard work. My last job was in the press room at the local newspaper, which was very hard physical work. I loved it. So work is not the problem. As long as I am not distracted or confused, I will be fine. An overwhelmingly  messy laundry room, however, causes a kind of short in my circuits that makes me gaze unseeing or become instantly distracted. OK, maybe I run away.

My difficulties confessed, I do think I have something to say about housework and its sacredness. I may even offer some advice for other ADD and AD/HD sufferers or people with small children and/or busy schedules (or maybe just anyone!) that might not be so out of line about getting a modest amount of work done in a prayerful way.

My house is clean right now. Roise was slightly helpful in the way that a mopey 15-year old can be when she really wants her friend over, and Mom has said, “Not until this house doesn’t know what hit it!” Still it was mostly myself working on this goal. Roise took a few Facebook breaks as mopey teen agers will.

When my kids were small, I used to go with them one room at a time to work with them side by side. We used to offer up our work in each room for a different prayer intention. Maire, at age 7, usually offered her room cleaning for Brittany Spears. She was always worried about her. When we finished a room, we bowed, before lighting some incense in the clean room; a ritual we got from their dad, Marc Blaze, that added a sense of completeness and made our work feel sacred.

My second late husband, Bob, taught me a lot about the holiness of work around the house and of conscious service to the family. He said this was part of what he called  his “skin religion.” He said his work in the yard, for instance, was a form of prayer. He was mindful, as he mowed the lawn, picturing Maire and Roise’s bare feet on the grass and how nice he was making it for them, how soft it would feel on their feet. He said he wanted us to look around and see the things he had done for us around our house and feel like each one was an “I love you,” from Bob.

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House work and yard work seemed to open him to the “sacrament of the present moment” * and to fill him with love.

We do look around and see his “love notes” all around us. One can hardly look anywhere and not see something he did for us.

I was at Bob’s side a lot of the time as we painted our house the exact blue of my sister-in-law, Jamie’s, eyes. I felt a sense of loving gratitude toward my house as we painted and like I was getting to know our house better. We thought about how meaningful it was to be painting this house that had been drab, dirty white for so many years. We were covering it with brightness like a metaphor for how colorful our lives were now that we were together and so happy after so many years of loneliness for both of us. It felt like an act of gratitude and a recognition of the sacredness of our home. Later Bob made me a painting of our house shaped like a heart with the two of us contemplating it. We went on to paint the garage green and to put in a pink antique front door.

When I wash my mixing bowls, which belonged to my granny and then to my mom and now to me, I have a sense of being close to them, and that those bowls are holy. So are all the dishes on which I feed my family and all those who come to my house as guests. Cooking is holy too. The Sufis believe food cooked with love, especially by your parents, carries a special blessing- which indeed it does. We should always try to cook with love. My mom did.

by Robert Chapman
painting by Robert Chapman “Breakfast Please”

I have a few habits when I am working around the house that help me stay in tune with the holy and remind me that my housework is not only an offering but it can be an adoration of the Lord who is continuously present with us in all we do. I know it’s weird but I have a tendency to pause and genuflect now and then in the kitchen. Bob used to ask why I did “church stuff in the house.” I said I was just praying while I worked. He understood that.

My Carmelite Community has a “Day of Recollection” each December.  One time the Holy Cross Brother leading us in our day asked us what we imagined ourselves doing as holy people, as we are all called to sainthood. What did we see ourselves actually doing? He said he saw himself writing. I was surprised that I saw myself sweeping the floor. Well! That’s already true. I could think that’s pretty disappointing, or I could think that is worth pondering. Maybe God is telling me to find Him in these things I am always having to do anyway. It is true that He has given me some great moments of insight and growth in the middle of a daily task like sweeping the floor or folding laundry.

This sense of love and holiness involved in caring for my house makes me more mindful of each task and even makes me handle material objects with a loving gentleness more like I would if I were putting the vessels of the alter away, were I to be doing that. I do sometimes feel an infusion of love and awareness of  God’s presence when I am engaged in simple tasks.

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So why is it so hard for me to be consistent, to get started on a project and stay with it? You remember. I’m terribly ADD.

If you are too, or have young children, or are otherwise busy and pre-occupied, here are some things I do to get myself through an afternoon of housework and grow in the awareness of God’s presence at the same time. Maybe you have some tips for me, too. I bet you do.

