Birth and Death and Rebirth

Birth and Death and Rebirth

In March, before COVID became a full-blown pandemic, I ordered four icons from an Orthodox icon shop I’ve used in the past. They were able to ship two of the icons before needing to close their shop due to state restrictions and for the health of their employees. The other two would be shipped at a later date, as they were able to re-open and continue production of the icons.

When I got an email a few weeks ago, it said the icons were shipping and would arrive the middle of the next week. The situation was humorous since I had been home for weeks on end and during the one week of the summer I was away, the long-awaited icons were delivered to my doorstep, where they waited for my arrival a few days later. Of course, I exclaimed, to anyone who would listen to me, of course the icons arrive when I cannot be there to get the package.

A couple of days later, I learned of the death of a dear friend of the family. There are dozens of memories of my childhood and young adult life that I can return to and find this man filling the scene with his lively personality. He and his wife were friends of my parents. They were present for important sacraments and were the babysitters for my younger sister and me on occasion. Later, they were my bosses as I worked for them during the late-summer and fall. So many reflections on their frequent presence in my life and the unique role they had in relation to my family. Over the next few days, my family and I reminisced over the eccentricities and humor of our beloved friend.

When I returned home a few days later, I retrieved the package on my doorstep, grateful that it wasn’t damaged by rain or heat. I opened up my package and saw the two delayed icons.


The Raising of Lazarus from the dead


“Epitaphios”–an image of the body of Christ used in Orthodox and Byzantine liturgies at the end of Holy Week

Continue reading “Birth and Death and Rebirth”

Five Loaves and Two Fish

Five Loaves and Two Fish

Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.

Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.

The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.

The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.

The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.

Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.

Continue reading “Five Loaves and Two Fish”

Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Part of the way through the Easter Vigil Mass I realized something I had subconsciously believed even as I intellectually knew it wasn’t true. I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t confined to Lent. The absence of public Masses wasn’t just a wild Lenten penance. It was a reality that was going to endure for who-knows-how-long. In the midst of a time of penance and sacrifice, it was somewhat understandable to accept and embrace this unasked for restriction. Yet in the time of Easter joy, how did one continue to embrace this cross, even while gesturing toward the empty tomb?

Intellectually, I was fully aware that this was an enduring thing. Yet after passing into the Easter season, I have been pondering this odd cross-section of joy and sacrifice. Of course, it is possible to be joyful in the midst of sacrifice. Love, nearly by definition, involves sacrificing ourselves for the good of the beloved. Yet long, protracted sacrifice in the middle of a liturgical season set aside for rejoicing, feasting, and innumerable alleluias being uttered? How does one do that?

I don’t exactly know, but I am trying.

It helps that I try to often remind my students that we are in the Easter season and should do something special to celebrate this time. At times, I find myself recording videos for them and thinking I need to do this, too.

It has surprised me how I can sometimes enter into prayer when I am praying “remotely.” Like when Pope Francis had some time of adoration during the Urbi et Orbi blessing a few weeks ago. Sitting on my couch in front of my computer and adoring Jesus in Rome seemed kind of silly. Yet as I prayed alone yet communally, I found that I was able to enter into prayer. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it worked in that moment. This was a moment of joy, to find myself with Jesus even as I was separated from His Eucharistic presence.

So here we are, fully into the Easter season, steadily working our way through the Easter Octave, filled with joy and yet still experiencing sacrifice. But I guess that makes it a bit like that first Easter Sunday when St. Mary Magdalene encountered Christ at the tomb. In her desire to keep him near, we see Jesus saying to not hold onto Him. Wasn’t this miraculous triumph over death the fullness of joy?

Continue reading “Noli Me Tangere”

A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?

Silence.

How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

Continue reading “A Thousand Deaths”

The Beauty of a Child’s Prayer

The Beauty of a Child’s Prayer

“Do you mind if we stop at the church for a couple of minutes?” I asked my nephew.
“Why?”
“To say hi to Jesus.” He said nothing. “Do you?” I said as I turned on my blinker. I asked again as I pulled into the parking lot. He remained silent.

We walked into the sanctuary, the heavy fragrance of incense making me close my eyes and breath deeply. For a few minutes, we knelt and then sat back in the pew. It was completely quiet and empty. The stillness in striking contrast with the usual full bustle of a Sunday morning Mass.