First, Roise and I ask the prayers of St. Anne, the patroness of our house, as well as patroness of house wives. This is her house so I ask her to pray for me while I clean. Sometimes, if I am badly distracted or overwhelmed, I lay a novena to her out on the kitchen table and set the oven timer for 30 minute increments. I will stop and pray another “day” of the novena each time the timer goes off. It keeps me going.

Also I trick myself.  I tell myself I am only going to fold five towels (when I have a huge, intimidating pile of laundry) and then I’m quitting. Once I get going, it is not an unpleasant task so I keep going. Anyway, it fascinates my cats.

The timer is also useful for seeing what I can get done in 15 minutes. My house used to be a duplex and my dear friend, Andrea, lived on the other side. One of us would watch our kids in the back yard for 15 minutes while the other rushed around her house to see what she could get done in that much time. We were amazed at how well this worked and how much we got done in such a short, focussed period. Both of us still do that sometimes even now; set the timer for 15 minutes and see what we can accomplish.

It’s hard for me to stay on task so one thing I do is follow a rule that it doesn’t matter what I do as long as I don’t stop doing things, just keep moving  and bringing myself back to housework like I bring my mind back to prayer when I get distracted. Audio books help me a lot too. They get me to stay in the room, and if I’m caught up in St. Julian of Norwich the work is a breeze; I’ll stay right with it and listening to her could only increase my consciousness of being immersed in the Source of all Good. Holy music can help with this too, though I like Metallica for mopping.

I saw a painting  of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, in which she is washing dishes and holding up a dinner plate like an offering. I liked that picture a lot. It expresses well what I am trying to do.

Brother Lawrence, author of The Practice of the Presence of God, said that he felt just as close to God when he flipped an omelet for love of Him as he did on his knees in chapel as if there was no difference. As St. Teresa of Jesus said, “God moves among the pots and pans.”

That he does. Finding Him and hanging out with him there is what I’m working on a lot lately; even if I have to trick myself to get started.

Laugh. It’s OK. I don’t mind. 🙂

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“Father, may everything we do begin with Your inspiration and continue with Your saving help. Let our work always find its origin in You, and through You reach completion.” (from the Liturgy of the Hours Monday Morning Week I)

“You who work in this house…. Mary counts your steps and your labors.” ~ Sister Miriam of Jesus Crucified

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Italian Texans celebrate St. Joseph

In the late 1800’s groups of Italians, mostly from the towns of Corleone and Poggioreriale in Sicily, migrated to the Brazos Valley and settled in and around Bryan. By 1905 there were about 3000 Italians living in Bryan. They founded St. Anthony’s Catholic Church  and a little mission church in the country side, San Salvador.

Many of the names that fill the historic Catholic cemetery, Mt. Calvary, in Bryan, are some of the same family names you will hear around town now; Scarmardo, Ruffino,  Patranella, Palasota, Fazzino, and Lampo, are just a few of them. These Italian names are still names of some of the businesses, and streets of Bryan. They are woven into our history, part of our life, as so many of the descendants of those families are still with us here.

Some families still make traditional Italian St. Joseph altars, often in thanksgiving, if they have promised one to St. Joseph in response to prayers answered. When his feast day is coming up, people will get to hear there is an altar and thousands, (yes, I’m serious,) will come from all around. The family and friends hosting the St. Joseph altar will cook for days in preparation. All are welcome. Some years there are no St. Joseph altars. Some years there are several, and one can make a tour of the different houses where the celebrations are being held. These occasions are also considered a chance to share with the less fortunate. The tradition of these St. Joseph altars originated in Sicily, of which St. Joseph is the patron saint, and have several interesting customs associated with them that are still practiced here today.

I visited  Lillian Scarmardo Hughes and her husband, Tom, to learn more about St. Joseph altars, as they prepared to celebrate their own “small” St. Joseph altar celebration at their own home. They are expecting about 60 people.

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Msr. John McCaffrey, Tom and Lillian Hughes in front of the St. Joseph altar

 

There is a lot of variation in St.Joseph altars according to the people who make them. However, there are certain things that are traditional and defining. The altar is set up in a household or common building such as a parish hall or school. It is made up of three tiers to symbolize the Blessed Trinity, and also the Holy Family.

The top tier will hold an image of St. Joseph or of the Holy Family, surrounded by greenery, fruit, and flowers.

Next there will be at least three breads made for the occasion, each in a shape of a symbol of St.Joseph, of Jesus, of Mary. Lillian and Tom have chosen to represent the Holy family with a rosary for Mary, a cross for Jesus, and a hammer shaped bread for St. Joseph. These breads are called panne grosso, “big breads.” Lilly tells me that over the years on some altars around town, the tradition has grown to include other saints as well, and you will seesquartucciata made in the shape of the symbols of other saints as well. People who have a devotion to one of these other saints will bring breads over to represent them for the altar as well.

On Tom and Lillian’s home alter you can also see some lovely porcelain templates from Poggioreriale  for the beautiful intricate pastries made for the altars; fig cookies called cuccidatti.

Lillian and Tom raveled to Italy twice. Lilly was able to be in her grandfather’s home town (he and his brother had left for America in 1880) of Poggioreiale during the preparation of the St. Joseph altars there. She was even able to meet a blood cousin!

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She was welcomed enthusiastically to help make the squartucciati, the ornate fig cookies. and other foods. The women there were amazed that Lillian knew all about St. Joseph altars and how to make the various pastries. They were very moved that the tradition had been handed down and carried on in Texas by their people who immigrated there. It sounded like a magical moment. I could see the glow in Lillian’s eyes while she told me this story and showed me her pictures of it.

She plans to return to Sicily at least one more time in her life.

The cooking begins very early. It is usually a meatless spaghetti dinner and plenty is made so the poor can also be served. An egg is added to the sauce for each guest, to represent new life.

For nine days before the altar is actually presented, a novena to St. Joseph is prayed, along with a rosary sung in Italian.

At some point a priest will come and bless the altar.

Some common objects on the alar will be fava beans, which the Sicilians usually fed their cattle but were reduced to eating during a terrible drought and famine. They prayed to the patron of Sicily, St. Joseph and their prayers were answered. This is how St. Joseph altars began; in gratitude to St.Joseph.

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The flowers, vegetables and fruit represent the harvest and gratitude to God for His gifts and providence.

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There will also be wine to represent the wedding at Cana.

IMG_2045There are other symbols, as well, of St. Joseph, such as bread crumbs which represent saw dust.

There may be Squartucciatis made to look like sandals, carpentry tools, monstrances, crosses, doves, and other Christian symbols.

There are usually lilies at the altar, traditionally St. Joseph’s flower.

There is often a basket on the altar for people to put in their written petitions to St. Joseph.

On the day of St.Joseph’s feast, or the closest day the family can accommodate family and friends, the celebration is held.

There will be the Ceremony of Saints, during which people representing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, knock three times and ask for shelter. This is called the “Tupa tupa” part of the ceremony. They Holy Family is refused twice, but the third time are welcomed in, along with people representing a variety of other saints.

The person representing Jesus, most often a child, blesses the altar with holy water and a sprig of mint.

The Holy Family is served first in three small courses. Sometimes the host will wash their feet and hands. In some families the feet of children are kissed.

Everyone is served a small glass of wine as a token of unity and friendship.

Then the altar is “broken” and all are served. Everyone is welcome, plus there is plenty left over to go out and serve the poor of the community.

Lillian loves these celebrations and grew up with them. Her mother, Rosalie Scarmardo, is remembered for having been particularly talented in helping people with their altars

After the representatives of the Holy Family are served, a spaghetti dinner and general celebration takes  place. Everyone is sent home with a goodie bag of the ring cookies, fig cookies, a fava bean, and some holy cards of St. Joseph.

Be blessed, St. Joseph, be welcome among us, pray for us. 

Thank you so much to Lillian and Tom Hughes, and to Becky Scamardo for their help and generosity.

For more, please see my upcoming column in The Eagle on March 24, or read my post at ATX Catholic.  

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A Dog’s Forever Love by Mark Hudgins

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Guest blogger, Psychotherapist and artist Mark Hudgins, tells us about the love of animals he has been close to, and shares with us a story about how he has experienced the providential spiritual love of one dog even after her death, leading him into a whole new story of the healing love of animals. “All things work together for the good of those who love God.” (Rom. 8:28)

In the past year and a half, I have experienced the loss of three beloved pets dear to my heart. The first was Peanut, my orange and white rescue cat. Peanut lived to be 19, and died peacefully from kidney failure in August of 2016. The next was Simone, a beautiful long-haired white cat that I adopted from my sister’s vet in San Antonio. She died in April of 2017 from pneumonia at age 16. The last was my fiancé’s family dog named Flower. She died way too young from a cancerous tumor at age 8 or 9. I had grown quite close to her and she spent a large part of the last year of her life with me in my condo in Austin.

All of these losses have affected me deeply, especially Peanut and Flower. Simone spent a lot of time outdoors and was somewhat aloof. But she was just as special as the others.