I turned to say something to my nephew and saw that he sat there with eyes closed and hands folded. And so I waited in the weight of silence until he suddenly turned to me and asked if we could go.

We spoke for a little bit about the silence, spent some time reading about St. John the Beloved on his feast day, and then I asked if we could pray for a friend of mine who was suffering from an illness that was lasting years. It was her birthday and she was on my heart and mind throughout the day. So I offered a brief intention for her and my sister before asking if he had anything to add.

Continue reading “The Beauty of a Child’s Prayer”

The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus

If you don’t often feel uncomfortable when reading the Gospel, you might be reading it wrong.

Between a Monday evening Bible Study and Friday classes, I have the great gift of looking at the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel at least six times during a typical week. Sometimes, I’m a little dense, though. It took until Friday afternoon or Saturday before I genuinely started applying it to me.

This past Sunday the Gospel was about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel. It is clearly a rebuke of the rich man’s lack of compassion for the suffering of Lazarus. Also, it emphasized the finality of death and the subsequent judgement.

At first glance, I felt pretty comfortable. I do not look at the suffering of my fellow man with zero compassion. Yet I was prompted to wonder: perhaps the rich man did see Lazarus, did see his suffering, did feel moved–just not enough. Maybe the idea of reaching out made him feel uncomfortable. Or he didn’t know what to do. Or he was nervous that the suffering of Lazarus would be too disturbing to experience up close.

The Gospel suddenly became something I could apply to my life as I remembered a situation where I saw someone suffering, felt bad for them, and then did nothing. There were about three times when I had witnessed a man sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, well past a time when he should have been home or in a shelter. It was an arresting scene: the sun had set, it was a bit blustery, and there he sat in a wheelchair on the sidewalk with a blanket stretched over his entire body, from his feet to over his head. I saw it and I kept driving, every single time.

Continue reading “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

From One Miserable Sinner to Another

From One Miserable Sinner to Another

Turning the other cheek, bearing wrongs patiently, and choosing to be kind in moments of anger are all well and good when thought of in the abstract. In the particular moment when any of these are called for, a flood of excuses and defenses are more likely to come to mind rather than the goodness of following the Lord.

I try really hard to not let any personal dislike of students color our overall relationship. Some people are just harder to love and students are no different. I am well aware that I am not the easiest person to get along with for all people and all personality types. The same is true with the people seated in my classroom each and every day.

It is hard, however, when I make great attempts to overlook personal slights, strive to forget previous negative encounters in the pursuit of answering present questions, and other like situations, only to discover that they already don’t like me. That instead of seeing how I try to patiently attend to their present concerns despite the fact that they repeatedly laugh at me, they only see that I have not always responded favorably toward them.

A flood of defenses came to my mind. I replay the conversations over in my mind and I wonder if I had said this instead of that, perhaps it would have been received better. Or, if I’m feeling particularly cantankerous, I’ll think of all the sharp barbs I could have thrown or the harsh yet true things I could have said but did not. It isn’t a one time occurrence, but each time it happens, it strikes me anew.

It seems unfair and it seems unjust. And perhaps it is both.

Welcome to the end of Holy Week.

Tonight, we will eat the Last Supper with Our Lord and then follow Him into the garden to wait. Tomorrow, we will walk the road to Calvary and we will, despite our best intentions, cry for Christ to be crucified. On Holy Saturday, we will wait in the awkward tension between the death of Jesus and His subsequent Resurrection. It is in the light of the Triduum, these holiest of days, that I consider the small inconvenience of being misunderstood by students.

Continue reading “From One Miserable Sinner to Another”

My Ars

My Ars

St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars. Not just one time, either, but multiple times. He wanted to leave Ars for the peace and solitude of a monastic life. And while I lack the great holiness and fervor found in the Cure d’Ars, I definitely identify with his desires to leave the world behind and live quietly removed from the chaos.

My spiritual director reminded me that St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars as we meandered down the sidewalk.

“So this high school is my Ars, huh?”

“Yes,” he replied, “there are a few similarities there it seems.”

“He died there, didn’t he?” I said, in an attempt at wry melodrama.

He paused for a moment as my imagination latched onto the idea of decades spent at this one high school, right up until the moment of my death. (I’m a melancholic–we consider death often.)

“You might not physically die at school, but, yes, I think you will die there.”

Continue reading “My Ars”

Tears Are Good For The Heart

Tears Are Good For The Heart

One of the gifts of having a spiritual director is experiencing in a new way the love of the Father.  My spiritual director hears about the good, the bad, and the ugly–and, believe me, there’s plenty of each in my life.  Yet what amazes me is his gaze, how it never wavers, how it doesn’t narrow as I describe melt-downs or frustrations.

I’m a woman (obviously) and yet one of the things that has taken years for me to understand is that it’s alright to cry.  The fairer sex is usually portrayed as emotional and weepy.  Perhaps it is for that very reason that I never wanted to be that way.  My innate desire to be other than what is expected caused me to desire toughness and logic.  Despite being logical and (fairly) tough, I still have emotions to deal with and my spiritual director has told me over and over that tears are good.

Yet even after hearing tears are good dozens of times, it is hard to believe it in the moment that the tears want to come.  I’ve had several difficult conversations in recent weeks and they have been truncated by my need to either cry or yell.  Neither seemed appropriate at the time.  Neither seemed to be things from which I could tactfully recover.  So the conversations had to end because tears seemed to be the only thing that could accompany more words.

However, when I don’t cry and when I don’t say what needs to be said, I do not remain the same.  I steel myself against the tears, which can be helpful at times (like in my “early years” of teaching and students’ comments made me want to cry), but sometimes it just makes my heart like steel.

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
(Ezekiel 36:26)

This must be the struggle of the Christian life: to keep our hearts ones of flesh and not of stone.  There is a false security in letting one’s heart become a piece of rock.  It makes me imagine that hurt will not come and that hopes won’t be disappointed.  If I have a heart of stone, then I will be steady and be secure.

Those assurances of security are all lies.  A heart needs to be a real heart of flesh.  Which means that it also must be capable of being wounded, bent, and broken.  And that, I am nearly convinced, is worth the joy that comes with being real. Continue reading “Tears Are Good For The Heart”

Sophie Scholl: The Power of the Written Word

Sophie Scholl: The Power of the Written Word

Sometimes I wonder why I take the time to write.

While I enjoy writing, it doesn’t seem to be changing or transforming the world.  In fact, “the pen is mightier than the sword” seems a bit lost when we are inundated with words upon words.  Blogging seems ridiculous in a cyber world overflowing with anyone and everyone’s thoughts and opinions.  Amidst the suffering and tragedies occurring daily, why do I post my thoughts, experiences, and reflections? Why add one more little voice to the cacophony?

The other day, I stumbled upon a name that I knew little about yet was not entirely unknown to me.  Sophie Scholl.  Curious, I found a website with a story about the White Rose Resistance and the role of Sophie Scholl.  In a few moments, I felt as if I had discovered the reason I stumbled upon this article.

One day in 1942, copies of a leaflet entitled “The White Rose” suddenly appeared at the University of Munich. The leaflet contained an anonymous essay that said that the Nazi system had slowly imprisoned the German people and was now destroying them. The Nazi regime had turned evil. It was time, the essay said, for Germans to rise up and resist the tyranny of their own government. At the bottom of the essay, the following request appeared: “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.”

The leaflet caused a tremendous stir among the student body. It was the first time that internal dissent against the Nazi regime had surfaced in Germany. The essay had been secretly written and distributed by Hans Scholl and his friends.

Holocaust Resistance: The White Rose – A Lesson in Dissent, Jacob G. Hornberger

This young Sophie Scholl along with her brother and friends built a resistance through writing.  Speaking out against the Nazi regime was a sufficient reason to be executed by the state.  What was the reason they used mere words to fight Hitler?  Sophie told the courtroom during the “trial.”

Sophie Scholl shocked everyone in the courtroom when she remarked to [Judge] Freisler: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”

Speaking the truth in a world filled with lies is a courageous undertaking.  The truth has a power to stir and ignite people.  It is a bold, troublesome thing that inflames hearts, encouraging them to risk all for the pursuit of truth.  Not everyone is courageous enough to speak this truth.  It makes others uncomfortable and it often costs us something.  I’ve had more than one occasion where questions in the classroom resulted in uncomfortable sessions of truth-telling.  When students ask questions about divorce, contraception, homosexuality, mortal sins, and so on, I try to tread lightly, but truthfully, as I attempt to explain the wisdom of the Church. Continue reading “Sophie Scholl: The Power of the Written Word”