I will have to admit that these deaths have affected me as much as the death of my own mother and even my beloved grandfather. At first I felt silly even thinking that. Or at least admitting to it. But it is true. Peanut spent just about every day of his life sleeping right by my head. We woke up together, spent much of our days together, and he was around long enough to witness my changing from a young man into middle age.  He came when I called him, (not always the case for cats, as many of you cat owners out there know)  He gave few other people the time of day. The closest he came to accepting someone else was Shawn, my fiancé. He grudgingly started allowing her access into his world. And then she took a large role is caring for him in the last few weeks of his life.

As much as their deaths affected me in a deeply painful way, the positive and uplifting aspects of how they affected my life mad that pain worth it.

Peanut was a constant, a reminder of being in the moment, of not sweating things, and unconditional acceptance. When I came home, he was there. He did not care what kind of day I had, or how much money I made, or even how accepting I was of him. Sometimes I was exhausted and needed a bit of time. He seemed to get that. Peanut was just there, content to meow at me (sometimes grumpily) and give me the honor of petting him. It was unconditional love in the purest of ways.

Later in his life he spent some time in the outdoors, but every time I came home I would call him and he would come bounding up, his slightly fat belly rocking back and forth at his steps.

Peanut was a stoic little cat. Once, he accidentally got locked in a hot closet for a day without food or water. I came home and called for him, and no Peanut. To my horror I opened up the closet door and found him. He sort of sauntered out and went directly to his food and water and then hopped to his usual spot on the bed. Oddly, he still had no fear of the closet after that, either.

It is as if he knew it was an accident and he trusted me not to do it again. I didn’t.

He had the prettiest green eyes. And he sometimes would bite me for no reason and sort of look at me like “I don’t know why I do that either”…..

He also was the last living pet connection to my mother, who died in 1998. She gave me Peanut in October of 1997. He was a very small kitten when she found him under a shed in her backyard in San Antonio.

I miss my mother often. I miss Peanut daily. He was a great cat. And at the end of his life, he got to know and be friends with Flower. I have a picture of both of them sleeping together one sunny afternoon. I treasure that photo and always will.

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Goodbye Peanut. You gave as much to me or more than I gave you. Thank you.

Simone was a very skinny, somewhat neurotic 2 year old when my sister brought her up to me from San Antonio. Peanut, who was already living in the house, accepted her from the get go. She hissed at him a few times, but he never hissed at her. At the time I adopted her I had carpets on my floor, and the smell of pee (she was sneaky) in various corners of my place suggested strongly why Simone had trouble being adopted.

It didn’t stop me, as I realized it was time to pull up the carpets anyway. After she got more used to things, I let her explore outside and she stayed out there often after that. She would come in to eat and be petted. But often she ran from me when I approached her. Up until the day she died. When I had company, she would decide to get friendly and start meowing in a very loud voice (Peanut, on the contrary, had a very soft half meow, half bird call voice). She then would approach whoever was there and offer her best side, her butt. Right in their face.

I found that I could make this somewhat obnoxious behavior stop when I would merely cough. She would run back outside. But she rarely ventured far. And in the morning she would be just outside the door for food and a morning greeting.

People would comment on her beautiful white coat and my vet often wondered how she didn’t get picked off by some falcon or large bird. But she did fine outside, and even the raccoon who came over to try and eat would ignore her and her him. She wasn’t the least bit aggressive. She was just Simone.

Goodbye Simone. It is weird not seeing you outside my door.

Flower came into my life in a bit different way. She was the family dog of my fiancé, Shawn. When I first met her, Flower nearly bit me. I was visiting her at her brother’s house where she was staying. As I got out of my car in the driveway, I wasn’t sure if anybody was home. Then suddenly, out of the blue came this medium sized brown dog running up with teeth bared. Some dogs stop with a warning, but Flower wasn’t set on warning me. She chomped down, but I was quick enough to move my hand. Within a couple of seconds, her tail was wagging and a friendship was born.

Flower was a special dog in more than one way. The first thing I noticed is how smart she was. And how in tune she was to her surroundings. While still getting to know me, she was sure to come to me after making the rounds of all the family members present just to let me know I was accepted. She also could run like a rabbit, which she loved doing. She learned how to help Shawn corral her chickens in the evening.

While it took a bit (she wasn’t ready to even go for walks with me for a while), Flower and I grew close. After the tragic suicide of Shawn’s brother, I began taking Flower back with me to Austin for weekends and some days. She was a rock for me in those times, always smiling, always looking intently at my face for signs of what I was feeling.

We started taking long walks together and she became a part of my life. Sleeping on the bed with Peanut, she was a staple for over a year. We would go to the dog park here in Austin and she would be nervous but eventually get excited. Flower was a rescue as well, and you could tell she had a rough go of it early in her life.

But she grew into herself. And her unique personality shone through. She could be stubborn, even sometimes diva-ish, but she was a sweet, gentle, in tune dog that helped me through one of the most stressful times in my life. Seeing her sleeping next to me, I swear she was an angel sent by God.

Unfortunately, Flower developed a tumor on her back that required emergency surgery to even have a hope of saving her life. The way she co-operated with the process, all the pain, all of the inconvenience, was inspiring. The staff at Texas A & M Vet School fell in love with her.

Flower bravely fought her way back from the surgery. Shawn, my fiancé took care of her in Bryan the first few weeks after her surgery. The dog was in a lot of pain for much of that time, but she retained her sweet spirit. Shawn carefully took her to the backyard to pee, and Flower often took an interest in smelling the flowers and looking at the dog next door. On some days, she just wanted back in the house.

The first time I saw her after the surgery she was in her kennel that Shawn got for her. She whimpered upon seeing me, and I cried to see in her in such pain but also cried in gratitude that she was still with us. Flower took the myriad of pills and liquid pain meds with surprising cooperation, even though she hated the taste of some of them.’

The first time she came back to Austin she came we were nervous about the ride. When she saw my backporch area where she hung out so many sunny days, her first inclination was to chase my cat. We saw that as a good sign.

A few days went by and she still struggled walking. But one evening I took her out with her cloth support under her legs. At first she did her usual “I just want to go back inside”, but on this night I encouraged her to walk a bit more per vets instructions. As if to say “alright lets do this” she began to walk briskly around the back area of my condo, sniffing around as if it were old times.

The next few days and weeks saw steady improvements, along with the expected accidental peeing in the bed and having trouble getting up. You could tell this hurt her pride a lot, but her courage and good attitude continued to amaze and hearten me. There was so much pain and tragedy all around and seeing this, although hard, was also uplifting. By taking action in her healing I was healing myself.

One day Flower was ready to walk in the neighborhood were we took so many walks in the last year. Although still having trouble, she wanted to walk as far as I would let her. I cried again. It couldn’t contain it. Maybe she was on the road back.

Flower had a couple of months of good days after that, traveling to Houston with us to my new apartment there, sitting in the sun, eating heartily and laying by my new cat, Miriam. She had trouble with climbs, and her patented athleticism was not the same. But she was determined to enjoy her life. And that she did. She may have had trouble physically, but Flower remained Flower. Begging for food, being stubborn, being sweet, sleeping soundly with me.

After several months, you could see that she was having trouble again walking. We didn’t want to admit it, but the tumor, as the vet warned could happen, returned.

She travelled to Bryan to have a check up and it didn’t look good. But she did get to spend time with Shawn and her young adult daughter, Roise, whose childhood dog Flower had been. There are pictures of the girl with Roise and her then infant daughter, Lani. She still was happy to be with her people.

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I took her back to Austin and things declined to where Flower could not get comfortable enough to even lay down. We tried upping her pain meds and giving her steroids per vets advice, but she still couldn’t lay down. It was sad, but it seemed like it was time to say goodbye and end her suffering.

The last day of her life I carried her around the back area that she loved and let her look around. She really did seem to understand what was happening. That day my vet came over and we had a Catholic tinged ritual with Flower there before she went to her next life. I still cry thinking about the gift of her life and yes, the gift of her good death. My vet and I carried her body to his van. Carrying her then lifeless body was very, very difficult but I am glad I did it. We laid her carefully down.

Flower was gone.

I truly can say, and I am not prone to hyperbole, that Flower helped saved my life during that difficult year and got us through the death of Shawn’s brother and the even worse aftermath of it. And I still miss the girl. Deeply. She was an angel.

Goodbye Flower. I miss you every day.

 

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But the story didn’t end there. In fact, it started another chapter that surprised even me.

A couple of days after her death, I, still in shock and grief, went to the pet store to get a special cleaner to clean my mattress from the urine odor. Oddly, the odor offered me some comfort for a day or so but I knew it was time to clean it up.

I walked into the store, hot from the summer heat and purchased the cleaner. I was not in a good mood and things still seemed surreal. On the way out I noticed some kennels against the wall with some dogs up for adoption for rescue shelters around the area.

I made my purchase and was not paying attention to much when I made eye contact with a little white dog in his kennel. He looked very sad. He looked at me, looked down and then looked at me again. It caught my attention.

I had no intention to getting another dog. I knew also about the “don’t get a pet to replace a lost one right away” rule, which I though was a good one. But something made me turn around and ask the people at the front about the dog. His name on the kennel was “Henry”. He looked so small and fragile, but had these huge “bat” ears. He reminded me of me that day. Well, besides the ears.

One clerk told me that Henry had been rescued from a house where there was a murder and a suicide. Given that Shawn’s family had gone through a suicide (and quite frankly some metaphorical murders) I thought it odd to hear that. And it sent a chill down my spine. My heart immediately went out to the little fella. That pissed me off.The clerk then told me the manager of the store, Theresa, would have information on him. She walked up to me after doing some things with the rescue cats. I asked her about him. She seemed a bit skeptical and cool at first “oh, he is not close to being ready to be adopted. He is still somewhat feral and needs a lot of work”….I know something about feeling feral and needing a lot of work, so I said “what would I need to do?”. She said, still somewhat skeptical “you can come back and visit him and see how you two do”. I think she thought I wouldn’t come back.

Later that day, I was back. She gingerly picked the terribly frightened dog and told me I could pet him. He eyed me very cautiously. And as I petted  him his eyes stayed wide open, as if waiting for a blow…Then I noticed the strangest thing. His back was shaved in a little rectangle area. “What happened there?” I asked. “Oh, he had a tumor on his back. But it was benign. It was a fatty tumor”. It was shaved just like poor Flowers back.

That scorching July afternoon brought on a pretty serious thunderstorm that for a bit made Austin look almost dusk like. It was surprisingly cool for a bit.

After waiting for it to pass, I got on my scooter, a little taken aback, and got a real sense that I was supposed to adopt Henry. And I would show Theresa how serious I was about that, whatever it took.

On the way home, I looked at the gray but clearing sky and saw a full rainbow facing east, in the direction of Flower’s place of birth near Bryan. It was beautiful and vivid. It was if Flower was saying, “You get it? adopt him”. Flower knew I needed Henry as much as he might need me. That shook me but also gave me a real sense of calm. Flower was still up to her tricks.

I called Shawn and told her the story. She laughed a bit. “Sounds pretty clear” she said.

It was.

So, every day, twice a day, I would go and visit Henry. At first I think he was wondering what the hell I was doing there. Theresa would take him out. He would be frightened, but he would cower in the corner and let me pet him. I just sat on the floor uncomfortable and sweaty. Occasionally, he would glance at me and look away. When she put him back in his cage, he would literally dash in there and look terrified.

 

 

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I came the next day. And the next day. And the next….twice a day when I could.

Theresa finally started warming up to me and offered tips as to how to handle him. After a little over a week, she had me walk with Henry as she took him out to pee. Then I took him out (I was terrified I would freak him out) with her behind me. He would look back at her, very skeptically. She told me he would hold pee and bowel movements for days. He would only eat if no one was looking.

Eventually I was able to take him out daily. He started peeing, being very careful to stay directly behind me, out of my vision.

Then one day on the way back to his kennel he pooped on the sidewalk. Victory!

The day come when Henry came for a home visit the first time. I felt like CPS was coming over, I was so nervous. But Henry, once he found his trusty bed (that bed is his safe place. his world exists from there) felt quite at home. Shawn was with me that day. It was a lovely hot summer Saturdayafternoon. The visit was a success.

The next Monday I came to visit and Theresa very nonchalantly said Henry could go home with me on that Wednesday and she handed me his adoption papers to sign. She said“I didn’t think Henry was going to find a home. No one was interested after hearing how hard he was.” I passed!

Henry was gonna be a part of my family. The dogless, childless divorced guy who only could handle cats was going to be a dog owner.

Flower made sure of that. This part is too weird to be true, but as I was nervously taking Henry home for the first time, another rain storm came down on a steaming hot August day and produced, yes, another beautiful rainbow in the sky.

After seeing the second rainbow, I reflected again on how I needed all of my beloved pets as much as they needed me. They were family.  I miss Flower, Peanut and Simone like family. They were a part of my everyday life. They showed me unconditional love. I could only hope that I showed me close to the same.

In this new year, 2018, I have had Henry for about five months. Each day he is becoming more like a normal dog and not like the scared, lost dog with the haunted eyes I met that July afternoon. He barks when he hears my scooter coming to the house. He growls affectionally as I walk in to greet him. When I ask if he wants to go for a walk, he gets so excited he starts shaking. But he still keeps a lot of stuff inside. It is the path of healing for abused animals as much as for abused humans.

As gets out of his bed, he circles around a few times, (still not quite sure what to do) and I put on the leash and he is ready to go. His ears are perked up now when we go outside, he stops everywhere to sniff around and even lifts his leg to pee now and again. His healing in a continual process. It is slow but steady.

His eyes, once so haunted, are softer now. And he stares at me intently with his eyes half shut. He still likes to stay in his bed, but he will put his chin on the edge and look around, taking much more interest in the world around him. I know that he sneaks out and steals dog toys and whatever else he wants to gather for his bed. Despite his rough road, his spirit and rambunctiousness are still there. It is amazing.

One day I looked at a calendar at the scooter repair shop I frequent. They still hadn’t changed the page from the month before. But the picture on the calender page was of a white dog with massive, bat like eyes and the unmistakable paws that Henry has. It was a French bulldog. Aha! I learned that Henri was part French Bulldog.

So, now, his name is Henri. Whereas he once bit me (and Shawn, too, we share that honor) when he is frightened, he now will stop at the urge when he is frightened.

It is so rewarding to see this growth. And it is rewarding to see my growth in caring for him. He has taught me to be more patient, more gentle, more accepting, more…..calm. And his reticence, even in the face of excitement has shed some light on my own history. A story in itself.

Pets are people. They share our lives. They show us love. They show us ourselves. The model for us how to be present and happy in everday moments. They are a part of us. And yes, how we treat our pets says a lot about how we treat each other.

I am thankful for my past pets, and miss them every day. I am thankful for Henri. And for the gift Flower gave me in choosing him.

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What are you waiting for this Advent?

What are you waiting for this Advent?

Since my conversion* I have seen Advent as a time of waiting for Christmas, or as commemorating the waiting of humanity, the waiting of Israel, the waiting of Mary and Joseph for the Messiah to come.

I have thought of it as an entrance into the mystery of that expectation both a memory of humanity and something that makes  it present.  Also, as the Church teaches, I know Advent as our renewed expectation of the Parousia, the return of the Lord.

Something else is happening with me this year. I find myself sensing that God is about to act in my life in a mighty way, a way I will be conscious of. I feel it like a rising tide, steady and slow, but sure.

God is coming. And He will set things right. Even if setting things right means I become free to accept and walk away from some painful and deep running, long term injustices I have been coming to terms with. Even if that is what is happening, I am happy.

“Lift up your heads, for your redemption is at hand.” (Luke 21:28)

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However, I have a feeling that change is coming. Clarity is coming. An unravelling of seemingly impossible knots is already starting to happen. Justice is rising gently, truly.

I believe it.

Something about it is not just personal to me, but also universal.

Advent, in a very real way, is a special time of grace.

I hope this is happening for you, too.

I hope it is happening for our country, and for the world.

Let us prepare the way of the Lord. (Isaiah 40:3) 

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His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. (see Isaiah 58: 8-9) 

Of course that is so.

But this year, as we wait for the Lord, and we make way in our lives,

let’s really expect Him…

In our houses, for real…

In our lives.

God entered into time in a mighty way by the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord.

Let it happen now to us.

Let there be a star.

See it.

Because it’s all true.

I don’t know about you,

But I think I will celebrate Christmas this year with my front door open.

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* I was baptized a Catholic October 23, 1990, at the age of 22. 🙂

 

 

 

Is it mean to send the rich away empty?

In her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” That line used to bother me. It sounds mean. I have often asked Our Lady what she meant by it exactly. I love the way she answered.

Some years ago I had a friend who was homeless. His name was, let’s say, Joe. He was eccentric, flamboyant, and charming. We were friends for years. Joe was fun to talk to.

One hot day I was on my way to my brother’s house with my two kids in the back seat: Maire, then eight years old, and Roise, only four. They were not being particularly good in the back of the car.

I got a call from Joe. I said, “Hey! How are you?” He said, “HOT! I’m very hungry and thirsty. Do you have any change so I can eat and drink?” He sounded hoarse. “Where are you?” I asked.

He was about a block away. All I had was a twenty -dollar bill for the week. I thought about it. I had paid the bills and gotten groceries for the week. But if I gave Joe the twenty, as I felt inspired to do, if we ran out of bread or milk we would have to wait until pay day for it. I was willing, I decided. I would be fine. Joe needed it more.

 

I headed his way. “Where are we going?” asked Maire. “We are going to help Jesus out today. He’s hungry,” I answered. “He smells bad!” complained Roise from her car seat. “Pretend he doesn’t,” I suggested. “Stop being so rude, Door Knob!” Maire scolded her sister. “Just offer it up!”

We pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot where Joe was waiting for us. I jumped out of the car and gave him a hug. The girls waved from the window. He waved back and asked them if they were being good today. This question they wisely declined to answer.

Joe wasn’t looking too good. I was worried he might be sick. He said he would be OK when he had something to drink. He was so happy about the twenty dollars he practically danced. He was wearing what looked like a bull -fighter’s outfit that day. A dance would have been perfect.

As we pulled away from a very happy and relieved Joe, who had been so hungry and now had the prospect of lunch and maybe even dinner, I looked around at my beaming, waving kids, and felt the smile on my own face, even though I was now broke for the week.

Then I realized that the hungry had been filled and the rich sent away empty. But both were happy! 🙂

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“This is how,” Jesus says.

A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians 2:19b-20

I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

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The last few years have been so traumatic for me that I have felt alienated from everything and everyone, and like I would never be myself again.

Part of my healing in this latest phase of my journey has been to investigate for myself what really happened and to face the truth around my brother’s suicide, to ask questions I had been too freaked out to ask before, to recognize and re-claim my own experience of what happened after a truly dysfunctional family response that left me confused, dismayed, and even more traumatized.

I called my truth- seeking mission “The Immaculate Heart of Mary Detective Agency.” I thought this appropriate because the sword that pierced Mary’s heart, Simeon said, was “so that the secret thoughts of many may be revealed.

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I wanted to truly love my brother by understanding all of him, not just the parts that I had enjoyed so much all of my life, but all of him. I wanted to try to understand what drove him to do what he did.

I realized I didn’t have to wait around for people to quit lying to me and tell me what was going on. I could find out for myself. So I started asking questions and interviewing people who had the information I wanted, or a different perspective from my own as the sister and room mate I had been at the time.

Unexpectedly, the whole experience of the IHMDA has been empowering, though I uncovered rank injustice and malice I hadn’t known some people were even capable of.  I feel more alive than I have since all this tragedy began. I have a glimmer of an idea that I have a life and a future.

It seems to me that Mary’s heart has helped lay bare many truths, and strengthened me to deal with them.

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I am not sure what I will do next. But it seems God thinks my next step is to forgive. That message was in last Sunday’s Gospel. It seems to pop up everywhere I turn. I seem to read or see or hear something about forgiveness every day.

There is hardly anything I have not lost to some degree in the past couple of years of shock and trauma; my home, my life savings, my family, and the cohesion of my group of wonderful friends. Everything is strange now. I have even felt like I lost myself.

I am grateful for the good relationship between my daughters and me, though honestly, at times, even those sacrosanct relationships were violated and temporarily distorted by lies and manipulation.

What do I do with this horrible story? Sometimes I can hardly believe it myself.

How can I forgive the unforgivable? And how can I ever be a whole person again? How can I bear this?

I have been asking all that for a good while.

I realized, praying Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours today, when I read this reading, (above)  the answer to these questions. “This is how,”Jesus says.

“You will do and experience both of these things because your life is not your own anymore. It’s better than that because I live in you and for you. From within you, I will forgive, I will live, and we will have a beautiful life together. I have loved you and given Myself up for you. You have loved Me and given yourself to Me, no matter what life has brought you. ” 

I thought about this. It is a miracle that the thing I have not lost or had to re-negotiate, so to speak, is my faith in God. Even though I have been broken inside beyond anything I thought it was possible to experience, I have an inner rock solid foundation of faith that God has not let me lose.

I have discovered that, as St. John of the Cross speaks of in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, I am “supported by faith alone,” now, in spite of how disjointed I feel psychologically and socially.

No one and nothing can take me from Christ’s hand. He is even more real to me than I am to myself. And even though my heart is broken, it does know it is safe. It does know Who it belongs to and Who lives there forever. Not even my own death will change that.

In fact, Paul also says that the spirit of Jesus in us is so real, it is that power that will raise our bodies from the dead.

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Romans 8:11 (This turned out to be in Evening Prayer tonight.)

All the lies and malice, misunderstanding, persecution, blame, rejection, trauma, loss and grief I have suffered, and that the whole world has suffered, are no match for the Truth of God who is Love, and Life.

In a way, in comparison, these terrible things are not even real.

The reality is God.

And I am glad to be only ashes and dust.

That is exactly how I have everything I will ever need in this life and in the next:

“It is not I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”

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